Buying Skill Ranks

Are we past the point of repeatedly buying the same skill as you level, to get Fire Bolt II, Fire Bolt III, …, Fire Bolt CXVI? Just scale the skills with levels. I understand that having ten versions of each skill gives the illusion of “something new every level,” but you can give rewards that do not mess with your game’s scaling. You can even use a point investment mechanic to get most of the same effect without the annoyance of re-training and adjusting the hotbar.

City of Heroes does this. The Lord of the Rings Online™ does this (except for passive skills). Warhammer Online does this. Dungeon and Dragons, the basis for all these CRPG mechanics, has been doing this for decades (fireball does 1d6 damage per caster level, capped at 10d6), although not so much in 4th Edition.

Really, we promise to pretend not to notice that our spells do 5% more damage while we are fighting goblins with 5% more hit points. MMO players are used to looking past that. Just stop pretending that Fire Bolt III was a good design decision, and especially do not start calling them Lesser Fire Bolt, Fire Bolt, Improved Fire Bolt, Greater Fire Bolt, Lesser Fire Blast, Fire Blast, …, Supreme Exalted Fire Conflagration… And double-especially do not do that while having all those fire bolts on an alphabetized skill screen with no indication of level order.

: Zubon

New Content Is Shared Content

Fantasy MMOs tend to start with race-based newbie zones and meet up some number of levels in, thinning to a smaller number of high-level areas before expanding again at the cap (discussed previously). Games with strictly divided PvP factions get a more strongly separated version of this, as you can send your night elf to play with your dwarf friend but not your orc friend. Some games will bring everyone together sooner, others will create several paths to the level cap. Please, make an alt while we work on the expansion.

You spend years making this base content. It takes a lot of work to recreate that leveling path several times, even if you recycle content across the paths (a roc is a red vulture, sure, why not). Unless you are Cryptic, this is something like a four-year development cycle. Now that the game is live, you are expected to patch in new content every one to three months while working on bugs and balance. At least you have some half-developed content that was meant for live, maybe even an advertised feature that was not completed on time; City of Heroes/Villains gets a special prize for patching in the last 10 levels after release twice. Oh, and you likely have an expansion every year or two, and that needs to be big enough to justify selling a new box.

Making new content for each faction is time-consuming, creates balance issues, and has limited value given the number of players at the level cap in multiple factions. Or you can make the new content once and send everyone through it. You will need faction-specific details, but the more overlap you have, the less content you need to develop. Add neutral factions that deal with everyone. Add common enemies. This conveniently encourages PvP and/or cross-faction teams, depending on how you set it up.

So you have one Outland and one Northrend. Albion, Midgard, and Hibernia fought over the one big dungeon, and now their descendants in WAR do the same. Superheroes and supervillains both fight the Hamidon, the Honoree, and Romulus (CoX is odd for having the Statesman Task Force and Lord Recluse Strike Force, very different parallel content). Holiday and event content is often mirrored, with the same content slightly redecorated for the factions’ cities or low-level areas.

I don’t know that I would prefer it any other way. It sometimes feels like corner-cutting, but I do not want to need level-capped characters across multiple factions to see all the new toys, and making two sets of them means more time or more cost. I would rather have two sets of content that I can experience on my main. Although it strikes me that Blizzard has the billions of dollars and the staffing and is still producing shared content at a Blizzard pace.

: Zubon

The $10 Level

In this November rain, at least some news is ripping through the MMO ‘sphere’s apathy. Mythic has decided on giving players the option to buy levels. At $10 a pop, all characters on an account get a War Tract, which when used will advance the character one full level. Players can only use this once per account. Players that really like Warhammer Online will likely then pay only a couple bucks per character’s level. Players with only one or two played characters will be paying $5 or $10 per character level, which is a tad steep. However, characters created in the future will also get the War Tract in the mail. They bring about a few other cash shop items too, which Arkenor breaks down.

Ardwulf thinks that if anybody really cared about Warhammer Online, this would be a scandal. It is a small one on Warhammer Online forums, where cries of MMO death are slightly amplified because of this. But, I think Spinks has the right of it. The “suck” was already there with the end-grind hell levels. Having the option to pay past this suck, while not the best option, is far better than if hell levels were designed so subscribers would want to fork more money in to get back to the fun.

