Category Archives: Game Design

Dynamic versus scripted worlds

MMORPGs are some of the most complex things made by humans. As world simulations there’s a massive amount of things going on behind the scenes the user may never be fully aware of. But there are different levels of complexity to these games, some being more complex than others – that is, in terms of game and world design, not graphical optimization or anything of the like.

Why are some games simplier to make sense of for the player than others? One thing is that where as most games today tend to have a massive amount of scripted events, other games are built around dynamic systems.

What exactly is the difference between worlds built around scripted events and worlds built around dynamic systems? There are many differences, both from the point of view of the developer and that of the player. Environments which are solely built upon scripted events are far more predictable, first of all. The developer has full control whether something will happen or not. Monsters will spawn when and where they are wanted and they patrol the routes set by the developer. Harvesting nodes spawn in exactly the the developer put them to spawn at. And so on.

Where as scripted events are easy to predict and control, the results of dynamic systems are quite the opposite. A classic example of this is Ultima Online’s original resource system, which didn’t quite work out at the time. The system would probably have needed some tweaking all around in terms of numbers and the like, but most of all the developers failed to predict player behavior – players just killed everything too quickly for  the system to work.

While there’s the definite con of unpredictability to handling the world in a more dynamic manner, it still has an immense charm to it. Dynamism is definitely the way to go if realistic fantasy worlds are what we aim for – the real world isn’t based on scripted events either but on complex systems interacting with each other. There is something beautiful in attempting to simulate a living world with what is almost pure mathematics. Of course for some games a more directed approach is preferable, but if anything, games like Ultima Online and EVE are extremely fascinating examples of dynamic system design.

Furthermore, the dynamic approach can be cheaper. It is less predictable and the developers have less ways to control the player, yes, but ultimately it has the potential of cutting down production costs. With the correct systems in place, there’s no need for the developer to individually script every NPC’s patrol path, no need to time spawns by the second, no need to make a world object interact in exactly a certain way. Having to script every little event in a game from rolling stones to rats’ daily lives is a time consuming endeavour, and if these things were handled dynamically, a lot of effort could be spent elsewhere.

Of course dynamic systems have the risk of something ending up in completely unpredicted scenarios. But then, its not like scripted events don’t also have exploitable bugs and whatnot in them as well. Overall, what would be nice to see more in future games is the dynamic school of design. To some extent, it has sort of died in the fantasy MMORPG world, maybe partly due to the death of isometricism (which is a topic for another time); when you only have two dimensions to worry about, things are more predictable. But if anything, games like SWG and EVE Online show isometric graphics are a not prerequirement for a game that is strongly based on various complex systems that intricately tie into each other. And I suppose there’s some revival happening, what with Crowfall’s dynamic maps and all – but that game’s got Raph Koster working on it, does it not?

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Inventory systems as game features

When we think of the feature list of a game, we often think of things like the combat system, the PVP system, the content, and so on. Unless we’re part of that niche that’s constantly looking for a very specific type of game where things like logistics of goods are something that requires a lot of thought put into, rarely do we come to think of anything that is closely related to the inventory system of a game.

The inventory system touches many areas of a game. It may seem like a boring subject, a tiny little thing beside the things we tend to see as more important, such as combat. But overlooking it is not justified, for how the inventory is handled in a game affects all of it’s players, raider and playerkiller, crafter and warrior alike.

Often do the effects a game’s inventory system go subconsciously unnoticed. Or rather, we tend to not think of the chosen inventory system as a feature – handling the system as it is simply becomes second nature. Yet, while we may not notice it consciously, these systems affect our view of how the game feels, how immersed we feel within the world, how fun or satisfying the gameplay feels, and so on.

