Monthly Archives: September 2014

To action combat or not

Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games haven’t traditionally featured exactly the most exciting combat out of all the various genres of computer gaming. This is not very surprising, seeing as these games are direct descendants of computer RPGs, which in turn are mostly based on systems originally designed for tabletop games.

The traditional MMORPG combat system, tab-targeting and skillbars coupled with random number generators simulating dice rolls, is in the end a modern adaptation of tabletop systems transferred over to graphical computer games. While the system still works quite well in the opinion of many, there is also a large crowd out there who strongly oppose it. So what’s the problem?

A small analysis is in place. RPGs are not competitive games, and their combat systems reflect this. While combat in traditional RPGs does grant the player with the ability to make a limited amount of tactical decisions in non-real time, the idea in the end is that the player is acting as a character in a story, and not as the player themselves. It is the character’s knowledge and skill that are supposed to make the difference between the effectiveness of different actions, and randomly generated numbers, generated with dice rolls or what ever device one prefers, are there to bring flavour to the story through unexpectedness.

This doesn’t translate perfectly to online games, first and foremost because in them decision-making must be done in real time. There’s no pausing a world with thousands of players. To work around this issue, developers have come up with things like global cooldowns instead. Nevertheless, because decisions are made in near real time, so called twitch skill comes to play and this alone differentiates MMORPG combat from traditional RPG combat quite a bit.

Another point to make regarding the issue is that the audience of RPGs and MMORPGs is not the same. The latter attract the online gamer crowd of other genres as well, and they have different expectations from combat. They often expect twitch-skill to be a major factor in combat and to many of them the tab targeting model does not offer enough of this. Non-roleplayers tend to also have a competitive mindset (although that’s not to say some roleplayers would not also be prone to this), and randomness lends itself poorly to competitive gaming.

Because of the issues listed in the last paragraph, demand for action combat has been on the rise for a while. And as an answer to the quench for more action oriented combat, the tab targeting system has been developed forward over the years. While in EverQuest it was slow and recovery even slower, World of Warcraft kept made the system faster, more fluid, and lessened the amount of downtime. And year by year World of Warcraft made it’s combat feel more and more action-y with faster ability sequences and more semi-aimed spells. And now we have games like GuildWars 2, Neverwinter and WildStar, and tab targeting is where it is today: it has kept it’s basic principles, but there’s more buttons to press in a shorter while, some aiming to do and generally it just requires more twitch skill than it used to.

Because of all this recent evolution, currently it feels like the tab targeting system may not be developed much further. There probably still is some innovation here and there to make when it comes to it, but the line is beginning to be thin against the side where we can no longer call it the same system it begun it’s life as.

So the natural next step is to go in all the way and make the transfer to pure action combat – it is after all what many view as the best suited combat system for the genre due to it’s perceived immersiveness. And sure, viewing the world from first person and having to aim stuff does have something to do with immersion. But action combat also has it’s critics as well. There’s the traditional roleplayers who want the character’s skill to matter, and not that of the player. There’s those who simply dislike action combat. And lastly older gamers can find fast reaction based combat irritating and even impossible to play at the worst.

With that in mind, while tab targeting has been criticized a lot in the past couple of years, I don’t think it’s going anywhere; it still has it’s audience. In fact, even after the release of a couple of recent titles that developed the system forward, some newer titles seem to be taking the system a step or two backwards again – see for example ArcheAge and Pathfinder Online.

That being said, action combat also has it’s place and personally I am, to be truthful, expecting it to surpass the more traditional systems at some point thanks to a new generation of gamers who don’t have their roots in tabletop gaming. Or if that doesn’t happen, a hybrid of the two systems I would expect will become dominant – something along the lines of WildStar, but executed better.

Before action combat can become the go-to system in the genre though, a game needs to come out that has action combat but doesn’t solely focus on this one shiny feature – a mistake made by TERA and Darkfall Online for example. A fully featured MMORPG with action combat might just set the standard.

