Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Migrating to a New MMO

I hate leaving a good MMO and once I find one I tend to stick around for a couple of years. However, all games eventually grow old or the developers start to get lazy and it becomes time to try out new things. This year with Age of Conan and Warhammer both coming out I have a feeling one of them will replace my current favorite. In fact I think quite a few people might migrate from an older MMO this year to one of the newer offerings. And I bet most of us will have a similar problem, "How do we get our friends to follow us?"

It's not that most of our friends have problems affording a new game but instead it’s that people have different speeds at which they get bored. Factor in the different amounts of play time your friends have available and some are just going to burn through content quicker. It's because of this that it's actually very hard to have a group of real life friends move from one game to another. The only time I think its possible is during the first few days when a new "big" MMO comes out. While we all claim to hate hype it does make it easier to convince people to try new things.

Even if you convince your friends to migrate to a new MMO with you there are still a ton of rookie mistakes that can be made. Almost no one wants to play a class which was similar to what they played in the last game. This of course means that your previous group make-up has to be redefined. Leave it up to chance and then laugh your butt off when all your friends login as rogues. You might also want to establish some ground rules for leveling, questing and joining guilds. No matter what happens your group will eventually split apart but with some good planning you might be able to make it so that it doesn't happen until the end game.

Successfully Migrating a Group of Friends to a New MMO

Don't force friends to play classes they don't like
This will just make them not want to play and they might actually start going outside and having a life. Or even worse going back to Everquest.

Make sure the new class types for your friends match their personality
Attention deficient friends should not be the main healer. Also people who really hate dying probably shouldn't be the main tank. aka "the no cowards in plate" rule.

Only try to move friends to a "new" MMO
I made the mistake of suggesting LOTR to my friends 4 months after it released only to have them pull every negative blog post about the game to describe why they didn't like it. Games that have been out awhile just don't have that "new" MMO smell anymore and someone always seems to have reason why they will never play it.

Migrating only works when friends are tired of the current game
Most MMO companies are terrible at releasing content and there's a natural tendency for them to slowly switch developers from patches to paid expansions. Eventually, this causes too long a time period with no new or original content and you'll hear the words "I'm bored". This is a sign that you might be able to suggest a new game to your friends.

Keep an eye out for those power levelers
Some friends just have this amazing ability to quickly finish quests and fall ass backwards into levels. It’s a good idea to introduce these people to alts or risk them hitting max level while the rest of you are still killing bats outside the city walls.

Guilds will break up your friends group
It’s a good idea just to make your own small guild in the beginning. You could also join a casual guild that doesn't mind taking everyone in. The idea is not to have another factor which could cause one of your friends to burn through content quicker.

Run Dungeons
The primary benefit of having a friends group is that your teamwork gets better and better the more you play. If you apply this to running dungeons then you can become very successful as everyone learns their role. This leaves more time for goofing off and generally makes the game a lot of fun.

Guard your Healer
Healers are always in demand especially in new games where most healers aren't that well equipped at the max level. If you've been running dungeons then chances are the friend who plays a healer is going to be a lot better equipped at the max level than most people. This is the kind of target that young hard core raiding guilds drool over.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Making Micro-Transactions Work

I've been very negative on the idea of micro-transactions in the past because I see too many parallels between them and the video arcades of the past. In fact the idea of being nickle and dime to death is still very common in our culture. I've seen it pop up in commercials for banks, cell phone providers and basically any industry where people think they can charge more by splitting fees into smaller increments. The free to play MMO's out nowadays are nowhere near as bad as big businesses in using small fee to extract overall higher prices from their customers. Still I think most gamers want to avoid them the problem by sticking with the subscription model.

Plus at the moment there doesn't seem to be a general consensus on where its okay to attach micro-transactions to a game. Some companies attach fees to fluff items which only allow players to better customize their avatars. Others work micro-transactions into their core game play so that those willing to spend money can level faster or have less severe death penalties. Others like Puzzle Pirates are quite honest and allow customers to play either on a micro-transaction server or a subscription server. There's a wide array of choices out there and that in itself is probably making gamers more comfortable with the subscription model. If companies really want to see a micro-transaction model catch on there needs to be a couple of common ground rules.

1) Players shouldn't be able to spend money directly to do better in the game.

2) Attaching fees to fluff items is if but isn't going to be strong enough to make money by itself

3) The game has to be as well thought out and executed as most subscription MMOs.
The problem is trying to come up with a method of charging players without making it look like they are buying a "win" in the game. Current methods of making death penalties less severe or allowing players experience bonuses seem unfair to some people since it allows money to skew the leveling curve. Also micro-transaction games are always going to have some players who stick to the free portions of the game no matter what. This isn't a problem for the more popular free to play MMOs since it give them inflated numbers for advertising purposes.

