Tag Archives: EVE Online

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?

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.

Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

Roleplaying games are pretty much built around the use of random number generators (RNG). The history of this derives from the tabletop world of course, but there’s a reason randomization has stayed a part of the genre throughout it’s years of moving to the digital world of computers: player skill isn’t what is considered important, but that of the character – hence the term roleplaying game. The player does not play themselves but a character with a distinct set of skills and abilities.

Another reason for the existence of randomization is that it’s an easy and cheap way to make gameplay more varied. In the tabletop world this point isn’t as crucial because no campaign will ever be exactly the same, even if run by a the same game master, but fighting for example the same monsters in a computer RPG would get boring much more quickly without RNG as every fight against a particular monster type would be exactly the same as the one before. Here we step on the main point of randomization: it spices up the gameplay.

While previously pretty much an unquestioned part of the genre, as competition has become a regular aspect of the multiplayer CRPG, especially the massively multiplayer online variety of it, random number generators have come to be a subject of debate. Especially in games that involve player versus player combat the subject is seen as one of great importance. It of course also affects another form of competition, the competition between raiding guilds to down encounters faster than others, but this is  to a lesser extent and hence I will not go into that in this post.

Its easy enough to understand why randomness is regarded as such an important subject in PVP-focused games – after all, continuously losing to another player due to bad rolls can with fair reason be called lame. It makes one question whether a game is suitable as a competitive platform to begin with.

With that in mind, it is surprising to me that, from my subjective experience at least, in games where losing in PVP can present a far greater penalty, RNG isn’t discussed nearly as often as in some games where losing to another player presents little to no penalty at all. I am talking about two distinct game types here: the open world, free-for-all, full loot games such as EVE, Darkfall or the bygone Shadowbane, where death can mean the loss of your entire property at worst, and games where just about all PVP is instanced and rather sterile, and where defeats represent nothing but a mere loss of time and rating – for example the Arena minigame in World of Warcraft.

At first glance it seems weird RNG is discussed as little as it is in open world PVP games in comparison to ones where competition happens in a far safer environment in terms of what one can lose. But what it maybe comes down to are two things.

First, because open world PVP is already not artificially limited by a set of rules that would, for example, limit the amount of participating players, there already exists such a great level of randomness that the addition of randomized damage ranges, hit tables and whatnot does not seem like such a big deal.

The second reason is social: the game types appeal to different kinds of people. From my personal experience, players in open world PVP games tend to have backgrounds in the RPG genre, where as people into instanced PVP often have at least some background in esport-type games – FPS, MOBAs and the like – and often little to no background in roleplaying.

While in instanced PVP randomness is especially frowned upon, just about no game that offers this feature has completely gotten rid of it. There’s has to be a reason for this. What that reason probably is is that developers realize having at least some randomness to combat is actually beneficial even in a competitive game. The question to ask is: what is a suitable amount of randomness to spice up the game without making it too random.

Once again it comes down to what a game’s playerbase expects from the game – what sort of player the game appeals to. The competitive arena player who watches esports streams on Twitch probably despises randomness and wants things to be decided based on player skill. That being said, while some would claim otherwise, having a level of randomness doesn’t completely eliminate player skill, not even close, and despite numbers sometimes being more in favor of another team, in the long run randomness always balances out. A reasonable amount of randomness in a game of this sort can make it slightly more interesting to watch and play without completely deciding matches – critical hits, damage ranges and the like. Pseudo-random systems are not bad either, and many MOBA games utilize them despite these games being very balanced.

Contrast to arena players and the like, players of open world PVP games tend to be more used to traditional RPG mechanics and expect them.This alone makes them more prone to be acceptable of randomization, but in addition to this, world PVP is already almost always unfair in one way or another. Of course a randomly generated streak of missed strikes causing a death and loss of property is annoying, but just about equally annoying is getting killed by a group of two players who happened to stumble upon you as you were adventuring alone. In such an unbalanced, unsterile environment RNG does not get to stand out in a negative way very often due to the huge amount of other factors that affect who actually wins a fight. This, I would conclude, is the reason RNG is so little discussed in open world PVP games.

Now, if we did want to completely remove randomization from combat, one could ask: what harm would that do? The problem is that as for PVE, random number generation is almost necessary, because encounters are normally tightly scripted. Without randomization, PVE would quickly become extremely dull, because the exact same strategy without the slightest bit of variation would work every single time against the same encounter.

Few games have a completely separate combat system for PVE and PVP, so the two must overlap – if randomization is part of PVE, it must also be part of PVP. That has to be accepted by the developer. But the amount of randomization should probably depend on the type of game they are making, and the type of playerbase they are aiming for – different types of players expect different things.

Carebears playing PVP games

Inspired by recent small-scale discussion in certain blogs on the subject of PVE servers in games centered and balanced around the idea of free-for-all PVP and player looting, I came to think of trying to put my finger on what makes a game of this type appeal to players who don’t do PVP combat at all – the carebears. The fact is, just about every game of the described type has those players who never fight it out with others – what is it that draws them to these games?

The economy game

Its well known there is a vocal group of people who are very strongly against any type of unconventional PVP in MMORPGs. I believe these people to be in the minority. Much like the PVP advocates who feel every game should be all about free-for-all PVP combat, I view this group as a niche. The majority of genre players probably fall somewhere in between the two extremes, as is usual with divisive features.

