Breaking the immersion: The Faked Dragon

This is another of those arguments that I have cooked from a long time. When this happens the result is always an endless, verbose article hard to follow that doesn’t really accomplish anything. So have fun :)

I’ve already discussed the importance of In-Character design in order to “pull out” the qualities a myth (or a setting) already implicitly holds. This is true in particular when it comes to the *game*, and not just the shape and mood of the environment. For example, if I’m (role)playing a warrior with an axe, the game will go nearer my expectations if the concrete gameplay *imitates* (or simulates) the behaviour I expect. This goes beyond the raw, detached quality of the design. We can translate a melee fight with a blade in hundreds of different ways. For example we can have a full “twitch” game where you move directly the character and move the blade to attack or parry (“Mount and Blade” is one of the finest examples), or we can have a turn-based game where the character and the blade become numbers and statistics that you need to control from an external level, or we can even have completely detached representations, like it happens with puzzle games where the actual gameplay is a roleplay within the roleplay (think to “Arkanoid” or the various pinballs, where what you *play* is often sublimated to a completely different level, like space battles, car races, theme parks and so on).

I hope this first step is clear, there’s a multitude of completely different ways to represent something in a game. Sometimes we speak of play styles and player types to focus on the “target audience” of what we are going to design, so that it can better match the expectations. And already here there’s the hint. The fact that the design can be an attempt to simulate something at best so that it can go as near as possible to the (preexistent) expectations of the players. We don’t build raw situations from the void, we NEVER create a game to have the estrangement as the result. We need to build on something, on something shared and diffused among the audience. Often we make games to trigger common feelings like “fear” that are usually popular (like it happens for the movies). Why? Because we can all share that particular background at the root. So, every cultural product, to be largely successful, needs to “share a myth”. It needs to *draw* from what is *already* out there to reach a form that joins the original aspect of the art with that background that we can share.

All these steps may bring to the consideration that designing something can be nearer to “describe it” in an appropriate form instead of inventing fancy systems out of the blue. With the “formal systems” you can do what you like, but if the formal system is used as a simulation, its rules need to be bent to that precise result you are trying to achieve. We have a precise goal about which type of feedback the game must provide. This is why, in my article about the importance of IC design I linked above, I always bring SWG as an example and why I aimed at Raph Koster as my main target. That was a game that didn’t need to be invented (and on this site I have written many times about this precise aspect), it was required, instead, to match the expectations. To give a definite form to something that was already rather precise in the minds of the future players. This is why we have popular critics about the game not feeling enough as Star Wars, or not allowing all players to be Jedis or heroes. There were expectations that needed more to be described than reinvented or derailed. This happens about the general archetypes (Star Wars feel, Jedis, heroes) as much it happens in the smaller details so that, for example, the players don’t tolerate seeing a stormtrooper sitting by a rebel. Till the more independent features of the representation and the gameplay, like a huge beast like a “rancor” summoned on a 2×2 corridor with half its body stuck through the roof, medic professions working as magic healers with sparkling effects included, shoothing at targets through hills, sitting halfway in the hair, shuttles taking off through solid roofs and flying through buildings and trees, the impossibility to move over a 5-inch step and so on. I could continue till the rest of the page is completely filled.

My point of view about all these considerations joins an observation I made on Grimwell after Raph listed his newly created list of “do and do not’s” (and the more recent version):

Thinking about it, I’m starting to believe that all the love for “twitch” games is mostly because they are directly less based on a UI.

What I did is to tie the “no to HUD” rule listed by Raph with one trait of “twitch” games. Not just because they have a “fast and furious” type of gameplay, but because the gameplay becomes more direct and simplified in the representation. In the simulation. Simulation as: what is going on the screen matches more closely what I’m doing with my brain and my hands. There are less transitions, less roleplay, twists and hyperboles.

What’s your problem with HUDs?

The immersion. A more direct experience coming right from a realistic feedback instead of parsing numbers and scribbles with your eyes.

Let’s say we have the typical fantasy game combat. Think if, instead of looking at health bars and hotkeys, you could recognize the health of an orc by looking at his wounds, the blood dripping on the ground, from his movement and his reaction to something that is happening, his expression. What if you could sever the arm with which he wields the mace, or try to move into a tighter space where his movements could be impaired? Then you could really experience the fear. Not the fear about your possible death and the downtime required to go back at the corpse, but the fear of the situation, in that instant, with your brain parsing the possibilities you have to survive and quickly decide and react. It’s tense because you are there, there are no more filters between you and what is going on the screen. The possibilities you have become the possibilities you would have in that situation if it was REAL. There’s not anymore an effort to roleplay and build filters, not anymore the need to “make believe”, not anymore the need for tutorials, manuals and player guides. There’s just you, the orc and the forest. The interface is gone, the HUD is gone. What You See Is What You Get. You have finally the competence to relate to that situation without the need to learn the limits of the system and its rules. You *make* the rules. The system is completely disclosed instead of restricted.

Isn’t that the “dream game” that would shatter the sales records of every other game in the history? Isn’t that the ultimate direction that every game should aim at? Isn’t that the same reason why movies are so popular? Movies and games are “powered by the Nostalgia(TM)”. We always miss “something” and we struggle to reach it. It’s always a process to chase this utopia of the simulation or reproduction or the possibility to “live again”. Make an experience for the second time or make an experience we cannot possibly have in the context of the reality.

If you can see all this you can also see how the games we have now are so “faulty” and limited and why there’s still so much space to anticipate the trends and produce something successful. This is about “The Faked Dragon”. Or how the PvE is often offered in the games we know. World of Warcraft can work as a perfect example of these limits. The players consider it already advanced compared with the other competing mmorpgs. Some of the biggest encounters in the game are scripted. It’s true that in some cases we just have scaled-up models and higher stats, but in other cases we have scripted encounters that need to be “learnt” and tackled in a specific way. They need a proper reaction. All this can be good if we consider again just one face of the medal, the one about the “formal system”. From this point of view we can see how the game offers some unique, scripted and “challenging” encounters. From the “game” point of view this result is definitely positive. But what about the other face of the medal? What about the “myth”?