There is one method for using the micro-transaction model which might actually meet all of the ground rules. The game Saga uses a booster pack model to let players buy additional troops and spells. Saga is unlike most MMOs in that its based on real time strategy games instead of role playing games. I haven't heard much buzz about the game which leads me to believe it's not that well executed. But I do admire their payment model which seems to relate micro-transactions to something most gamers are more familiar with, collectible card games

Games like Magic the Gathering have been using the booster pack model for almost a decade and people seem comfortable with it as a form of micro-transaction. While players can spend a lot more money to increase their number of cards its not a guarantee for success. Random luck and strategy factors in each match along with card selection. Of course this is hard to relate to most MMOs which are based on a DIKU model of getting more and more powerful items. Still it hints at how current micro-transaction models can be modified to produce something gamers are more open to accepting.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Different Dungeon Types in MMOs

Dungeons have been the backbone of fantasy video games since the first nerd used Basic to digitize his favorite D&D campaign. They provide the most interesting experiences and tend to be the best designed portions of any game. The emphasis on dungeon encounters has spread from our console games and become a strong tradition in the modern MMO. While dungeons are more commonly referred to as instances nowadays the basic experience first dreamt up by the early D&D pioneers remains the same.

In fact its eerie how little change has occurred to the dungeon experience during its translation from early video game to present day online game. Dungeons still tend to have an overall theme, a couple of mini bosses, and then a final bad guy with the best loot. Typically the only variations we see are those caused by other players in the game. Sometimes they are nice and help recover from a bad pull and other times they cause more problems then the actual mobs.

Its because of this that we've moved away from a single shared dungeon setup and now are in the age of the instance. Multiple copies of every dungeon exist for each group of players who wish to explore them. While this has made loot quicker to get and kept some of the vicious competition in check, it hasn't done much to foster the community building that happened before instances. Still there are some new ideas out there that make the best of both worlds and we might see some shifts in dungeon design in this new batch of MMOs.

Types of Dungeons in MMOs

Shared Dungeons
This is the old school style of dungeon which were common around the days of early Everquest. These dungeons were huge and open to as many players who wanted to enter. They were unusual from the standard video game model since the number of bosses was high to provide content for more then a few groups. This method of course only works in PvE games where opposing faction members don't exist. A shared dungeon is hard enough to run with griefers who can't attack you and would be impossible if they could.

Private Dungeons (Instances)
The answer to shared dungeons became the private instance which allowed groups to work through content at their own pace without other player intervention. I think they became a little too popular with developers though since they required less work to create. It did revolutionized dungeon design in MMOs though and allowed much better polished experiences to be created. As a side effect though these dungeons tend to be a bit more linear even when expanded into large raid sizes.

Combination Dungeons
A neat idea that shows up in Everquest 2 and a little bit in World of Warcraft is to have the entrance portion of the dungeon shared so that you get a little bit of the community building effect. The bosses are mostly in the private instance portion of the dungeon but you get players congregating outside which makes forming groups much easier. Sometimes developers will even sprinkle the shared portion of the dungeon with rare mobs or quest objectives to help out with group formation. In World of Warcraft this eventually led to the winged dungeon design which proved so popular in the Burning Crusade.

Public Dungeons
I've heard of another interesting idea which Age of Conan is supposedly trying out in some of their dungeon designs. Basically the idea is to a create a bigger and less linear dungeon then what has become standard with private instances. Then use the power to instance very sparingly based on the player population in the dungeon. This way you could design a dungeon that could allow more interaction between players but not force everyone to be fighting tooth and nail for boss spawns. The only problem is how this plays out on PvP servers but it could easily be nipped in the bud by disabling it in the dungeon environments. I've always hated keeping track of the different instance versions in City of Heroes/Tabula Rasa but I could put up with it in this case.

Monday, April 21, 2008

What Eastern Studios don't understand about Western Gamers

I started writing up an article about some of the different dungeon types in MMOs and I got stuck on the part about procedural generated dungeons. Nothing makes me more mad then getting quests that are linked to private instances which all look the same. City of Heroes was the first game which made me want to gouge my eyes out after entering Warehouse #2395930 which looked just like the last twenty warehouse missions I had gotten. I admit that Cryptic and not NCSoft was probably responsible for that travesty. I eventually forgave them and made the excuse that they were a small studio at the time and probably didn't have the man hours to make each instance unique.

