Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The problem with PvP in MMOs

I think what took me a long time to realize is that not everyone wants equality in their PvP.

Too often, we label something as PvP and then just expect everyone to understand what that means. But PvP comes in lots of flavors and not all of it is the same. Back in January I wrote an entry about what I called the PvP Political Compass. That compass is my attempt to describe the flavors of PvP that exist in games.

What is interesting about the compass is that it also describes what people WANT out of these games. At one end of the spectrum, players want their actions to have an Impact. You play to win and you make your own fair play by carving out your own little place in the world. And in MMOs, this means grouping with other like-minded individuals for protection.

At the other end of the spectrum are players who take their meaning from the competition itself. They don’t want there to be any confusion caused by unfairness. Two people meet under equal terms and the person who emerges as the victor KNOWS they are the better player. No question. This is the same type of competitive spirit we crave in our sports teams.

As you can see in the PvP Compass, these two ideas are not compatible. By virtue of having Impact, you create an imbalance that is unwanted by the player who wants more competition. But it’s not entirely black and white. It’s more of a sliding scale. The more competitive you make it, the less impact exists. The more impact you create, the less competitive it becomes.

Can we make a Competitive PvP-based MMO?
It’s not much of a coincidence that the only successful MMOs which feature PvP as a prominent part of the game happen to focus on Impact-type PvP. MMOs, by the very nature of character progression, do not lend themselves towards equality. Thus, a PvP game which is very purposefully designed without the need for equality is going to feel like a more natural result.

The problem here is that Impact PvP isn’t the most desirable type of PvP for most players. Starcraft, Counter-Strike, Halo and countless other games in other genres have been immensely popular to the Competitive PvP crowd. Even Tobold (known PvP hater) recently admitted that “PvP games could be more successful if they would do a better job of pairing people with similar skills and abilities against each other.

Impact PvP, by contrast, appeals to a much smaller group of players. It takes a certain type of player who is willing to both risk the consequences of negative sum PvP and has the skills to master the “social” part that these games require to find some measure of safety in a group.

So, in my opinion, it’s not that PvP isn’t a popular option. It’s that the type of competitive PvP that more players would enjoy has never been implemented in any MMO. Which begs the question, is it even possible?

Half empty or Half full?
Presumably, in a world of perfect equality, an average skilled player would lose just as many fights as they won. I think intellectually that most people can grasp that idea. But emotionally and subjectively, I think it becomes an incredible complex problem.

Because, in practice, most people will react emotionally. He must have cheated! We got nerfed! Laaaaag!

Further complicating the issue is self-perception. Would a person be happy they are winning half the time, or pissed off that they are losing half the time?

Countering the Character Progession
I sincerely wish that more games used a method of “tiering” players into relative power groups. WAR comes immediately to mind but they did it badly. For one thing, I wouldn’t “uprank” players to a new level. I would “downrank” more advanced players when they entered an area intended for characters who were less powerful.

Or as I suggested on Syncaine’s blog yesterday:
No upranking for low level characters into high level areas. Just downranking if a high level character chooses to visit an area that is not intended for them.

The key point here is that it’s an area NOT intended for them. Low level mobs they want to safely grind on? No. Sorry. Not intended for you.

Newbie players trying to figure out how to PvP? Sorry. Not going to be an easy gank because while you are more knowledgeable, you are not more powerful.

Everyone is welcome to travel anywhere they want, but if you choose to visit places that aren’t for you than there are consequences.

A low level character going into a high level area risks getting one-shotted. A high level character going into a low level area risks having to actually fight a new player on more equal footing.

Oh. And, sorry. No power leveling your buddy because you aren’t much more of a bad ass.

Now you obviously put all the best and most worthwhile stuff in non-protected areas. If the interesting stuff is not in these areas, then people will be motivated to move out of them quickly.

The real benefit of all this is that new people of similar power levels get to bang heads against each other instead of getting ripped up by the veterans.

I feel if you want to see a ‘popular’ implementation of PvP in an MMO that it has to address this competitive spirit. No MMO has done this well yet. Perhaps it’s impossible. But I’m holding out hope.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Online Privacy

TAGN has an interesting read up about privacy and Blizzard's new REAL ID offering.

The overall thrust of the entry is that despite all the benefits that the REAL ID system offers, it comes with a price tag of associating your real identity to that of an online community.

Why is this an issue? Because you begin to lose control of the information that can be found out about you on the internet. And as TAGN writes, there is a high probability your name will be Googled by prospective employers, clients, customers, or even just some guy trying to sell you stuff.

A lesson learned
For the last 10 years or so I have been guarding my real identity in online games and communities.  My last name is just not that common and a Google search will pretty much pop up anything related to me in microseconds.

I have no illusions that if someone wanted to figure out who I am and post my identity that they could do so without much trouble. So the reason I keep my identity guarded isn't because I don't want YOU to know.

The reason is fairly simple and can be best illustrated by this story.