In many an MMORPG, when for example a blacksmith is at work, they may be carrying hundreds of kilograms worth of stuff in their bags. They might pick up 400 iron bars from their bank, run to an anvil and turn those bars into 80 iron swords. Is that realistic? Not at all. But does it suit some games? Obviously, the most popular of them all, World of Warcraft, uses this system. Still, it is quite a bland system, and not very satisfying as far as immersion goes. It also does not offer much in terms of gameplay – how much the player can carry at one time is so unrestricted you rarely have to think about it. They might buy the occasional larger bag, but that’s about it.

Compare WoW’s system to that of another very popular Western game, RuneScape. On paper, there’s not much complexity to it other than the fact the weight of items affects how long the player can sprint. But that’s not all that completely differentiates Runescape’s inventory system from that of WoW – there’s also the fact inventory space is much more limited. It’s not just the bag size that does this, which by the way is limited to about 30 slots – its also that much fewer items stack. Foods, potions, all of that – each piece requires an individual slot.

Would WoW’s very, if not overly convenient system, where one is able to carry a hundred battleaxes within a single inventory without breaking a sweat, suit RuneScape? The answer is that it wouldn’t. As a game, RuneScape is built around the idea of a limited inventory. The skill grind relies on it – you have to constantly run between the bank and the crafting spot, and this makes the endeavour of skilling up slightly more varied. This, along with planning one’s inventory, is made more important by the existence of the various unconventional and advanced methods of skill training, which experienced players know more about. And the limited inventory size has a major effect in combat and quests where inventory planning is a common practice and indeed essential. The inventory system, as it stands, is a crucial part of the RuneScape experience. A core game mechanic.

Yet, the effects of the inventory systems used in these two games often go unnoticed. The simple lack of item stacking and the more limited space can already add a lot of gameplay. Of course the game’s other mechanics must support this, however. RuneScape lacks for example the trash items of modern themepark games, and healing is done mainly through food instead of spells. These two points both make the inventory system more viable for the game in question.

The two of the most popular Western games are of course not the only MMORPGs on the market, and their inventory systems aren’t the only ones out there. Ultima Online, as many will remember, as a pioneer of the genre tried a more realistic approach to handling the inventory. In UO, there are no inventory slots – the bag is a two-dimensional space where items must be dragged and dropped, and each item is given unique coordinates.

This adds more inventory-related gameplay than either of the two systems presented before. Having to individually drag and drop each item from the ground to one’s bags is a completely different experience from shift-autolooting a corpse or spam clicking an item on the ground (especially in PVP) – as is the organization of a bag without a nice grid within the limits of which your items line up nicely in a perfect order.

There is a reason however why very few games have adopted UO’s system – the only one I can quickly recall from recent years would be Darkfall. The reason is the simple fact it is annoying and predisposes players to carpal tunnel syndrome. This is of course a matter of opinion, but I think in this case the majority will agree that more gameplay is not automatically a good thing.

While the choice of inventory system depends quite a bit on the game itself and it’s other mechanics, I would personally hope for all games to add at least some level of inventory-related gameplay, something more complex than bags with slots of a fixed fit-for-all size. One of my personal favourite systems from recent MMORPGs would probably be that of Eldevin’s – it is much akin to Neverwinter Nights’ system in that there’s still a grid, but some large items can take multiple slots.

What I would add to this system would be weights, modified by some character statistics such as strength. In addition, I wouldn’t have the extra bags be purchasable only by real money, as Eldevin does. About those bags, another idea would be to be able to enchant some bags to magically reduce the weight of items inside them, or something of the like. That would add some more gameplay, and something non-combat related for an enchanter to do. Anyway, as far as inventory system design goes, I think what a developer should aim for is a good balance of gameplay, realism and convenience.

The evil of homogenization

In most games, players generally expect all players to have an equal chance in winning from the point of view of game mechanics, the end result being mainly reliant on the skill of the players or sometimes simple luck.

This expectation is not easily justified in the world of roleplaying games, where winning alone is difficult to characterize. Some would go as far as arguing there are no winners or losers in RPGs.

Despite this, a lot of very competitive gamers play massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. They create pressure on the developers, pressure not only to make games more competitive, but to make what little competition there already is in these games more fair or balanced.

