Raph’s interview on The Escapist

The interview with Raph on The Escapist has some interesting passages:

“I do all this writing to clarify things for myself,” he says. “I put it out there afterwards, figuring maybe it’ll help other folks, but the initial drive comes … because I am banging my head against a design problem. So, the theory is a tool. You write it down so you don’t forget it – it’s like having a toolbox full of screwdrivers, wrenches and whatever.”

In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Koster defines “fun” as a function of learning and mastery. As we explore a new game, we learn to recognize its challenges and exploit the tools offered to overcome them – that is, to gain mastery over the game environment.

Heh, I wrote again about this recently. I dared to point out something, though: “This is a basic schematization that can help to understand how games essentially work, but that doesn’t really help to make better games.”

Now notice the contrast:

Koster’s current book project is A Grammar of Gameplay, an ambitious attempt to symbolically describe the component “atoms” of games. The grammar would be a tool to reverse-engineer and notate individual game ingredients, such as topology (“the operational space for a given asset”), core mechanics (“ludemes”), depth of recursion, cost of failure and many other abstractions. Using the grammar, a designer could quantifiably assess a game’s difficulty, range of challenges and required feedback mechanisms.

Other passages:

“I really like my [MMOGs] to embody user creativity. I also dislike cliques, so I have tried to design so people who wouldn’t normally hang out together come to realize each other’s importance in the world, the value of their roles in the society, that sort of thing. So I try to have interdependence as a key feature – people relying on each other, not in the moment-to-moment sense, but in the sense that our modern lives would fall apart if there weren’t people in a zillion jobs doing things we never think twice about, from stocking grocery shelves to manufacturing pens.

UO inadvertently popularized several now-familiar online dysfunctions – especially player-versus-player (PvP) griefing.

“A big part of why I fought the PK switch was because it meant we were trading away player self-determination for security – echoes of today’s political situation, in some ways! UO often felt like long days of taking out things we had put into the game because players found ways to hurt each other with the toys we gave them. But the goal was still self-determination and freedom.

If we had gotten to the natural next step, which was player cities with control over PvP within their territory, I think the real nature of PvP in the game could have emerged.

It’s interesting how for a large majority UO was pure experimentation, with the designers having to figure out solutions for those kinds of “dysfunctional” berhaviours. But in the end it’s what made UO unique and deep.

“On the other hand, in terms of what I expected players to do with it, I think [UO] exceeded every wildest expectation. The players don’t care about what you wanted there, about what the dreams were – they only care about what they have in front of them, and then they proceed to do things you never imagined. And in UO’s case, a lot of what they managed to come up with was truly amazing and not at all something I had ever pictured.

I don’t actually like experimentation and lack of control in games (vaguely explained here, I want direction) but I believe that the goals of the game (that “self-determination and freedom”) are something precious that is missing today. So the idea should be about developing a game with them in mind, and not have them happen in the form of exploits and unexpected outcomes.

That last idea about player cities for control over PvP is also very good. But it still has a major flaw: get rid of NPC-only cities. The players should control Britannia or Trinsic, not a bunch of houses crowding the wilderness. No more shantytowns, thank you.

UO and SWG housing (and player cities) sucked, imho. If you want to give the players the control of the towns, then let them. But radically.

I also do not think that “what went wrong with SWG” was the lack of content. The real problems where somewhere else.

Plans for the future?

“I am working on a startup company, but we’re running quiet for a while.

“I really wanted to get back to working hands-on on a game, and I also have firm ideas about the next directions online games are going to take.

His ideas I won’t quote and don’t completely agree with. I don’t believe in any magic “techniques that reduce the costs”. Interesting game design and focus on what matters, yes. But not really believing into “techniques”.

“I don’t doubt the DikuMUD-based game we’re all still playing will have legs as long as there’s people who still haven’t tried it out, but it won’t keep the current players happy forever. That means new sorts of virtual worlds have to come into being, or else all those folks will just flow right back out of the market. It’s way, way past due that we get out of the tank-healer-nuker game I got bored of back in 1993.

Sadly, what we are today will shape the perception of what we will be tomorrow. I just finished to comment this from what Dan wrote: “There’s an ever evolving sense of tastes and ever shifting marketplace”.

This also mean that our expectations are defined by what we play, and our desires will be shaped around what we play. The power of influence. And hegemony.

THERE IS a concrete risk that WoW will have an hegemony on what players are going to *desire* and expect from future games. The power of influence. So beware, because only a small minority of players could develop a refusal of current game mechanics, while a majority risks to adhere so much to them that they won’t accept anything else anymore.

Interesting interview, but I cannot help myself not to think that Raph continued to bail off on projects as things were starting to become interesting. It happened with Ultima Online, it happened with Star Wars Galaxies and it probably happened even with LegendMUD.

It’s too easy to say “I would have chosen a very different way” years later.

*I* can do that because I’m not there with the privilege of doing things concretely. But he had it instead, and he kept fleeing away from those kinds of responsibilities.

(I know that there may be millions of reasons. I’m not judging the person, just the designer)

So people will continue to mock him because SWG wasn’t “fun”, while I’ll continue to criticize him because he refused (for good reasons or not) to commit and take on those responsibilities.