If we look at these encounters from another perspective (the roleplay) we can see how the first phase of Onyxia is completely offtrack. We are supposed to simulate the epic adventure of forty heroes facing a fearsome dragon in its lair. What we get? A buffed, min/maxed “Main Tank” that pulls this dragon against a wall, with half its head buried into it, while everyone else just stares, heals or fires a weak spell to not break the aggro. Waiting for “phase 2”. This blatant example isn’t an unique case but just the totality of the experience in this and other games. The gameplay is completely faked and functional to the ruleset. The mechanics of the encounters are set not to be the “world of Warcraft” but to relate to the skills, spells, statistics and quirks of the ruleset itself. So we have the aggro managment as the basic element of 99% of the gameplay with just variations on the theme.

What I mean is that THIS ISN’T A FIGHT AGAINST A DRAGON. This is a fight against a ruleset, against the numbers, the health bars, the raid interface, the players not listening, the lag, the scripted language. It’s all faked, all functional and sticking to a formal system that exists beside the world that should be “simulated”. I could say that the rules make the rules. And what we have, the gameplay, is just about numbers, statistics, math formulas and phat loot that we hope to win. At this point all the immersion that the game could have achieved is completely gone. Erased. Nullified. In a raid of 40 players there isn’t a single one feeling like going to fight a *dragon*. They think to the HUD, the phat loot, the teamspeak and nothing else. The “world” is gone. We have a dragon badly pathed and stuck in a wall as the “intended behaviour”. And *everyone* accepts that without even blinking.

Now I know that WoW cannot be taken as an example of a bad game when it is so much successful. It’s a contradiction. But what I say is that WoW is successful because it added unique encounters to games that never even achieved that step. But we are so absolutely far from the ideal goal and there are so many glaring mistakes that WoW is doing that could bring to better game and *anticipate* the success of the “next big thing”.

So why we cannot have a fucking scripted unique encounter that ALSO LOOKS AND FEELS LIKE FIGHTING A DRAGON? And not as a fight against the interface. That’s the real point. That’s why the design should be In-Character and not always wrapped “Out Of Character”, just about a “function” and nothing else. The function of a formal system should NEVER be the goal. The function of the formal system should be about delivering *an experience*. Triggering emotions. The nostalgia for something we miss and would love to live. The utopia of the FANTASY WORLD. The utopia of its touch and feel. The experience in this case is: “the epic battle of forty heroes against a dragon”. Why, at some point, the formal system completely replaced the experience to become the ONLY driving purpose? Why we are pulling this dragon against a wall? Why its head goes through that wall? Why it doesn’t see that it could easily wipe all of us just by turning a bit and using that fucking flame breath? Why it wasn’t scripted to behave in an even barely realistic way instead of just reacting to the stance and selected talent points of the main tank? Why it doesn’t crush all of us under its foot?

On Ethic’s blog there’s a recent entry commenting the cutscenes in FFXI. This is my point of view:

Cutscenes are a tool to deliver a particular effect (affecting the world, see something happening derailing from the usual). That effect can then be delivered in different ways, even more effective in some cases.

So the point is not to compare what FFXI does and what WoW does not. The point is to see what the player can do in the game world and if there’s something more to do than just “visiting” a 3D space.

The “magic” of FFXI is hidden on a huge number of smaller elements. The cutscenes (but in particular it’s what *happens* in the cutscenes to make the difference) being just one.

Them, if the story is interactive, it’s better.

In the light of what I wrote the cutscenes are ways to erase the interface and relate the player to the world. The cutscenes can be positive because it’s that moment, unique moment, where the interface VANISHES. Everything from the screen disappears. You are brought in the scene, there aren’t anymore layers to pass. You become part of a story and you can follow it. The numbers, the statistics, the ruleset, the health bars… the whole HUD just fades from the existence to make the game real and direct. You are projected inside.

Now the next step is about considering the limit. When the player sees a cutscene he definitely doesn’t want to go back at the numbers and the health bars. There’s an undeniable charm but the charm corresponds to a frustration. In a cutscene you would like to be able to touch the figure in front of you. You would like to touch the hair of a girl in a rendered scene and see how they move. You miss the fact that you cannot be really there and affect what happens. It’s a rendered scene that you can just stare and appreciate for what it is. You feel there but you cannot really be.

That’s what is essential to consider when we speak about stories in games. What we need is to move toward a blend between the direct experience, without interfaces and numbers, of the rendered scenes with the interactivity and “presence” of the gameplay. HUDs and interfaces are a limit as much the Out Of Character, functional design is. Game systems and rules should be created to provide faithful descriptions of the experience we are trying to render and nothing else. We shouldn’t betray the expectations and we should define the rules of a game so that they can offer a direct experience as much as possible. The “roleplay” of these games must go away till the point you just cannot avoid to do it. Because the immersion traps you and doesn’t allow you to think outside the box.

The games should focus more and more on this “simulation of realities” in a faithful way and less on the functional aspects of the rules. Less rules to parse and more direct and dynamic feedback.

The more COP Missions I do, the more I appreciate FFXI. Diabolos is a sweet fight, floor drops from under you midfight so if you are standing on a tile (the tile flashs for a few seconds so you have warning) that drops you fall into a pit of monsters that will devour you. Not to mention Diabolos can knock you off the platform if you are not positioned correctly.

This is a small example of a description of a PvE encounter that doesn’t sound completely alienated from the context. The fact that the floor is falling and there’s a pit below with nasty creatures, is a concept that everyone can immediately understand and share. Instead it would be completely different trying to explain to an external spectator the “aggro managment” in WoW and how it is affected by talent points, stances, styles and groups activities. Useless specialistic rules that don’t really add anything valuable to the game if not making it overly complicated, obscure and estranged. As I explained in another comment this is where the unique “magic” of FFXI is. The game goes beyond some functional aspects to let them deliver a richer experience at least in some of its parts.

