Saturday, September 26, 2009

Moving at the Speed of Loot

Unlike reality, rewards in MMORPGs closely follow the efforts that earned them. The strong link between effort and reward is one of the aspects of RPGs that makes them so addictive.

Most modern day jobs do not afford employees such a direct link between their efforts and rewards. Translating the pacing of an office job into caveman terms would go something like this: You begin to hunt a deer. After several years of hunting, you are allowed to see the deer in the distance. A decade rolls by and you've crept forward a few bushes. You fire your bow and twenty years later you finally find out whether you hit or missed. Sure there are some nuts and berries to be gathered along the way, but it may seem to the hunter that they happened upon them by chance as the snuck up on their prey.

MMORPG loot systems are designed to appeal to our basic hunter-gatherer instincts, making them well suited at reinforcing behavioral patterns. In Classical Conditioning, this relationship is normally measured between unconditioned stimulus and response, but the principles can be easily applied to effort (the conditioned stimulus), reward (unconditioned stimulus), and the understanding that specific efforts will be rewarded (conditioned response). The amount of time that elapses between effort and reward is referred to as a trace interval. This interval should be minimized in order to maximize behavioral reinforcement. Rare is the game that delays rewarding players for their efforts, but the main difference is that in RPGs rewards lead to increases in power.

Your character can go from a nameless peon to a legendary warrior in months. Today, the average lifespan is nearly 78 years in the US and times are not as rushed. Mercurial ascensions to power have become exceedingly rare in most disciplines. But just because we've risen above our humble, origins doesn't mean they're gone from our minds.

The Pace of Reward

It's not just about how closely rewards follow the effort that earned them, the pace at which these reward-effort units are distributed also matters a great deal. This metric is established according to how a player's efforts are bracketed. Each skill the player uses is rewarded with a sort of output, such as healing or damage. Every kill they make can earn them experience, faction, and/or loot. The same can be said about completing quests. When they accrue enough experience or faction, they are rewarded with access to new items and abilities. Herein lies the most flexible aspect of the reward structure, as level ups are arbitrary milestones. The player rarely has to complete a certain set of tasks to level up, they merely have to complete a certain number of tasks.

The most common arrangement in the modern MMO involves small skill-ups doled out between the all-important level ups. Skill-ups can help make players feel like they are continuously advancing as they work towards the next level, but don't expect them to jump for joy at messages like: You've Gained 1 Skill Point in Axes -- particularly when all this point typically does is increase their effectiveness by a fraction of a percent.

Consider a different approach in the partitioning of rewards: In Fallen Earth, players gain specialization points as they progress through portions of a level. In a system like this, the payoff is more continuous, yet the importance of the level up may be diminished.

Blizzard is well aware of the importance of pacing. Their constant attention to the rate of the leveling process has insured a fairly flat distribution of levels, showing no major drops at any point. This implies that players are not finding the gap between big payoffs, in this case levels, too large to overcome and that the rewards for leveling are sufficient motivation to continue.

Knowing that delay can lead to increased anticipation and greater satisfaction when the payoff is finally attained, the question becomes, how long is too long when withholding larger rewards from a player?

I, like many other MMOers, like to log into a game with a small, attainable goal in mind. There are many times in which gaining an entire level is simply not a viable option for the time allotted. I may only have time to complete a quest or two. If this effort is not properly rewarded, I may look back at the experience less favorably. And if I don't have another short-term goal to strive for, I may be less motivated to log in for a quick session.

Managing the interval between players' gaming sessions is vital, as longer gaps are indications that the player is about to quit. Giving them something to shoot for now, while working towards a greater goal can help drive their interest. It's not a coincidence that this sort of pacing -- small goals leading up to bigger goals -- closely adheres to the patterns of our natural state.

Humans have risen above the level of Pavlov's dog. We are intelligent beings, capable of overcoming our instincts, working diligently on projects that won't yield fruit for many years. Yet the power of appeals made to our baser selves can be hard to rebuke. We seem to take a measure of guilty pleasure in poking our heads out of our self-imposed cages every now and again.