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Who’s more nearsighted?

I was reading a rant linked by Jeff Freeman and written by Dan Rubenfield (who apparently has a long experience in the mmorpg industry and recently left SOE in search of something different). I liked it quite a bit. I agree on most of those premises.

Dream games. All developers and designers have them. In fact, everyone has them.

But we never make them. We all want to but don’t have the time or the resources.

So all designers have dream games. We bandy them around but tend not to talk to them while employed as there’s always a fear of “losing your idea” to your parent company.

Well, I’m not sure that I understand this. I would love to “lose my ideas” to make them possible, myself. In fact I expose them often when I write. So I see that trend described as really counterproductive. Why you should hide your ideas when employed? And what’s the work about then?

See ideas becoming real should be the most rewarding experience ever. The “parent company” is supposed to valorize the people who work within and let them express at their very best. Put them in the condition to do so. If instead the devs shy away it means that something is going really wrong.

Making a mmorpg is about harmonious teamwork. You dedicate yourself to the game and everyone contributes with what he does best. Competition inside the same team is a bad thing. But this is a digression.

Currently nobody’s making anything new for MMO development. There’s a smattering of small developers pushing the envelope but the majority of the big publishers out there (Except Blizzard) isn’t doing shit.

There’s a palpable sense of fear and terror amongst mmo developers right now. They’re scared shitless of WOW. They see it, believe it’s insurmountable, tuck their tails and go the opposite direction.

What does that mean?

It means you’re going to have company after company fucking around with smalltime, smallscale free products. Myspace Killers, Habbo Killers, Runescape Killers, you name it.

It’s going to be reactive, marketing driven, and for the most part, failure after failure.

It’s going to be company after company saying things like “We’d like to focus on the Casual market instead of the hardcore”.

Dan considers the “casual market” as a “null” one, since it is made by non-gamers who will never really cross the line to become gamers and true supporters of this industry:

(about casual gamers)
We should figure out how to craft and sell games to the people who legitimize us before dorking around with people who don’t buy or enjoy our products.

Continuing on the same rant:

Everyone looks at MMO development as “Competing” with WOW. And nobody wants to do it. They’d rather scrabble for the detritus that falls from their pockets. They’d rather go for spillover and for some fucked up reason, focus on the Non-Gaming market.

And once again, I ask “What The Fuck?”. We haven’t figured out how to reliably create and sell games to the people who buy games and we’re fucking around trying to sell games to people who don’t even play games?

We’re once again not using the strength of the medium, once again not asking the questions that need to be asked. The people who hold the purse strings aren’t interested. They’ve retreated into their developmental shells in an attempt to go for the “untapped potential” market.

The thing is, we’ve seen this happen over and over historically. If you single track your product lines like this you’re going to end up fucked. You’re might see some short term success but long term you’re going to end up in very bad financial shape.

We’re not in a static environment of game players, game developers, game sales, game platforms. There’s an ever evolving sense of tastes and ever shifting marketplace. Our marketing efforts and development dollars tend to use history as the basis for choices. Unfortunately this is only part of the equation.

We should be looking historically as well as looking forward for future trends and desires.

Like I do, he hopes for games that expand their sighting, new approaches, different paradigms. The current rules in the market are just consolidated and conventional, but not absolute.

So the market is incredibly malleable. It can be shaped. This is the correct perspective to see it. Hystorical rules are just consequences of what is being made. Different things being made would lead to a different types of market and completely different influences for future products.

It is important to understand the market, but not react to it passively.

The part where I don’t agree with Dan is where he is over with the analysis and proposes an alternative:

Everyone’s piling into that rowboat because we’ve convinced ourselves that WOW is insurmountable.

And to a degree we’re right. WOW is not something you can ever compete with. So DON’T.

I will bold this yet again.


Raph made a comment a few years back that WOW was going to set our industry back 10 years. It wasn’t meant as a derogatory statement about WOW but instead about the reactive, bullshit nature of us.

And you know what? He was right about that too.

From there he starts to pitch his own game idea that I want comment (but it’s good enough).

I don’t agree with him even if I agree with all the other premises because I see things from a different perspective.

What I strongly believe is quite simple: it is possible to make new and different games IN the “fantasy genre”.

From a side Dan proposes to start from a different game concept, from the other to push a different pricing model that relies heavily on RMT.

I heartily *hate* the second part for reasons I won’t explain again (in short: real money should stay OUT of the game, it doesn’t belong there), while I see the first as not the obligatory solution.

I’m between those who really dreams and wants completely new and different games. Focusing on the immersion, with a true ongoing, dedicated, passionate development to shape and nourish a *world*, and not bouncing devs and resources between a bunch of mediocre projects or sequels that won’t leave any sign and will be obsolete and forgotten after a few months or years. Ambitions and myths. Not consumer society.

But I also believe that the “fantasy genre” is far from being just WoW. Or pinpointed by it. Different games are possible. And not only possible: successful. And the same for different genres. I would love to design a Space Opera mmorpg, or a steampunk based world (think to Myazaki’s Nausicaa), but you aren’t forced to abandon a genre because you blindly believe that nothing else is possible within it.