I believe that the more the gameplay imitates what it tries to symbolize, the more the players will be able to quickly learn from it and love it. The more we get rid of layers and levels, the more the experience will be rewarding and rich. So I agree with Raph, no to HUDs and interfaces. As much as possible. But also no to puzzle games representing something else, numbers, health bars. Definitely no to fuctional scripted encounter that just look terribly lame and bugged and do not resemble in any way to what is supposed to happen in a similar situation like the one presumed.

Stories from Final Fantasy XI

Final Fantasy XI is still fascinating and unique on many different levels despite some radical flaws that some players considered almost show stopping. One of these aspects is the unique attempt to build one community as an hybrid of different cultures. Mixing together japanese, american and european players. Something that was harshly criticized by many players and that I always praised as a valuable goal to pursue, despite the difficulties.

I wish I could find a very old thread on Grimwell where I discussed the merits of the approach while everyone else was trying to demonstrate me that it wasn’t a laudable attempt to chase an utopia but just a solution of convenience to spare the money and cut the risks by supporting just one centralized server farm.
(EDIT- found. See in particular Tobold’s comment on the last page)

Anyway, this is a post on FoH’s boards expressing an unusual point of view that I read and found worth archiving:

When I started FFXI it was right on the NA release, I’d come off playing EQ for a couple years and I had a lot of free time on my hands. I quickly outstripped all the other NA players on the server. There wasn’t any online sites with quests, at least in any language I could read, and there wasn’t anyone at my level that I could group with that wasn’t Japanese. But it was okay. The Japanese players, many who had been playing for almost a year, were very helpful, very friendly and when we couldn’t understand each other we usually got things figured out anyway. After a lot of bad experiences and few good ones in EQ I’d decided to keep a list of people in FFXI that had significantly helped me out, and in a game where monsters are more powerful than you and soloing is unheard of, this happened a lot. I filled up a sheet of paper in the first couple months of play, and many of them didn’t know much more english than “yes”, “no” and “ok.”

Sadly the days of people jumping off their chocobo because they see a low level playing with a non-Japanese name struggling to travel through a high level zone are over. Most of the Japanese players are still going to be polite and the vast majority who are still playing also speak English, but after experiencing NA players for the last year and a half they’ve taken to saying “no thank you” too. I know who I’d rather be playing with.

What is sad about the whole issue is how some of the awful mechanics of the game put the two communities one against the other. I believe that the divergencies came mostly as consequences of competitive PvE systems that just weren’t appropriate for the original goal of the game. I’m speaking in particular of the camping of the NM (Notorious Monsters). I don’t know directly the system but from what I heard different parties gather up around the spawn points and need to “tag” the monster before everyone else. This simple, awful (unfun) mechanic brought to many conflicts between the two communities, Especially considering how the system was perceived as unfair toward NA players. Being the servers in Japan, the japanese players could benefit of a faster reaction and so a sensible advantage over those playing from another continent.

It’s obvious how, when the cohabitation is already shaky, every little detail can break things beyond repair. In particular when a system is perceived as a “cheat” favoring the opposite faction. That’s the principle that can start a collision which can easily deteriorate from that point. It builds factions and hostility. It builds differences because the “other” is perceived as a stranger that is violating a competitive space.

After I read that post from FoH boards, I felt the curiosity to check again what was going on in the game and I was positively surprised when I skimmed through these recent fixes (1 August) to find a radical change that all the players were waiting from more than two years and that is now quickly dismissed in a couple of lines:

– Players will no longer be able to use spells or abilities to claim a monster as soon as it appears.
If players attempt to use spells or abilities to claim a monster before a set amount of time has passed since it appeared, they will not be able to use those spells etc. again for a certain duration.

Which means, explained through the words of a player:

The way I see it, this update fixes the JP latency advantage. As stated by an earlier poster, the JP advantage is *very* small. It is less than human reaction time. So that means, by the time a JP player would be reacting to a HNM on their screen, its already appeared on a NA player’s screen as well. Of course, this gives a JP player a huge advantage when spamming a macro, or using a turbo controller to spam voke. In that case, the JP player doesn’t need to react to the HNM appearing in order to claim it. This being one of the reasons why King Behemoth is one of the most JP-dominated HNMs across all servers. KB’s spawn is nothing but a spam-fest. The only other monster in the area is a lone Thunder Elemental. Much different camp than Fafhogg or Aspidochelone, which require a player to target the HNM through a field of other monsters to get claim.

So, the latency advantage give JP player’s a headstart in spamming matches. but thanks to the new update, you can’t spam anymore. A JP player can spam voke all window long, but then KB will pop, the JP will provoke, and…. oops! Nothing happens because he voked to early, and now his voke is disabled for a little while. (definately longer than it’ll take for KB to get claimed by someone else) Since spamming doesn’t work anymore, HNM camps will now be about which player has the best reflexes, not about who lives closest to the server or who can best ignore the pain of jamming the enter key for half an hour.

See? We are back at considering the development time and the absolute necessity to spend time in the community instead of being isolated from it. This was one huge flaw of the game that was almost trivial to fix. But the devs of this game are between those more out of touch with the actual situation of the game. This fix comes two years too late. Yes, the gameplay will improve considerably but it will be almost impossible to heal that wound that split the two communities apart and made them hostile (or that at least had a role, if you don’t share my simplified point of view on the cause of the hostility).

The other positive trait I wanted to point out is between those I already reported (in the edit). The players can now have access to personal henchmen that can be considered as “pets”. Not only they are supposed to help when the player cannot find a decent group, along with the modifications to the experience points from easy mobs (FFXI has huge LFG problems considering that it’s basically impossible to solo), but they became an extremely interesting feature on their own, even outside their specific purpose in the gameplay.

