Tag Archives: game design

The Kindness of Strangers

(No, not the album by Spock’s Beard.)

eq_buff_speed Imagine this situation. You are in a somewhat old-school MMO. You are running and meeting someone else on the road. Let’s say you’re a priest or mage in WoW and meet someone in the Barrens, or a shaman in EQ and meet someone in Karana. What do you do? (PVPers who answers with “I stealth and gank them” may stop reading now). To me, the most natural thing, even before thinking of a /wave or anything, would be to target them and hit my buff button. Fortitude, Arcane Intellect, Spirit of Wolf.

wow_buff_aiI loved doing that. Just randomly be kind to other players, help them out a bit. It made the other happy, sometimes you got a “thank you”. Every now and then, it even sparked a conversation. I only realized how much I liked buffing people randomly after the ability to do so went out of fashion. Ask yourself: what was the last game you played that allowed you to buff random people on the drive-by? I thought about the games I played in the last couple of years. LotRO? Nope. EQ2? Nope. Rift? Don’t think so. TSW? Nope. EVE? Muahaha… hahaha… *gasp*… sorry. Kind to strangers? That was a trick question, of course. Vanguard? Ok, you got me there, Vanguard lets you buff strangers. But the way this game promotes the old-school vibe, it only reinforces my impression that this is something that MMOs have phased out.

eq_buff_strengthWhy do games not allow me to be kind to strangers in that way any more? OK, so there might be ways to exploit this to grief people. But you have to look really hard and really close, and even then, I can’t think of anything but rare cases. The only one I can come up with was the ever-so-popular “Zeppelin Fortitude Splat” (a name I just invented) in WoW. I’ll segue for a second, just because the thing makes me smile even now.

wow_buff_fortitudeSo, Undercity and Orgrimmar were (and still are, I think) connected by a Zeppelin line. When you arrived, you could jump off before it moored, and save some time. You’d take falling damage, sure. Lots of falling damage (easily 90% of your health). But you didn’t die, because it was always a percentage of your maximum health (unless you jumped off too early and straight up died from the fall). Fortitude, on the other hand, increased your maximum health. It didn’t increase your current health, though. So let’s say your “victim” had 1000 maximum health before buffing. Fortitude increased that to 1200 maximum health, but the current health was still 1000, slowly regenerating. Buffing someone right when they jumped off… Well, 90% of 1200 is more than 1000… I’m guilty of doing that a couple of times. I always offered a rez afterwards though, and apologized.

eq_buff_concentrationAnyway, I digress. So, why did games stop doing that? These days, buffs area almost always group-only, so you have to form a group with people before you can buff them. Which kind of works ass-backwards considering so many games try to lower the barrier to interaction by doing informal grouping with transient groups, or with kill-sharing without joining any group at all. What are developers afraid of that they took those tools away from players? Are they worried about balance? That people will either be way too powerful with buffs, or not powerful enough without them to progress in the game? That doesn’t make sense to me, because in-the-world events are typically not carefully balanced anyway. The only serious balancing seems to be done to group and raid dungeons, and if the buffs are group-only, you still have them there.

wow_buff_motwAre they worried most people might not be able to manage buffs properly? That they forget to renew buffs, buff new group members, forget to buff altogether? In that case, the developers at least chose an effective solution. These days, most buffs I can think of are fire-and-forget. Like an aura, they apply to yourself, are eternally in effect until cancelled (sometimes even persist through death), and automatically apply to your group members as long as they stay in your group. On the other hand, that also makes such buffs immensely boring. It takes away the gratification you get from buffing someone and see health, run speed, or whatever, increase. Would anybody design all damage spells to be auras that automatically apply to close enemies, without any interaction? Of course not, that would be silly! So why are buffs treated that way?

What makes fights good or bad? (or: why do most dynamic events suck?)

When I described my experiences with the FFXIV beta, I also talked about their implementation of short, in-the-world, invasion type events (Rifts, public quests, etc.):

FFXIV adds the en-vogue public event things, were you have a marker on your map and then rush off to mash your buttons like crazy to kill stuff and get XP. Never been a big fan of those either, because it seems the best solution to large amounts of players that developers have come up with so far is scaling the HP of mobs to ridiculous levels, which makes these events tedious, but still not really a social thing, because everybody just mashes buttons and then leaves without a word after the enemy keels over.

Bhagpuss argues in a comment:

[M]y favorite innovation in MMOs of late is the huge all-pile-on fights you don’t like. I can happily mash buttons for hours in a huge crowd fighting a big monster – what’s not to like about that?

I’ll try to give my personal answer to this question in the form of a post. I’ll probably make it sound like a law of design, but I’m quite sure it isn’t. I just tried to order my thoughts into categories that make sense to me. The “why” is certainly an open question to me, and you’re welcome to point out flaws or suggest additional aspects.

