Friday, November 22, 2013

DFUW: Theorycraft vs Pragmatism

Discussions about game design often come from idealists who have grand opinions about how MMOs should work.  We need the idealists to be creative.  Big dreams lead to big ideas and innovations.

But we also need pragmatists.  Suggestion forums are always littered with the dreams of idealists because some ideas, while creative, are not practical to implement or don't solve for the underlying root problem.  Pragmatism is important because it uses prediction and problem-solving to understand the practical implication of a change.

The recent Darkfall controversy surrounding the "breaking of gear on gank" is a great example of where idealism fails in the face of pragmatism.  Simply put, while the idea may warrant some consideration, it's not a practical solution to the real problem facing Darkfall.

Producers, Consumers and Decomposers
A thriving MMO economy is much like an ecosystem, with Producers, Consumers and Decomposers.  All living things can be placed into one of these three categories.  Producers make products, Consumers use the products produced, and Decomposers break everything down.

Syncaine would argue that Darkfall needs more Decomposers.  As mentioned above, the concept is not necessarily flawed at it's core, since clearly that's how nature works.  But the problem with the economy goes much much deeper than a lack of Decomposers.  

Producers in Darkfall lack a variety in what they can produce.  As an armorer, you can make 7 different ranks of armor. There are no style variations.  The first four aren't viable for PVP and the last is too costly.  This leaves two ranks: Full Plate and Dreadplate that are worth crafting.  It's even worse for cloth wearers, who have two less ranks of armor available.

A common complaint here is that Darkfall is a sandbox without any sand.  Syncaine likes to draw inspiration from EVE but even the most simple ship in EVE has more complexity to it than an entire skill tree within Darkfall for crafters.  If you craft armor, your end-game is making 500 pieces of Dreadplate for the prowess feat.

Which leads me to the second major problem.  Producers also have an incentive to produce for reasons other than supply and demand.  A functioning economy is based on the principles of supply and demand.  The prowess system within Darkfall as it's currently implemented breaks this dynamic by providing an incentive to artificially increase supply.  

As you Produce, you earn prowess that can be used towards things that have nothing to do with Production.  Min/Maxers use crafting and harvesting as an easy way to farm prowess points that can be used towards PVP skills.  The net effect is that "raw, unrefined materials" are worth more than crafted items making it nearly impossible to turn a profit as a crafter.  

Exacerbating this problem, Consumers have little incentive "to do things" in-game that would result in the actual consumption of what is produced.  I'll speak to this again in a moment, but without things "to do" -- there is no need to use or consume.

There are other deeper issues as well.  Massive excesses from normal play of useless materials.  AFK activities that yield some of the largest wealth gains.  Consumables that are more expensive to make than armor.  Missing crafts like Enchanting.  And that's just those that come top of mind.

"Break on gank" is not the solution
The above is a really simple illustration that the problems plaguing the economy are much deeper than simply not having enough sinks or having too many faucets.

The central argument for advocating gear destruction is that it:
  • Eliminates excess gear that was produced
  • Forces people out into the world to harvest
  • If people are out in the world, PVP can find you and you can find PVP
  • It makes resources more valuable
The practical reality is a bit different, however.  First, not everyone has excess gear that needs to be eliminated.  The vast majority farm only what they need to consume.  As noted above, there is no need to consume, so (big surprise) things aren't getting consumed.

Secondly, the idea that forcing people to actively harvest will create PvP hotspots is inherently flawed because no harvesting activity in Darkfall is worth risking gear. People work to farm with minimal risk. This means using classes that can run away and/or gear that is sub-par for PVP.

I want to stress this second point because it's critical to understanding why turning "harvesting" whether it be mobs or resources, is not a great PVP solution.  The nature of a PVP game like Darkfall is to manage risk vs. reward.  Players will farm things in the most efficient and safest possible manner.

