Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Other MMO Ideas: Morality System, Part 3

And now, time to wrap this up and get to the point. So, the problem with translating a morality system into MMO's, as I touched on in parts 1 & 2, is that the player, as an individual, can't really have that much effect on a persistent world. Since one of the main advantages of making moral choices in a game is the consequences that each choice being apparent, this makes implementation into MMO's difficult. In an MMO, the player isn't the main protagonist of the story, but rather a smaller player in something greater than him/her-self. That being the case, what would work, as far as a morality system is concerned, is to have the players choices effect mostly themselves.

Using WoW as a basic template that I'm sure anyone who found this blog is familiar with, lets say you have the Horde and the Alliance. Now, unlike WoW, where, except for possibly the Forsaken, no group is really good or bad, per se, but more some middle ground, let's assume for our fictional MMO that the Alliance really is the good guys for the most part and the Horde is the bad guys. What I would propose is that you don't automatically join a faction, but that you are approached by the factions (and later, factions within the factions) based on your heroic deeds.

For example, let's say you like helping farmers clear their land of whatever foozles have infested it this time and you do a lot of quests to help them near the beginning. A member of the alliance contacts you after a while and lets you know they have been watching your exploits and feel you have what it takes to be a member. Conversely, if you have been slaughtering peasants to steal their lands and belongings for corrupt lords, the Horde may wish to have you among it's ranks. Once with the Horde or Alliance, you could continue to build your reputation through your deeds and get the attention of a sub-group. Say you like to poison waterholes to get the job done. The Forsaken may take a shining to you.

An extra layer to this would be the possibility of losing reputation by going against whatever faction you had aligned with. Maybe you have grown weary of kicking puppies and would like to kick goblins for a while. You could work to join the other faction. To add another layer, there could be situations where you build rep with both by becoming a double agent, with each step risking discovery and cataclysmic reputation from both sides!

There are countless possibilities for this type of system and I'll be sure to list more as I think of them, but for now, I think I've said my piece. I would play that game.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Other MMO Ideas: Morality System, Part 2

As was stated in part 1, the problem that I've had with morality systems in games is that it always feels liek the game rewards you the most for choosing to go all "bad" or all "good" with the middle ground suffering from a heavy hybrid tax, meaning that you never are "good" or "bad" enough to unlock the best abilities available to each option. This really hampers me when I play these games because, sometimes (though I am usually compelled to choose the "good option") I won't make an obviously villanous choice simply because it will make my character weaker, not because I think the heroic way is more fun/interesting. Some games, such as Mass Effect, remove the morality from abilities and leave it to the story and dialogue choices (i.e. the more evil you are, the more likely a super evil option will pop up when talking to NPC's) and this can, of course effect the environment and the game world, which is great. However, when trying to adapt this concept to the World of MMO's, each player making decisions that change the world is not really a feasable option.

What I'd propose is a sliding scale. I like the idea of a virtuous warrior using higher minded abilities and a corrupted champion using dark abilities, and, since character development is the most important part of an MMO (it being the only real thing you can usually influence in the game), the more your choices affect your toon, the better. Since most of you reading this are familiar with the Star Wars universe and I can probably assume that a great many of you have played Knights of the Old Republic, I will use their system as a basis for what I propose.

You can see a bar with "Light" at the top and "Dark" at the bottom. Your character's current place on the bar is indicated with an arrow. I would modify this to also include paratheses around the arrow that, as the character levels up, the paratheses spread out to encompass more of the bar. Up and down the bar are all the abilities that it is possible to use. In the middle is "Force Push", on the light end, "Force Shield" and on the dark end is "Force Lightning" with all the other abilities spread out on the spectrum in between. As you make light or dark choices in the game, your arrow moves one way or the other up or down the bar. Wherever the arrow is pointing is what your strongest ability is. For instance, if you managed to stay dead center, your strongest ability would be "Force Push" but as you leveled up, you would be able to use more and more abilities until the parentheses took up most of the bar. In this case, " Force Push" wouldn't be weaker than "Force Lightning" per se, just a different game style. In fact, in this way of playing, a more balanced character could be an advantage, seeing as you would have more abilities to choose from. Your aligment would just determine which was the most powerful at any given moment. This would take a bit of balancing, but if there were, say, 5 main abilities (lightning, choke, push, heal and shield, for instance), whichever the arrow was closer to would be the one that was the most powerful and all the other abilities that were near it would be 2nd mst powerful and so on out to the edges of the parentheses.