I just refuse to believe that WoW has now the monopoly of the fantasy genre. And I refuse to accept that you are now forced to make games into different genres if you want to survive.

Hell, even the same Warcraft could be made into completely different games.

Game concept for Space Opera

Inspired by the Nautilus in Verne’s “20000 Leagues under the Sea”.

Since I’m downloading X3 I started to think about what I would really like to play in this genre (which is another I have a passion for). The result is entirely, purely single-player load of fun. As I would design it. For a change no ambitious world-like sandbox-y plans. Just frenetic shooter, focused on a few elements that I think should be at the core of this type of fun.

– “Comet Ramming” (see description below)
– Swarms of enemies
– Grab & use loot/weaponry from enemy ships you blow up
– Squad-based combat
– PC and NPC character development
– Insane flying speed

– “Diablo in space” means that I want to carry over the basic mechanic I described here. Instead of having prolonged 1 vs 1 dogfighting, the idea is to set the player against SWARMS of enemy ships all at once. Totally outnumbered. Then you give the player’s ship much more resistence, faster speed and overall mobility. This with the goal to focus on the movement and perception and use of the space. The 3D space is your environment, total freedom, with both speed and maneuverability to make the movement the real core gameplay. Maneuvering around enemy squadrons, huge motherships or stations and so on.

– Think to a 2D sidescroller shooter. The idea is to port those crowded situations to a space sim and 3D environment. I want total chaos and superheroism.

– Think about Macross/Robotech (another source of inspiration). This is again the model to aim for. Massive battles with the players against an insane number of enemies. Missions divided into different stages and objectives one after the other. In open space, around stations or against bigger motherships. Rescue missions, patrols, escort or timed attacks. All kind of possible variations, but with multiple events triggering during the course of the same mission to overturn it in unexpected ways. So with a variation of gameplay without interruptions in between (but with checkpoint-stages, so progress is not lost. saving the game only possible at these checkpoints).

– Story. The story is functional to the combat. The overall setting borrows one standard theme of the space opera: the exodus. The player commands a big mothership through the space, leading his people toward a possible “salvation” or tranquility, also offering a strategical side to the game. The goal is to bring the mothership and people inside till the end of the journey. Along the way the player has a degree of freedom about where to move, to get resources and develop (enable) new weapons, systems and ships. The path is still linear, though. The exodus represents the course of the game itself, so with a definite conclusion but story-wise the game will end with a sad revelation: when you’ll reach what you chased along the whole game you’ll discover that it’s not what you hoped, so your people will have to continue the “endless journey”. No “happy end”, your destiny is to continue to fight and hope. The mothership represent just a context, while the whole combat action game will be about the player flying with small fighters.

– Squad based. Think to Jagged Alliance 2. On the mothership you will be able to meet a number of NPCs, with their specific story, personality, statistics and skills. 8-14 of these. Each will enable side-stories and mini-quests that you can discover through the course of the game. Like a RPG layer that happens between the space battles, with the possibility for the player to decide how much to indulge in it. The objective is about creating a squad of 4 other NPCs, so you have to select between those 14. The higher number will provide the game some interesting replayability. When a NPC is hired not only it will fight along with you (squad-based combat) but you’ll also have control over their “character development”, select their ships and load out, improve their piloting skills, add tactics commands and so on. Some traits and tendencies will be fixed to that specific character though (for differentiation and gameplay variations, like picking different NPCs in your party in Baldur’s Gate).

– The player will fight in a small, insanely fast ship. There will be five classes of ships with three ship types each to open different strategic possibilities. Hitpoints, shields, types of wepons that can be used and so on (both ships and weapons need to be slowly unblocked along the course of the game). The game will have a RPG side where you have to develop certain skills. These skills aren’t the same of NPC skills, but they are used so to unblock the use of specific weapons and systems. Your 5-man squad fights alongside with you, they have an higher number of skills to manage since they are AI-driven, so with the possibility to have skills that deal with fire precision, for example (and yes, Comet Ramming should be a skill).

– Einhander Too Cool idea to not be taken. Each ship you fly will have a turret, or better, a mechanical “arm”. The mechanical arm is used to get “loot” from the enemy ships you blow up. The arm moves by itself so you only need to just pass close to the loot you want to grab and the arm will take it for you. So instead of developing new weapons you can steal them directly from your enemies and then research on the mothership to “enhance” them. The loot is about weapons, ammo and energy “potions”.

– Some of the loot you steal from enemy ships cannot be used right away, you may need to research and develop the skills for that type. Once you have met the requirements you can then steal and use the loot “on-the-fly”, literally. The arm can use only one weapon at once. It can drop the current weapon to grab another, but it doesn’t use an inventory where you can store and pick the weapons you want. If you need another weapon type you’ll have to identify and blow up an enemy ship that carries it (realistic loot! as Titan Quest). So you’ll have to make your choices.

– During combat the goal is to provide to the player an OVERFLOW of possible targets and a pure laser tempest to dodge. Impression of velocity, speed. Massive stations and motherships to be used as reference to not make feel speed relative (it happens when you don’t have references in open space). The slower movement of the enemy ships will also help to “feel” that speed.