The greatest bit of carnal entertainment in games may not be related to sex or violence, but rather the speed of loot.

Friday, September 25, 2009

SWTOR: Always in motion is the future...

As both a gamer and a Star Wars fan, it's hard not to be excited about the upcoming MMORPG, Star Wars: The Old Republic. What Bioware has shown of the game seems reminiscent of their highly successful KotOR series. But it remains to be seen how KOTOR's famous style will translate into the MMO genre.

It's far too early in development to make predictions, but already SWTOR is promising gameplay that will be unlike any other MMO's to date. This is likely a good thing as the most common complaint heard around the industry is that modern MMOs tend to play too much like World of Warcraft.

Instead of forecasting what to expect from SWTOR in this article, I will try to analyze what Bioware has revealed of the game so far.

Focus on Story

There's no question that story is a key element of the RPG, but what about the MMO? In a single-player game, designers have to contend with just one player and how their actions will change the game. Much has been said about the loss of authorial control in games and how it can hinder the narrative. Yet in multiplayer games, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the great majority of your actors are also your audience members, over whom you have no control.

The Ms in MMO stand for Massively Multiplayer, which are social games by nature. Drawing a player into a storyline does not necessarily enhance the social aspect of the game. And yet more and more MMOs are offering the complete solo experience, allowing players to play the game from start to finish without interacting directly with other players. In this case, story-driven content should be an improvement over the status quo.

Plot Altering Decisions

In KOTOR, players were able to affect the plot with their actions in profound ways. Which implies that unless each decision players make will spawn branching, alternate realities, the world of an MMO that boasts this same feature would be in constant chaos. You'd get a quest from a Hutt to hijack some gunrunners, only to return hours later to find the gangster slug is dead. Clearly there are ways to diminish this problem, like by respawning slain NPCs, but this detracts from the value of the decision.

Group-Based Branching Dialog

To exacerbate the problems with plot altering decisions in a multiplayer environment, Bioware has already revealed that you will not be in control of every decision that affects your character's future. Some of those decisions will fall to your teammates, as SWTOR features the first ever group-based branching dialog system. This means that if you want to spare the disobedient captain at the end of the mission you better hope you're not misfortunate enough to find yourself grouped with a prepubescent Sith Warrior -- voiced by Steven Blum, of course.

There's been some speculation as to how the system will actually work. If done incorrectly, it could lead to a lot of trouble. Grouping is hard enough as it is in most MMOs. The last thing we need is every LFG (looking for group) message to read like a personal ad in the newspaper, having to account not only for level and skill, but ambitions and personality as well. However, if it is done properly, a system in which every player is allowed to choose their own responses during dialog should allow everyone to manage their Light-side/Dark-side status independently from one another.

Massive Voice Over Work

One aspect of the game that Bioware has been very vocal about is that every character will feature full voice acting. Previously, Everquest 2 and Age of Conan have also promised players a more immersive experience through the use of VO, but due to financial and multilingual constraints were unable to deliver on the level that SWTOR intends.

Having played both EQ2 and AoC, I can honestly say that the VO work added very little to my overall experience. But this is likely due to the fact that it wasn't consistently used throughout the game. There's no better way to make the wall-of-quest-text seem duller than to first spoil gamers with VO.

Another concern with VO is that most people can read faster than they can listen, but reading ahead while a voice is speaking to you can be distracting. This can be particularly bad when dealing with more mundane quests and interactions that a player would prefer to zip through. Luckily, SWTOR has over a dozen writers, who intend to give every line of dialog a certain verve and color.

Heroic Combat

Another major point of Bioware's demonstrations to date has been to highlight their so-called "heroic combat." As you might guess, the aim of heroic combat is to make players feel like the archetypal heroes of the Star Wars mythos. One of the ways this is accomplished is by pitting players against groups of enemies from the start of the game.

While overcoming odds may be a heroic feat, is it the character who is heroic or the player? From what I've been able to gather from the developer walkthroughs, it seems like a good portion of your "heroism" is automated.