The fun of reasearching their (undocumented) complex behaviour and the possibilities of customizations brought to one of the most entertaining threads I’ve ever read. 460 posts (at this moment) progressively discovering the depth of the system and its possibilities. An investigation so fun (even to read) that quickly replaced the actual purpose of the henchmen to become one fun toy on its own as the new focus of the gameplay.

As a result, this is impressive. Squaresoft added once again an unique feature with an unparalleled depth and detail. Carefully planned to have different facets to discover and enjoy instead of becoming trivialized into a simplified and functional system without anything else to offer.

And that’s the “magic” of this company. They don’t plan their games just as functional systems that do their work and nothing else. Instead they add this depth and care for the personality, so that each little story and character presented has its own special role and flavor. Its own quirks to discover on multiple levels. This is what crafts a type of roleplay that makes the game so rich and unique compared to every other mmorpg out there. That’s also when a game can impose its originality and break the cliches of a genre without suffering from this estrangement from the common places.

All this brings to a game that you cannot easily trade with something else. When you leave FFXI you know that you won’t be able to find the same flavor and feelings somewhere else. This is why I felt always fascinated by this game in an unique way. But at the same time I was never able to accept its radical problems that just killed the experience for me. From the horrible patch process that doesn’t allow you to store the patches (and an insane install above 6Gb as result of an horrible port of the data files), the ridiculous billing system, the policy to delete the characters and account after three months of inactivity and the impossibility to play in a window without recurring to hacks. That’s already more than enough without even counting the actual game and the flaws of its design (in particular the insane group requirements).

FFXI is one game part of that “if only” group. It could be the best mmorpg out there… if only.

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Grindy treadmills: a problem of quality, not quantity

This is a follow up to Baint’s story. The first part was about the problems of the design of the zones. The second part is about the rest of the message I’ve taken from the Vault and that underlines what is bad in the design of the quests and the actual gameplay offered in Catacombs.

We all know that this expansion has the main purpose to accelerate by a substantial margin the levelling pace. DAoC has always had relevant problems in its PvE aspect and most of the players have passed this type of judgement:

I see the PvE in DAoC as nothing more than the price of admission to RvR.

This perception is a fact and still today the treadmill in the game has been considered mostly as a burden to suffer before finally reaching the actual (unique, also) value that the game can offer. The RvR.

Catacombs confirms again the superficial attitude Mythic is keeping toward the game. A radical problem is trivialized and dismissed with a solution that can just glide on the surface without really solving anything and without offering any type of value.

In fact this expansion solves the aspect of “quantity” of the treadmill, but not its quality, where the real problem is:

As has been said before, the PROCESS of DAoC’s PVE treadmill is what makes it so grindy.

That’s the point in fact. As I define it: a problem of quality and not of quantity.

DAoC’s treadmill isn’t longer compared to other games, but it is awful for the most part (especially now with a weak community).

In this thread someone brought the example of task dungeons as a relevent improvement to the treadmill. My point is that they are exactly the opposite. They BREAK the game. They are essentially corridors with a row of immoble mobs in the middle. You whack your way through them, one by one, with about a two minutes downtime between each kill till the end where sits the exact same mob you whacked till that point, just named. You kill the named and you get rewarded with money and experience.

Now the reward is good, this is true, and it makes the treadmill shorter since you can efficently level up in solo. But this is, in fact, the “quantity” aspect of the problem. The truth is that you are really playing an unashamed version of ProgressQuest that puts you in a corridor with a row of mobs you need to grind to increase the size of your e-peen. There is really NOTHING ELSE. Just repeat your easy kill 20x for each mob, complete the task, get another and repeat.

This CANNOT be tolerated. It cannot be tolerated for weeks or months as it cannot be tolerated for ten minutes. It’s one of those things that give you epiphanies: what the fuck am I doing? The game cannot be THAT dumb.

And you really cannot believe that the devs could be so unashamed to add something like that to the game.

The task dungeons are popular. They are the faster way you have to level and they represent a huge difference from the other hunting places. But again this is a refusal to solve the problem of the PvE. It’s another way to dismiss and negate it. To completely jump a part of the game as quick as possible. It’s the legitimation of the “burden” that is there just as a weight inherited from the past (and that noone cared to address properly):

The PvE needs work to be attractive, not to be just as quick as possible in order to forget it. It needs value.

“/level 20” was a superficial workaround that I believe damaged the game way more than the benefits it brought.

It’s not a case that I accuse Mythic of not acknowledging their errors. What they did with the “/level 20” command (the possibility to start new characters at level 20 once the player had at least gone till 50 once) follows the exact same patterns of Catacombs. It’s a *removal* of the treadmill, as much as possible. /level 20 allowed the players to jump a part of the game, the task dungeons are a new way to speedrun through the treadmill in order to get rid of it as quick as possible.

But again, where is the “quality” of the game? What does it have to offer? With both these solutions Mythic refused to offer real alternatives. They just seconded a problem:

HRose: I see the PvE in DAoC as nothing more than the price of admission to RvR. It’s not fun nor is it interesting.

Firstly, I believe that DAoC shouldn’t ditch its PvE. I strongly believe that it IS possible to make it fun and not a burden. That’s why I HATE “/level 20” and those unacceptable task dungeons.

Those are, exactly like the new ruleset, ways to DODGE the problems. Nothing will improve if you do not SOLVE or at least TRY to address the problems.

“The PvE sucks, so no PvE” I do not accept that. That’s seconding a problem not solving it. When “Wish” was turned toward the GM content the excuse brought by the devs was: “we tried to go in the PvP direction but it wasn’t fun”.

OF COURSE it’s not fun. Because to make good things you need to work on them and expand their potential. The quality or the “fun” in general don’t fall from the sky, you need to hunt for them. So I don’t accept that DAoC has to become just PvP because PvE isn’t fun. It should instead START to work in order to offer something interesting. Because they definitely have the resources.