– Powerful collision system. This is a key feature of the game. Ramming should be one of the best attack patterns available. *CLANG!* Strong metallic impact sound, with different sound types for every different ship you impact with. The sound is supposed to be “visceral” and give a particularly satisfying feel to the ramming attacks. It must feel violent. After the impact with a much bigger ship your own could get slung in space, spinning like crazy, strong perception of impact, loud sound, screen shaking. With even the possibility to get stuck into the bigger ship and needing a few seconds to manage to refloat (think about aiming for a space station, going full speed against it, powering the afterburners and then impact, making a small hole into it and having to use reverse engines to get unstuck from its structure while a swarm of fighters is shooting at you).

– Afterburners. Slow recharge time (50 seconds or so, due to the already crazy default speed of the player’s ship). When activated they multiply the speed to an insane level. The afterburner lasts only 5-10 seconds or so (or even less if the player releases the key). When activated the sound should be like an “hiss”, with the ship wailing and shaking. With the afterburners active the player cannot move the ship and just fly in a straight line. Mostly used as the Ultimate Ramming Device, or to move quickly away from a too hot fight. To enhance the “feel” the afterburners should trigger a graphic effect with the ship “getting on fire” (suspension of disbelief! Now!) and leaving a glowing trail in space visible from a long distance. This is Comet ramming!

– “Carom” types of collision. Think about ramming an enemy fighter at full speed and send it flinging against another enemy ship to destroy it as well, or flying right through an enemy squadron to blow up an entire row and create an hole into it. Pure destructive power. The player may completely lose control of his ship after an impact with a bigger ship (see the description two points above) but the gameplay and “main feature” of the game requires that his ship is nearly immune to collision damage, while enemy ships are highly vulnerable to it.

– Complex damage models. For example smaller ships could start to become incontrollable, or shake, lose precision as they shoot, collide with other ships and so on. The motherships and stations should be covered by destructible parts (turrets, junctions, systems and so on). The fun is about blowing things up. Lots of things.

– Fast-access turret/arm fire. The mechanical arm with the “dynamic loot” can be used in manual mode. Mouse button 2 works like a fast switch. Click the button once and you go instantly to the “turret view”, click again and you go back to cockpit view. Once you are in arm-mode you have mouselook on the turret. Press mouse button 1 and you fire/use the turret. The turret moves as fast as your mouse do, with just a *slight* lag (shown through the viewfinder). Otherwise the arm fires in auto mode with whatever it has available.

– The “arm” can carry weapons but also other types of items. For example you could replace the turret with a directional shield. The mechanics are the same so you can click mouse button 2 and quickly direct the shield exactly in the position you want. For example moving it to cover your back while you have enemies on your tail. If you manually control the shield it will stay in the position you set, so it won’t go back to auto mode.

– 1st mouse button when not in “turret view” will fire the front mounted weapon (that cannot be moved).

– Alternate fire (lock-on seek missles, straight missles etc..) available through keys or 3rd, 4rth mouse buttons.

– DRILL MODE. Since the two buttons of the mouse are taken (left for front weapon, right for the turret/arm toggle) the “barrel roll” will be available through a key toggle. As you press it the ship will start to spin already at a good speed, then it will continue to progressively accelerate the spinning speed till you press the key again to deactivate it. As it is deactivated the ship will come to an abrupt stop, with a slight adjustment oscillation. This mode makes a “combo” with the Comet mode. When both are active (first you start spinning like a drill, then use the afterburners) the ramming damage is hugely increased. Instead of doing damage on collision, the “drill mode” PUNCHES HOLES through everything. This means that your ship won’t be bounced wildly on a impact like in a standard Comet mode, but it will go straight through whatever it finds, only losing acceleration depending on the density of the stuff it impacts with. Obviously this also makes aiming quite hard when you start spinning wildly.

– Sounds. I don’t care about realism but I want the player to feel inside a small and super fast ship. It must feel dangerous and visceral. The sounds can help a lot to give that impression. For example by making the ship *wail* when performing sharp turns, it must scream, make you feel the vibrations as if it would come apart any moment, feel sounds from laser beams passing so close to the ship, explosions all around and shaking the ship, etc..

– Constant radio chatter for immersion and mood. Coming from mothership (announcing events, like the arrive of new enemy swarms or change of objectives during a mission, scan mission stages) and, mostly, from your group, with each member describing what they are doing (converting AI actions into speech) and outcomes (“enemy squadron 1 destroyed”, “shield down”, “need assistance” and so on).

– 3D cockpit that moves slightly on the screen with the movement of your ship, vibrates on fast speed.

– Fancy graphic effects. If the technology is able to support it: motion blur. (again the focus of the game is the visceral perception of speed and impact through collisions).

– Title of the game: “Comet”. Simple, short, appropriate (again about “comet ramming” as a the Coolest™ feature). Epic enough, “celestial”. You could add an “h” at the end for “flavor” (or for other undisclosed reasons).