Balancing is always important, even if a game’s playerbase isn’t particularly competitive. As a developer, you want different options of gameplay to be at least viable, even if they aren’t optimal. If you implement different choices but they are never utilized, you are wasting development time (or alternatively, attempting to trick players with false choice).

Even in a non-competitive game, balancing can still be a fairly complex deed. Making characters and playstyles varied, not too similar to each other yet still viable, is a demanding task. It is easy to imagine then that balancing in a way that makes different options not only viable but also equal in terms of performance is very difficult.

Traditionally in RPG balancing, complete equality in terms of performance has not been a goal, because it hasn’t been needed or called for. The players don’t expect it. A lot of players don’t even want it. But again, the player base of the MMORPG is different from that of other RPGs. These players often have a history in competitive online gaming and expect completely different things.

So we can see that satisfying both, players’ demands of fairness and of variance are very challenging to simultaneously achieve. What can the developer do?

While going for the lowest common denominator isn’t usually the best recommendation, I think the safest answer to the question would be to aim for a middleground. A game doesn’t need complete balance, but options don’t have to be extremely far from each other either in terms of performance. If you are giving players the option to play a gnome warrior or an ogre warrior, it’s fine to let the ogre be more powerful in the job – as long as the gnome is still playable despite some possible difficulties. If the gnome tries hard enough, maybe they can reach almost similar levels of performance as the ogre. Or maybe the gnome has a special ability, like being able to move silently. This approach keeps some level of variance and choice in place yet doesn’t go overboard with homogenization.

Talking about homogenization, this is the big problem with balancing. When developers try too hard to make performance equal for all the possible options, homogenization tends to happens, and unfortunately it has the capability of diluting gameplay. We can see this in effect in a couple of games. Darkfall made all the races use the same model to unify their hitboxes. World of Warcraft’s developers got stuck on looking at damage-per-second numbers and little by little made most of the classes of the same role feel very same-y – things that were unique to some classes, such as rogues’ crowd control or paladins’ strong multimonster tanking capability, were either given to everyone or removed.

My strong opinion is that the latter is bad design. Yes, greater balance and fairness is achieved, but something is lost on the way, something that is very close to the heart of the RPG genre. Variance in gameplay, immersion (the gnome and the ogre shouldn’t have an equal Strength score), the feeling of playing the character you chose – you know, roleplaying.While loudmouths on your game’s forum will never seem satisfied, in the end my belief is that it is better for a game to keep true to the genre, at least to a reasonable extent. Overdoing balance and homogenizing things along the way has the problem that in time, even the majority of the more competitive sorts who have been asking for fairer gameplay will come to realize your game has become bland, lost some of the magic that originally drew them in. In the end, diversity is a very big part of the draw of RPGs.

Implementing alignment in MMORPGs

While levels, roles, dice rolls and many other features have all been successfully transferred from traditional roleplaying games to their massively multiplayer online counterparts, some features remain unimplemented to this day. One of those is alignment.

Most gamers are probably at least to some extent familiar with a form of the D&D-type alignment system. Even if one has never played a roleplaying game in their life, the good-neutral-evil, lawful-neutral-chaotic table should be a familiar sight from viral images if nothing else.

The purpose of D&D style alignment is to provide a moral framework for one’s character to base their decisions on. The character is to act accordingly to their own alignment. An evil character does evil things, and vice versa for a good character, to put it simply.

Ever wanted to play a chaotic evil character and have the game mechanics actually support that choice? That’s what alignment is about. Making choices against your alignment could change it, and should it change too much in one direction or another, you may get penalized. Maybe you are a cleric and some of your spells stop working because your deity disapproves your actions, or maybe you gain an experience penalty as an assassin because you are becoming too good to be one of your profession. Or maybe you, as an evil character, just gradually become good through a series of life changing events, and spells like Detect Evil will no longer return the same results when being used on you as they did before.