Another game that is fond of throwing groups of enemies at players is Champions Online. Perhaps at the start I was a bit amused by my ability to take down groups in a couple of moves, but the novelty wore off long before I reached level 20. At this point, burning down wave after wave of enemies is more of a routine than anything else. A lasting sense of accomplishment is more likely to be produced by the player's own abilities, rather than their character's abilities.

Smuggler Cover

Again, developers were quick to point out that SWTOR will be the first MMO to use a cover system, yet only one class revealed thus far will be able to use it, the Smuggler. This implies that every level and map, especially any PVP maps, will have to be laid out in consideration of this one mechanic which is only useable by an eighth of the game's players. Attention must be put into the placement of every drum and cargo container throughout the galaxy.

But any Smuggler will likely tell you that this attention to detail is essential. The cover system itself looks quite potent, providing extra protection from enemies as you might expect, but also enabling the Smuggler to employ an entirely different set of skills -- similar to stealth in World of Warcraft.

While the prospect of greater interactivity with the environment is thrilling, perhaps more of the classes, such as the trooper, should be able to make use of it.

The M that was Fashionably Late?

So we've seen that SWTOR is a multiplayer, certainly played online, and has all the makings of a great roleplaying game, but where's the "Massively" aspect of the MMORPG? Developers have claimed that you will be able to enjoy the Star Wars universe with "thousands of friends" -- if you had that many, but we've yet to see how.

Group missions generally only involve 2-5 players and we've not yet heard of the specifics of how PVP will work in SWTOR. Hopefully, there will be more interaction between players than auction houses and the notorious zone-wide chat channels.

Herein lies my greatest concern for this highly promising game. Bioware has taken to heart all of the lessons learned from the KOTOR series, but are they being mindful of the successes and failures of other MMOs?

Will Star Wars: The Old Republic be a topnotch multiplayer game masquerading as an MMO, or will it be something greater? Will it redefine the genre or invent a new one? Regardless, it looks like it's going to be fun finding out.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Champions Online - Level 25 Progress Report - Pyre is Still Burning

A lot of noise has been made about the difficulty and imbalance of Champions Online. Powers have been changed, builds nerfed, and retcons (respecs) given. But I've been rocking the same, basic build since the get-go.

My build is quite simple. Aside from the energy builder, the three main powers I use are Force Shield, Regeneration, and Pyre. I have maxed out my advantages in each of these skills, including the Force Sheath upgrade to the shield, which allows for protection and energy regeneration even after you've let go of block. For single target dps, I use Laser Sword with the upgrade that increases all damage dealt to targets struck by the sword for a period of time. My other, less used powers are Concussor Beam, Micro Munitions, and Resurgence.

I was worried that the latest patch, which reduced the potency of Pyre's DoT effect, would force me to respec, but I've been managing just fine. Mixed groups of yellow or orange henchmen and villains pose little challenge. I've effortlessly soloed every group mission I've encountered thus far -- most of them while they were still of yellow or orange difficulty.

Still, I can understand why people are having trouble. As I stated in a previous post, the open ended customization of Champions Online invites players to create almost any hero they can imagine; while the need to maintain variety inevitably leads to the possibility for both effective and ineffective combinations of these powers. A problem arises when a player's concept for their hero happens to include what the game has deemed an ineffective combination of powers.

The break between purpose and practice is likely what has led to so many complaints. In games like World of Warcraft, characters are customized within certain constraints, players view customization more as optimization, instead of personalization. Players of those games are less likely to say, "I should be just as powerful regardless of what spec I choose."

So in short, the game may be hard if you play the way you want to, but it's easy if you play the way it wants you to.

My biggest complain about the game up until level 25 is the pacing and availability of quests. You practically have to do every quest in the game to level up. Unlike most other MMORPGs, you don't really have the choice of which path to take as you move up the ranks. This means if you were to reroll a new character, you'd have to do every quest over again, without the option of visiting a new zone or trying a new line of quests instead. Hopefully this will improve as more content is pumped into this nascent game.