Then about three years later I notice the same trend of repeating instances in Tabula Rasa though not as obvious as it was in City of Heroes. It didn't make me want to gouge my eyes out but I still hated the sense of déjà vu I got walking through every cave and base in the game. In the early levels I had to rescue some researchers from a cave infested with flying squid monsters, then it was flying bat monsters, and finally it was invisible dog monsters. Everything looked the same except for the type of monster in the instance. It seemed like they were more concerned with cranking out as many instances as possible instead of trying to make them good experiences.

I don't mean to pick on NCSoft which has managed to draw me into two games which I consider fine short term MMOs. The problem is that I'm seeing lots of bad design philosophies in products from eastern studios. I mean some like Maplestory seem to work in a subset of our MMO market today but only because they are picking up teens which face the credit card as a barrier of entry. With Disney and MTV ramping up their virtual world offerings I'm wondering if games like Maplestory can continue to do so well. Plus there's just something that seems backwards about a game that has to be localized for America by including more than one skin tone.

While I realize that America is a melting pot of cultures compared to some parts of the world I wonder if games from Korea and China might be too narrowly tailored for their population. Their games seem to stress massive quantities of instances and items over having quality ones with personality and unique graphics. Avatar creation especially in the free to play ones seem to have less emphasis on being able to create an individual. It's pretty sad when a MMO has fewer options to customize avatars then even World of Warcraft. Combine this with some of the well known problems with games like Lineage and there are obvious differences between eastern and western market trends in MMOs.

At the moment I bring this up because quite frankly there is an over abundance of cheaply made and horrible to play MMOs out there. While games published by NCSoft and Nexxon have some redeeming value the hordes of click to move games out there most decidedly do not. There is just something that we stress importance on that is often missing in these games and I think it breaks down to differing design philosophies brought about by different cultures. So for anyone that happens to wander across this rant I just want to highlight some of those differences.

1) We tend to like quality over quantity in our games.

2) The ability to customize our avatars is important even if we all end up wearing the same type of armor.

3) While we know it defies logic we really like the ability to solo in our massive multiplayer games.

4) In general we want PvP to be even and not who has the most friends.

5) While we appreciate the idea of a micro-transactions, it’s not going to catch on until you get a good game using it.

6) In general we consider a unique experience to be a good one. One instance should never look like another.

7) The leveling grind disappeared from our MMOs on November 2004, we're not going back.

8) Click-to-Move is for Diablo Clones not MMOs.

9) We are not enamored with cutesy anime models, no matter what the marketing department tells you

10) Most of us want our MMOs to stay games and keep the real world economy out.

Friday, April 18, 2008

How-to know when a MMO is about to be Delayed

MMOs are a strange subset of the video game family that share the common ability of all PC games to ignore any sort of firm release date. This of course violates the tradition of console games which apparently make their developers sign blood contracts to get games out on time. This tradition of releasing games on time no matter how crappy was established by the first movie tie-in, E.T for the Atarti. Supposedly, it was so bad that it almost killed the console industry and forced Atari to fill a landfill with unsold copies. So it seems there is a precedent for allowing developers some power to delay a game if it sucks.

MMOs on the other hand have started running wild with this ability and abused it much worse than anything else on the market.... discounting Duke Nukem. It’s not uncommon for a MMO release date to be moved back two or three times. Heck some like Vanguard seemed content to do it over and over again until they just ran out of money. Others like Gods & Heroes even let the pre-order boxes go to the stores before they decided they would lose less money by just canceling the game. In fact in this day in age it’s really hard to even get a sense if a MMO is going to be pushed back or canceled. There are always guys in suits or well caffeinated spokesmen named Paul there to tell you everything is okay. Then bam! You got another six months of waiting.

All in All, you really have to blame World of Warcraft. How dare they show the world that a MMO can actually have a stable launch if they wait until the game is done. Now they have everyone copying them and screwing it up horribly. Look at Vanguard and Tabula Rasa which both suffered long histories of delays and still didn't release with any sense of being complete. It seems that the "whole delay until its finished" mentality only works if the original product was any good in the first place. If that's not bad enough you also got to look through all the hype and marketing to get a good idea if you're just plain being lied to about the release date.

So here is my gift to you fellow readers. Simply scan any developer interviews or Q & A sessions for the following terms I've listed below. For each term that shows up you can pretty much add on one month to the current release date.

"just working on the polish"
Nowadays the most common word used by MMO developers is polish. It used to be Next Generation but thankfully Vanguard overused it into oblivion and we'll probably never have to hear it again. If a developer is talking about polish then it means their game is still rough. The core might be there but it's going to require a little bit of extra effort. If a couple months before release a developer mentions polish more than twice then you probably get yourself a new release date soon.

"looking solid"
Ah, nothing reveals that your current beta build is mediocre then by describing parts of it as "looking solid". Solid by itself isn't that bad since it usually implies well tested and proven. But by describing any section of a game as "looking solid" it seems like a Freudian slip saying yeah it looks great but its crap to play at the moment. This is a key give away that the game is due for some "me" time and you’re not invited to join it quite yet.