Indeed it isn’t just a character’s decisions that their alignment has an effect on – alignment is to play directly into the game’s mechanics. Alignment isn’t to be something that you simply pick and then act as you like, maybe sometimes completely contradicting your original choice.

But the consequences of changes in alignment, or of actions opposing one’s alignment, are not necessarily what’s on the way of implementation of the feature into MMORPGs – it is the decisions themselves.

We can philosophize all we want, but essentially what branch of alignment an action represents is subjective. Normally it would be the Dungeon Master that decides whether an action is good or evil or whatever, but you don’t have the luxury of having one of those deciding things for you in a massive online multiplayer game. Instead you have developers who have to hardcode these things into the game.

The developer can introduce dialogue and other options to quests that represent different values of life. They can make robbing an ancient grave move the looter’s alignment to towards evil, and they can make giving money to a beggar NPC do the opposite. But the one thing they cannot do is easily tell whether an action of a player character towards another player character is good or evil or something else.

Some situations may seem easy to solve. Should a player for example kill another player, the action could be regarded as evil. But what would be a good action towards another player? How would you tell whether a thing a player said to another was full of malice or goodwill? How about this: if greed was regarded as an evil trait, would manipulating an in-game Auction House system for profit be regarded as evil? How would you track it?

There are so many obstacles in the way. Not even the killing of another player is as simple as it may seem. What if the victim had murdered a friend of their killer earlier? That would make the deed revenge, and in some societies that could well be regarded as a lawful act.

Maybe some sort of a voting mechanism could fix the issue. One where players could vote whether this or that action by a player was within their alignment or not. But systems of this sort are prone to abuse, and require a very specific type of game, likely one with an extreme focus on in-character roleplay.

All that considered, its no wonder why just about no MMORPG supports an alignment system. SWTOR had it’s light and dark system, but frankly the game was a very singleplayer experience. The system itself was only ever a part of NPC quests, which felt very awkward, seeing as an MMORPG by definition is about interacting with other players.

Maybe in the next couple hundred years artificial intelligence will have advanced enough to analyze player characters’ actions towards each other and modify their alignments accordingly. With the issue being as complex as it is, I don’t see that happening very soon.

Innovating on combat

Had one read an online forum focused on the topic of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games a couple of years back, they would’ve seen a lot of discussion on how the tab targeting combat system was outdated and needed to be replaced by something more modern.

Today the opposition to tab targeting doesn’t seem quite as vocal as it once did. That may partly be thanks to the era of clones-of-a-certain-big-game being about to draw it’s last breaths. But at least equally importantly, new systems have been tried in the past couple of years. Darkfall‘s combat, however clunky, is about as close to true FPS combat as you can get – its almost as if playing Quake in a fantasy setting and in a fully open world. There’s TERA with it’s semi aim-based system and rather console-like feel. There’s GuildWars with it’s modified tab targeting, and there’s WildStar with it’s telegraphs.

Now that’s not a definitive list of everything that’s been attempted recently, but the amount of different combat systems has increased. Granted, some of the attempts have been imperfect at best – Darkfall’s take on FPS-like combat for example falls short due to certain bad design decisions and lack of polish in the UI and control sections. But what’s for sure is there’s plenty of alternatives to tab targeting now – alternatives that have actually been tried in practice.

Is there really anything wrong with tab targeting, though? I think some people who used to think they hated tab targeting are now coming to realize that the system isn’t really that bad.

A couple of years ago, when players were practically being fed clone after clone by the market, it was easy to put tab targeting into that pile of features that made a game a WoW clone, amongst other things. See, players like to think they know what they want. But the truth is, often times they really don’t. They know they are bored with what is currently being offered, so they do know they want something different. But putting a finger on what needs to be different is surprisingly difficult.

That could be what made tab targeting so unpopular for a while. Because it was the de-facto system of combat, players felt it needed to be changed. At this point in time though, it is easier to see the system in a more neutral light – that it is just a system amongst others. It suits some games well, even very modern, action-packed games – FFXIV for example. One could go as far as claiming it is one of the best systems for a RPG even because it is not super reliant on the player but more on the character. And yet, with slight modification it is very flexible and can be transformed into something that feels very different.

