Tag Archives: Star Wars Galaxies

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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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.