Fuck Oblivion CS

In the last few hours I was messing again with Oblivion and Oscuro’s mod to see if I could improve some parts. But it just won’t behave in a coherent way.

This is what I see in the CS:

That means that I expect that fucking bandit to have about 49 health in the game. The “1” value in the “offset” means that the NPC is automatically leveled at +1 of the level of the player’s character. This means that if I’m at level 1, the bandit will be at level 2, with exactly those 49 HPs that are shown there (to a maximum cap of level 8).

Really, these game’s tools are VERY easy to grasp. It’s another matter when you have to script stuff, but editing the “database” is trivial.

If only things behaved properly, or at least showed a coherent pattern.

This is what I see in game, with a brand new character and with the difficulty slider exactly in the middle:

WHY THE FUCK that bandit has 89 health instead of 49? I just couldn’t figure out even after running multiple tests.

With the added burden than I cannot change things in the CS and then test the changes, because it looks like the new values aren’t getting updated if I don’t start a brand new game with a new character and go through the friggin Imperial dungeon every time I want to change a variable in the CS and test it.

I tried everything, even a “ResetInterior Vilverin” while at the other side of the world with the hope that the cell was purged and reload, but nothing.

It looks like this CS isn’t based on logic, I just cannot identify a logic explanation why the game pulls fancy values out of the blue. There’s another NPC in that dungeon that should have around 80 HP, and instead he has 140. While the other levelled lists are working properly.

Trying to fix things under these conditions isn’t exactly easy. I guess there’s a trick I’m not aware of, as it’s simply insane that I have to start a new game every time I change something in the CS. Right now it’s the only way to do it, though, because the game isn’t updated properly when I change stuff and I don’t know yet a way to tell the game to forcefully reload that data so that I can actually TEST what I’m changing.

And in the case of the example in the picture above not even a restart works, because I cannot figure out from where the game is pulling those wrong values.

That said, Oscuro’s mod is a TOTAL MESS. I’m still using it because it has some very good parts, but the design and organization is pure chaos. It seems made without a vision or plan, but just by throwing stuff together randomly. The more I look into it the less sense it makes. The claim for more “static” content is a lie. Oscuro uses rubberbanding to a greater extent than the base Oblivion. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s hard because the levelled lists are completely RANDOM. These basic bandits for example go from level 1 to 20 and what Oscuro does is just randomizing their level so that they may be much above or below the player’s level, or even multiple spawns at once, but there’s nothing really persistent or static. The world STILL levels with you, but in this case it does on lists so random that it’s hard even to identify a pattern.

The fact that it’s hard to identify a pattern made people playing this popular mod believe that the game was more static, but the truth is that it does the exact opposite. It makes the randomness so excessive that your own level isn’t anymore a recognizable element. You are tricked to think the world outside is more independent from your level, so the illusory perception of a world more static, but in reality the precise rubberbanding of Oblivion is replaced by a TOTAL randomness that destroys even more the feel of a coherent, static world.

The vanilla Oblivion levels the whole world around you. Oscuro doesn’t remove this process, but makes it so random that you meet all sort of creatures. Not because those creatures are more static in the world, but just because it takes Oblivion’s rubberbanding and discards its principles. It’s replace a logic (the difficulty scales with you) with NO logic (randomness).

It works for those players who finished the game and what something more challenging, but it’s NOT better game design than Bethesda. It’s worse.

It’s a mod for those who like the challenge, sure. But it’s because whatever can spawn as there are very few rules. Or, more precisely, no game design. No direction.

But there’s also something that Oscuro’s mod does well. The new items are often placed by hand in the dungeons. For example a particular magic sword could be stuck in a tree truck deep in a dungeon. This is a part that greatly enhances the exploration and a part that was completely MISSING in the original game.

I believe that the players who made these mods fell in the exact same trap of Oblivion’s designers. A chest in this game isn’t a chest with “real” content, it’s instead a portal on another dimension that shares the same script/logic. This means that by changing that script, you are able to dynamically change the content of multiple chests in the game at the same time.

That’s how the sense of persistence is lost. You know that every chest is a window on that dimension, so a chest next to you isn’t different than the chest in a hidden dungeon far away. You know that what you are going to find is just the randomization of a generic script.

