Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Whats makes up good ambiance in a MMO dungeon?

Dungeons or Instances are one of the key parts of any fantasy based MMO. As much as jaded gamers like to make fun of the men in tights genre there's just something to be said about exploring the depths of a tomb or the heights of an ancient castle. It worked back in the age of pen and paper RPGs, it worked for console RPGs, and it still works for massive multiplayer RPGs. A good dungeon gives players a feeling of tension and danger as they slowly make their way through the bosses to the final encounter. Of course over time the challenge of a good dungeon may fade as you repeat it for loot but its overall coolness factor never entirely disappears.

Thinking about my favorite instances in World of Warcraft I came up with four main areas where well thought out design contributes to making an excellent dungeon experience.

This is perhaps the area where game designers do the most experimentation. Sometimes developers try to inspire the roleplayer in their customers and put something stirring and heroic into a dungeon soundtrack. I prefer the opposite approach when the developers choose music that conspires to put you on edge and makes you check over your shoulder. In the Burning Crusade I think the Mana Tombs does this best with a dark, slow melody that sounds like someone slowly sneaking up behind you. However, if you want to hear the best dungeon music ever check out some of the early zelda and megaman games. These two genres produced some of the best dungeon crawling music ever and it shows by how often its remixed on such sites like

Every dungeon consists of walls usually constructed of stone with a limited view of the outside world. Popular settings include tombs, castles, caves, and the occasional lost city. How believable such settings are usually comes down to the art of including the proper visuals. If you're in a tomb you should be surrounded by other stuff then just undead and graverobbers. You should see rats scurrying in the corner and have to walk through cobwebs. The details of a good dungeon brings the place to an almost electronic life. Well, at least a Hollywood version of what we expect such places to look like. Take some time to look at the details in Scholomance and you can spot all sorts of cool little visual effects which add up together to make the place especially spooky.

Interactive Features/Puzzles:
One of the reasons that Adventure games tend to be more popular then most RPGs is because their dungeons are more interactive and puzzle based. The best example of an interactive feature in World of Warcraft is Dire Maul north where you can use all sorts of tricks like Ogre Suits and Frost Traps to leave the guards alive. At the end of the dungeon once you kill the boss you get more loot depending on how many guards you managed to avoid. In games like Tomb Raider and Zelda you are constantly having to interact with the environment to proceed to the final boss. WoW is starting to experiment a bit more with interactive content like the Simon type game involving the crystal shards in Ogrila. Still its a shame that we don't see more interactive group puzzles in MMO dungeons.

(sidenote): Dire Maul was the last non-raid dungeon content that was patched into WoW. All free patched in content since then has been raiding dungeons which I think accounts for a lot of animosity between raiders and non-raiders. Demand for new dungeons is higher then most other content.

Boss Encounters:
The make or break part of any dungeon run is of course the boss encounters. Dungeon bosses should be challenging and cool looking while giving out good enough loot to keep players coming back consistently. One of the best encounters in World of Warcraft was Ragnaros the Firelord which met all of this criteria. He had the first piece of the T2 set which kept higher level guilds clearing him and provided an amusing opening dialogue whenever you fought him. About the only mistake Blizzard made was making him a require ultra high fire resistance for the main tank which slowed down raid progression.

In the Burning Crusade Blizzard made great strides in improving single group dungeon encounters by making sure most bosses weren't simple tank and spank fight. As early as the first dungeon, Hellfire Ramparts, they had complex bosses which used dragons and weird aoe curse auras to confound adventurers. About the only thing that seem to go downhill in the expansion were the raid bosses which often required strict class balance with little room for mistakes. Still with the future release of Zul'Aman which is supposed to be the spiritual successor to Zul'gurub hopes are high for some fun boss encounters which don't pound new guilds repeatedly in the face.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Need before Greed except when it says BOE

The title for my post summarizes the problem with the current loot system in Lord of the Rings Online very nicely. The majority of the system is exactly the same as World of Warcraft with one small modification. Most items dropped by mobs are Bind on Equip instead of the more common Bind on Pickup found in other MMOs. This means that items earned in dungeons and random world drops can be transferred between players until someone actually equips it. This was probably done to end the frustration of killing a boss only to find it dropped loot no one could use.

The unintended consequence of this design decision though is that players in Lord of the Rings Online are starting to find it more acceptable to always roll need on items. All it takes is one bad string of no loot for a class to cause a player to start picturing other people's gear as giant checks to be cashed at the auction house. The worst part is that sometimes gray areas in loot distribution can make this problem even more severe. For example say an earring with "Will" dropped which is only a sidegrade for the group's lore-master, do the melee classes get to roll on it? If the guardian won the earring what are the chances that the lore-master would roll on the next item for the melee classes?