The concept of “Comet” comes from the idea that accelerating and ramming things can offer spectacular gameplay and an unique type of visceral fun. Add to the mix the possibility to steal weapons from enemy ships (as a wink to Diablo), swarms of enemies to fight at once, and the squad-based combat with some interesting character development… and you can see what was my goal.

Space sims on Valve’s Steam

The real news is that X3 is now disinfested from Starforce. Which was a good reason for me to not buy it when it was released.

Now the game and its previous chapter (X2) are available on Steam. The price is also quite good since X3 is being sold for $17.95 (will be $19.95 after the 28 July).

These days we don’t have many space simulations and the X series is a very ambitious one (and planning a mmorpg as well). I haven’t played the game yet (downloading more than 3Gb will take a while here…) but I know it has accessibility issues and the graphic engine is absurdly laggy even if it shows some of the best graphic ever. It’s not a well-polished, well-designed game nor easy to get into, but my experience tells me that these kind of games are very rewarding if you give them enough time. It won’t be perfect but at least it offers something that you cannot find somewhere else. Huge scope and completely open ended.

I mean, if you like these kinds of games what is left is this one or… Derek Smart.

The way they keep working on the exact same project, fixing problems, adding new ideas, expanding some parts and so on. I love it. It’s so close to the ideal “ongoing development” of a mmorpg. A “world” (universe, in this case) to make and develop that never ends and continues to be perfectioned and expanded.

Bring on more sandbox-y games!

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Vanguard to introduce “variable death penalty”

Premise #1: I thought that by the time I had the occasion to write about this, it wouldn’t be anymore a news. Instead I still don’t see anyone talking about this significant news about Vanguard, not even on FoH.

Premise #2: my brain is currently *fried* by the heat, so don’t expect very bright comments from me these days.

What is the news about? The “death penalty” in Vanguard is changing and going through significant revisions.

There arer currently quite lengthy posts from Brad on the official forums trying to explain the philosophy behind these latest changes. Or better, trying to justify them against the hardcore fanatics of CR (corpse recovery) that Sigil cultivated and nourished along these years.

Since Brad wrote a whole lot as always, I’ll try to simplify as much as I can:

– Levels weren’t enough. So the idea to add a parallel “con system” (to consider the difficulty of an encounter) that could provide a variation that, in their opinion, wasn’t possible using just the levels:

Now is the time (beta 3) to take the con system and death penalty to the next stage and make it even more dynamic.

In general you evaluate the difficulty of an encounter by checking the level of the monster/s. WoW and EQ2 already complicated this pattern by adding monsters that were flagged as “elite” to better identify a “group” encounter (I’m tired to do all the work. Someone in the blog community could write an article about elite mobs and describing exactly how they work from a game design perspective?). Vanguard will (obviously, since they are hardocore) go further and add a “threat level” on top of the standard levels.

Simplifying. A monster could be the same level of another. But it could still have a much different “threat level”.

The threat level is based on “risk Vs reward” mechanics. An high threat means that the monster is stronger (has more hitpoints, skills, better AI etc..) and also carries better loot (the “reward” part). This is all still quite conventional. The news is that an higher threat doesn’t just correspond to higher difficulty and reward, but also to different death penalties (risk).

So if you attack a mob with an high threat level not only you risk to lose because he is stronger. But you’ll also incur into an harsher death penalty.

This also means that CR runs won’t be the standard when you die (as it was before this last announce), but instead will become just ONE of the cases possible. While the death penalties corresponding to lower threat levels should be milder.

High threat: the moster is stronger (higher HPS, more skills, better AI, etc..), but it drops better loot. While if you die you’ll have to suffer harsher death penalties.

Low threat: the monster is weaker, soloable, poor loot, mild death penalty.

About the death penalty “cases”:

But in general, the death penalty can range from a money sink, to some exp lost but able to be regained, to exp lost period, to dropping a corpse with all of your gear but having that gear respawn after X number of hours real time at an Outpost, to a corpse that drops with all of your items that has to be recovered or dragged out by a friend, to even more severe penalties (for example, perhaps a corpse cannot be dragged, or even you have to defeat the mob that killed you in order to have access to your corpse (for example, a giant worm that eats your corpses, and until it dies, there is no corpse to loot)).

This obviously leaded to “core players” accusing Brad to give up on these core concept:

Now, before anyone panics, does this mean we are dumbing down the game? No, I really don’t think so. We *are* making deaths from mobs with a lower threat level easier, but then we are also making deaths from mobs with a high threat level as hard or even harder than before. And then we have options in-between. What we are doing is making the game more inclusive and less exclusive – players with different playstyles, tolerances, varying contiguous play times, etc. will all have plenty to do, again regardless of their level. No, we’re still not trying to make a game that is all things to all people, and yes, our primary audience is still the core gamer and we won’t make decisions that hurt what makes it attractive to our core audience. But there is a middle-ground – we can and are making a game where solo/casual, core, and hard core/raid gamers can co-exist.

My comments (in short, I ran out of time):

1- “Now is the time (beta 3)…” No, “now” is not the time. You don’t make these kind of significant changes so late in beta. This belongs to the very beginning of the design phase.