Using a system like this, players could choose to focus on what choices they would make or really, however they wanted to play the game. Woudl they choose to be a clear hero, like Luke was? A clear villain like the Emperor? Or maybe they would be somewhere in the middle like the morally ambiguous Jedi of the prequels who were too concerned with their own interests to really be guardians of the galaxy. Naturally, this kind of a system can be used for any set of abilities for any class. There will always be a good and a bad version of any kind of job (evil monk anyone?)

In part 3, I'll wrap this all up and show how I think this would all work in an MMO setting.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Other MMO Ideas: Morality System, Part 1

Buckle down, this is going to be a long post (maybe multiple parts, even). I love morality systems in games. I think the first one I ever experienced was in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. What a great game that was. If anyone is unfamiliar with the game play element I'm talking about, a morality system in a game is put in place to give you the option to choose what your character will do in most situations, usually a "good" choice and an "evil" choice, which will then (ideally) effect some aspect of the game down the line. Whether that means certain characters will ally with you or certain abilities will become stronger depends on the game, though in a good one, it will be both. This kind of game design, if implemented properly into an MMO, could be great (or, conversely, awful).

Before I get into how this could be implemented, I would like to discuss a few of the pitfalls that I have noticed in this game mechanic as seen in the games I've played. The major sticking point is that once you start down the "good" or "evil" path, you almost feel obligated to continue making that same type of decision because the greatest rewards from the game come from being the most good or evil. Yahtzee Croshaw put it best in his review of the first Fable game (which I played when it was released, enjoyed, but ultimately found a little too shallow and lacking in real choice) when he said the player is forced into mawkish virtue or extravagant malevolence (that guy has a way with words, to be sure) and really, that's the crux of it. Instead of making whatever choice you feel like making (or, if you're truly immersed in the game, the choice you think you would make), you choose the good or evil option since that's the way you've gone so far.

Now, in Knights of the Old Republic, this is presented as making yourself align more with whatever side of the Force you wanted to go with, so that makes some sense in that context, I suppose. But take Jade Empire: here is a game with an extremely similar structure to KOTOR but set in Asia (I think China, but I can't remember and I don't often bother to fact check). In this version, the two sides are presented as the "Way of the Open Palm" meaning you are helpful and giving to others and the "Way of the Closed Fist" which, as it is described in the game, means that you are in business for yourself, so a self-centered opportunist to paraphrase their verbiage. Unfortunately, while the Open Palm seems accurately represented, the Closed Fist options often have you going out of your way to be a douche. In my experience, it's actually much more trouble to kill a peasant and burn down his village than it is to simply ignore his pleas for help because you have better things to do.

If it were up to me, I would have added a third option, the "Way of the Middle Finger" where you get stronger for being an unabashed jerk and leave the Closed Fist options to be that of true self interest. For example, a peasant would like help because a demon is threatening to kill him and his family. You have a few options: 1. you can help him and kill the demon, hoping there will be some nice loot from the demon's cave; 2. you can offer to help him only if he can pay you; 3. You can ignore his request and loot the demon's cave while he's murdering the peasant family or; 4. you can kill the man and his family, then kill the demon and leave all their heads on stakes in front of the peasant's house you burned down (after taking all his money) as a warning to others who might seek your help.

As you can see, there are 4 options there, each with a different result and each at different points on the moral compass. The good is obviously good, the bad is obviously bad, but in the middle are a light grey and a dark grey. Sure you help him, but you expect money in return. Sure, you didn't kill the peasants, but you let it happen when you could have stopped it. This kind of choice, to me, would be much more interesting and varied. If this could be done on a grand scale throughout the entire game, we may be onto something.