Here is described that superficiality I pointed out at the beginning. Instead of observing the game and understanding its true needs, what happens is a superficial glance. What I defined as: “The PvE sucks, so no PvE”. This is why I believe the game needs (and always needed) a creative approach to these problems. To offer something different instead of just walking around the issues. Legitimating its presence and tolerating it.

Now that I played Catacombs more at depth I can see the overall shape and all it has to offer. Not only we have these task dungeons with rows of mobs to be farmed over and over so you can finally exit and see the light of the day (the RvR), but even the other new zones in the expansion and the two new private instances for each of the old dungeons follow the exact same trend.

There seem to be more than 400 new quests added to the new zones (I don’t know if this number is cumulative between the three realms or not), but the large majority of these are designed as “mini-quest”. Essentially they are simple, soloable tasks that you get from random NPCs, sending you to kill a couple of mobs and then go back for a decent reward in experience and some coins.

So, isn’t that another form of pure grind? The players do not hate these games because they are more or less “long”. The grind is NEVER a problem of quantity. But of quality. This is why noone I know complains that the treadmill in WoW is too long. In fact I hear the opposite and the desire to prolong it (also because the endgame sucks so much that you hope to arrive there as late as possible).

Catacombs introduces an INSANE amount of task dungeons, new zones and private instances. From this point of view you could expect to have so much content to level at least five different characters before seeing the same place twice. But this is, instead, completely false. Becuase there’s nothing to see. All these dungeons, while pretty, are just recycled assets over and over with rows of mobs standing still and just waiting you to kill them.

The gameplay is not just “weak”, the gameplay is *ABSENT*. There is nothing to see, nothing to play with, nothing to discover, nothing to… learn. Which should be what these games are about. There’s just a gap between one level and another (now speed up) and some space for the socialization. Between farming “aurulite” (the new currency) in the private instances or farming directly experience in a task dungeon, there’s no difference. You can have the corridors of a different color, or the mobs of a different shape. But that’s all you get. Nothing else.

You have so many different possibilities just with Catacombs. You can level by taking these solo mini-quests in the new zones, you can farm aurulite in the new instances or the instances of the classic dungeons, or you can do task dungeons to farm directly the experience at an insane rate. But, no matter what you choose, the experience (of the player) is completely MISSING. You can trade between voids. Between empty experiences that are there just as excuses (and excusing what exactly?).

So why even add these multiple possibilities if they are just empty containers? Because they are balanced on the “purposes”. The task dungeons give insane exp and some money in no time (in particular when grouped), but you cannot find drops and item to use, the mini quests are best to solo but they give little money and no type of equipment at all, finally the instanced dungeons offer you aurulite that gives you the possibility to get decent equipment but that aren’t nowhere as efficient as the other two at delivering the exp. To this you can add the fact that the prices of the aurulite items are set so out of scale (as always) to require insane amount of farming to the point that even by doing exclusively this activity you will never be able to buy up-to-date equipment for your character without being twinked to death (so forget to mix these possibilities and hope to obtain acceptable results).

This is another demonstration that the only element of design at play here is the purpose of these different patterns. We have three different paths to choose, each with a particular advantage over the other. But this type of functional design has then NOTHING at all to offer when it comes to deliver an experience for the player. There is no gameplay to offer. The game can offer aurulite, or experience, or money. But it cannot offer THE FUN. It cannot offer gameplay with some variety.

So we are back to the original concept. The grind isn’t about how functional is an activity, but in the quality of the experience. A quality that, in DAoC, just isn’t there. There’s a hole, a gap in the gameplay. A missing block. New and old players trying the game may appreciate the fact that the grind isn’t slow as before. But it’s still the exact same grind. It’s the perfect definition of a grind: the fact that you have to rinse and repeat the same gameplay over and over and over, just because you need to reach the next step and, finally, the RvR endgame where the fun is supposed to be.

The game offers a suspension. A missing part. A lack of quality and interest. On this aspect the game isn’t changed in the slightest. We are still at the exact same archaic grindy treadmills. Maybe shorter, but still a grind. Another missed occasion to let the game express its qualities instead of trivializing it till a point where it has nothing anymore to say.

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The “I hate Baint” club

It’s about two hours that I writhe in the bed trying to sleep, so I decided to get up and write something. As my Xfire profile shows I’m spending some time playing DAoC (and having fun), so it is becoming prevalent in the arguments I choose to write about here.

At the bottom of a recent entry I write:

Finally a note for the would builders. The quality of the art has increased considerably, this is undeniable. But there’s still a gap between the “beauty” of an environment and its usability. The new zones in Catacombs are wonderful to see but AWFUL to navigate. Often the players jump from odd places and breaks the normal paths exactly because the environment is NOT MEANT FOR THE PLAYERS. This is a critical design problems. These areas should not be designed just “to be pretty” but also to be functional.

A day later I find a brilliant post on the Vault that backups my points but in that humorous and effective way that I so totally miss (and I’m envious):

Albs, join the ‘I hate Baint’ club!!

Recently I decided to delete my Hibs on Lamorak and re-roll Alb there. I hadn’t really been in the Alb catacombs areas, except for a brief visit in beta, so it’s all new and confusing at times.

There are issues with the Alb catacombs area. First of all, they can call it an Aqueduct all they want, but everybody knows it’s a sewer. (As Freakazoid would say “Ewww ..poo gas!”)

Second, there are Ladders of Doom all over the place. Lag the tiniest bit, and its ‘Hello floor, Goodbye 99% of my HPs”.

But the worst, most evil thing about the Albs catacombs area is an Inconnu guard in shiny plate armor named Baint. I’m convinced this pasty, fish faced little creep is really a Lurikeen Vamp sent to Alb to wreak havoc among the under 20 crowd.

If I go up to any other guard in the sewers (Excuse me, Aqueduct)and say “Hey there, howzabout a kill task?”, they say “Sure buddy. You see that green mob standing right across from me? Stroll over there, whack it once on the head, and come on back for half a bubble of XP and a little pocket change. By the way, do you smell poo gas?”