2- I always thought that “Risk Vs Reward” has never been a really fun mechanic to use because it encourage players to aim lower instead of higher (the game punishes experimentation, I call it fun Vs frustration).

3- Linked to the previous point. The players will tend to “game” the system. Instead of supporting different playstyles, most of the “harder” content will be simply ignored and people will just grind their way up (to boredom). Challenge not imposed isn’t a challenge.

In a treadmill the point is reaching the top (sadly). If killing easier monsters is simpler and risk-free, people will do that and outpace the lack of good loot (supposedly the motivation to do the harder content) through the acquisition of higher levels (like in DAoC where it’s the norm to go around with “grey” equipment while you grind the task dungeons). Instead if they try to make the harder monsters much more desirable, then it means the game will be insanely grindy for solo players who are “stuck” at killing those simple, worth-less mobs.

Moreover I’m not really “getting” the design behind these changes. Why use a “threat level” instead of the standard level to just give a monster more HPs, skills and all the rest? Why the need to “double” it? If the goal was about differentiating “group” content, why not just reusing WoW’s and EQ2’s elite flag (which I consider already superfluous)?

Linking “good loot” to “group content” and then to “harsher death penalties” is also a very dangerous idea. You want to promote grouping, not to punish it. It’s already not a simple task to put a group together, not even always possible (actually I always thought that grouping shouldn’t be “promoted”, as it is supposed to happen spontaneously. The point is about removing the *barriers*. Not to force the players in a direction). As we have already seen, dying is a very good incentive to log out of the game and go do something else (see Prey’s fix attempt). It’s a ticket out. You don’t want the players to do that. You want them to get addicted and keep going, breaking the flow as less as possible. If an higher threat level will lead to grouping incentives, while also leading to harsher death penalties, then you are really risking to punish grouping instead of encouraging it. While also making the game incredibly frustrating for those who don’t have access to another type of content.

A short exchange on FoH:

Laerazi: If it takes 2x as long to level on easier mobs, than it does on more difficult mobs, as well as the harder mobs dropping better loot, I think it would be worth the risk to try more challenging content; plus fighting easy/predictable mobs isn’t exactly fun.

Abalieno: Let’s see.

The goal behind these changes was about promoting different playstyles. Or, as Brad says:

“What we are doing is making the game more inclusive and less exclusive – players with different playstyles, tolerances, varying contiguous play times, etc. will all have plenty to do, again regardless of their level.”

So you think it’s a good idea to support soloing by making the game INCREDIBLY GRINDY for solo players?

What I mean is that the original goals behind Vanguard are about promoting grouping and the community, and then supporting different playstyles:

1- With a link between “better loot”, “group content” and “harsher death penalty” then the risk is about *discouraging* groups.

2- When there will be the need to promote content flagged with an higher threat level, then the risk is that the rest of the content will be incredibly grindy and dull for those players who cannot “afford” a better “risk Vs reward” ratio (because it’s not a choice).

Both basically mean that there’s the risk that those changes will be counterproductive instead of realizing the goals why they were made.

Bottom line is: do we really need all this sophistication? Is it really necessary?

EDIT: interesting perspective

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Autoreferential games and mainstream culture

Sometimes I repeat in my mind things I already know for a better (excessive) schematization and simplification. And to find and underline some specific aspects.

Months before Raph published his book about the “Theory of Fun”, I had already figured out the most important point on my very own (precisation: I don’t claim to be smarter. Raph talks in the book about a million of other things. I got one, Raph got the remaining 999.999 that I really could have never hoped to understand and explain so well):

– “Fun” is the result of a learning process. So “learning” is the key.

There are then two possible situations in a game:

1- The game is boring because it is too simple, or repetitive, or doesn’t match the interest of the player.
2- The game is frustrating because it is too complicated (cannot be “read”) or too hard (performance).

“Fun” is essentially a state of equilibre between those two positions.

Game Design is essentially about finding that balance.

A game is a problem to solve. A given situation with its rules that requires a solution.

Playing a game and solving those problems is divided into two moments: acquisition/reading and mastering.

There’s a wall. I need to pass it. I start to poke it.

The first moment about the acquisition/learning is about starting to observe the type of wall. You observe its shape, thickness, height. What you do is about trying to define the type of obstacle starting from what is already part of your experience, so confronting this wall with the wall types you already know. First you look for similarities, then you look for differences. You start to poke it as a form of experimentation, to check consistence, to look for passages. To understand the differences and finally add the new discoveries to your “system of competences”, a pool of knowledge and abilities. So even this fist moment is divided into other two:

1- Use of competences that the player already has.
2- Acquisition of new competences.

The second moment of the learning process is then about the “performance” or mastering. What you do is about acquiring a practice and getting better. Becoming a well-oiled system, being able to react to and identify obstacles more promptly and so on.

This is a basic schematization that can help to understand how games essentially work, but that doesn’t really help to make better games. In the meantime I was thinking that the system I described is not closed at all. And this is definitely important. What I mean is that when a player begins a new game he doesn’t start from a “tabula rasa”. Instead he brings along all the competences that he has developed in previous games. This may be one good reason why games are often derivative.

