Monthly Archives: November 2014

Attributes in non-combat gameplay

To continue with the theme of putting combat and non-combat gameplay against one another, when was it it that attributes (or stats/abilities if you prefer) such as Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom became strictly combat-related variables? After all, RPG players are used to attributes affecting many areas of gameplay, not just combat.

The idea of attributes is to represent the character’s capability in physique, brain power and the like in a general way. But the truth is that in the world of MMORPGs, attributes have just about always been regarded as combat stats and not much more. One reason for this is that the genre tends to be quite combat-heavy – and that’s because combat is some of the easiest content to create. But the other, possibly greater reason is that coming up with meaningful non-combat uses for attributes in a massively multiplayer online world is difficult. Where would it make sense to make an Intelligence check, for example?

Attributes could be made use of in quest-driven MMOs, but hard-scripted quests that don’t branch are cheaper to make and have no place for attribute checks that might indeed branch the story. The way to utilize attributes would be that a quest could for example at some point make a Wisdom check that would be used to determine whether a character has some (possibly divine) knowledge available to them or not. Depending on whether or not the player would pass the Wisdom check, the quest would branch differently.

The fact quests with multiple branches are more expensive to make isn’t the only obstacle in the way – there’s also predictability. Unlike in a game session with a Dungeon Master capable of making up and modifying adventures on the fly, in an MMORPG multiple people will complete the same quest. Even if the quest can branch multiple ways, it cannot be dynamically changed. What this means is that eventually players will discover the attribute levels required to pass a given quest’s attribute checks, and they will make it known on the internet. Not much fun to it if players feel forced to use a search engine for every quest-related attribute check they come by.

Scripted content in the likeness of quests isn’t the only place where attributes could be of use though. If an attribute like agility increased a player’s run speed, it would be useful in not just combat but just about everywhere else, too. Maybe Intelligence could increase a player’s chances of  getting a discount from a vendor. Dexterity could increase the chances of lockpicking or thievery further, or maybe increase the rewards or skill gain rate. Charisma could increase the gold gain from selling things to a vendor, or increase the rewards from tasks done for NPCs. And Strength could increase the rate of mining and inventory weight capacity, to give a couple of examples.

Many of the things I mentioned above have been done (the most common one probably being Strength increasing inventory capacity), however, none of them are particularly common in MMORPGs, and most of the time if an attribute has four or five uses in combat listed for it, there’s only one non-combat use, if that.

More importantly, even if an attribute affects a non-combat area of gameplay, it can still in some games only be increased by partaking in combat. It rarely seems to be the other way around, and while combat oriented players are generally more picky about balance (the PVP crowd especially) and hence a developer probably doesn’t want to force them to do non-combat content just for the sake of minmaxing, it is not just unfair but also, to put it in a word, lame to then do the same to non-combat players. Then again, such an approach is understandable in games that focus solely on combat – take Shadowbane for example where farming characters, no matter the class, would have had to allocate a lot of their attribute points into Strength for inventory capacity – forced combat made sense here because after all the game was advertised with the slogan “We don’t play to bake bread – we play to crush.” But generally speaking, it such an approach makes no sense.

I would like to see attributes utilized more in non-combat gameplay – for the sake of realism if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to force combat-oriented players to start doing non-combat content just to increase their attributes, no, but a character who’s been a miner all their life without a fistfight’s worth of combat participated in should have a Strength score higher than that of a brand new character. Combat attributes, such as those from gear, could in fact be separated – armour gives armour, and maybe in some cases increases a mage’s spell casting speed or something similar through an enchantment. And I am sure there would be other ways to balance it out, but to put it simply, it would be nice to be able to look at attributes as something a little more than numbers that increase my Damage-per-Second.

RPG classes – not all about combat

In traditional RPGs, experience is often regarded as universal – you gain it by taking part in various activities related to adventuring, but what kind of activities those are hardly matters, for you use the same pool of experience to make your character stronger in different areas. And fair enough – when you step into such a game, you expect to be playing a specific role, a class, an archetype to which are tied some specific elements and traits, some related to combat, others not so much.

The traditional approach works well in tightly scripted games with limited scope, such as most tabletop games and their CRPG adaptations. Such games focus heavily on adventure of the moment and there’s no persistent world populated by other players out there, no player economy with it’s supply requirements and whatnot to speak of. The world outside of the view distance of the adventuring party may almost just as well not exist at all in the very moment.