"focusing on the fun"
The slightly worse version of "looking solid" is "focusing on the fun" which basically says all of the same things but tries harder to paint a rosy picture. I find it more annoying cause "focusing on the fun" is something you're much more likely to hear from a marketing person then a developer. It’s a psychological tactic to make the description of the current development work not alarm anyone. However, if you think about it, fun isn't really something you apply to a game right before release. I'm pretty sure it has to be part of the core game design.

"commitment to quality"
This one I really hate but it’s a bit more honest than some of the other terms. Basically if a developer or spokesman starts talking about their "commitment to quality" then they are trying to break the news of a delay gently. You know its coming but they're trying to be real sensitive to your feelings and thus are slowly leading up to the dreaded announcement. It's basically the "It's not you it's me" of delay justifications.

"working on balance"
This term is a sign that the development team has fallen into the trap of believing they can actually balance anything before players get their hands on it. I'm sorry but developers always suck at min/maxing or finding holes in the rules. And honestly they're so worried about NDAs being broken that the keep the testing population small enough to cripple any chance of finding obscure balance problems. This term can mean anything from a small delay to a large delay just depending on when the developers finally realize that they need "real" players to see how a game really works.

"sometime in the Fall"
A simple term used by marketing departments worldwide to trick players into believing a release date could possibly be in September. I hate to burst your bubble but it’s never September. Unfortunately, the marketing department for most MMOs use the same tactics that console games follow. I guess companies forgot that the majority of MMO players aren't dependent on receiving their new game as a present from Mom and can actually afford 50$ for entertainment.

"our definition of success"
Oh this one isn't pleasant to hear and it's used not only for delay announcements but also for cancellations. I think I last heard it when Microsoft and Marvel dropped out of their MMO with Cryptic. Luckily that worked out for us in the end with Champions Online forming. But we don't always get happy endings and this term in an official announcement is a sign that someone isn't happy. It means management knows that the current build would fail upon release and they are about to spend a lot of time fixing it or just going to cancel it.

"since World of Warcraft"
The number one excuse for any game delay seems to involve somehow blaming it on World of Warcraft. I mean it is totally their fault that standard operating procedures for MMOs no longer include crashing every hour. However, by the very nature of WoW being the 800 lb gorilla in the room developers tend to shy away from talking about it. If they do start mentioning it in any way then you rest assure they are about to try to redirect some blame for something they did which will piss everyone off.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is Stealth worth the Trouble?

There's been a recent uproar on the Warhammer beta front with EA Mythic backtracking on promises to keep the stealth mechanic out of their game. Many blogs over the last couple of weeks have covered the story and spun it towards issues of beta leaks or developer integrity. I see the issue a little bit different and think the interesting part of the story is that so many players are against having a stealth mechanic. It's not exactly a game breaking design flaw like buff bots or warlocks. Yet it obviously evokes strong feelings of animosity. I guess you have to look at where the majority of Warhammer's fan base is coming from to understand the very loud outcry.

Basically most of Warhammer's fan base is coming from World of Warcraft. So it's not that the players hate the stealth mechanic that EA Mythic introduced in their last beta build. Instead it's that stealth from World of Warcraft has such a bad association with it that most people think it breaks PvP to have it in a game. The element of surprise has always been important in real world combat and this seems to be holding true in the virtual world also. Add in the popularity of stealth classes for farming and you have a situation where there are always going to be stealthed classes fighting near lower level players who are leveling and questing. Thus you get a lot of people who don't have exactly fond memories of the game mechanic and see it firmly as a ganking tool.

Warhammer attempted to avoid the whole stealth issue by not having any form of it in their game. Though they obviously ran into some problems with the survivability of lightly armored melee classes. I'm sure those classes were simply getting slaughtered too quickly since they had to close the distance against range classes. Now a logical response might be to give them a bonus against range damage but that could be construed as a nerf against casters. As a result I'm betting stealth managed to sneak into Warhammer since it could be used to close distance and didn't nerf any abilities. Of course EA Mythic thought that people would be logical and see their version of stealth was completely different from WoW. Boy, were they wrong.

Right now we have a situation where developers have to treat stealth very carefully. Just like fear the ability is only mildly useful in PvE content but it can be game breaking in PvP. The situation can also be made better or worse depending on what other abilities a game gives their stealth classes. It's honestly become such a balancing act that new MMOs have come up with different approaches for what is a very traditional ability in fantasy games.