But go up to Guard Baint, and it’s “So, you want that XP and silver, eh? Well, the only way you’re going to get it is to travel to the most out of the way, foul smelling part of this cesspit I can think of offhand. Someplace far enough away that nobody can hear you scream. When you get there, I want you to find this yellow con mob that has a good chance to BAF with a few buddies who are all resistant to whatever type of damage you deal. And don’t get any ideas about running back here for help. You’ll be dead before you even see a guard at clip range. Now, if (and that’s a BIG if) you make it back here, and ask real nice, and let me wipe my feet on your cloak, you’ll get that XP and whatever loose change I have in my pocket at the time. Now, beat it!”

Needless to say, I hate Guard Baint. Why do I keep going back to him for kill tasks, you ask? Because surviving his latest attempt on my life gives me a certain feeling of satisfaction. And it gives me incentive to ding 20 so I’ll never have to talk to him again. Well, at least not until I get to 50, and come back fully buffed to punt his smug little tin-plated behind all the way to the Abandoned Mines.

Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Ahh.. I really wish I could write like that. Without sounding overdramatic, without being so awfully monotone and verbose. And still take a smart stab at a few flaws of the design.

But I just cannot.

So that’s your imaginatory link between my critics on the design of the Catacombs zones and the beginning of that post on the Vault. My analysis is more deeper even if completely inefficient in its purpose. But that’s also what I can do.

There are many different ways to tell a similar concept and I’m writing this to show these two ways and again focus the interest to point out another important problem of the game. The layout of the new zones is confused and definitely not player friendly. Even with the map sometimes the navigation is hard. Too often the layout is just not consistent on its own and fails completely to be functional. Many players reported the difficulty of the navigation or the hate for the ladders, but these two are just the superficial manifestation of a general trend that affects the whole approach to how a new zone is planned and built (often recycling and repeating the same “corridor” asset over and over).

From my point of view this becomes a trend that can be related to another bigger trend typical at Mythic: the superficiality with which some problems are considered. The fact that it’s “enough” for a zone to be pretty, removing completely the importance of its functionality. So, with this attitude, they do something that only apparently seems a good work but that, consequently, shows a bunch of problems that are a result of a lack of polish and attention. A lack of reiterations in the development.

Beta tests (and here I take a stab at what will definitely happen with “Darkness Rising”) isn’t about the “detail”. It is about the whole process. If “Catacombs” had a real and effective beta test, instead of an hype pitch in the last two months before release, it would have taken just a few minutes to observe how odd is the behaviour of the players when navigating around these zones. My minstrel moves around the Inconnu Crypt constantly BREAKING the patterns of the space. I need to constantly jump off the first level in order to arrive somewhere else without taking the whole tour of the place to pass over a bridge. Again I need to *fight* against the level design in order to move around.

Useful reiterations in the development should have observed these odd behaviours and adapt the design of the zone accordingly, for example building a bridge in the point where most of the players thecide to “jump”. That’s exactly what an In-Character architect would do. And that’s also what the actual world builder is supposed to do.

Again because the zones in the game should be designed considering many important different layers, from “the pretty”, to the functionality of the environment, to the ease of navigation, social spaces, gathering points and so on.

(and at this point I was supposed to link a wonderful story written by “Ole Bald Angus” about a crazy architect building a castle for a king that explained even better all these ideas… just to discover that the whole archive on that site is completely gone and I cannot link/quote. ARGH. My poor smart references…)

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DAoC – Proposed fixes and new features

My minstrel is now at level 13 on Lamorak and, after months away from the game, I could fill pages and pages of comments about the problems and quirks that the game still has and my point of view about the direction where it should go. So I put all this aside to gather up a small list of fixes and new features that (as CCP defined them) I can call “quality of life fixes”. Meaning that they aren’t much about opinable changes but just direct and sensible improvements that could be accepted positively by everyone (without considering the difficulty of the implementation, though).

They also follow a principle that I think should be always applied to every game and that is a recurring fault in DAoC: when a new patch is ready to be released publicly, one of the devs should browse through each fix and new feature to see if it passes a simple test. If the test is passed the fix can be approved and published, if the check isn’t passed the new feature/fix must go back in development and adjusted accordingly.

The test is simple: a player should always be able to understand a change or use a new feature without reading the patch notes.

You’d think this is obvious but you would never believe how many times, even recently, this simple rule has been broken. It’s important that EVERY part of a game is directly accessible. Noone should be required to read manuals, FAQs, Grab Bags, spoiler sites and 3rd party programs to enjoy the game at its best. This because, shifting Lum’s quote here below, “a vast majority of your customers doesn’t have access to or doesn’t share that knowledge”.

Previous part here.

My proposed additions/fixes (for now):

– There are now visual marks for quest givers but they do not appear when you move between the steps of a quest already started or when you have to return to an NPC, which is a big usability issue in the actual quest system. I suggest to add a new mark that should appear in these situations and similar to the one already used but as a vertical glow around the legs of the NPC, like an aura that will be easily noticeable from the distance.

– I noticed that the tooltips on the stats often do not update correctly when the numbers go above the caps. Aside fixing this problem I suggest to add a tooltip to the hitpoints (to show also here the default value and the cap) and to the other fields like WeapSkill, WeapDam, Armor, to add informations about how these are used in the ruleset and on what they depend. These new informations could be added as new tooltips that expand themselves showing the new informations after a few seconds the mouse hovers on a field (like it happens on Paradox games, ask Lum). With some radical work the delving process of spells, skills and objects should be completely replaced by mousehover tooltips.

– NEW (slipped from my list): Add a mark to the map window to show not only the position of the character but also its direction. Maybe even tooltips to show the names of players in the party. Add the possibility to select maps freely, without having to be in the specific zone.