But universal experience is problematic when it comes to games featuring more open world design, such as most MMORPGs. In many games it would just seem odd to get better at combat by, say, picking herbs or opening locks. And indeed there’s also the issue that no matter how well balanced a system is and no matter how many options there are for gaining experience, one method is always going to reign supreme in terms of pure efficiency. If both, crafting armour and battling orcs add into the same pool of interchangeable experience points and crafting armour turns out to be more efficient in terms of experience per time unit, people who would prefer to make their characters more powerful by battling orcs will be dissatisfied. And vice versa.

Because of these issues and some more, use-based systems have been invented. In your typical open world game the player’s blacksmithing level is a separate number from their combat level, and where as crafting armour will grant blacksmithing experience, battling orcs will grant combat experience.

Use-based experience works well enough for crafting and combat. But what about class-defining skills like picking locks, identifying magic items and similar activities that aren’t related combat?

The case of the learned wizard

In a typical fantasy world, swordfighting,  spellslinging and woodcutting aren’t the only activities characters partake in. Druids tame animals, clerics call to their deities for aid in all sorts of situations that aren’t at all related to battling foes, wizards teleport people around and rogues pick locks or pick pockets.  We come now to an area that to this date has been lacking in implementation when it comes to the MMORPG genre: non-combat class skills.

Think of the typical fantasy wizard, one who is deeply learned in the arcane arts and could be regarded as extremely powerful. How do you think the wizard reached this level of skill in wizardry? Was it by battling hordes of orcs, or rather by studying books and scrolls? Maybe by experimenting with different power words and reagents?

Being a wizard is much more than being able to effectively hurl fireballs at enemies. But in the majority of MMORPGs, hurling fireballs at enemies is the way one trains to become a powerful wizard. In fact, hurling balls of fire is often the purpose of the wizard. Along the way they might learn to use a portal spell or another trivial non-combat ability, but progression-wise these are tightly tied to the wizard’s ability in combat.

Part of the problem is balance. An online multiplayer setting will always be somewhat competitive, and hence class balance is a delicate topic. Training to be good at combat is part of balance too, and if different classes were able to hone their combat skills in very differing ways, players may find some ways unfair due to reasons related to efficiency.

But balance is only one thing. Maybe the real problem is implementing a proper training system for non-combat class skills. Its easy to figure out a satisfying way of training combat – slaying monsters. But how would a wizard train their skill in portal magic, or a druid their skill in animal taming? Repeatedly killing monsters for experience may be grindy, but not as grindy as, say, casting a few hundred portals to another realm for no other reason but to level up one’s portal creation skill. If anything, such a system would encourage macroing and not feel satisfying in the least.

Despite the difficulties of implementation, it wouldn’t be impossible to have non-combat class abilities make a bigger part of gameplay in MMORPGs. Surely there would be a way to implement a separate thievery or lock-picking skill for rogues that would be somewhat entertaining to train. Couldn’t be more boring than typical mining training, right? And as for non-combat spells, a modernized and improved version of Asheron’s Call’s original spell research system could well work even in a class-based game. And how about druids taming animals? There have been animal taming skills in games not even utilizing a class system before.

What I am sure about is that tying all of a class’ abilities to combat is, in a word, lame. And neither does it make sense that a fighter cannot learn a combat spell or how to magically open a shut door, but is then capable of learning the ability to permanently enchant equipment with powerful magic – a deed you would expect from a wizard rather than a fighter. Take the latter sentence as a note aimed at certain developers. Anyway, the area of non-combat class abilities is thirsty for innovation.

When your setting limits gameplay

Fantasy is quite a broad genre of entertainment and literature. The amount of different fantasy-themed settings in gaming alone is mindboggling to say the least. With such huge variety, you would think developers would have plenty to choose from to avoid their chosen setting or theme coming in the way of gameplay. And if no suitable setting exists yet, you could make your own. Dragon Age is a good example of a recent, well executed, completely new fantasy setting, even if it is filled with the majority of the usual genre cliches.

But despite all the variety available, sometimes sacrifices must be made. Maybe the developer chose an IP based on it’s popularity, but the IP’s setting is difficult to make full use of in practical game design. Lord of the Rings Online and other games based on the same franchise are a great example here. So good in fact they’re worth taking a closer look at.

The whole Middle-Earth setting is probably the most valued brand in modern fantasy. After all, it is what started the genre. This legacy along with the rather protective Tolkien Estate (on a personal note, having seen the second Peter Jackson Hobbit film, not quite protective enough) and an almost equally puristic follower make for a tricky situation when it comes to implementing some mechanics into games utilizing the IP.