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How much convenience is too much?

Casualization is a topic we’ve been discussing in the MMORPG community for over a decade now. Features that used to be considered a part of this phenomena were originally things like lower leveling curves, instancing, and quest-centric leveling systems. In addition, the lowering of the complexity of games, their dumbing down, has been and still is considered a part of the same process.

In recent years another word has been popping up more and more when the subject of casualization has come up. That word is convenience, and I want to try to address some issues related to it in this post. Some players and developers seem to hold the view that in the name of convenience, sacrificing the credibility of a virtual world is an OK trade-off. But is it really OK, and when does the point come where there’s too much convenience for your virtual world to remain credible?

When does convenience become problematic

Convenience-related features are not necessarily a problem, but they can be.

In MMORPGs, an important aspect of gameplay is often the grind, which gives value to objectives – the longer it takes to achieve something, the higher it’s value (most of the time, anyway). Changes done in the name of convenience tend to stealthily reduce the amount time it takes to reach objectives, thus reducing their value.

This is a much greater problem in games that attempt to appeal to the more oldschool crowd who often expect a greater focus on the open world aspects of the genre. Talking recent games, I feel this was a problem with WildStar for example: the difficult and demanding raiding experience was to appeal to many older raiders, but the abundance of modern convenience features made the game feel cheaper than intended – Dungeon Finder, quests you don’t have to read, an overabundance of quests, fast travel, what have you. Essentially, WildStar with these features reduced it’s world to a lobby space for minigames, and that did not appeal to many traditional MMORPG gamers, not even the raiding niche of them – instead it only appealed to people who were solely playing the game for the raids and did not  care for the open world aspect or much else.

An interesting thing about many convenience-related features is that alone they often are pretty harmless. Vanguard for example remained a very open world -feeling game despite getting a Dungeon Finder. Granted, the feature didn’t automatically teleport you anywhere or give you extra rewards, but it still found you a group semi-automatically. Even World of Warcraft’s DF didn’t start out with the extra rewards or teleportation, and everybody was fine with the feature at the time. As one starts adding more and more convenience-related features to their game though, there tends to come a point where they have affected other parts of the game so much it begins irritating some parts of the population. MMORPGs have traditionally been timesinks, and even though their average player now has less time than before, they still need those timesinks to keep people playing – older games had casuals too despite appealing more to the hardcore crowd, and there were timesinks for the casuals to partake in.

Timesinks aren’t the only thing affected by convenience-related features: immersion is a big part of the genre to many a gamer as well. Take for example an archer’s arrows: it is convenient to not have them as consumables, but on the other hand it is rather unimmersive for your bow to not consume any arrows to say the least. The key questions when it comes to implementing a feature like this then are: what type of a game are you building, and who is your target audience. Many games nowadays focus solely on the dungeon grinding and minigame aspects of the genre, and to players of games of this type immersion may not be the first priority. On the other hand if you are trying to appeal to an audience of both, people who like immersion and open worlds, and people who like convenient dungeon grinding, you’re going to be making some difficult decisions when it comes to these features.

For a developer the biggest help in making these decisions would probably be nailing down the game’s core audience right from the first steps of production. It seems unlikely that there’s going to be another WoW at this point, a super popular game that would appeal to all kinds of players of the genre, so focusing on one or two niches per game seems like the best solution. Being a one-trick-pony has it’s advantages in the fractured MMORPG market.

Questing – why is it so dull in recent MMORPGs

As the years have gone by, we’ve seen a multitude of MMORPG titles come and go, titles that could without the slightest bit of dishonesty be called WoW clones. While these titles tend to have a lot in common, there is one particular thing nearly all of them appear to have: an incredibly boring questing experience.

This week I want to try and answer the question of the title: why exactly is it that what was supposed to reduce boredom by eliminating the traditional way of leveling, monster grinding, now seems to induce boredom at a whole new level?