– NEW (slipped from my list): Instead of forcing everyone to click multiple times on the loot bag in order to get each item (which is extremely clunky and annoying), just modify the interface so that one click only (right click maybe) brings up a loot bag window. This bag will show each item dropped with a checkbox next to it (already checked by default) and an “OK” button. As this button is pressed, all the items with the check will be automatically looted.

– Adjust the /who command to be accessible from a dedicated UI panel with selectable fields and with the support for complex queries (with and/or operators) between the various fields (Name, Class, Level, Guild, Current zone, Grouped or not). Integrate this panel with the LFG tool to have a powerful, accessible and centralized panel where to search players. Maybe transform this new panel into another tab in the social window.

– Crafting. Add a consignment system. This can work through a new NPC that takes orders from the players and makes them available publicly to the crafters. A player can set up an order with the item he wants to buy, price and time available for the duty. The price is paid as the order is created and refunded if the order wears off without being fulfilled. The consignment system should also show the medium prices for an item so that the players can see and set reasonable prices. The crafters can then have access to the NPC and browse (and filter) a list of everything that they can craft at the moment. As the item is produced and consigned to the NPC, the crafter will receive the money for the order and the item will be stored in the NPC waiting for the player who made the order to claim it. The crafters can also “tap” an order for an hour so that they have the time to create the item and consign it without the risk of finding the order already completed by someone else. During the hour the order is tapped, noone else will have access to that order. In the case the hour passes without the item being consigned, the player that tapped it won’t be able to tap it again for 24 hours.

This system may be rather innovative for the genre and it has also the quality to work as a complement of the market system used in the housing zones. So it doesn’t overlap the functionalities and is supposed to provide more tools that both crafters and buyers can use actively to enjoy the game more directly. (the two system are also supposed to have the positive effect of balancing each other).

– Add a new panel to stat_index_window. This new panel will offer a direct access through a dedicated UI to ALL the functionalities available on the Herald. So the players can track themselves from this new window or a particular player, the ranks, the guilds, the status of the realm, the crafters and so on. This should work as an outgoing connection directly to the Herald and not as new features to support in the server code. The goal is to make all those informations accesssible and easy to use for everyone directly from the game client. The client shouldn’t bother the actual server but just open an external connection to the Herald and format the informations with an appropriate UI.

The statistics on the Herald are one of the best and unique qualities of this game. Having a direct support of these directly in the game doesn’t appear an added functionality but it will, instead, help it to show its real qualities in a more accessible way and not as a detached, optional feature that most of the players do not use. New players often aren’t even aware of this. Having this feature bundled with the interface will put it in front of everyone and easily accessible. While this isn’t really something new for the game I believe it could be a *major* improvement that definitely deserves the development time required to support it.

Finally a note for the would builders. The quality of the art has increased considerably, this is undeniable. But there’s still a gap between the “beauty” of an environment and its usability. The new zones in Catacombs are wonderful to see but AWFUL to navigate. Often the players jump from odd places and breaks the normal paths exactly because the environment is NOT MEANT FOR THE PLAYERS. This is a critical design problems. These areas should not be designed just “to be pretty” but also to be functional.

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Last words on “Real Money Trade” and the recipe to “better games”

I’m so bored of these recurring, pointless topics that I don’t even care to search the archive of this site here and relink what I wrote in the past. Lum wrapped up the issue perfectly in a short comment:

I’d go one further – if players are actively seeking to pay actual money to avoid parts of your game, you may have some design issues. And no, it’s not an opportunity to find a new revenue stream, it’s a danger signal, because a vast majority of your customers will not shell out more money to avoid The Bad Parts.

You really cannot go further than that. As I wrote, the rest is useless chatter and endless arguing. What is important is understand from where problems come from and learn from the experience. Delving into an aspect is useless if you cannot understand the context.

The context of the Real Money Trade is a “design mistake”. So the RMT is an anomaly that shouldn’t even be there. An anomaly that instead of being researched in every detail, should be extirpate at the root without hesitation. Because it’s an element that breaks every principle ruling the context: the fact that the ultimate product is a game.

Seconding the RTM means bending the design of the game in a way not appropriate. It means refusing to solve the problems that the game presents. If the RMT is legitimated also all the problems that brought to it are then excused as appropriate. This is nonsense. A wicked model that is destined to fail.

Chasing the RMT is an apparent way to make money because it is based on an illusory model. This is what is implicitly written in the last line I quoted from Lum here above. The players won’t adapt themselves to creative marketing, instead they migrate to those games that *actively solve* those glaring problems at the root of the gameplay. The market itself is not stagnant and doesn’t need new revenues stream. What the market needs and will reward is the concrete movement that brings to better games.

On a similar level it becomes obvious as even the opposite solution to the RMT (fighting actively the farmers, for example) is equally useless. It’s again a way to divert the eyes from the real problems to their symptoms. The presence of the farmers is a symptom of a broken game. Fighting endlessly the symptom brings to no results and lots of energy wasted because, once again, noone cared to observe the cause and try to solve it directly. Not even because it’s philosophically good, but because it’s an effective way to make a game successful and popular. Which would be a pretty significant and understandable goal, I believe.

So, again, the money will go to who is able to observe the problems in these games and offer intelligent and effective solutions. Those who expect to “ride the wave” of a trend and believe that RMT is an effective way to expand the market, are just short-sighted goons that will fall on their asses. The RMT is a way to second the problem and exploit it in the short term. It’s a way to demonstrate how you are clueless about what really drives these games and that will bring to an unacceptable waste of resources.

It’s not a case that this is happening at SOE. Aggro Me points at another example of “wasted resources”. All these examples aren’t detached one from the other. We have a company that simply doesn’t remember anymore what they are supposed to do. They don’t have anymore goals to reach if not making money out of the blue. So they desperately trying to invent new ways to make money out of the blue since their games alone cannot stand anymore the market. Those “games” that now look as a distant background.