Some practical examples of how players manage risk:
  • The pretty standard and most accepted way of farming many high level mobs is to go naked, with a powerful bow.  Coupled with archery role (skirmisher) that has the greatest mobility, you can easily run away if someone jumps you.  It's very low risk, high reward.
  • When you farm resources, you either do it from a safe zone, you do it from the safety of your holding, or you do it naked with nothing more than your pick axe.  You can do all three of these things AFK.
  • AV introduced a sub-holding system called Villages which are on a daily timer and offered resources to the owner.  They made it possible to "steal" from these Villages in an effort to create PVP hotspots.  What actually happens is that people go "steal" naked and then go hide in a player-owned house behind a closed door.
The point here is that player behavior is such that simply forcing people to farm and harvest isn't going to get people to harvest or farm in a meaningful way that will make me want to encounter them for PVP.  Syncaine would have you believe that breaking gear would lead to people to farm more frequently.  In that, he's absolutely correct.  However, they wouldn't farm in such a way that would lead to meaningful PVP.

Players will work to minimize the risk as much as possible.  Few will farm for great gear in great gear.  The vast majority will do it as cheaply and easily as possible and fill the world with naked farmers and harvesters who hug safe zones and run away from fights.  Oh sure, it's rewarding in it's own way to "farm the farmers" but  forcing more people to endure the cycle of grief that comes from forced harvesting is hardly the solution to a declining population.

It's not the economy, stupid.
Clearly, the economy is broken in Darkfall.  It lacks depth and it's not welcoming to the "pure" crafter. Is it "A" problem? Yes.  Is it "THE" problem?  No.

If you read my entry after the beta NDA was lifted, I wrote:
By the third month, [AV] better have something new or anyone without a strong vision for the game is going to lose interest. [...] Right now, the potential problem is that there simply isn't enough interesting things "to do" when not sieging to keep people logged in.
The 'lack of things to do' is a statement that every long-term player has recognized as the core problem since beta.  The population decline was easily predictable.

The idea that 'breaking gear' is going to solve for population decline is laughable.  You don't have to look any farther than the Forumfall reactions to The Loot Nazi that I posted Tuesday to understand that this idea is toxic and will drive players away from the game.

And how many will come back because it's introduced as a new feature? I don't know a single person who would come back for this reason.  We even have a thread on our private clan forums asking what will bring people back -- this isn't mentioned once.

In fact, other than the 'not enough sand in the sandbox' comments because of the lack of things to craft or build, the economy is not mentioned at all.  Is the economy broken?  Yes.  But "faucets and sinks" are not actually the area that needs the most attention.  These just need a band-aid to stop the bleeding and then AV needs to turn it's attention to things that WILL bring players back.

Part of the irony is that Darkfall already has a "gear break" sink in the game in the form of durability.  As you use armor and weapons, it degrades by consuming durability which is lost forever.  There are no 'repairs' -- if you use your sword until it breaks, it's gone.  I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that simply providing people more things to do (which everyone does want) would naturally increase the rate at which items break.

AV has already said they plan to address the biggest concern players have about the economy (which is scraping that has led to players being able to AFK quite a bit of wealth).  They are moving that resource (treasure maps) to mobs.  This is a great start and the only really pressing need with the economy itself.

Reduces incentive to PVP
In Syncaine's blog post on Sunday, he wrote:
Forumfall had (and is still having) an epic hissy fit. [The] most common and perhaps most idiotic: “Removing items from a grave would reduce the incentive to PvP"
It's interesting that he calls this reaction both common and idiotic. It demonstrates both his disdain for the rest of the community and how truly disconnected he is from them.

The incentive to PVP is actually a very valid concern.

As I pointed out above, much of this game is about managing risk.  Knowing the other guy is wearing a 70k gear bag is all the reason I need to risk my 70k bag to go kill him.  That dynamic starts to change if you devalue the worth of that bag and it grows exponentially as people trade bags back and forth.

In some of the truly great and most epic fights, it's not uncommon for gear bags to be traded frequently.  If I just lost my 70k gear bag, if I can, I'll re-gear and try to catch the guy before he can bank it. In group fights, this is actually VERY common.