But that’s enough about tab targeting. As great a system as it is, it indeed is just one system amongst many. So talking about those other systems, which ones have not been utilized in an MMORPG as of yet?

One source of inspiration could be lobby-based battle games like MOBAs. There are various types of them, and one in particular comes to my mind when thinking of MMORPG combat: Bloodline Champions. It uses the usual fixed camera view from an angle, but instead of targeting, abilities are aimed using the mouse pointer and they have travel times in the fashion of missile spells. That’s one concept to think about.

As for the systems that have already been tried, it would be interesting to see first person combat done properly in a fantasy setting. Darkfall and Mortal Online have both tried, but both games have major problems unrelated to the combat system itself, making them remain extremely niche products.

TERA’s third person, aim-based combat system is an intriguing case as well. Now, if only a Western fantasy themed game tried utilizing it, but with a little less flashiness.

Endgame: is leveling really necessary?

EverQuest is what first introduced the DikuMUD model to MMORPGs. It was World of Warcraft however that really popularized it.

By definition, Diku is heavily combat and character progression driven. In modern times,  thanks to the influence of EQ and especially WoW, that progress for the most part happens after reaching the level cap, through the acquisition of better and better equipment.

One could say that essentially raiding focused games today are group dungeon crawlers that also feature an open world fit for socializing on the side. A cynic could say the open world has been reduced to nothing but a lobby space from which players enter various minigames – but we will leave that debate for another time. Anyway, if the player isn’t currently raiding in a game of this type, it is very likely they are at least working on something that is related to raiding or increases their raid performance.

At this point I should probably point out that I realize not all Diku-inspired MMOs focus on raiding – LOTRO for example has shifted it’s focus almost completely away from group content. And it should probably be mentioned that in this post I purposefully choose to ignore the most casual population of the games that feature raiding – those players who in WoW for example, despite the existence of features like Looking-for-Raid, do not raid.

Back to raid-centric MMORPGs. For many of them, raiding is quite simply the end-all-be-all of relevant content (some would call these type of games WoW clones). Now, raiding being as important as it is begs the question: why spend resources on other content when you could spend it on improving the raiding experience further? Why have, for example, an open world full of quests a lot of people will find to be an annoyance anyway when you could just spend the  development time on designing interesting dungeon encounters instead?

I have mentioned before that for hardcore raiders a big motivation to do what they do are the bragging rights. Standing in the middle of a great city in your spiked armour known to drop only from one of the hardest boss encounters in the game with newbies drooling and whispering as they walk by feels extremely rewarding.

And while even the hardcore cannot raid 24/7, they will from time to time want to play the game outside of their group’s raid times. Hence, incentives to log in outside of raids times are needed – as fun as raiding might be, people don’t want to be completely tied to the schedule of others to do anything relevant in-game. Farming money or consumable items, or maybe simply working towards cosmetic improvements like mounts in the open world turn out to be valuable timesinks when it comes to keeping players interested.

Because of the above reasons, the open space, the persistent world outside of raid dungeons that defines these games as a part of the MMORPG genre, can be considered to be an almost necessary part of raid-centric games, even if nowadays less and less time is being spent outside of instances. I don’t believe a lobby-based game consisting of 100 % raiding could be made to work very easily. But one cannot help thinking: would a game focusing a greater proportion of it’s resources on raiding work?

Take WildStar for example, a game prior to release advertised to be a raider’s paradise. Personally, in the case of this game I believe most of the development time spent on the questing experience may have been, to be blunt, wasted. Of course development of the game engine probably took the most money, but I have been pondering whether the game would be doing better than it is now, financially speaking, had it only focused on the endgame without the fluff of the linear and (to many) boring quests and other scripted events that fill the outside world. The leveling simply feels like it was slapped on top, for no other reason but that’s how it has always been. But was it really needed? What if the game had simply been designed so that you started at the maximum level, or rather that there were no levels at all, and the only progression there was to be made was through gaining better equipment or some other form of character power and status?