The point is that, still today, no one has tried to “fix” that. Both Oscuro and, in particular, Francesco rely heavily on the same trappings of the random system, that is the real responsible of all this. They tweaked those lists, we can argue if the result is better or worse than vanilla Oblivion (as these mods only work as “niche”, that’s the truth), but they didn’t base the actual game design on different premises. They didn’t replace the formula.

But is there even a definitive solution? Here we hit a deeper problem, because while it’s true that a true static world enhances the exploration, some randomness also enhances the replayability.

Would you prefer that a chest always has the exact same content, or some randomization can improve the fun? There isn’t a perfect answer, but there may be different compromises. Pure randomness isn’t a good one because it represent the excess of the opposite of Oblivion’s rubberbanding.

The ideal would be to have a coherent world, with some implicit rules.

I wish the CS would cooperate. My first attempt was to use Oscuro as a basis and smooth the difficulty scaling so that it’s more tolerable, while also reducing the randomness. Make it a little more playable, give it more direction. Instead of having generic “bandits” levelling from 1 to 20 I would try to separate them into three or four different groups at different levels, so that I could then set various bandit camps with different difficulty depending on where they are located. Making the difficulty more tied to the content (using the progress of the storyline as a “lead”) and less random.

There are many little touches in Oscuro’s mod that I wouldn’t want to lose, but, really, the overall game design is a pure mess. The two extremes, Francesco’s mod is carefully and methodically organized to the point that it feels too mechanical, Oscuro’s is instead utter chaos and very hard to mod.

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I like to think I’m a bit like Raph(‘s pale shade)

There’s something I noticed with the launch of Areae, but also in other cases: Raph was all over the forums within seconds. Discussing the name, teasing and even answering back to some harsh comments that systematically come up when his name appears on a “gaming” board (that is where he has the most obstinate antagonists).

And it looked like he loved all that.

From an interview at Stratics, where he demonstrates again that we can only aspire to become very pale, miserable imitations:

Really, it’s about touching players, and all of us being in a community. Today, it’s all so big that it can be hard to do.

His way of dealing with the revelation of Areae is something I noticed because it’s exactly how I deal with things, or how I would deal with them.

I cannot understand other devs and designers who go along doing their thing completely isolated. You have to beg to have your feedback considered, and it’s crazy.

I always thought that if I ever actually designed something, something under my responsibility, then I would be all over the boards when that part is revealed. I would refresh every forum I know every thirty seconds to read possible feedback about what I did, to see if it works, to see if the players liked it or not, to discover its flaws. I would BEG to get as much feedback as possible and then I would be there answering the questions and already figuring out what is going to be the next step. What needs fixing, what needs more work, how I can tweak things so they can better match the intended purpose.

You can be sure that within hours I would have already a very good and exhaustive picture of the whole situation and already laid down a plan about the next move. If there’s a problem you could be sure that it would be promptly acknowledged and that I’d do my very best to find a better solution.

I consider the “evaluation” like the most important part of the job. And not just because it’s the outcome of your efforts, but because it represents the next starting point. Reiterations. You learn from what you did and that’s the basis of what you’ll do next.

I really don’t know how I could do *without* that. If there’s something I’m working on, then I’d be all over that. Because the answer of the players, positive or negative is everything that feeds what I’m doing, that suggests me ideas, that gives me a good perception of how things are. I’d be anxious of seeing how players react to what I’m doing, to see if my ideas are confirmed.

And that’s also the kind of “communication” that I think is indispensable. I just cannot imagine things in another way. It’s natural.

Well, Raph has always excelled on this front.

And today, there’s this whole cloud about whether SWG interacted with the community, but I really think we had a very special connection to players in the development days.

And it’s true. I was only able to peek in during the final weeks, but there was definitely something special.

There’s always something special when Raph is involved. I just hope the different focus of Areae won’t make the discussions lose the “heath” that is typical when we deal with worlds that we are really passionate about. From a meanie comment on FoH:

Well, you have to be happy that he’s off screwing up his own thing, instead of screwing up things we care about.

But it’s exactly when he screws things we care about that I like him the most :)

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FFXI: an excellent game with some excellent ideas…

…completely ruined by stupid game design and stupid policies at a fundamental level.

I was giving a quick look at the notes from the December update. There’s some interesting stuff as they are bringing on the plans connected to the release of the latest expansion (Square releases an expansion with very few of its content accessible right away, then they slowly open up and develop new parts throughout the whole cycle, till the next one).