Birth of the quest-centric leveling system

While World of Warcraft was more of a mix of features borrowed from older titles back in 2005 when it was released, it also introduced at least one innovation of it’s own: the quest-centric leveling system.

While the system faced some level of criticism, in the end there’s no question it was generally extremely well received. After all it heavily influenced the genre for the whole of the next decade, if not for longer. And really, rather than about blaming the system for being duller than mob grinding, the criticism received was mainly about how the system encouraged solo instead of group play.

Now, it is the initial success of the quest-centric leveling system that makes one beg the question: why was leveling so enjoyable in WoW, yet so mindnumbingly boring in more recent games such as Rift and WildStar? After all,  these games are modeled after the MMORPG behemoth, aren’t they?

On novelty

One answer one quickly comes to think of is that it’s all down to the feeling of novelty. In 2005 when World of Warcraft was released, the experience was new – not only was leveling solely through questing a new and refreshing choice of design, but most of the game’s players were also new to the MMORPG genre as a whole. So one could argue that it was the newness of it all back in the day the that made the road from 1 to 60 feel like a magical journey, even to people with previous genre experience.

Indeed one could make the argument for novelty, but before claiming it all on that one feeling, I would consider this: was the original questing experience of World of Warcraft really that similar to that of more recent games like Rift and WildStar?

Gradual changes

World of Warcraft’s questing experience today is not what it used to be. Expansion by expansion and update by update, monsters have become easier to kill, experience requirements have been vastly reduced, money has been made more and more irrelevant, milestones like mounts have been made more trivial, and dreaded new features like the Dungeon Finder and QuestHelper have been introduced. Finally, the third expansion, Cataclysm, has revamped the whole leveling experience by replacing just about all of the old world’s quests with new ones as well as by shaping it’s landscape to suit the new story better.

While the changes have been rather gradual apart from the great leap forward of the Cataclysm expansion, its quite clear that the current leveling experience of WoW is completely different from that of the original game.

Breadcrumbs and overdone questhubs

Looking at how questing works now and then thinking back to 2005 to compare the two eras, the original experience was not quite so linear in the end. In the first one or two zones you encountered as a fresh character you might have found a breadcrumb quest that would lead you to your next zone, but after that such quests were a rare sight.

Finding quests, let a lone efficient quests in a new zone was not as self-evident an act as walking to the nearest town and gathering the five to ten quests from there, all of which are simple gathering or killing quests that take mere minutes to complete. No, new characters had a lot of exploring (or Googling) to do to simply find suitable quests.

With quests being spread so sparse and many quests spanning over multiple zones or even continents,  as well as with the absence of breadcrumb quests, some exploration can be with good reason said to have been encouraged by the basic design behind the system.

On the contrary, the post-Cataclysm system does not have hidden or off-the-beaten-path quests, or if such things exist, they do not make much of a difference in leveling speed or how efficient leveling feels to the player.

Mimicking the wrong era of the game

In it’s post-Cataclysm state, World of Warcraft’s questing system can not by any measure be said to encourage exploration. Now more than ever it can with good reason be said to be overly convenient.

But here’s the deal: we are talking about a 10 year old game. In the case of such an old game, it actually makes sense to sacrifice some credibility of the game world in order to make things feel more convenient. Your playerbase mainly consists of people who have seen everything there is to see, explored every corner there is to explore. When they level up new characters, it’s OK for them the experience is over very fast. They’ve done the content so many times they like the fact they no longer need to focus on memorizing which zones to go to at which level or which quests to pick. To them, it’s not a problem equal level monsters no longer take up to a minute to kill, because they’ve been there, done that, and they just want to get done with their business.

Exploring a new game world is fun, even if it is just a themepark world built solely for the leveling experience, but as a game ages and it’s subscribers along with it, the call for convenience starts raising it’s head. This all brings me back to the leveling design of Rift, WildStar, etc. Their questing  experiences were super linear from the get-go with little variance and a very handholdy feeling.