I came up with three factors that make fights good for me:

  1. Meaningful Interaction
  2. Rhythm
  3. Variation

Meaningful Interaction: I am with a group of people. We see a fearsome monster. How should we tackle it? Do I have abilities that debuff the monster in ways that increases the effectiveness of my party members? Do they have abilities that do the same for me? Part of the fun can be figuring out those combos and putting them to use. That’s a bit like using combos in card games such as Magic. This kind of interaction is meaningful because it provides fun due to interaction of mechanics. Another meaningful interaction would be outside the mechanics of the game, and purely social. It’s what old EQ players like to tell the younglings when they gather round a fire. Sitting in a location for hours and talking to each other while waiting for carefully paced respawns popping. Which leads me to the next point…

Rhythm: Good fights should provide me with a rhythm of action and downtime. That rhythm comes naturally if I am on my own and not on some sort of timed quests. I can roam around and pull mobs whenever I feel like it. I can pull them as fast or as slow as I want (provided I am careful with social or proximity aggro). It can also happen within a single longer fight, where high-DPS abilities and phases with longer cooldowns alternating with slower phases with less damage output. In a group with meaningful interactions, this can be even more pronounced by cooldown pacing of all members of the groups, stacking them or at least keeping track of other member’s abilities.

Variation: The Romans knew it already: variatio delectat. Alternating melee mobs with casters, high damage dealers with healers, and so on, provides variation that can prevent dullness. In larger and longer fights this can appear as fight phases with different tactics, or with specialized roles for players that may even be rotated among them (e.g., an ability has to be interrupted or an item interacted with every 15 seconds, but doing so gives you a 60-second cooldown).

Now, I don’t think it’s required to have all these things at the same time, all the time. But in the absence of all of them, dullness can creep in. The type of “dynamic event”/”public quest”/Rift/Fate (is there a generally-understood umbrella term for those?) I’m thinking of has none of those three, more often than not. It does not have meaningful interaction, because everybody mashes buttons as fast as possible, without any regard to other players. Rhythm is invariably off. In larger groups in Rift, most public event monsters died before I could even finish a cast as a mage. In FFXIV, we had events with single monsters that didn’t do anything but hit like a wet towel, but had the HP of an oil tanker. The fact that they didn’t do anything but hit the player at the top of the aggro list also meant that there was no variation to the fight.

I’ve seen this happen too often with dynamic events, which is why I think most of them produce bad fights and nothing good enough to offset that. They often feel like a missed opportunity. Maybe there are design decisions or limitations that make it incredibly hard to make engaging events, but the current iteration stinks.

An Example of a Good Dungeon

A short one this time:

You might want to click this to see anything.

I complained about how dungeons got boring. Now that I returned to LotRO (at least for the time being), I found a great antithesis to the bad design patterns I saw in WoW dungeons. Let me introduce: Goblin-town.

The dungeon is split into 10 small zones, with different design patterns. While the (incomplete) map to the right gives an idea of the expansiveness of the dungeon, it fails (like all LotRO maps) to convey its massive vertical size. The main area, divided into three subzones, is basically a long, dark, flight of halls, but crisscrossed by two additional upper levels of paths meandering along the cave walls and outcrops, with bridges and stairs connecting them. Most of the peripheral subzones make even more use of vertical design; some are deep enough to fall to your death if you’re taking a wrong step on a bridge (and you can fall VERY deep in LotRO before you die, I’d say at least 5 to 6 floors). Sadly, I tried and tired, but I couldn’t manage to get good screenshots to show off the vast, but still claustrophobic feel of this place.

The subzones, and the different halls of the main areas, are interconnected by tunnels that branch off, meet again, have numerous dead ends, and you wonder how the goblins ever made it out of this maze successfully. I got lost several times. At level, it was a classic dungeon crawl. I could spend hours inside there, and actually did, simply exploring and killing Goblins. It took me three evenings to reach the lowest areas.

In one word, Goblin-town is amazing.

Oh, and there’s cave paintings:

This one looks more like a prehistoric painting...

...while this reminds me of modern art.

And somewhere deep down inside, of course, there’s Gollum’s cave. In fact, Bilbo asks you to find it and map out how to get there.

After much back and forth, I found it in the end. And of course, I had to pose for eternity:

Preciousssss! *ahem*

I decided to recall out of the cave. I think getting out without a map would’ve cost me another hour or two. If I ever get another character into the right level range, I sure know where to go.

On Dungeon Design, or: why dungeons became boring

Like many another among us bloggers, I have lamented the passing of the good old times more than once. Coming from WoW, it will remain my gold standard for the foreseeable future to gauge every other MMO, for better or worse; and if anything, at least its still immense weight of millions of subscribers makes sure that this comparison can’t be completely useless.

Dungeoning is one of the most discussed parts of WoW and other MMOs. Typically though, this discussion focuses on how to create crate groups, and how WoW’s cross-server dungeon finder has transformed dungeon runs from social experiences or recruitment opportunities for raiding guilds into asocial speedruns. On the other hand, among those that are playing SW:TOR, the dungeon finder makes an unlikely comeback as blogger favorite and favorite wish for the next patch, because without this tool, it seems nigh impossible even for socializers to coax other people into dungeon runs. What with all the, I don’t know, talking, and inviting, and god forbid, running to the dungeon entrance being so last decade!