1) No Stealth
This seems to be the most popular stance with the hardcore PvP crowd who aren't partial to the stealth mechanic. They argue it’s too hard to balance in a MMO and leads to exploits and ganking. Some people like the excitement stealth adds to the game. Though most people agree this applies to balanced PvP encounters. EA Mythic was running with the no stealth design for quite some time and had attracted a wide following of people. The common opinion seemed to be that Warhammer would deliver the balanced PvP that had long been promised by Blizzard but never really delivered.

2) Everyone gets Stealth
The thinking behind this approach is that stealth is a cool game mechanic but to avoid balance problems everyone should get it. Age of Conan is using this approach which seems to go very well with their organized guild warfare system. Can anyone say mass ambush? They are going to allow one class, the Assassin, to have a better form of stealth but apparently everyone gets the basic ability. This could cause some balancing issues where Assassins might get an advantage in ganking players. However, if rumors are true then this game sounds a lot like EvE Online where being a ganker/pirate carries its own risk of player reprisals.

3) Only PvE, So Who Cares
As mentioned before stealth is only a so-so ability in PvE oriented game play and the developers don't have to worry about it being used to terrorize the newbie zones. Plus no one is going to use stealth to kill a NPC that has 100,000 more hp then them. The worse thing is they might be able to sneak their way into some extra gold by opening treasure chests. Unfortunately, the recent trend in MMO's is to focus on end game PvP since it takes less development time then raid dungeons. As a result it could probably be awhile before we see another PvE game that includes a traditional rogue class.

In the end the changes to how MMO's treat stealth are a direct result of player feedback. It seems if you go by general game forums then most players would prefer not having stealth in their next MMO. At the very least people don't want it combined with stun attacks and burst damage. It will be interesting to see if games without a traditional form of stealth suffer in subscription numbers or if it has no effect whatsoever. Already some lines seem to be drawn in the sand with the different approaches Age of Conan and Warhammer are taking. Some people are already theorizing that Warhammer will be the ultimate balanced PvP game while Age of Conan will be a twitchy gankfest. Could the stealth mechanics in each game already be influencing opinions even before open open beta?

Monday, April 14, 2008

MMO Lore: Why So Serious?

I hate to steal a marketing line from the upcoming Batman movie but it seemed to resonate with the issue so well that I had to include it in today's title. Most of the lore in today's MMOs is standard epic fantasy usually revolving around an insurmountable evil that plans to darken the land. Yet as these games get older we see more and more evil overlords being introduced. Players defeat the villain only to have another villain show up a year or two later who is about ten levels stronger then the last one. Eventually, you get the feeling you’re stuck in a time loop but with the details being slightly different each time around.

The whole premise is a bit ridiculous and yet most MMOs try to lay out their storyline and quests like the most serious of D&D dungeon masters. The devotion to fake authenticity can get a bit annoying like a living history town that makes you park your car half a mile away. You're invited into the fantasy but you have to ignore the obvious plot holes and play along with that guy who uses "thou" all the time. The problem is of course that a lot of people who play MMO's don't actually want to role play anything. We've been brought up on console games where RPGs were more like we watching a story while leveling then actually pretending you were the main character.

Thus when you surround the average "gamer" with actual role players who grew up on LARPing and D&D you get some interesting conflicts. The developers are actually on the side of the role players for the most part since they try to stay true to either their license or the epic fantasy template handed down by Tolkien. In fact I have to say that World of Warcraft was the first MMO I ever ran across where the developers broke from the mold. Their lore still tells a sweeping fantasy story but it’s filled with pop culture references and jokes just designed to get a laugh. Blizzard has always had a sense of humor in their games and you can't be surprised this came through in a content intensive MMO.

This style definitely annoys the hell out of the serious role players who once they emerge themselves in the fantasy don't want anything to disrupt it, especially really bad puns. I guess it makes it hard to role play when one quest giver could have an appropriately sounding elfish name and the guy next to him is named Haris Pilton. On the other hand I think the average gamer appreciates the attempts of Blizzard to make sure their fans know it’s only a game. After all most people would just feel stupid if you asked them to act or role play anything. They may appreciate a fantasy novel or video game but you aren't going to catch them dressed as a wizard at the next renaissance faire.

Why it would be sad to see all MMOs treat their lore as loose as Blizzard I think games need to start taking themselves less serious. It always going to be important to have a really great story behind every MMO but the style Blizzard has adopted makes it easier for people not to feel silly while playing a game as a fantasy creature. You can look at it this way. What's the number one thing people do when they've gathered a bunch of strangers in a room? If it’s a lecture then you start with a boring story that probably sounds a lot like every other story. However, if you want to break the ice and get people talking then you tell a really funny joke. In the end I guess you can call World of Warcraft the icebreaker of MMOs.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Daily Quests: The Federal Reserve Rate for WoW?