When it comes to the leveling experience of the major WoW clones,  I tend to think they tried to mimic the wrong era of their role model. When a game has just been released, it is good for it to encourage exploration through a less linear questing experience. Autopiloting through a preset path filled with huge amounts of simple, overcrowded quest hubs is simply dull to a new player.

Once your  game matures and the players start becoming routined, you can start making things more convenient, albeit at the expense of the magic any newcomers are going to feel on their first playthroughs of the content. But before that, I would take the approach that questing in itself should encourage players to explore that beautiful world your dev team has put a lot of effort into creating.

Why the hardcore need the casual – even in PVE

An Introduction in Place

Hello there, dear reader!

In all likelihood you are a new reader, considering the fact this is the  first post in this blog. So allow me to welcome you in the most heartfelt of manners and introduce myself.

Take a man who’s proletarian by day and a wizard (or another fantasy archetype) by night. Then add into the mix a slight amount of weekend philosopher and basically what you have is me, Waxwind.

Here in the Weekly Wizard I will attempt to pick a subject related to Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (or MMORPGs for short) each week and write down my thoughts on it. I cannot say how I will succeed in keeping up the pace yet, nor can I promise the best of quality in the whole of the video game blogging world, but do trust me when I say that I will be trying my best.

In this first post I want to give my take on a topic related to a very recently released game: WildStar, and the niche it appears to be aiming for: the hardcore raiders. So let us jump into it.

Why the hardcore need the casual – even in a PVE focused game

For this first entry I want to discuss the apparent post-release subscriber loss of the recently released WildStar. The specific issue in question is: is catering only to the hardcore the mistake WildStar made?

I would consider myself a pretty hardcore gamer. I am not strictly a raider, but if I play a game and that game includes raiding as it’s endgame, I am going to delve into it. That being said, hardcore content is not the only content I partake in, and to be honest, I can see WildStar has little to offer for anyone to whom raiding either isn’t enough to keep them interested, or who want to do raiding but cannot invest the time into it.

At maximum level WildStar has very little to do outside of raiding for the PVE-minded. And herein lies a problem – the casual gets there and gets bored. The game also bores me, a person to whom raiding is not enough to make a whole game worthwhile (because I except a virtual world and not a lobby game filled with minigames from a title calling itself an MMORPG, but that is a topic for another time.)

If the developers wanted to cater only to the hardcore, why would they care about the loss of casuals then? They have their niche nailed down, right?

Unfortunately I don’t think it is that simple, and this is my point: raiders are a very special type of a niche. While not all of them recognize or would admit this (and while a minority them are unaffected by this), a large part of raiding is showing off. That’s right, it isn’t all about how awesome the boss fights are. Partly, sure, but for a great if not for the most part it’s about you being able to show off you’ve completed those boss fights.

And to whom does the raider show off to? The casual. If there are no casuals, there is nobody to show off to, except if you are in a world first  guild, in which case you at least get to show off to the rest of the hardcore raiding population, which in WildStar is already dwindling – dwindling in my opinion partly because there are no casuals to admire them.

The original World of Warcraft had plenty of content for the casual to consume outside of raiding, which isn’t the case for WildStar. Granted, at the time alterantives were few, but playing WoW for the first time actually felt like living in a virtual world no matter how little time you invested in it (and why this was the case is a topic I want to cover in another post). But the same isn’t the case for WildStar, where the casuals do not become as attached to the game and so they leave quickly. And when there are no casuals, the people to show off to, the hardcore raiders get bored.

While seeing new boss mechanics can be fun, few are prepared bash their heads against a fight that takes multiple hours of practice per night for a week or two just for the sake of it. Nay, most people are only prepared to do it if they can brag about it, most likely to a semi big audience – and not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just how humans work. And lastly, few people care even about world first kills in a game with a population as small as WildStar’s.