Two Types of Dungeons

However, I don’t want to discuss the dungeon finder in detail, other people have done that enough recently. There is a different topic, though, that goes hand in hand, and that’s dungeon design. For WoW, the largest shift in design came actually long before the introduction of the dungeon finder.

In Vanilla, dungeons were typically one of two types: either linear, or open and non-linear (or somewhere in between). Let’s look at the original endgame dungeons:

  • Scholomance was linear with some nooks and crannies, and an optional portion (Jandice’s basement) that you only did if someone needed the warlock shoulders.
  • Stratholme was non-linear, though in practice, it was split into two sub-instances of which you only did one (live or dead side), and either of them seemed to have a “preferred path” (though different from server to server) to go through that you typically didn’t extend or deviate from.
  • Dire Maul was non-linear, to the point that not only each of the three official sub-instances was non-linear, but there were even connections between the three that were very convenient for some of the quests.
  • Blackrock Depths: WoW’s poster child of non-linear dungeons, this was a massive dungeon crawl that was either admired or feared (or both). It was a whole city, actually larger than many of the horde and alliance cities that you could visit, with several subareas that you might not have seen even after a dozen runs.
  • Blackrock Spire: the two parts (upper and lower) looked similar, but in fact their design was vastly different. Lower was a non-linear group instance, while upper was a mini-raid with what probably was the most linear path through a dungeon in vanilla WoW.

Compare that to Burning Crusade:

  • Hellfire Ramparts, Blood Furnace, Shattered Halls: corridor-room-corridor-room.
  • Slave Pens, Underbog, Steamvault: room-corridor-room-corridor-room.
  • Auchenai Crypts, Mana Tombs, Sethekk Halls, Shadow Labyrinth: room-corridor-room. In spite of the name, Shadow Labyrinth was one of the most linear instances in the expansion, it didn’t even feature any views of the outside, or an illusion of vertical depth. It was a flat sequence of rooms connected by exactly one corridor each.
  • Mechanar, Botanica, Arcatraz, and, lest I forget, Magister’s Terrace: I think you can guess by now.
  • Escape from Durnholde and The Opening of the Dark Portal are fully scripted and therefore linear, even though Durnholde should get an honorable mention for the attention to detail and the fact that you could just go and hang out in old Southshore before or after your dungeon run.

With the introduction of heroic dungeons, we got more choices at the level cap – if you could finish them; some, like Escape from Durnholde were notoriously difficult and almost impossible without raid gear. However, from a dungeon design point of view, there was less choice, because they all followed the same pattern. And I can think of only two Lich King and Cataclysm instances that were not completely linear: The Nexus, where the decision was simply whether you wanted to clockwise or counter-clockwise, and the Halls of Origination with their optional wing.

Dungeon Design and Automated Groups

This simplified dungeon design predated the LFD finder, but it was necessary for it. Without dungeons that were a) of roughly equal length and b) linear, the dungeon finder wouldn’t have been accepted that easily.

If the dungeons are of greatly differing length, a player doesn’t know how long a dungeon run will take, and if you ever played in a dungeon finder group, you know that speed is of the utmost importance. Every minute spent in a dungeon without rushing to the end reduces the badges/time ratio and is frowned upon.

If the dungeons are non-linear, you will have different goals in the group. Some will want to do an optional area, others want to take a specific route to pick up something on the way. Only a completely linear dungeon ensures that the goals of all group members are the same.

So there you have it. Dungeons need to be all similar to each other and highly linear to work well with a fully-automatic LFD. On the other hand, even if you had 50 dungeons available, if there’s no variation in the design, they will become boring. So, in fact, the dungeon finder requires dungeons to be boring to work. Those old vanilla dungeons? To homogenize their length, they got split into several dungeon finder parts. And good luck getting people to continue further after you got your loot bag. Or remember Oculus? Most of my groups lost at least 1-2 people before the first pull, because people hated it for being so different. Oculus was like the blank in the dungeon lottery.

A pack of Haribo Color-Rado.

I hated these as a kid. 50% yummy, 50% eww.

LFD requires you to hit one button, then rush through randomly chosen content. People don’t like variety if they don’t have choice over it. If your only input is hitting a button, you expect homogenized output. Everything else is frustrating. Ever had one of these packs of sweets that are half gummy bears and half liquorice? The difference is that you don’t grab stuff blindly and have to eat whatever you grab, even if you hate liquorice. (Yes, I hate liquorice! There, I said it.) It doesn’t work that way with the dungeon finder. You have to eat whatever dungeon dinner is chosen for you, so it better be always the same so it doesn’t offend anyone.

I just wish the SW:TOR players that the introduction of a dungeon finder won’t make liquorice out of all their dungeons.