But this isn’t also similar to what happens at Mythic? This is a company with a completely opposite stance to SOE. They would never accept to support the RMT because they believe that it’s a practice that actively damages their games. Okay, but then they apply a similar pattern to another context in a subtle way. It’s a few weeks that I criticize their latest design choices. I defined them as “short term good and long term bad”. Mythic, along the history of DAoC, has always kept a conservative approach to the design aimed more to find fancy workarounds and bandaids to problems than to directly address the issues with some courage and… vision.

Each of these solutions has the lowest common denominator in the fact that they are all *temporary*. They are usable in the short term but will bring to even more problems in the long term. And isn’t this exactly the same as riding the wave of the RMT? Isn’t this yet another way to dodge and dismiss the problems of the game to just find workarounds and content the players for a few more weeks?

The new “classic” servers they launched and the new island they are adding to bring back “Emain”, are all short term sweeteners in the hope to retain the players (in particular the returning ones, prizing on the illusory sense of nostalgia) a bit longer and, at the same time, yet another excuse to dodge the real problems that are making the game sink more and more as the time passes.

This approach is not effective and won’t bring to results. Other games like WoW have seen this insane success because they were able to undestand and isolate those problems that were never addressed effectively in other games and propose something new. What they did is extremely simple. They *stole* the unused potential of the other games and capitalized on their faults. While everyone else was sitting and watching, believing that nothing could change, they were able to anticipate the new possibilities and suggest effective solutions.

This is the behaviour of the market. The money will go to who is able to anticipate the solutions. To who is able to observe and learn and always retain this dynamism and ambition. The stagnation, instead, will always bring to mediocre results and downward trends even in those cases where there would be enough resources to reach completely different results.

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Screenshot from Agramon/Emain

I took some screenshots of Agramon from the test server.

Running around it I found various glitches, in particular on the Midgard side, but I tried to select those showing the nicer parts. The last two also show strange pentagrams that will be probably connected to “Darkness Rising”, the expansion to be released this December.

Agramon screenshots page

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Emain is back

I’m extra-busy with a bunch of stuff, so I went quiet for a bit despite there would be a lot to talk about.

I didn’t change my opinion about the decision to bring back “Emain” to provide an accessible playground where players can go without caring about the more complex PvP gameplay around the keeps. It’s still a short term good decision that will ultimately hurt in the long term.

From Sanya:

Anecdotally, the main concern among those I spoke with (who didn’t like the idea) was that “regular” RVR would be too drained by this Island. We hope that the design will make people gravitate to the Island when they’re looking for something to do, and that raids will form from the players in this natural staging area. Regular RVR is just a quick trot across a bridge, with no elaborate planning or logistics required.

Once again this is an extremely superficial view on the problems. Again the consequence is put ahead of the cause.

“The Island” (Agramon) isn’t bad just because IT WILL kill the RvR in the mainland. This is the consequence of a problem. A symptom. Looking at the symptom, and just it, is completely useless. What will naturally happen (the fact that people will prefer to go to Agramon instead of playing with the more complex RvR) should trigger a damn DOUBT. Why the fuck the players would prefer the “hot tub” arena when DAoC “is supposed” to offer so much more?

So, “The Island” is bad not “on its own”, but because it again shifts the focus of the designers on what DOESN’T MATTER. It’s again the usual workaround, a bandaid. The truth is that the complex RvR action in DAoC has the same “accessibility” problems of ToA. The players hate it simply because of this. It’s not accessible, and so, it isn’t fun. It isn’t fun as it should be. As it could be.

The strength of DAoC is not in a simple PvP arena where to farm the Realm Points. This feature is offered in a better form in other games and Mythic is doing a big mistake by chasing the trend and choking the true unique traits of their game. Instead of differentiating themselves, they, once again, chase the tail of other games without even the remote possibility to reach similar results.

The classic RvR has serious accessibility problems that undermine its potential. There are situations extremely static that need more dynamism in order to not bore everyone to tears like they do now. A quick PvP arena is not bad on its own but as a way to DISMISS these problems. To look elsewhere and ignore them. The players will like Agramon and prefer it over the rest (so it must be good? no, this is superficial), because the other part of the RvR has problems that weren’t solved. In the same way the players prefer the new classic servers with “no ToA” because the problems ToA had weren’t solved (effectively, I know they worked constantly on it, but not on the real, radical accessibility issues).

The result is that Mythic keeps wasting resources to invent fanciful workarounds when the game would need a completely different approach to face the real problems directly. The success of the game in the long term will suffer these superficial solutions that can only work in the short term and will damage the game in the long term (the unaddressed problems that choke the quality of the game).

Beside all this. I just finished a quick run around the isle on the test server and, despite the negative implications I’ve explained above, the design is nice. The movement around this island is rather intuitive. The terrain is well planned and for the first time not extremely flat and featureless. The impression I had is good and you would think that they learnt something from WoW in the way to shape the hills and valleys so that they finally matter for the gameplay and not just as a pretty scenery background. There ARE actually hills and valleys now and the line of sight will have a role since the terrain isn’t anymore a flat box. There seem to be space for some strategy and well planned encounters and ambushes.

So I believe that within the limit of the engine of the game they did a good work and even graphically the zone is nice despite it’s still a cut&paste of exisitng assets. Only the transition to the snow (the Midgard section) still looks rather bad.

The only negative note is the *extremely annoying* aggro that constantly breaks the groups and speed.

If anything, it looks like a very good Emain.

As another positive note they finally readjusted the power and health regeneration rate:

– We have increased the Health and Power regeneration rates at lower levels, to make leveling a more enjoyable experience for everyone. The increase is significant at lower levels and slowly rises back to its current state as you level your character.

– The penalty on power regeneration when power is below 50% has been removed.

The second in particular is a fix to something that was just “bad design” and nothing else. DAoC needs less of those quirks that just make the gameplay more frustrating.

The simplification of the ruleset should always remain a goal. DAoC has always been “complicated” without really adding to the gameplay, just too filled with odd quirks, exceptions to rules and special cases.

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