I have long complained that Blizzard was selling itself short by not hiring economists to better model their virtual economy. A lot of design decisions the company has made encouraged gold farming and other undesirable behavior. I was therefore pleasantly surprised with the introduction of daily quests which actually attacked the causes of gold farming instead of just dealing with the symptoms. While some people complained about the immersion of quests that you repeat each day, most people actually enjoyed them compared to straight up grinding mobs for cash. Also the revamp of the potion system served as a corresponding feature and pretty much freed most of the hardcore raiders from the clutches of IGE.

Patch 2.4 continues the trend of Blizzard starting to influence player behavior through economics instead of technologic controls that just piss off their customers. They have increased the daily quest limit to twenty-five and the Sunwell is filled with easy quests that take about ten minutes and reward 11gp. As a result the demand for buying gold has really gone down though inflation is starting to sneak into the game. Still inflation only affects player controlled items while NPC items like mounts remain unaffected. Many believe this is a last ditch attempt to make sure everyone has the chance to get an epic mount before the expansion. We already know it’s a temporary measure since the Sunwell daily quests are expected to disappear once phase 4 is complete.

So with the raising and expected lowering of the daily quest limit I can't help but see parallels to the nominal interest rate controlled by the Federal Reserve. The higher the number of daily quests the less players are interested in buying gold and the less money the farmers make. In this analogy the farmers would be the banks which seems accurate since farmers have often been accused of selling back players their own gold. Still Blizzard can't simply always make gold easy to earn or else inflation becomes too much of issue and demand for player controlled items start to cause an incentive to buy gold. This of course defeats the purpose of having daily quests in the first place.

As a result we can probably expect this over abundance of daily quests to be a short term trend developed especially for the transition between patch 2.4 and the expansion. Not to say we'll never see another event like it but it will be a long time before it comes again. The expansion will be filled with lots of regular quests and they'll be less of a need for daily quests until people start hitting max level again. Still it’s interesting to see Blizzard experimenting with methods to inject currency into the economy instead of just trying to suck it out with ridiculous mount costs. It hints that maybe they're taking a page from EVE Online and have started to develop plans for fixing scarcity and demand in their own virtual world.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Butting Heads: Collision Detection in MMOs

Collision detection is not a new concept and yet at the moment its being over hyped as a feature in this year's upcoming MMO releases. The reason for this is that both Warhammer and Age of Conan are more PvP oriented then traditional MMOs have been in the past. In PvE oriented games the ability for virtual objects to recognize physical boundaries is interesting but doesn't really have a huge impact on game play. This changes when players are actually fighting each other since there are interesting ways to exploit the lack of collision of detection to avoid taking damage from spells.

MMOs like World of Warcraft are always going to have their PvP game crippled by not having collision detection. Melee classes are amoung the most popular and they can use line of sight and a lack of collision detection to take advatage of casters. This can be seen in how poorly casters with long casting spells perform in the arenas. Targets can simply step inside of a player right before the spell goes off to avoid its effects. This tactic is less effective in open world fighting where escape is an option but it's always going to be prevalent in environments like the arenas.

Some Different Types of Collision Detection
Most computer games use a simple type of collision algorithm that responds after it has detected virtual objects trying to occupy the same space. The big differences between games are how the server responds to a collision.

Inanimate objects like walls and buildings are treated as solid and the server quickly resolves any collisions with them to prevent movement. However, there is no server response for players colliding with one another and everyone is treated like they're made out of water. Some people think this method is just the result of lazy programming but there are actually some good reasons for its use. Collision detection for objects that constantly move can require intensive computational power especially in the large player occupied cities seen in World of Warcraft.

The initial response of the server is to treat every collision as a solid but the rules for collision detection get progressively weaker as two virtual objects press against one another. Classic Everquest was notorious for this style of collision detection which was probably intended to make sure players couldn't physically block off entrances to buildings or dungeons. The side effects were funny though since players could often press against certain walls and other solid objects like they were mud. Often they couldn't pass completely through them but it was easy to switch views and look into rooms. Also some doors and bars were vulnerable to pressing through at a certain point or using other tricks. Often times you would find monks feigning death at doors and getting back up repeatedly to trick the server into pushing them through a door.

Some PvP games have flirted with absolute collision detection systems which prevent a lot of the line of sight exploits that players can use against one another. However, games that treat everything as solid sometimes have issues with players getting snagged on small inanimate objects or even each other. Also while treating everything as solid fixes jousting and some of the other weird PvP tactics it can also cause other problems. Frankly, people can get in front of you and actually slow you down. Get a group of small players who want to be jerks and you can make it very hard for someone to move by surrounding them. This is why most games recently have avoided collision detection between players all together.