I still believe that between all the online worlds we have at the moment, FFXI is the very best. Noone creates worlds like Square, noone can even go near to their charm and originality. They only produce masterpieces and today FFXI is still absolutely the most unique and fascinating “world”.

What they are doing with the chocobo rising system is exactly what you would expect from the IDEAL of the virtual world. Systems with some depth, not just focused on combat and only combat. Or gear, or endless levels to ding. It’s an example of something that adds “game”. And adds that “world” flavor. It makes that place feel distinctive. It gives depth. Different activities to pursue and explore, interesting variations.

I can only read things and have very vague ideas about what they are developing, but it gives me the impression of a very good direction. I don’t know about the execution, but the ideas are “sound”. The same for the new “hunting” system that they call “salvaging”.

I’ve already commented positively all this stuff as most of it has been already announced with the expansion’s release and I still believe that Square is pouring some excellent and innovative ideas into this game. It’s very sad that the game is ruined at a much more fundamental level and all that stuff is irrelevant if those problems aren’t solved beforehand.

I’m just reporting that FFXI is still a good example of both the worst and the best that these games can offer.

I wonder what we could have if Square was a little bit more “connected” with the community and understood better its needs.

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Catering the hardcore

Completing my comments about Eve-Online last patch (I canceled my sub again one week after the patch, as expected).

Right from a forum thread:

Invention is only for the elite with enough ISK to buy the BPO outright (so why need invention), super huge alliances camping 0.0 complexes 23/7, and all that.

Invention is not for the average player, or even above average. It’s only for BoB.

An invented item, once produced, would cost 1000 times more than an identical item produced from an unresearched BPO. Apparently CCP is very, very anal about protecting the ISK printing rights of the BPO cartels.

As I suspected, much of the “content” of this last patch is nothing that the infamous “casual player” can hope to ever see.

Last thing I remember that vaguely affected *me* was the introduction of the asian races one year ago and, recently, the instant bookmarks, the new character creation and the new map display. All features marginal to the gameplay and involvement.

CCP is doing near nothing for new players approaching the game and needing better “hooks”. For now it’s working for them, a week ago the concurrent number of players was near 32k.

But I still believe that they would be much more successful if they started to design the game also to “bridge” that gap between casuals and hardcore. This is another of those themes that is becoming common across titles and genres.

Level gaps and tiers in Warhammer’s PvP

Remember my design challenges?

The second in particular was thought to balance the four “tiers” of the level up process, so that the fights between the players could be always fair and balanced and so that all content in the game was always accessible, removing some “barriers”.

This was done by “auto-levelling” an higher character entering a lower level zone. By delevelling that character to the max cap (along the recruit system) it was possible to keep the fights in a zone always balanced, while keeping all the game world accessible and playable all the time. Giving the players an open choice about where they prefer to fight.

So, for example, a tier 4 character could go fight not only in the tier 4 zones corresponding to his level, but also de-rank to 1, 2 or 3 and go fight in those lower-level zones. Permeable barriers, permeable tiers.

The point of the design challenges was to offer some design solutions founded on my ideas and watch if Mythic ones, in the case they differs from mine, were going to be better or worse than what I proposed.

We have already something. From the grab bag:

Q: Will a character of Tier 1 be able to compete at all, even if poorly, against a character of Tier 4? Will multiple Tier 1 characters be able to take on and defeat a Tier 4 character?

A: This is a question with many potential implications, so don’t read any more into this than my exact words. Also, please remember that we are still a long way from launch, and that this may change.

Higher tier players who enter lower tier zones will not be able to attack or be attacked by lower tier players. However, if a lower tier player wants to enter a higher tier zone, all bets are off, and attacking/being attacked can happen.

The specific answer to your question is that Tier 1 players cannot win a one on one fight with a Tier 4 player. A pack of Tier 1 players will be able to cause harm to a Tier 4. We have not yet set an exact level of intended damage (and it will vary hugely depending on the player and the circumstances), so I cannot give you a specific answer.

See the part I underlined. Yeah, lame.

I’m already winning ;)

There’s more. In my first design challenge I analyzed a way to coherently lay down the structure of Warhammer’s PvP based on the parts that they already disclosed: skirmishes, battlefields, scenarios and campaign.

In my proposed structure the skirmishes and battlefield were exactly how Mythic defined them. A persistent zone, with a PvP territory. You enter this territory and you can fight. My proposal was to use the “instanced” scenarios as a cohesive, automated part of the overall structure.