After Warcraft 3 was released (not the MMO, the RTS), I worked on WC3 maps and mods. Being the generally helpful guy that I am, I wrote some guides and posted them on some forums. I never posted under my real name (just a nick) but I did sign up for the forums using my real name.

So imagine my surprise when 6 or 7 years later, upon Googling my name, I find another post on an entirely different website in which MY REAL NAME is credited for writing a guide. Again, remember that the only place I ever posted my name was on the signup page for the forum.

Even today, this is one of the top 30 or so Google results for my name. Ironically, the guides themselves no longer even exist anywhere.

I'm of the opinion that my virtual identity is one that I want to control. As much as I love MMOs, I simply don't want to be asked why I consider myself to be a SERIAL GANKER in a job interview.

And even when it's controlled, it's uncontrolled
I Googled an ex-girlfriend of mine maybe a year ago. No particular reason other than boredom and perhaps a morbid curiosity.

The search results didn't turn up anything that she wrote or that she associated herself with directly. But what it did turn up was pure gold. Basically, she had some type of domestic problem with her roommate.

The pissed off roommate, in all her glory, decided to blog about it.  In detail.  In which my ex was painted as one of the worst villains in roommate history.

Needless to say it was a great read and my morbid curiosity was well satisfied. Thankfully, I've never pissed off someone in such a way that they've wanted to document it for all the world to see.

Disturbing trend
I don't know if you've noticed it, but there is a trend happening that is moving us AWAY from privacy. Which, to me, is incredible considering that identity theft has become such a common financial risk.

The driving force behind this trend is two-fold. The first is that the under-25 generation doesn't care much about privacy. The second is that it's good for business.

Facebook, Blizzard, Amazon, Google -- they all want to know as much as they possible can about you. Facebook, in particular, is already the world's largest data repository for personal information.

They know who YOU are, who your friends are, what you like, and depending on how much you filled out on your profile -- where you work, went to school and live.

And, of course, all this information is made more useful to them if you give up the fight to control your privacy and let them decide what's important to you and who should be allowed to know things about your private life.

Even scarier is the long-term plan which Raph posted in which they become your single login and wallet for all things on the internet. If that happens, they'll also know all the sites you visit and where you buy stuff.

/tinfoil hat off

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Define Hard: Six ways to make your MMO difficult

The problem with calling something hard or easy is that it's a subjective opinion. What is easy for one person might be hard for someone else.

When I was younger, I had a very narrow definition of things I considered to be important attributes. If you were talented in those attributes, I respected you as a peer.

As I grew older, and particularly as I began managing employees, I learned that there isn't just one set of skills that are superior to others.

People are diverse and can be absolutely brilliant in one area and very obtuse and ignorant in another. As a manager, it became important to recognize these talents in order to set people up for success.

Today, I have a different outlook. I believe that all people are talented, not just in the same ways.

Some people are mechanical. Some people are intellectual. Some people are athletic. Some people are charismatic. Some people are beautiful. Some people are atristic. And so on.

The result of all this diversity is that there is no universal definition of HARD or EASY.

Why is this important for MMOs? Because one thing we consistently do as a group is rate content as either DIFFICULT or EASY.

Types of Difficulty in MMOs
  • Twitch Skills
  • When we speak of twitch skills, this is really a measure of a person's individual skill in executing a specific physical action. It's literally your ability to point-and-click or tap buttons both quickly and accurately. The downside of this method of difficulty is that it favors people who have great hand-eye coordination. Popular among gamers who have developed that coordination over years, but not as popular among the mass-market crowd of stay-at-home Moms.
  • Reactive Decision Making
  • Interestingly, when I think of this type of difficulty, I think about Tobold. He has been a big proponent for more reactive decision-making gameplay as an alternative to twitch mechanics. Challenges presented through this method require a decision to be made in reaction to some other gameplay element. The classic example would be "GET OUT OF THE FIRE" in a RAID encounter. Or, alternately, as Tobold has often proposed -- skills/cards that are randomly provided which you need to make decisions about which to use. The downside here, if there is one, is that players need to be more actively engaged. You couldn't, for example, watch a movie while crafting if such crafting required your constant ongoing attention.
  • Planned Strategic Thinking
  • Unlike reactive decision making, some situations require you to think deeply about the problem before you encounter it. The best example here is min/maxing your damage/healing output, thinking through how your character will progress, making equipment decisions and so forth. The downside here is that it's very easy for others to provide "cookie-cutter" solutions to these problems. The result is a lot of pressure from peers to make use of these "cookie-cutter" examples as the optimum solution. Individuality is crushed by the professional theorycrafters. 
  • Time Consuming
  • There can be no doubt that making anything take twice as long makes it twice as difficult to complete. The downside here is that making something more time consuming doesn't necessarily make something more fun. It's an artificial difficulty that most people, myself included, find cumbersome. 
  • Severe Consequences
  • More severe consequences is an interesting way to add challenge in that it doesn't directly add difficulty to the task. It simply adds consequence for failure which, in turn, alters your behavior in how you approach the task. The effect is that it adds caution to the approach. The downside is that it's very possible to make the consequence so severe that it entirely deters any attempts.
  • Organizational Structure
  • And finally, there is significant challenge in creating and managing an organization large enough to accomplish group tasks. In many ways, I find this is perhaps the most difficult type of challenge because it relies on players to play a meta "social" game to either lead or become part of a group that can work together effectively to complete the goals. The downside here is that the ability to operate as a group is completely independent from someone's individual effort and ability. A talented player with untalented friends may never progress.
For myself, I think I prefer increasing difficulty by making things more reactive and twitchy.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

Pablo Picasso is famously attributed the quote "Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal". Copying, or emulating, is when you try to be like someone else. Stealing is when you take it and make it your own.