Continue reading The $10 Level

Hope, Hype, and Expectations

It takes me six months to forget exactly how bad hot dogs taste. I occasionally have a good one, but mostly it is a process of thinking, “it cannot be as bad as I remember, even if I said that six months ago.” It is like Hofstadter’s Rule, only for lower quality rather than longer time.

I look forward to games on two-year cycle. Maybe that is how long it takes me get over the last disappointment. When did Warhammer Online come out? How disappointing was that? Hey, the 2011 MMO crop looks promising.

It is easier to meet expectations if you do not set them too high. After everyone tells you to read/play/watch something, it has a lot to live up to, whereas “so bad it’s good” can be enjoyable under that expectation. Perhaps my greatest disappointments have been cases where I thought I had lowered my expectations enough, but people told me that it was okay as long as you went in with low expectations, so I unconsciously raised my expectations about how well it would go. “It’s not as bad as you’ve heard” is dangerous.

Which is to say, look forward to some really bitter posting next year, even though I explicitly know better! My mental hardware is made of meat; I may truly be unable to help myself.

: Zubon

Shared Loot Table

I have seen quite a few debates about random drops versus tokenization. Should bosses have a 2% chance to drop the Ubersword of Epicness or should they drop 2 badges (and a vendor in town exchanges the Ubersword for 100 badges)? There are merits in each direction, although I tend to favor tokenization because random drops tend to encourage endless grinding of a single dungeon/boss.

Let me, as I often do, mention a third-way solution used in City of Heroes (and a fourth). City of Heroes has used both, but the most sought after items (purple crafting recipes) are random drops from a shared loot table. CoX applies it even to trash mobs, but you could restrict it to bosses and let all of them have a chance to drop all the rare items. That would be an even larger lottery, but you would not have only one boss in the game that dropped the one item you want. Of course, players might replicate “grind one dungeon endlessly” by optimizing for the most time-efficient dungeon, but I am not in the mood to ponder people who want to spend their $15/month doing something they do not consider fun (if you like grinding the efficient dungeon, hey, double-win for you). OTOH, I can understand why you might prefer fewer rolls with higher chances to many rolls with a lower chance of that specific item.

Several games use a menu as a middle-ground between drops and tokens. When you win, you pick one item from a short list. WAR chests are a good example. Another implementation is to give a token that can be redeemed for one of several items, rather than tokens you accumulate as currency. CoX combines menus with randomness by including “a random pick from pool D” as an option on the prize menu. Another middle ground is to have a fixed drop that is variable by class, usually done as a barter item that some or all classes can trade in for their equivalent of the item.

My thought is that players want both fixed and random elements in their game rewards. They want to know that they are going to get something, and little nuggets of achievement are encouraging, but they also want some chance to hit it big. Slot machines make a lot of money, and developers can embrace that without making everything random.

: Zubon

Unique Mechanic

Is it just me, or do the unique class mechanics stand out more in Warhammer Online than in most other games? The more I reflect on it, the more I see it in other games, but it just seems more prominent in WAR.

By “unique class mechanic,” I mean the special feature that guides many of a class’s skills/abilities. (They are not truly unique in WAR, because one class on each side has it.) The orc and elf tanks tier up, the chaos and dwarf ranged DPS summon turrets, and the human and dark elf healers have an energy pool they can refill with melee combat. The mechanic mattered to different degrees based on your class and spec line; it never felt all that exciting on my chaos healer, while my dwarf ranged DPS had turret- or gun-improving talent options.

My unsubstantiated feeling is that the earlier in the design process that the mechanic was added, the more vital it feels. City of Heroes gives every class something special, but it does not feel terribly special. City of Villains mechanics do feel special, because the classes are built around them. Brutes, Stalkers, and Dominators are defined by their special mechanics. Blasters and Defenders? Eh, it’s a bit of a bonus.