Basically players go normally fight in a battlefield. These are persistent. As there are enough “x” players on a battlefield, an instanced scenario is triggered and spawned automatically and all players in the battlefield ported over. So it’s an automated system that instances itself as there are enough players. The more players, the more instances are spawned. Not enough players and only one persistent zone is active.

This had multiple purposes, but it was also an idea to balance the load and the number of players engaged in PvP.

Here’s instead Mythic’s way:

Jump into a Scenario and you’ll be automatically grouped via our lobby system for a balanced fight. Scenarios are instanced battles against two groups of equal strength.

Yeah, WoW.

You queue for a Scenario (WoW’s Battlegrounds) and an instance is then spawned on demand.

It’s much poorer version than the one I proposed. It feels faked and not consistent with the rest of the PvP structure. While what I proposed was “transparent” and seamless for the players, better integrated, realistic and tied more tightly with the rest of the structure of the PvP (as the instances were triggered to balance the load, not to remove the persistence).

Sad that all that Mythic is doing is copying WoW on every aspect. As I wrote before, they are repeating the exact mistake they made with DAoC ToA (copying EQ, in that case).

Scenarios offer different game play, ranging from Deathmatch to Capture the Flag to Assault.

Heh. It’s so saddening to see PvP treated like that. Why things cannot change? Why we have to deal with this shit?

I just cannot accept it.

Realm vs. Realm (RvR) has come a long way since it was first introduced in Dark Age of Camelot. We’ve had over five years of experience with the system, and we’ve learned both its strengths and its weaknesses. The RvR gameplay being implemented in WAR is truly a next generation implementation of the original system.

So you learnt deatmatches and CTF from playing DAoC?

Be ashamed.

No math in games (reinstated)

I got an odd question in the mail that I’ll back-up here:

In your “Dream MMO” how much information do you give the players? Do you give them the math behind the numbers? Do you give them all the numbers (leaving the math behind the numbers a simple exercise reverse engineering)? Can you show them NONE of the numbers? What different levels would you define to group the different styles of showing numbers? What’s the benefits & drawback of these levels? Which ones are more viable?

I always intented the “ruleset” of my dream mmorpg as a pen&paper ruleset. So rules that could be managed by human player in a normal play session and simple dice rolls.

All the “logic” of the game is supposed to be “readable”. So full disclosure of the mechanics, but not only. It’s not just about revealing them, but also designing them so that they can be understood and used easily.

That was one of the basic goals behind the “dream mmorpg”.

Beside many reasons (that I explained partially in a post with a similar title), there’s also the fact of the “genre”. RPG are fun also because rules are fun on their own. It’s fun discussing them, it’s fun learning them. They “belong” to a world as much as the content itself. An RPG is also the tomes you had to read. Reading the rules of a pen&paper game was an integral part of the experience that I want recuperated in a mmorpg.

As it’s fun personalizing the avatar, it’s also “fun” having detailed character sheets with many statistics. So, even the rules, are a part of the play. And it’s a good practice to let the players in contact with them. Use them and enjoy them. While also keeping the game design and the maintenance of the code (in particular in large projects) much more viable.

“No math in games” is a general principle that I believe could do wonders. Keeping things simple and intuitive.

Obsolete development processes, obsolete games

I think shit happened after the deployment of an hotfix in WoW for an exploit. Not that I care much, but there was an interesting comment on the forums that resurrects another of my pet peeves. The fact that game companies come to the MMO genre with the “single-player” mentality.

I’ve always said that MMOs are creatures on their own. They aren’t just “complex”, they require that a company is built around them to work properly. They require their own processes, ongoing development. They require a completely different attitude because the product is like a living being. Its quality is in what it can become. Its quality is in the potential and the potential is the result of the basis you put.

You see, there’s an EXACT IDENTITY between the obsolete single-player processes and the kind of games we are getting. Linear level progression, why? Because we have linear product development. Finished products. Commodified worlds.

Use and throw.

But if instead we look at these “creatures” as “systems”, then we have a set of elements all connected and all important. And we also need a development process where things are connected, where things develop on multiple levels and where EVERY part is carefully maintained because it is ESSENTIAL to the life and health of that system.

That’s also the contraposition between level-based systems and skills. Skills are more systemic, they work each as one element and where each can go interact with the other.