Lord of the Rings Online handles these problems somewhat decently in most cases, but still remains far from managing it perfectly. The game suffers from being locked in the timeline of the latter parts of the Third Age, specifically the time of the War of the Ring. The story must go forward, and the focus on this single plotline makes the gameplay very focused. Despite major changes to the plot made by the developer for the sake of gameplay, it is difficult for the player to feel as if they could really integrate themselves into the world of Middle-Earth as a regular citizen. The fact the modifications made to the plot’s details by the developer make the player, every player, a major hero and agent in the storyline does not help.

Indeed in LOTRO, some solutions the developers have come up with leave the player wondering whether they could’ve been implemented much better, or whether the devs should’ve just taken more artistic freedom with the IP and twisted it even further away from the original texts of Tolkien. For example, characters cannot die, for there would be no sensible way to resurrect them. So instead of health there’s morale. When a character’s morale runs out, they are forced to retreat from battle, or respawn in gaming terms. While morale works, it has it’s own problems. Diving must be disabled for example, because characters must not drown. This is a clear gameplay-limiting issue, stemming from the setting itself.

Another side effect the use of morale in place of health causes is that it limits is healing gameplay in the holy trinity combat system (the usage of which one could argue for or against in the game in question, but we’ll leave that debate for another time). As there is no health, there are no healing spells, which in many other settings would be granted to healers by deities, which in turn also do not exist in a  fitting form on the face of Arda. The developers of LOTRO have solved this issue by making Minstrels’ music the primary source of morale. Practically speaking, the Minstrel class works like a healer in any tab targeting game before LOTRO, just that their abilities are not spells but rather pieces of music and the like that do various things, like increasing party members’ morale (health).

With immersion in mind, this is again a very half-satisfying solution. While gameplay-wise the Minstrel works,  it just feels very out-of-place that every adventuring party battling their way around the world must have a musician with them, playing the lute right behind them as they go on about their business of spilling orc blood. Now, that’s not to say that priests having direct access to these rejuvenating spells would not be almost equally ridiculous if we thought about it in a more everyday sense (I’m looking at you, recent Forgotten Realms novels), but at least when a priest does call to their deity for some healing to be granted to their allies in a Forgotten Realms or Warcraft based game, it makes sense in regards to the setting.

It doesn’t have to even be the setting itself that rules out a gameplay mechanic or at least makes it seem out of place – it could be the genre of the setting itself.

EVE Online’s skill training system works pretty much as follows: you choose what you want to train, be it piloting a certain ship or using a new type of artillery, and the training will take a set amount of time. The skill will keep on training even when the player is offline or doing something completely unrelated to the skill in question, and the pace of training cannot really be sped up.

This system works well and makes near-perfect sense from the setting’s point of view – when training, what’s happening is the player’s character is either going through simulated training in a virtual environment set up in their head, or maybe data is being transferred directly into their brain. Who knows, its scifi, and it works.

The same system that works so well in the dark scifi world of EVE would not suit a medieval fantasy universe nearly as well. Which is why I personally do not quite understand why Goblinworks, the developer of the upcoming indie title Pathfinder Online, chose to add this system as a feature to their game.

Pathfinder Online, or PFO for short, borrows it’s setting from the popular Pathfinder tabletop RPG and so represents the fantasy genre in a very traditional way. It would be an understatement to say that the system in which one can gain XP points without doing anything feels awkward in a setting such as that of PFO. Granted, I am slightly oversimplifying PFO’s system here, for the player does need to engage in certain deeds related to the skill at hand to actually “level up”, but as you watch your experience points accumulate while standing in the character selection screen without doing anything, it all just feels terribly out of place. Where is that experience coming from, it makes you wonder, when the  character isn’t even doing anything.

Other than for it’s awkward experience and crafting systems, the latter of which I will not get into now because the game is only in alpha and I am expecting it to change, Pathfinder Online actually manages to remain rather true to it’s setting for the most part. For example, while one could have an argument over whether throwing fireballs and other spells here and there makes magic feel cheap or not, that sort of magic exists in the Pathfinder universe and so, manages to make sense.

In the end the real reason why doing such crazy things in PFO is easy to implement from a developer’s viewpoint is because Pathfinder was designed to be a gaming platform from the get-go – much in the fashion of the previously mentioned Forgotten Realms, Warcraft and Dragon Age universes. Of course we can come back to the whole wizards are boring thing when we compare tabletop games of the same setting to their CRPG counterparts, but the reckless throwing of fireballs of the CRPGs still doesn’t quite manage to seem completely out-of-place. Not to the same extent as for example the Rune-Keeper class of LOTRO at least – the Rune-Keeper you see is a pure magic caster – something one would completely not expect to work in the Middle-Earth setting, not while staying true to the IP at least (and it doesn’t).