Warhammer is going with a neat trick of using the Stone method of collision detection between players on opposing factions and the Water method for those on the same side. This way the PvP exploits are fixed without introducing any greifing possibilities. Now there are still problems like enemies blocking doorways but this becomes more of a tactical issue then a design flaw. Most likely we'll see games go for this type of collision system in the future which will put quite a strain on older games. Modifying collision detection isn't a simple task and it will be hard to implement in games where opposing factions often use the same cities/towns.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Relmstein's State of Play

I haven't talked much about Tabula Rasa in the last month and most people could have guessed that I had finally canceled my account. It was a fun two and half months but in the end the game had a lot of game design that made it ill suited for long term play. In fact this seems to be yet another game that NCSoft forced to be called a MMO even though it would have been better as a console or single player experience. The number of times I made a wrong turn and had to back track through an area that had already respawned was ungodly. It reminded me a lot of early dungeon RPGs where accidental leaving a room would automatically respawn everything.

I'm still playing World of Warcraft and enjoying the PvP side of the game no matter how unbalanced it has become. Arenas have especially gotten rough since the proposed changes to the matching system did not go in with the patch. As a result my teams often find ourselves playing against classes with the Season 3 weapons. While some of them are ringers others are just players who already farmed the rating on a 2v2 team. We seem to be stuck around 1600 but we don't have exactly have the best class balance. We do a lot better in the 5v5 bracket but almost never have all our team members on at the same time. A lot of our friends have cut back on their play time even with the new patch.

I'm looking forward to starting out in Age of Conan next month. It's not that I think it will be the game of the year or anything. Instead I just want to experience something that has a different play style then World of Warcraft. I've been doing PvP for so long in that game that me and my friends were very rusty in running dungeons. It's embarrassing how many wipes our first Magister's Terrace run had. Admittedly our only crowd control was a hunter and none of us knew anything about the boss fights. Still that little experience has whetted my appetite for more dungeon runs. The only problem is that World of Warcraft only has one new dungeon and it doesn't have any upgrades for our characters. Since I think the expansion for World of Warcraft won't be out until at least June it looks like Age of Conan will have to supply my dungeon crawling needs.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How-to Survive Playing a Healer

I've played a wide majority of classes in MMOs over the years and I've found myself experiencing every role in the combat trinity. All of them have their perks and downsides which are mostly set by the game design. However, sometimes the downsides of a playing a certain class are primarily set by player behavior and the peer pressure they exert. Its because of this that the role of healer can be particularly grueling. World of Warcraft was the first MMO where I focused on a healing class in the end game and I became quite familiar with how they were treated. Deaths were always my fault, I got constant tells asking me to heal while already grouped, and people often pressured me to stay on longer then I wanted to play.

Luckily I'm a mildly anti-social sort and my responses to those situations were always, "get bent", "get lost", and "get real". Unfortunately, I had chosen to play a paladin and found myself in these situations quite often since everyone assumed I was a masochistic healbot. I wasn't alone as a lot of people fell for the holy warrior image that Blizzard had expressed through their lore and class descriptions. Still as easy as it would have been to blame Jeff Kaplan (and I do) I could have just switched classes. But as much agony as it was to only ever use two buttons on my hotbar I grew to like the benefits of being a healer. While grouping I had a stronger say in what instance we ran and often it was very easy to make a group.

These benefits of course disappeared the second I joined a raiding guild. The guild leaders decided what instances we ran and of course most of my friends were in the raids and not available to do anything else. Also have you ever tried to do anything else as a healer during raid time. No matter how much you don't care it can get tiring ignoring a million tells and raid requests. The primary benefit of playing a healer was gone and I like many other healers was approaching burnout. The funny thing was that the arenas basically saved my interest in staying holy and I had a nice long career as a healer through seasons 1-3. Just relying on PvP to keep you sane isn't enough though and not every healer is going to like that part of the game. That's why I decided to write down some tips on how I survived playing a healer.

Tips to Surviving as a Healer

1) Be proud of your Healing Crits
Healing in a fight instead of directly attacking does not meet the primal instinct we have to smash faces. We can try to ignore our instincts and take satisfaction at contributing to the group's overall success but few people can actually do this for very long. To avoid developing a chip on your shoulder its important that you be proud of your healing and not get jealous of the dps. Every time they link the damage meter just respond with the healing meter. Also make sure to brag about your highest healing crit of the night.

2) Do not join a guild unless you have some voice in it.
When you join a guild as a healer there's a tendency to treat you as a commodity. You'll log on and guild chat tends to have messages like "5 healers. Ok was can go now" or "Finally our healer logs on". Your plans are sort of made by committee and you lose a lot of the influence you had the group level. While you can always leave a guild that overworks you, it's much easier to just make sure you'll have some voice in the decision making. Either make sure you have good friends who are guild officers or just do what most priests do and start dating one.