You get a reset on that timer if you completely re-do the class. Then you can re-build around a new core. I expect a bit of that to happen in Cataclysm, so that there is less feel of “mana or something slightly different,” although you do get rather different effects from bars that build up during combat and those that empty out. Or I could be completely wrong, because what do I know about WoW, but you have certainly seen classes re-done so that they fulfill the same role with radically different mechanics.

Unique class mechanics create additional balance issues, but for the moment I am wondering which I would prefer: designing classes entirely around the mechanics or just using them as a bit of flavor on whatever else they would do. There is a delicate balance in the latter, sometimes done well with race: if you can be a dwarf cleric or an elf cleric, you want there to be some interesting difference in how they play without making it an effectively forced choice because one race synergizes so well. “Sometimes” because there is that narrow range between “doesn’t matter” and “forced choice.”

: Zubon

PQ 2.0

Randomessa has a good account of Warhammer Online’s pre-release comments on public quests, which were entirely borne out. The public quests are more or less as advertised. You might dispute design decisions like the quick resets and having influence bars to fill (is that grind or rewarding repeatability?), but most PQ issues came from how other systems interacted with them. The main problem was population-based: you could not get past the first stage once the population lump moved past you, nor in PQs off the beaten path.

But does anyone really think that public quests are not good? When conditions are right for them to work, they work well. When conditions are not right, they limp along better than much non-instanced solo MMO content. They encourage socialization and teamwork. If you did not like particular PQs, fine. If you think the whole game is broken, fine, but this part works.

Steal this feature. Champions Online slots a PQ into the tutorial zone. If Guild Wars 2 and Rift are offering PQ 2.0, that will be an improvement from the current quest hub model (conditional on successful implementation). Are we just trying to rein in expectations about how awesome or revolutionary this is going to be, back to “good”?

Even if it is just putting sprinkles on ice cream, I like both sprinkles and ice cream, and that other place does not have ice cream on its dessert menu.

: Zubon

MMO Herds and Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 has no quests.  At least it doesn’t have quests in the conventional sense where each player is nearly insulated in purpose outside of specific group content.  I know there have been countless occasions where an unknown player and I happened to be killing the same mobs in the same area, yet we did not group up to share the experience.  I might have been almost done, not wanting to group up in case the other player just started.  I might have needed boar tails, and each dead boar only has one (except when I apparently can’t find it on the carcass).  I might have just not wanted to deal with another possible unternet duckwad.  There was an activation energy to sharing this content, and I rarely, if ever, breached it.
Guild Wars 2 has events.  Events have purpose within themselves.  If I see a player killing boars, I can join in for the same purpose with the same duration and roughly the same reward.  There really is no activation energy to overcome.  In fact, I would guess it is the opposite.  I bet it takes more “energy” to choose to ignore the player-active event. It’s like some “herd instinct” activates to make us want to play with other people.  That is why, after all, we are playing MMOs, right?* 

Continue reading MMO Herds and Guild Wars 2


Hype has become the subject of the day, and I will contribute two repeats to the discussion.

First, You Are Judged Against Your Hype. Doing something modest very well gives you Portal or perhaps Torchlight. Take your pick on “shooting for the stars and not even delivering all the features on the box.”

Second, the example that always comes to mind on “failed to meet explicit promises” is Warhammer Online, as Zoso points out. If you ask me about WAR and I just mutter, “bears bears bears,” that is what I am talking about. Not only did developers explicitly identify a problem, identify a solution, then implement the problem exactly as described, but you were reminded of it constantly. Every time a quest sent you back to where you just came from, “bears bears bears.” Every time you killed a named enemy then got a quest to kill that named enemy, “bears bears bears.” Every time you saw a kill collector, the half-arsed version of the solution, “bears bears bears.” Then later tiers had such content/leveling curve issues that they added a bunch of kill ten rats quests as an improvement, and it was an improvement. Bears bears bears.

I am ambivalent about hype. I am skeptical, but I am gullible enough to take what people say at face value. It is not as though I am hurt if they fail to meet expectations they explicitly set; I just don’t trust the company or anyone who was identifiably a factor in lying to me.

: Zubon

Note that there is a separable issue for just doing badly. Alganon is a game that delivered everything it promised [Carson says no] badly. Earth Eternal seems to have had a similar problem.