For what its worth, my advice to a developer trying to choose the right setting for their game would be to first make sure that it really suits the game’s needs. If it doesn’t, before you start development, make completely sure you can implement all the necessary gameplay elements without stretching the limits of the original IP too much – you probably don’t want to anger the fans of the IP – but at the same time, it would likely be best to not come up with crazy solutions like not letting your players dive either just for the sake of staying true to the setting.

Making housing meaningful

Let’s face it – from the games that feature housing, the proportion of games where the feature is widely regarded as a great success is quite small. Of course whether this or that game’s housing suits an individual or not is down to personal opinion, but from the point of view of game design, I think we are able to quite easily tell when the feature has been a success and when it hasn’t.

There are two schools of thought in MMORPG housing – one centered around open world and one around instanced housing. Its probably best to state this right off the bat: both have their place, and whether or not they suit a particular game is down to the game’s general direction.

That being said, in most games that feature it, instanced housing tends to be rather meaningless – a so-called fluff feature if you will. Which isn’t to say housing would by default be much better in games where it is implemented in it’s non-instanced form. It could well be that simply because the instanced approach is more common (because it is easier to implement), it also falls short more often.

What is difficult to argue against though is that even if open world housing systems aren’t necessarily better in the sense of what players will find fun gameplay, they almost certainly are more meaningful compared to instanced housing systems. This is due to the simple fact that even if its just predefined house models spread around a neighbourhood, open world housing affects a larger amount of players than instanced housing ever will – non-house owners at the very least get to see other players’ houses.

Being able to see other players’ houses doesn’t get us a long way on the path of meaningfulness, though. So what will?

Hoarding treasure and thinking logistics

Here’s a question to ask: what do we use our houses for in real life? A simple question, yes, but I think it can bring us on the right path.

We use our houses for many things: shelter from cold or warm the wilds in general; for storing our goods; for resting when we are tired; for doing our daily routines such as washing up and eating. Some of us spend the majority of our lives inside our houses.

Some of those things don’t make much sense in a virtual game world. But some do: storage for example. Having extra bank space by owning a house chest could be a meaningful feature if bank space was limited. And having your house along with it’s chest located near a profitable grinding location could be quite useful as well, although being able to place your house near such areas tends to be difficult in games offering the instanced variety of the feature.

In games that feature localized banking (meaning items do not without actual transportation transfer from one bank to another on the other side of the world), the meaningfulness of house storage increases in an exponential fashion. Not only is your house a place to quickly bank stuff you farmed from resources nearby, but there’s also logistical thinking involved in how you are then going to transport those goods from your house onwards to a place where they can be sold. And that’s just one scenario.

An adventurer needs to rest from time to time

Some features may not make sense in a virtual setting at first glance, but could prove out to make for some meaningful gameplay. Resting is one thing we do in our homes, but the type of resting we do is difficult to implement as a gameplay feature to say the least.

There have been some attempts though. For one example, Star Wars Galaxies involved a fatigue system in which battling foes accumulated fatigue where as going to an inn relieved it. This system is what also fueled some player roles such as that of the dancers – watching a dancer at an inn would relieve the character’s stress. A fairly immersive system that would not suit just any game out there, but the general thought behind it isn’t bad at all.

A fatigue level that would accumulate over time as a character did things – any things, including non-combat activities – could well help in making housing more meaningful. Carefulness is of course required in implementing such features, for if fatigue for example accumulates too quickly,  resting becomes a chore instead of a feature that adds to immersion. But if implemented correctly, it could contribute to gameplay in a meaningful way. For example, maybe once too tired the character could rest at either an inn or in their house. Say the player has found a rich metal vein and is mining it – they could build their house near the vein so that they were able to rest there every now and then to get rid of fatigue, instead of having to head back a much longer way to an inn in the nearest town. And maybe resting at an inn would cost you money where as resting over at one’s own house would not.

Housing needs a reason

All in all, housing could be made very meaningful and it has been done, but the majority of games that feature it don’t utilize it to the extent they could. Yes, maybe they don’t need to, but I think it’s fair to say that when all housing exists for is furnishing and maybe for awkward instant travel in a game that already features very fast travel speeds, it’s a waste of the potential of a very versatile feature. Not to say there’s anything wrong with using one’s virtual home as a dollhouse, but if decoration is as far as the feature goes, it almost feels as if it’s really just development time gone to waste.

On the positive side, some recent games have made housing a real core feature, most notably ArcheAge. Farming and animal growing are great examples of making housing matter. Here’s to hoping future developers take notes of that.