This is getting long, so stay tuned to Part 2 where I will discuss how this could effect character development and then Part 3 where I explain how this could be worked into an MMO setting.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

MMO Tourist: Echo Bazaar

I may, at a later date, go back and discuss the phenomenon of flash/mobile "MMO's" since I tried out about 50 of them when I got my first smartphone, but for now, I just want to talk about the epitome of them: Echo Bazaar. Cleverly written, unique, entertaining . . . and ultimately the same old same old.

What I Liked
The game is set up, like most of these games are, to be played in short bursts. You play for 10-15 min then wait a few hours to recharge whatever resource you exhausted while playing, in this case it was candles that represented actions you could take. Most sessions left me wanting to play just a little bit longer, to do just one more thing. To be honest, this was the closest I've ever come to actually paying to play a Free-2-Play game. The world they have created for this game, though seen only through text and simple thumbnail graphics, is such an interesting one, I almost wished they had fleshed this out into a full-scale MMO. I could see myself spending a lot of time just walking around and exploring the world of Under-ground London.

What I Didn't Like
Even if I was paying for the maximum amount of actions per day, I still didn't think I would be advancing as fast as I would have liked in this game. Everything I really wanted to see or do seemed tantalizingly out of reach. Also, the tutorial could have been a little better. There were times when I didn't know what I was supposed to do next and had to visit forums to figure out things that should have been apparent.

Why I Stopped Playing
For a while, I was logging onto this game, both from my phone (which could just barely run it) and at home, but I just kind of ran out of steam. Again, I wasn't getting anywhere and there was such a bulk of unexplained items that were accumulating in my inventory that I had no idea what to do with or why I needed them or if I should sell them or what. Also, and this is a minor complaint, but I wish that there was more/easier to obtain gear. That probably would have kept me playing longer. As it was, not being able to equip every slot left me frustrated and was one of the reasons I quit.

I was almost willing to pay $5/month for this game, if that says anything. I would rate my experience at about $10 worth. Not bad, Echo Bazaar. If you're at the place in your gaming life where you're looking for a good pseudo-MMO, this is the best one I've seen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Late to the Party: Portal

I don't have a lot of money to spend on games. Real life is constantly rearing it's ugly head and I'm forced to spend my hard earned cash on stuff like food, clothing, gas . . . . boring stuff. That being said, I often don't get around to playing games right when they come out, with very few exceptions (I'll occasionally pre-order a 1st party Nintendo game or Square-Enix game . . also, I would get WoW expansions the day they came out when I was still playing WoW). All that to say I just played the original Portal.

I had heard a lot about this game, seen the internet memes that sprung up around it (which seem even less funny now that I've played the game, especially the cake ones) but the thing that kept coming up was that this was an amazing, but short, game. I can vouch for that. I enjoyed my time start to finish, minus a few times when I was scratching my head trying to figure out how to get where I needed to go. The game does a great job of leading you on without holding your hand. It slowly introduces all that you can do with the portal gun and then doesn't overstay its welcome, leaving you wanting more.

The humor in the game was spot on and I laughed out loud a few times. Humor in a video game is tough to nail because of all the repetition that the player experiences in retrying certain areas, but the humorous dialogue seemed to happen mostly in spots where you'd only hear the same line once. The exception being the ending (which I had to try a few times) but since most of that dialogue is gold, and is so dense (sometimes overlapping) I was actually GLaD when I had to repeat it so I could pick up on some that I missed.

All in all, I enjoyed this game start to finish and I am happy I finally got to play it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

WTS: Transferable Experience

Tobold has raised an interesting question on his blog today about transferable experience and I thought I might weigh in on the subject. To summarize, he poses the question of whether or not experience should be transferable between your alts in an MMO. You could either continue to gain xp at max level that you could spread to your other under-max level toons to speed up the leveling process or you could prolong your leveling time by syphoning xp to an alt.

I had never run into the "leveling is happening too quickly" problem myself, since the game I've played the most, WoW, didn't have that problem when I started playing it back in vanilla. It took a few hundred hours to get level 60 back then and that was drawn out a little further by quest hubs not being as complete as they are now, more xp being required per level, and mounts being a little harder to come by so travel times were greatly increased. However, for an alt lover, such as myself, this does sound like a great idea.