We had a series of fights the other night between one of our holdings and a chaos stone where an enemy group was camped.  The same gear bags were traded back/forth at least three times.  We pushed when we shouldn't have pushed to get those bags back.  They pushed when they shouldn't have pushed to get their gear bags back.

If, as Syncaine had proposed, a portion of the contents of those bags was destroyed each time a person would have been ganked, not only would we not have continued the fight, but we all would have ended up fighting naked.

Carson commented on my last blog post that:
I find it interesting that the main objection is not "I don't want my shit to break when I die!" but rather "I don't want some other guy's shit to break when I kill him, and stop me from looting it!"
Now consider that the guy I'm trying to kill just looted my clan-mates bag and I am attempting to retrieve it for him.  And that my goal is to stop, stall or gank that guy to keep him from banking that bag.  I'll risk more and try harder because I am A LOT more motivated to stop him.

If 50% of the stuff in my clan mates's original bag was lost on the death, and then 50% again when I gank the enemy to get it back -- there may be only 25% of the clan members contents left in the bag.  To say that's not a serious de-motivator for PVP is to simply not understand how PVP works in Darkfall.

A game centered on PVP demands solutions to PVP
No one needs a reason to PVP other than the "full loot" nature of the game.  As I wrote above, that's all the incentive that is often needed to keep people pushing hard at each other.

What we DO need is to know where players are so that we can engage them. We need more timed events that attract players and act as neon sign that say PVP IS HERE.

Right now, there are three types of timed events:
  • Sieges.  These are player initiated.  There are some issues here, mainly with siege performance, but for the most part they still function well for the intended purpose of creating a PVP hotspot.
  • Villages.  Completely broken as implemented.  As noted above, the stealing mechanic is broken.  AV has re-vamped this system several times.  There is a good suggestion coming out of MVP forums that I think is perhaps too infrequent and unnecessarily complicated, but it's a start.
  • Sea Towers.  These work excellent.  Every sea tower fight gets a lot of PVP and more resources are destroyed from ships sinking and wasted consumables than gained by the winner of the tower.
In my mind, the optimal solution here is to make villages a sort of mini- land based version of the Sea Towers.  That's more or less what the MVP solution is, so this is promising.

I'm also a big advocate for more directional things that would encourage players to go do a specific PVE activity.  Again, the idea here is BIG NEON SIGNS telling people to GO HERE.  

For example, a weekly feat for the dungeons.  Or some turn-in that only drops off one of the mobs located on a specific sub-continent.  These things might be a bit cheesy, but they do get people moving to the same general area and that's the type of thing that will spark a ton of PVP at portal chambers and nearby Chaos banks.  As I said, AV needs to add "things to do" and more "things to do".

As for scarcity, you don't need a massive sink.  All you need to do is make that turn-in valuable for things consumed in PVP.  If I can go kill mobs, get this thing off them, and turn them in for Greater Rejuv potions or good food?  I'll happily go hunt the bastards down and kill them and anyone farming them.

Full Disclosure
I've kept my in-game identity separate from my blogging identity.  In-game, I actively lead what continues to be arguably the largest and most active clan on NA1.  At one point, we had over 200 actives and an in-game clan roster of 400 including alts.  We were involved in a siege two days ago and we fielded 40.  If you play DFUW, you likely recognize that I am describing Imperium.

Imperium is a great clan and our structure is such that I'm not the only leader (nor am I the founder).  I am, however, one of the most influential and longest standing leaders.  If you are reading this and you are in Imperium, I'm sure you've can put 1+1 together but I'd ask that you keep my in-game identity to yourselves.

I mention this because I know why my clan members joined the game, and, over time, why they left the game and even why some have returned. I understand why people are motivated to play this game.  I'm not relating theories.  I'm speaking from the practical experience of managing and keeping one of the most active clans in Darkfall to continue to be active.

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