Just because a player does not want to engage in PVP does not mean they dislike it. EVE is a perfect example, as has been pointed out time and time again – warfare drives the economy, but participating in the economy in a very meaningful way does not require direct participation in combat against other players.

A meaningful, well balanced economy is interesting, and to a lot of people, reason enough to play an MMO. In the case of games where killing other players is possible and looting or partially destroying their stuff equally so, PVP helps to both drive the market forward and balance it, to the benefit of also the merchant who might not have an interest in direct conflict at all.

Ignoring the bad for the good

As gamers know all too well, the perfect game does not exist. Even our favorite games have their flaws which we look past because the rest of the game draws us in. Especially in the current market this is more true than ever, for the genre is not new anymore and people more or less know exactly what they want. Combine that with the fact in recent years the supply of MMORPGs has mainly consisted exclusively of the post-WoW themepark -subtype and we’re left with a situation where if one wants to play a new game, it is likely they’re going to have to look past a lot of features they personally dislike to get a piece of the good stuff.

ArcheAge is a very good recent example of this: a lot of FFA PVP-minded players are known to be playing it despite the game having many features they dislike and lacking others they would find suitable, simply because there is not much else for them to play out there in the current market.

Just like the free-for-all PVP crowd playing ArcheAge have to settle for “good enough”, so must many high sec EVE players. To a different extent of course, but in the end, FFA PVP is just a feature amongst others – just because it exists in a game doesn’t mean its the only thing to do.

Players will play a game the majority of which they like, even if they dislike some of it’s features. However, if some feature is especially offputting to a certain group of players, the features that group actually considers interesting should be of particularly high quality. Take Darkfall Online for example. A common argument to hear on why the game always had such a low population is that it features open world PVP and full looting. I would argue that this is only part of the problem – the real problem is that the game’s quality does not meet the expectations of players and the game lacks in just about all of it’s content. There just isn’t much else to do in the game but to endlessly murder others.

Just having a free-for-all PVP system doesn’t have to turn a game into a murder simulator. I feel a game with the feature can well be designed in such a way it is still interesting to the carebear. Its also important to note  that a game of this sort could still well include quality PVE content. And lastly, balancing the economy of a sandbox title without PVP seems like a pretty tough nut to crack to say the least.

UI design: too much information

User interfaces in MMORPGs tend to be quite extensive to put it mildly. From various exact numbers like threat, damage-per-second, health and other resources to real time boss strategies and timers, you’re likely to find an option to display it on your interface in many games.

A justified question is whether this is a good thing or not. The question  was sparked by a YouTube video by Corpsealot (whose videos I very much recommend to anybody interested in MMORPG design philosophy by the way), titled Players know too much. In the video it is argued that players have too much information, and that the right way to design a truely immersive game experience would be to not convey more information to the player than can be considered to be available to the player’s character.

I don’t necessarily agree with the view all games should be designed around this principle, but then again in the video is presented a single person’s opinion. That being said, there’s a point to the commentary there. Having more information of, for example, the health state of an opponent being conveyed by visible phenomena within the game, for example by bleeding and slowed down movement rather than by numbers on the UI, might well be more immersive than the typical RPG approach that displays a lot of things as raw numerical values.

Is a minimalistic UI a prerequisite for an immersive experience then? Of course not, we all know that. Whether it was while playing a tabletop RPG or a tab-targeting based CRPG, we’ve all (I hope) at some point felt very immersed in a game world. And honestly, most people probably aren’t even looking for complete three-dimensional world simulation. The majority of gamers are perfectly happy with character health states, feelings and other things being presented to us as numbers, icons, bars and text. But I think there’s room for discussion whether we need as much information as we are currently being handed.

Take for example exact unit health values. We already have a red or green bar roughly representing the health percentage of boss X. Do we really need to know boss X has a maximum of exactly 120,063 hitpoints, of which 99853 are left? I would argue that discovering the rough amount of health a unit has by trial and error would make for intriguing gameplay in many games of the genre.

For another example, take unit levels. How do we know this cat-like beast we’re engaging in combat is exactly at a combat level of 37? And why does a unit with the exact same model and texture have a combat level or 8 instead? Or 56? Coupled with the knowledge of the exact maximum health of the unit amongst other possible bits of information conveyed to us by the UI, we can pretty much tell without ever engaging the opponent whether we’d stand a chance or not. Why does this information have to be so exact?

I’m not saying design should go back to the EQ days when you would type /con to consider every single unit you ran into. But I feel that a game needn’t tell the player exactly whether or not an opponent is suitable for them to take on or not. Even color codes for names based on relative level would in my opinion be an improvement. Not only is it ridiculous that a knight rushes headlong into battle against a massive troll whose combat level is 5, yet hides when they meet an exactly similar looking troll who’s combat level is 50 instead, but if exact level display was disabled, in PVP it would be more difficult to decide whether or not you might want to attack that lonely rider on the road as you couldn’t tell for sure if they were just a regular traveler or a master swordsman in disguise.

The overabundance of information isn’t always nonsensical. It suits EVE Online for example because, well, spaceships – complicated machines with all kinds of sensors and buttons and whatnot. But as you’re trying to become immersed in a high fantasy world, it’s a little ridiculous you have 7 boss ability timers on your screen as with a battleaxe you smash away at the Dragon Queen who you know has exactly 74302/120000 mana left, meaning that after she’s spent 24302 more mana another mechanic, shouted at you by a big block of red text in the middle of your screen, will enter the fight.