Despite the problems, some people like the cutthroat economic system caused by BoE items. Basically they argue that if everyone rolls on a item then everyone can have a chance of selling it in the auction. Players can then use money earned in this manner to buy gear they can actually use from the auction house. This makes the auction house and player trade much more important in Lord of the Rings since it becomes the primary method of distributing items. Honestly this argument might have some validity since MMOs with strong player run economies tend to be more stable then those dependent mostly on NPC merchants.

One can see though how this trend of using the auction house to distribute items could backfire. If everyone uses game currency to buy gear from other players then the game becomes much more attractive to professional gold sellers. In my short time playing LOTR I can already see that the in-game gold spam has greatly increased in the last few months. Yet would changing items to Bind of Pickup be an answer to fixing the social and blackmarket aspects of the LOTR loot system? It might make it less likely that someone would win your upgrade but honestly if your in a group with a rude person its just as likely they would roll need on a BoP item also.

In the end, the issue comes down to your personal opinion on what you think is more fair for distributing items in a MMO. Should everyone share the chance to sell an item for money? or Should everyone automatically get an item if its an upgrade for their character? One leads to the degradation of politeness/fun while grouping while the other one can mean hours wasted running the same dungeon trying to get an item your character can actually use. Hopefully in the future we'll see more thought put into loot systems to prevent both these issues.

Friday, July 13, 2007

How to Add New Battlegrounds without increasing Queue Times

This week in the forums CM Nethaera posted that Blizzard was considering additional battlegrounds but was worried that it would cause queue times to increase. At the moment with four battlegrounds available to players the queue times can become long enough to affect player retention. Many a battleground starts with one side having a full compliment of players while the other side suffers from having AFK players in the queue. Honestly with queue times of fifteen minutes its easy to see how players can become distracted and not realize their queue has popped.

However, I do have a suggestion on how to add more battlegrounds without affecting the queues too much. Based on what Blizzard has done in the past it's probably even possible without too much development work. Simply group a new battleground with one of the older ones so that they share the same queue. Blizzard could even make the reputations and marks of honor the same for battlegrounds that share a queue. This would allow players to gain the specific marks they need for PvP gear without worrying about having to gather a new type.

Picture a new forty-man battleground were the Stormpike and Frostwolves fight over the Ruins of old Alterac. The battleground could have new and exciting game mechanics and not increase the average queue time for Alterac Valley. True players might want to try out the new Alterac Ruins map instead of the older Alterac Valley one but Blizzard would have discretion to how the games were created in the queue. Perhaps in the beginning two Alterac Ruins games could be created in the queue for every one Alterac Valley. As long as similar amounts of honor were awarded I don't think it would effect balance very much.

After all the arena system uses multiple arenas with different layouts without letting players choose which one they want. The battleground system might also need a similar randomness to make matches more fair. At the very least it would offer new content to PvP players without making the older battlegrounds ghost towns. Plus it would preserve the four week cycle of battleground holidays.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Art of Rock, Paper, Scissors PvP

Its no deep dark secret that World of Warcraft PvP is based more on what gear a player has then their skill at the game. Players strive to improve their gear first since it makes the greatest impact on their chance to win. Only after obtaining the top tier of arena or raid gear do most players even stand a chance of moving through the rankings. And it doesn't stop at just virtual gear since most serious pvpers are known to use programmable keyboards and mouse controllers to gain an edge. But with all the mods, expensive hardware, and epic items sometimes it just comes down to your class.

Blizzard follows classic DnD combat which means players are forced to choose a class which has a specific role to perform in group combat. A player's role determines what kind of abilities and spells they get as they level through the game. The problem of course is the classes were originally designed around fighting NPCs not each other. Thus something like a standard heal spell becomes incredibly powerful in PvP since most classes can't regain their own hitpoints. Then again classes which can silence or spell lock a healer have the advantage over them since their opponent has only weak dps.

A very basic way to break down the pvp system in World of Warcraft is to compare the classes to the game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Basically the spells and abilities of each class work extremely well against some of their opponents but not all of them. For an example a warlock may be able to dot and fear a druid or priest to death but can easily fall victim to a patient rogue. This balance hasn't come around by accident since Blizzard has nerfed abilities and even introduced new pvp abilities like Cloak of Shadows to maintain it.

To continue with the Rock, Paper, Scissors metaphor you can see some interesting pvp stereotypes if you map the primary description of a class to one of the objects in the game.

Rock - Melee

Paper - Healer

Scissor - Caster

Rogues and Warriors are good at taking down low armor class targets without the ability to heal.

Druids, Priests, and Paladins can heal themselves against melee opponents.

Offensive Casters all have some form of silence which is devastating against healers since the pvp trinket doesn't remove it.

Of course this is just a basic overlook at the classes in pvp. Some classes can't really be locked into one role and you have to know their talent tree to guess what abilities they will use. Plus some matches are always going to be a close call since the classes are about even in offensive and defensive power. There really is no one overpowered class in the game despite the constant calls to nerf warlocks.