3) Invest in Alt Characters
Make sure you have a lot of alternative characters you can play. Don't be surprised when guild officers try to find out the name of every character you play and more often than not succeed in tracking you down on raid night. Basically pretend you’re a movie star and they're the paparazzi. If you can avoid them you might actually get some "me" time but if you get caught your stuck signing pictures all night.

4) Instead of #3 you could always just grow a pair
Never underestimate the effectiveness of simply telling people "No". Some people might not understand you don't want to raid every night and will try to throw all sorts of begging/rules/naked photos in your face. The simple matter of the fact is that if 24 people all asked you to do something do you feel obligated to do it? If you answer "yes" then stick with tip #3 and avoid looking in mirrors.

5) Routinely let someone die
Besides being funny it’s important that your dps and tanks don't get too complacent. If you have a string of raids where your healing is too perfect then they start expecting it every time. Unfortunately, healing is just like playing a game of whack a mole and at some point too many moles are going to start poking their heads up. It's better that they expect a few deaths then have them accused you of watching "Lost" while raiding.

6) Have a friend who is a Warrior
Doing battlegrounds as a healing class is a lesson in futility unless you have a murder machine to follow around. This also makes it easier to form a group for instances, quests, arenas and pretty much everything in the game. Basically warriors are the yin to your yang and as much as paladins and druids have been improved as dps and tanks they still aren't as good as most warriors. This isn't to say that warriors are better than the other dps/tank classes just that it’s easier for warriors to get the items for arms and protection.

7) Explore PvP
As much fun as it is to become an expert in ever stun ability in the game they’re other benefits to healing in a PvP environment. One benefit is that the gear rewards for PvP tend to be better for soloing and decrease the time it takes to do quests and dailies. The other is that healing is much more exciting in PvP then it is for most PvE raids. While bosses always react the same way in a dungeon, I can guarantee you that player strategy in the arenas will change every minute. Each match is like a unique blood covered snow flake.

8) Set a Deadline
Raids runs late and you hate to ruin everyone's fun by leaving but on the other hand going to bed at 4am and waking up two hours later is for college students cramming for midterms. Establish a maximum time you want to be playing and give plenty of warnings in raid chat leading up to that time. Most guild officers won't begrudge you a deadline since its a lot better then faking a disconnect which is what most healers actually do to get some sleep. Or so I've been told.

9) Bring Real Friends and Family
Having someone you can talk to about the game in real life tends to make the experience much more enjoyable. Couples tend to do really well in World of Warcraft and I've seen a large percentage of them become cornerstones in guilds. Another advantage is you can totally embarrass a friend in real life by bringing up that they play a MMO. If they gender bend make sure to mention their character's name and tendency to wear chain mail bikinis.

10) Do Different Things
Don't get stuck in a rut doing the same things over and over again. Just because your talents maximize your healing doesn't mean you have "Raid Healbot" stamped on your chest. Try forming up groups to do wacky things like raid towns or complete elite quests. You'll be surprised how many people want to be on a healer's good side and want to help. I'm not sure why. It's either because they'll want help with something later down the line or else they think you’re a girl.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Blizzard Joins Live Gamer

Live Gamer was proud to announced Blizzard Activision as the newest game publisher to sign up for its legitimized RMT platform and services. Blizzard Activision currently runs the largest MMO in the marketplace which has long been the target of disruptive and shady gold farming practices. Recent pressure has been mounting on World of Warcraft which had seen a large increase in the number of automatic programs playing characters to farm honor and gold. With the recent loss to the makers of WoWGlider in the courtroom the options available to Blizzard were limited.

Quotes from the Announcement:

"We here at Live Gamer provide a solid and protected method for players to purchase in game currency and items without the risk of dealing with the black market. Our interface is user friendly and accepts any credit cards even those not directly linked to your account. Our philosophy is simple, muscle out the black market by offering better services and cheaper rates no matter the effect on the game. We might have no prior experience balancing virtual world economies but we picked up a couple economists from Bear Stearns and they seem competent enough.

We would like to assure all the players of World of Warfarecraft that nothing is going to change the way they play the game. Mount costs will still be set by arbitrary and mysterious figures in black robes. Its just instead of game developers trying to prevent inflation these new mysterious figures will be ex-bankers and venture capitalists. In fact instead of worrying about mounts I would be more concerned about items controlled by players. As more real world currency is spent to introduce new virtual items and currency you can expect the value of gp in the game to sink like Brittney Spear's singing career. We recommend setting up an account with Live Gamer right away so you aren't left behind."