A point that Tobold didn't raise, but that I think is a good one, is continuing to reward xp to max level characters could encourage them to go on raids or help with quests that would otherwise have no benefit to them. All of a sudden, by help a friend, or random stranger, they can get that alt mage to cap a little faster.

I'll always be in favor of giving the player different ways to play the game. If someone wants to have a bunch of max level alts, but finds the leveling game tedious, this would be a great solution. I'm for it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

MMO Tourist: World of Tanks

So, I have a backlog of these MMO Tourist posts, since I have sampled my way around a great deal of MMO's, but I figured I'd push this to the forefront as it is the most recent and the freshest in my mind. World of Tanks is an entirely PvP MMO that, as the title suggests, features tanks (not "holy trinity tanks" but real world tanks) doing battle in various scenarios, always teams of 15 v 15, as far as I know. It is F2P and you can buy special ammo, extra garage slots to keep more tanks, and pre-made tanks with real money. Alright, enough with the exposition and on to my thoughts.

What I Liked
The game seems very well balanced, which I can attest to, have a nearly 50/50 win/loss ratio, which is a good thing for a PvP game. The tanks move and work in a realistic way (slow and plodding, especially in a non-upgraded tank) so the battles end up being a little more strategic than just fast paced run-in-die-run-in-again-die-again of most online PvP I've experienced. Once your tank is blown up, you're out for the rest of the match (though you can exit the battle and take one of your other tanks to another match, if you choose). That was nice, as it lent real weight to destruction.

What I Didn't Like
The game was a little slow for me. Plus, since the whole thing takes place in PvP matches, there is no world to explore, no quests, no story involved, etc. . . These aren't problems from a game perspective, but they are problems for me as those are what I am looking for in an MMO. Also, there wasn't really a tutorial that explains how everything works. You just have to figure it out. Maybe there's a game manual somewhere, but I couldn't find it.

Why I Stopped Playing
This is a good game, but it i not a good game for me. PvP is my least favorite activity in an MMO. I enjoy working with people, but not against another group. Also, and maybe this speaks to the kind of person I am, I prefer a game where whether I win or lose depends on something other than being sucker punched by a tank I never saw coming. I didn't spend any money on this game, but I would rate the 20 or so hours I invested at about $5 worth. Again, it's a good game, just not a good game for me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

MMO Suggestion: Advanced Channeling

This is a suggestion on a much smaller scope than my previous MMO ideas, but I was thinking about it over the weekend as a neat game play element that could be added to almost all the types of MMO's I've proposed so far as well as most existing MMO's and it seemed like a fun spin on a raid encounter.

I mentioned in my raid based MMO suggestion the idea of having the melee protect the casters by blocking for them. In this version of that encounter, the mages need to be protected because they are generating a shield that holds back the onslaught on an attacking army. The shield blocks all incoming projectile and magic attacks from the attacking army but requires the full concentration of all the spell casters in the party. The melee would have to go out and quietly and methodically take down the opposing archers and mages, while leaving some tanks behind to deal with the ground troops, who can walk through the shield.

The shield itself can take damage, so will require the full concentration of the casters to keep up. I imagine something like a "Simon Says" type game where you have to cast any of 4 or 5 different spells in an increasingly long sequence (the longer the sequence, the more power to the shield) until you fail and have to start over again. This way, the player would have to focus and would genuinely be distracted if enemy troops are getting too close.

Anyway, just a simple thought, but it seemed like it could be a fun twist on a tried and true formula.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

El Cheapo: Gaming on a Budget - Rondo of Swords

This weeks budget game is a tactical strategy game (I sense a theme to my playing habits). I picked this one up on the heels of completing Final Fantasy Tactics A2 for the DS and was looking for another turn-based strategy game for the DS when I came across Rondo of Swords.