(and, hey, go read Nicklas Luhmann. Because he is a pure, absolute genius and writes a lot about society = complex system, ecology and a whole lot of problems that apply wonderfully to online worlds)

Anyway, the comment was:

Brendan: Your traditional game development mentality is that you don’t care about your code as long as it runs by the release date and your maintenance period is about 15% of the product life cycle so a lot of corners get cut. If there are problems they release two or three patches and that is it. I think the MMO companies still have this mentality even though their software life cycle is more akin to traditional blue collar software in which 75% of your development time is spent in the maintenance phase.

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Maybe it’s because of all the bitching, but we lack a Game Of The Year

It’s that part of the year when you make a balance of the games (that you played) that came out this year. So on the forums there are discussions about which game was the best, the biggest disappointment and so on.

This year I don’t have really a game I would heartily recommend. There’s nothing that stands out or that I truly like. I don’t have any “myth”. Maybe it’s because so much time passed writing about them, nitpicking and never be content? If I had even one of these games 15 years ago it would be just tears of pure joy.

Why the gaming nirvana of today feels so tasteless? I wish a game of today could give me the vibes of one game on my Commodore 64 when I was 8.

Anyway, there isn’t anything that stands out that I can remember. Starting from Company of Heroes, one of the best executed games this year (patches and support aside). Great design of the mechanics. Well thought. But at the end it’s an RTS with a classic scheme that represents a step back from the current evolution of this genre (I should write about this specifically, sometime). It’s well done in most of its aspects but the campaign isn’t all that involving and I have gripes against the terrain engine (technically). I don’t see it as a really ambitious game. Relic repeats and perfects what they do best. But is a partially derivative game the best we can expect from a full year? The “better” RTS?

Other very good RTS came out this year. It’s the year of the RTS. BFMEII, Dawn of War (the expansion), Rise of Legends, Paraworld and, forcefully in this category, Medieval 2 TW. But again I cannot see how they could represent the year. Good games, but still variations on the theme. The designers did a good work but, again, it doesn’t stand out. They are water channel, they follow the path along.

Dark Messiah. That’s another game with some excellent parts, but who would vote it to represent the best of the year? It was released with a bunch of problems and at the end it’s a short shooter on rails with variable art quality (from very high to ok) and some design problems here and there. Even in this case there are parts that stand out, but as a whole I wouldn’t celebrate it.

Prey? I wrote a lot about Prey. Some interesting ideas. A good feel. A good graphic. But again a rollercoaster with very, very stupid combat. And short. Great for the summer. Not for the year.

Titan Quest? Another game with a very good execution, but are we left again with a Diablo-derivate to represent this year?

I mean, the point is not to pick the best, or preferred game out this year. The point is to define THE APOTHEOSIS OF GAMING IN YEAR 2006.

That’s what I think. From how many years we play games? We must have something that can be celebrated properly, something that can be useful as a symbol, something to be proud of playing.

Oblivion and Gothic 3? Ugh… There’s a lot of “good” there, but overall the execution is terrible in both (at different degrees). Both have terrible engines and some bad game design. Neither of them has gameplay that “sticks”. And SURELY they aren’t worth of representing a whole genre. Too partial, too sketchy, too rough and unpolished. Good, interesting games *IN* their own niche, not outside. I cannot see them representing a wide “best”. I saw terribly optimized engines and lack of post-release support. I would never celebrate anything with those premises.

Neverwinter Nights 2? I’m still waiting my copy but, come on… It’s NWN1 with maybe better tools and better campaign. But technically it’s shit. It surely doesn’t look like a masterpiece. Obsidian worked on rather solid basis, it wasn’t simple to screw this title. And the result is passable. But, again, a passable title isn’t the game of the year.

The “best game” should have at least some innovative ideas, good game design, a *great* engine. It should do something good on all fronts. A proof of what gaming can be today. A proof of how far we have came.

There are some niche games like Dominions 3, Defcon or, hell, even Dark Fortress. These games DO stand out but it’s hard to see them as “best”. They are game wishes, mostly. Incubations. But not fully realized products.

There just isn’t a good title. However, as a whole, this was a GREAT year. I never bought as many games as this year and I wasn’t really disappointed by any of those titles. My backlog of stuff to play continues to grow. Thankfully (or not) now it looks like the Flow of Good Games of September/October is over.

But where’s the Game Of The Year?

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