In fact I’m quite sure that modern FPS are much more complex and “hard” overall than the FPS we had years ago. The “target” of these games (and the majority of games in general) isn’t a noob. But an experienced player that, for example, has already a very good competence about moving in a 3D space using two hands at the same time to use a keyboard and a mouse. It wasn’t easy at all when I moved from Doom to Quake and the new configurations with +mouselook stareted to become popular. It wasn’t even “fun” because I was struggling with the controls instead of enjoying the immersion (non-immersive FPS suck).

Today we see that games that focus on accessibility (like WoW) can be largely successful because they go back to absorb those players that weren’t already part of the sub-culture and sharing its competencies. WoW is laregely derivative, so very familiar for veteran mmorpg players, but at the same time it is built to rely on competencies that are shared by a larger pool of players (“gamers” in general).

So I started to think about derivative games and mechanics, feedback, competences required from other games, subsets, accessibility issues and so on. And there’s a point where this model breaks: the immersion, once again.

The immersion is a way to break out of “games”. Like the debate about “mechanics” and “metaphor”. Think for example if you aggro a monster. The monster start to chase you and you run as fast you can. You could find an house and close yourself inside, trying to block the door while the monster starts to ram it. Or maybe you can try to climb a tree and move out of reach. Or, if the monster is big, trying to move in a point where the forest is more intricate. In a mmorpg you would already know that noone of these are possible. You know that a mob can run right through a tree, you know that terrain doesn’t affect run speed, you know that buildings have no doors, you know that you cannot climb a tree.

The problem is: we can build a game to rely on itself, on its subset of rules that you slowly teach and impose to the player, or draw from previous experience when the game is derivative. But maybe we can also “jump” these specific competences and leverage the audience through immersivity. The immersion could be the very best accessibility key. Free of artificial mechanics that you have to study, free of GUI.

How can you make a game with that approach? Maybe by using game mechanics that only draw from immersive elements. (will return on this. Comments on Lum’s blog, simulation and so on)

I was thinking: is more accessible a mmorpg with the standard aggro mechanics we already know, or one with more complicate animal behaviours but where monster behave and react more realistically?

The point is that current games have become incredibly sophisticated, but they seem to have lost the tie with their very origin. The original myth and culture. The shared values. These games don’t talk anymore about this world we share. They talk about themselves only. In the meantime we have developed so much practice with these artificial, sophisticated worlds that aggro mechanics and whatnot are incredibly familiar and foregone.

You know what’s this process? Games becoming autoreferential. They don’t need anymore to talk about something out of themselves. Because the myth we share is now the myth that these games have built. They are now so complex than their system is autonomous.

But, while doing so, I think these games are also losing contact with a greater public, and with that desire for “something else” that even the “gamers” share. So the possibility to talk and seduce outside their niche (big and growing, but still niche).

What I mean is that there’s now a gap between the fantasy genre and the mmorpg genre. The mmorpg genre was a representation of the fantasy genre. But now they are two different and autonomous systems. With the risk that the fantasy genre will become a subset of the other (movies and books made out of games). And I don’t think I like this scenario.

Vanguard is a perfect example of incredibly sophisticated game built around those concepts that were created right within the genre, instead of outside of it. The most derivative game you can imagine. As Lum said:

various subtle game systems and UI improvements that would only make sense if you were staring at a combat screen forever, such as pre-built combat macros for common tasks, inherent friendly – and enemy – target differentation and the like.

Where’s the immersion?

Blizzard gives up on balance woes: Blood Elfs Paladins, Dranei Shamans

I don’t care much but I didn’t see any thread on the forums I use to browse. So here’s the news:

These new developments with the Draenei and Blood Elves mean that World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade will allow Alliance players to create shamans, and Horde players to play as paladins, using the newly uncovered races.

Source is european forums. A few minutes ago also confirmed by american community guys. So it’s official.

Full text/fancy justification/lore spin:

As we draw closer to the release of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, more of the secrets shrouding the Draenei and Blood Elves are being revealed. One legend involves the noble leader of the Draenei, Velen, and his vision. Velen’s vision was given substance in the form of Nobundo, a one-time Draenei priest who had devolved while the orcs decimated his race and tore the planet apart. Like his fellow Broken, Nobundo had lost contact with the Light, and so he ventured far into the deserts of Outland to meditate and pray for guidance.

After decades of silence, an unfamiliar voice finally answered his prayers. It was not the Light that whispered to him, but the wind. The breeze spoke to him of lost truths, of the might of the elements–of the delicate balance of power embraced by the shaman. Nobundo listened eagerly and learned all he could. When he judged the time was right, he departed the desert determined to use this knowledge to help the Draenei race.

Meanwhile, the Blood Elves busied themselves by establishing the fearsome Blood Knights. Their founding was made possible through the capture of a naaru from Tempest Keep by Prince Kael’thas Sunstrider. Kael’thas delivered the naaru to Silvermoon, where Magister Astalor Bloodsworn began months of study and experimentation on the naaru. Eventually, Astalor and his fellow wizards learned how to manipulate and corrupt the naaru’s luminous energies. In the end the wizards devised a process by which the powers of the Light could be transferred to recipients who had not earned such abilities. Instead of feeding upon the naaru’s magic, the blood elves would wield the naaru’s Light-given powers themselves.