For just about all the Diku-derivative MMORPGs today leveling isn’t what it once was. Level caps are expected to be reached in a very short time. Levels still increase character power, but because of the comparably small time investment, the real game may as well be treated to start at the maximum level. I know I am not the first one to say this,  but leveling in games that focus on raiding has been reduced to a sort of a tutorial to the game or the player’s chosen class.

To get to the point, I feel the concept of character levels may be needless if you are to make a game focused on keeping the hardcore raiding niche entertained. It would be very interesting to see whether or not a raid-centric game without levels would work. Personally I think it well could.

Pretending its not there

While currently it may feel like the MMORPG is a stagnating genre, a couple of years back it was still heavily evolving. It turned out not to evolve in the way many of us had expected however: instead of creating more and more immersive and complex virtual worlds, developers started taking a more game-y approach to these online spaces, focusing on bite-sized and instanced gameplay rather than world simulation. Partly thanks to the influence of the lobby based MOBA games, features such as Battlegrounds and the Dungeon Finder became standard features of modern MMORPGs – at least the themepark subtype of them.

Many of the new features introduced to MMORPGs in the past couple of years divide opinions. Already before the Dungeon Finder instancing itself was frowned upon by a large part of the community. Everybody has those features they dislike in their game of choice – no game is ever perfect. The question is: how do you deal with features you strongly dislike?

I mentioned the Dungeon Finder right at the top of this post. That’s because one of my biggest personal gripes is with this feature. Of course, as with any opinion, I am not saying my opinion is the only right one – that being said I tend to make my opinion heard on the fact I dislike this particular feature. I also tend to stay away form games that implement it. On the internet I’ve had many a discussion about the feature, and time and time again the same argument has come up:

Why don’t you just ignore it?

Turns out the Dungeon Finder is a particularly good example of why this argument does not work. In the case of this particular feature, if a game utilizes it, it is a near-impossibility for a player to play the game without it. Not only are many games nowadays designed all around the use of this feature from the get-go, even if it is introduced into a game post-release (which is what happened to WoW), it will be the optimal way to do things and hence everyone will expect you to use it. Often it even introduces extra rewards as opposed to the method of running dungeons in the “normal” way. Good luck finding a like-minded group of people to run dungeons with without using the tool.

Finding that group of like-minded players isn’t the only problem making it difficult to enjoy a game if you despise the Dungeon Finder of course. You aren’t alone in the virtual world – that’s what persistent MMO worlds are about after all. Even if you and a couple of friends refuse to use the feature, most others will not and this will affect your gameplay one way or another. You will see people getting equipment faster and easier than you. Other players will be capable of getting around the world quicker than you thanks to the non-class dependant teleportation system of the feature (which is a particularly unimmersive thing by the way). And most of all, everyone outside your group of friends will expect you to use the feature, and if you don’t, they will be confused. They will think you are stupid. You are being inefficient as a player, a burden to others.

But this post isn’t just about the Dungeon Finder. The suggestion of ignoring the existence of a feature to enjoy a game is an ignorant one almost no matter what the feature is, be it instancing, the DF, localized banking or there being no penalty to dying. If somebody wanted an MMORPG to have harsher death penalties, would you really go ahead and suggest they could just destroy their own property on death and that would solve the problem?

When players have to make up artificial rules to enjoy a game, the situation becomes comparable to that of a couple of children playing cops and robbers. No written-down rules exist and what ends up happening is neither side can agree on who shot first and whether or not the bullet hit. Now, to some extent that approach can work – see roleplaying servers of some themepark games for example – but that requires a very specific mindset. Literally going down to the level of childlike play for the sake of enjoying a game isn’t a satisfying solution – games, by definition, have rules. We shouldn’t have to pretend something does not exist, period.