In the MMO space, we have seen plenty of examples of MMOs copying World of Warcraft. And they fail. And everyone is left scratching their head and discussing what went wrong.

By contrast, Warcraft stole from Everquest (and other games). They took these ideas and internalized them. They didn't just copy the idea, they took ownership of it. Then improved upon it.

Consumers don't want copies
A copy is never as good as the original. When a company copies a work, they aren't thinking about the consumers. They are thinking about the product. It's all "look we have these too" because it's become a standard feature.

That type of thinking just doesn't leave room for thinking about improvement.

This is why I ultimately believe WoW has been so successful. Take Warhammer, for example, which introduced an innovative new MMO feature in the Tome of Knowledge. WoW took that same concept -- internalized it -- and created their Achievements system. They made it their own.

And having played both games, I can say that the Achievements systems for all it's shortcomings is widely more popular and used than the ToK.

You might disagree with Blizzard's vision, but let me assure you that this ability to take ideas and make them their own is the real reason they are so successful.

They steal ideas, they don't copy them.

My book
One day I'm going to write a fantasy trilogy. It might not ever be published, but I'm going to write it. :)

I think one of the reasons that I identify with this "stealing" concept is because of how I've approached creating the world and story for my trilogy.

I'm not going to discuss the specifics of my fantasy realm, but there are several core elements that were "inspired" by other fantasy works. Things I really enjoyed in other books I've read that I felt would have a great place in my world.

But I didn't just copy the idea. As I said, I was inspired by it. I took ownership of the idea and turned it into something that felt right for my world.

And it wasn't just one idea. But lots of them from lots of different inspirations. The result is something entirely different and I think only I would make the connection to what originally inspired my world.

This is how I believe an MMO developer needs to approach designing an MMO. They need to take lots of different ideas from lots of different games. Think about what they enjoyed about these games and then meld them into something cohesive that they own.

Something new. Something different. Something that those of us looking for that next cool MMO would want to play.

Not just innovation, but evolution as well.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Quick Hit: Equipment which breaks

The first thing you need to understand when I talk about equipment breakage is that I’m not talking about destroying all of your rare and difficult to acquire equipment.

Or I suppose I am, just not in the same sense that you have come to understand “rare and difficult to acquire” relative to a game like Warcraft. If one boss drops three items for 25 people each week, it’s not very good game design to destroy that item a few hours later.

Now let me ask, should the "challenge" in acquiring a difficult or rare item be in "winning the roll" or in fighting the boss itself? In Warcraft, many boss fights are trivialized and the challenge itself is in the "roll" and not the "boss". As evidenced by the fact that many raiders will kill the same boss 25+ times before getting that Best In Slot item.

But what if each player got their own loot table and item for each boss. One drop every boss for each player involved in the raid. Instead of a 13 boss dungeon that provides 1 drop for each player, you have a 13 boss dungeon that provides 13 drops for each player.

Suddenly, an item that “breaks” after several hours of play is not such a huge obstacle.

Rarity is a relative term. You can make things difficult to acquire by making the boss fights themselves more difficult and challenging. And since the items themselves don't "last" or persist forever, getting that +1 upgrade doesn’t mean you throw out your old sword.

The advantage of such a system is that you don’t need “Gear Resets” to create equality. By virtue of simply playing the game, the content can be tuned so equipment simply wears out over time.

The consistent and constant loss of equipment created by breakage also provides a lot of value to your crafting system and economy. Why? Because the consumption creates a loss that needs to be replaced. An economy only works if that which is being used is consumed.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Quick Hit: Spontaneous PvP

I’m always surprised that I don’t get asked why I titled my blog Serial Ganker when I don’t write much about Ganking other people. You would think that such a blog would be filled with tales of my exploits (much like EVE Pirate).

The actual reason has more to do with my self-identity in online games. I’m aggressive and not ashamed of it.

I’m always prepared to drop whatever I’m doing to engage in spontaneous PvP. And well, when two people happen to meet spontaneously in the world, the two are rarely on equal terms. Even if they have relatively the same power score, the person who prepares for the fight and engages first is the one with a significant advantage.

But it’s not just about being the hunter. It’s also about being the hunted. My most memorable Spontaneous PvP moments are the ones where I escaped overwhelming odds in grand fashion.