Lady Liadrin, formerly a priestess, had recently renounced her vows, for she felt the Light had abandoned her people. She learned of the wizards’ achievement and volunteered to be the first to bend the stolen powers to her will. With her decision a new order was born: the Blood Knights. These renegade paladins are able to harness the sacred powers of the Alliance’s noblest heroes.

These new developments with the Draenei and Blood Elves mean that World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade will allow Alliance players to create shamans, and Horde players to play as paladins, using the newly uncovered races. The ability for players of both factions to use any class opens up exciting new gameplay opportunities, with fresh group-play dynamics. Those who have faithfully pledged their allegiance with one faction or the other will finally have the opportunity to try out a class that was once unavailable to them. While Alliance shamans and Horde paladins mostly share the same talents as their counterparts across the battlefield, they will also enjoy some unique abilities to themselves, similar to the priest class’ racial specialties. Stay tuned to wow-europe.com for more information.

This was quite expected and already rumored. In fact I remember Cosmik anticipating exactly that (yep, here and here). After all the bitching about PvP/PvE balance between Horde and Alliance, here’s the fix.

Mythic learnt with Camelot that striving for uniqueness between the PvP factions is a quality with a very high price. Blizzard preferred to lower the risks and balance issues by just adding some minor perks in the form of racial traits and one “gimmick” class for each faction. Just for a spark of originality and uniqueness.

It seems that they gave up, and proceeded to uniform the game even on that front.

This also means that for the first month the expansion will be out about 80% of the new characters will be either Blood Elf Pallies or Dranei’s shamans. My God, the game will be totally unplayable in the new zones, completely desert in all others. Of course Blizzard will realize how significant are these dangers only when it will be too late.

Expect the servers to crash and burn, like at release. Just worse.

I think I’m the only one left in the world who thinks that asymmetry in PvP is a quality that is worth keeping. No matter of the costs.

Also: think of Starcraft and how different was the gameplay between Terran, Zerg and Protoss. Or even Warcraft itself. I guess those developers are not somewhere else.

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The romantic theory of game design (prototyping Vs reiterating)

It’s from a while that I believe that “prototyping” is an overrated design approach. I always believed that a game should be done exactly as it was imagined, as close as possible to the idea that sits in the mind of the designer. I believe in a strong “vision” and direction and I don’t accept that a “prototype” is going to tell me what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s just a way to get fooled.

In short I think that prototyping is a bad way to figure out whether an idea works or not, whether it’s fun or not. In fact I believe that the conclusions coming as a result of those tests will likely be misleading.

To explain myself better I could oppose to that approach its theoretical negation: take the worst concept and reiterate long enough, and I’m sure you can make something fun out of it.

That’s what I believe making games is like. You persist doing something that just doesn’t seem to work, trying instead to make it work as you imagined it. It’s a strife. A prototype will just tell you that the idea sucks. But persist long enough and I’m sure you’ll finally reach your goal, and suddendly everything will start to work exactly as you imagined. Making a great game that finally can be recognized by everyone else. “Recognizing” is the key because that’s the function of a prototype, and, still, it’s what that approach does worse.

I believe that “game design” is “working against the odds”. A designer is a fool that noone can understand what he is saying. Someone who speaks in a tongue you don’t understand. A stranger. But, one day, he arrives and shows what he meant for all that time. And a standing ovation explodes, like an epiphany.

Game design is an epiphany. It’s a concrete way to let people step in your head and finally understand and participate. It’s an happy end. A catharsis.

And you cannot “test” a catharsis. You cannot anticipate an epiphany. Those things only happen when there’s a strong will behind.

This is why I believe that game design should always start from a strong *necessity* and that should always follow a definite direction. It’s a volitional act. NOT experimentation. The experimentation is just for the scientist, for someone who cannot shape anything in his own mind. For a designer in search of ideas.

But the “true” designer isn’t in search of ideas. He has an overflow of ideas.

I believe that prototyping is necessary only in the measure it becomes an “enabler” for the reiteration: a prototype is often something self-contained, so offering the requirements for the reiteration to start and refine the model. It’s about execution, not about the concept. The concept is a “black box”. It should never be tested, never doubted. It’s… faith.

All this after the announce of Valve’s Portal. It’s not really something that Valve built, but more something that Valve bought (the company website is currently down due to high bandwidth usage).

I tried the concept demo (mirror) but I wasn’t so impressed. It gave me a strong nausea right away (due to the inertia in the walking movement more than the portaling stuff, most likely) and I had to stop just past the third or fourth room (the one with the boulders). It’s a quite simple puzzle game, without some dynamism it’s just about discovering the right trick to move to the next room. Immersivity is next to none.

Then dress it up with a retro sci-fi/realistic mood, add a portal-shooting gun, add some more dynamics elements, picking things on the fly and a more realistic physics system and… wow! It’s simply awesome.

Great idea to time this on the release of Prey, like if they are mocking them by using the portal technology for something way more innovative.

It’s time to go develop a netcode for that. Multiplayer madness.