The first run I gave at this game, I thought I would end up discarding it as I did Disgaea DS (just couldn't get into it), but after figuring out a few things, I played this game well over 150 hours and enjoyed 85% of that time. I add that qualifier because this game kicks your ass. It has many of the trappings of turn-based strategy games in as much as you have a group of characters that level up with you, you spend skill points to make them more powerful, find better equipment for them, stock each of them with items to use, etc. Where it differed was in the difficulty, which was high (until I figured a few things out, anyway) and in the way you have to attack.

Every turn for each character, they can move, use an item, use an ability or cast a spell. Melee characters deal damage to any enemy they pass through on the path you draw for them to take, and any character can get a buff from any ally they pass through. One of the tougher aspects of the game is keeping your group together when your casters can't move and cast in the same turn, but your melee can deal damage and move at the same time. Archers can move and then shoot at the end of the move, but of the two in the game, they are stupidly over powered and ridiculously underpowered respectively. This play style takes a lot of getting used to, but once you get the hang of it, it has a sort of flow two it that can become cathartic.

The trick to this game that I mentioned earlier is that the game has a mission based structure and you can repeat the missions as many times as you want until you beat them. Once you do, that mission is gone. What I didn't realize is that if you leave a mission when things are looking grim, you lose all the items you gained, but retain all the experience your characters earned. I had just been playing until I died and then starting over from my last save, making the game much harder than it had to be. The only way I discovered this aspect of the game was by trying to exit the battle one time, just to see what happened. The game never told me I could do this in any of the tutorials. In fact, if I'm remembering this correctly, there is no tutorial in game. You have to go to it from the main menu on your own. Hardcore.

To sum up, you can get this game for about $7 at Gamestop (used of course) and it is worth every penny is you like turn-based strat games and are up for a challenge. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

MMO Suggestion: Leveling Backwards/Laterally

Time for more MMO theory crafting! This time, I wanted to expand upon an idea I read in an Extra Punctuation article by Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame (excellent videos, by the way, though I'm sure most of you reading this are familiar with his work). He posits the idea of leveling backwards as a new form of game play citing the following advantages: 1. no griefing of newbies as they would start out more powerful than you; 2. you start out with every ability and can decide, through use, which you like the best and would like to keep as you level down; 3. it makes more sense from a narrative sense as placing the hero in the losing position, where each victory takes a bit out of you and makes you seem less likely to succeed the next challenge.

As I read through his article, I started thinking that this could work in a different way than he suggests (a series of Pyrrhic victories that leave you weaker for the strain or force you to sacrifice to succeed). What if your character, who started out at the peak of his/her training in his/her 20's got older with each level? One of the things that always bothered me about the game Fable was that my character continued to get stronger and more agile as he got older. And while that may be the case until your 30's-40's, you certainly start to go down hill by the time you're approaching 60, especially if you've led the type of like a video game protagonist lives. It makes more sense to me to have a character get physically weaker as they age. However, that doesn't mean they can't compensate for it in different ways.

The game I envision has you start out as a brutish 20 something. You are physically strong, but that's about it. As you level up, you gain experience in the real sense of learning how the game works, but also (for the character, anyway) you gain life experience. You could also have sliders for influence in your community, political and economic affluence and technical or magical skill. You can focus on one of these (or maybe several) to compensate for your initially high stats dropping. So if you focused on intellect, you might gain an affinity for the arcane arts and learn powerful spells. If you put your focus into technical understanding, you can create long range weaponry so when your strength fails you, your back from the front lines.

The big difference I can see in everyone starting out as a soldier and working there way up to different classes that are not necessarily stronger but require more skill and preparation is that you could raid or go on a dungeon run right out of the gate. Imagine a game where older guilds were always on the look-out to hire newb mercenaries to use as cannon fodder for there raids? You have a group of 10 more advanced players that stand in the back and deal damage/heal while a line of 15 soldiers (all level 1-5) are hired to keep the monsters away from the experienced players. This would, in a sense, mirror real life in that the lower on the totem pole you are, the closer you get to the front lines and vice versa.

I think this idea certainly has merit and gets new players into the game right away, but seeing the older players and the cool things they can do gives immediate incentive while the older players have incentive to help new players since they need them as meat shields. I'd play that game.