Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Economy and Inflation in MMOs

There was a post the other day on Kill Ten Rats discussing MMO economy and the rampant inflation that seems inevitable in today's games.

The problems stems from the fact that you can't have an economy with an infinitely open source and sink for goods and gold. There needs to be some sort of a mostly-closed enviroment (though, of course, it's always wise to leave options open for outside manipulation in case things start going wrong). Those gold coins dont make themselves. For every stack of gold coins added to the world, there needs to be a chunk of gold ore or a gold goblet that was melted down to create those coins. For every sword that's made, a plowshare or something equivalent should be removed from the world. And, once the sword is made, it goes somewhere. Either into the hand of a player or an NPC.

NPC vendors shouldnt just buy everything a player owns and then toss the items into the limitless void. Items should either be available for resale to other players or NPCs, gathering dust in a storeroom (where it can later be retrieved or stolen) or be broken down and used to create other items.

The concept of a semi-closed self-sustaining economy goes hand in hand with the idea of Logical Loot. If Mobs are dropping gold coins and Gloves of God-Spanking from their butts, any attempt at an economy is immediately thrown out the window. Instead you have simply created a whack-a-mole vending machine with infinite resources, and a player economy that will end up suffering from a rampant level of inflation that makes post-war Germany seem like a stable system.

But monster drops arent the only key to creating such a system. The resource harvesting and crafting systems have to work together as well. If you're going to have unlimited harvestable resources, then there needs to be a throttle on them to keep players from constantly flooding the market. Practicing your crafting skills shouldnt result in a lot of useless bracers or other items (anyone remember walking through the woods in UO an finding piles of bookcases sitting around?)

I think that the concept of attempting to balance gold fountains against gold sinks has proven that it wont work effectively. So its time for MMO developers to start thinking in new directions if they want to avoid the uber-inflation that is rampant in pretty much every MMO. And the first step of that is creating a cause and effect, sensical, self-sustaining economic system. Not an easy task. But it is needed if we want to move beyond the amusement park ride type MMOs.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Lack of Community in WoW

So I play MMOs with a guild called Shadowclan. We've been in existence since the early days of UO and have since participated in many other MMOs together and we're a very solid, tight-knit group. But, for some reason, we can't seem to keep a large number of members active in WoW. I was mulling over this problem recently and came to the conclusion that WoW not only lacks any community tools or support, but also, simply by its design, greatly hinders any community development beyond the hardcore raiding guilds.

When you join a guild in WoW, the only things you get are another chat channel, a guild tabard (which is hardly noticable on any of the character models) and a guild tag over your head! There is no guild hall, no uniforms or clothing/armor customization. Huge gaps in the crafting patterns available make it so that guild crafters have minimal use and the separation of players by zone/level leaves little opportunity for face to face interactions.

In fact, the players are so severly segregated by levels, that really the only chance to form strong bonds comes when everyone gets to level 60 and you can start hitting the high-end instances together. Unfortunately for Shadowclan, we're not really a raiding guild.

But the hardcore raiding guilds have their own issues. Squabbles over loot, players coming on going on a regular basis, membership restrictions based on class balance, and often, huge schisms amongst the guild members that usually results in a split, merger or complete abandonment of the guild entirely! Some raiding guilds manage to hold things together better than others, but for the most part, it's an extremely dysfunctional community.

Sadly, this lack of a coomunity feeling has led to my guild gradually dying off in WoW despite several resurgences and even an attempt at an entirely different guild concept (The Cog on The Venture Co. server). I expect another resurgence for Burning Crusade (and maybe even a small one for the new honor system), but given that Blizzard shows no interest in promoting and supporting community and player tools, I don't think that Shadowclan will exist in WoW in the near future with all of the upcoming MMOs next year.

I think WoW is too far involved in itself to make any signifigant changes along these lines, but, for the purpose of discussion and thought, here is one simple way I would go about trying to foster a greater community feeling in WoW.

1. Expand crafting. And I'm not simply talking about adding in more level 60+ epic weapons. The lower levels are really where the crafting system is lacking. For example, I'm an axesmith. Yet, for some reason, I can make a level 18 two-handed axe and a level 39 two-handed axe, but nothing in-between! That's a 21 level gap where my specialty is completely useless (not that either of those axes require a specialty). If I'm an Artisan Axesmith, I should be able to make all sorts of axes for all levels and classes. Same goes for every other profession. Alchemy and Enchanting are better covered, but they could all use some help.

I don't have any other suggestions off the top of my head. The very limited amount of player interaction and world interaction within the game creates a difficult barrier to overcome. Feel free to chime in if you have any comments and/or other ideas!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Retrospectus: A Tale in the Desert's Crafting System

I had originally intended to give a rundown of my thoughts on ATiTD in one post, but then I started writing it, and the crafting section became long enough to warrant it's own post. So, here is Part I of my ATiTD Retrospectus.

Well it's definitely a good thing they got this part right, as the game consists of 90% crafting. But let's talk a little about what is right about it. For one thing, it is entirely possible (and actually required at the beginning of the game in order to become a citizen), to bootstrap yourself up from nothing. You can gather grass and wood with your bare hands, then dry the grass into straw, then combine the straw with mud and sand (readily available in unlimited quantities) to make bricks. Then use the bricks to make a wood plane, which can then be used to make boards, and so on.

Another amazing aspect of ATiTD crafting system is the introduction of player skill. For many productions, you don’t simply gather the necessary materials, hit the create button and then watch a little bar fill up. Certain creation processes are simplified along those lines, but many others require that you actually get your hands dirty, so to speak. For example, when making charcoal, you are presented with a little pop-up screen displaying the level of heat, oxygen, wood, water and danger, as well as a progress bar. The hotter the furnace, the faster the progress bar fills. However, if the oxygen level or heat drops to 0, your fire goes out. If the danger bar hits the top, your entire batch burns up and you have to start over. You can manipulate the bars by adding wood, adding water, and opening or closing the flue. It takes some experience to learn to operate a charcoal oven. I failed on my first 3 or 4 tries before I finally had a successful run. And then I went ~50/50 for a few runs after that before I got the hang of it. And even then you still get better, learning to use less wood as well as learning how to run it hotter (and thus closer to the danger line) to complete the task more quickly!

Let’s use blacksmithing as another example. You gather metal and place it on an anvil, choosing from a list of what you would like to try and make. You are then given a flat slab of metal and shown what shape it needs to be in. You shape the metal by choosing from one of four different tools, choosing how hard you wish to strike the metal with that tool (from 1 to 9) and then selecting where on the slab to hit. The metal slab is then deformed (in 3 dimensions) based upon your selections. The closer you can make the slab resemble the desired shape, the higher quality item you can make. I spent a few hours trying my hand at smithing, and learned how to make a halfway decent sawblade, but was never able to master anything else. Smiths who can consistently make high-quality hatchets and shovels always have a demand for their services and goods.

These little crafting interfaces are sometimes a mini-game in of themselves, and not every player can master every skill. There are no real hard-coded limits here. If you want to try your hand at blacksmithing, glassblowing, charcoal making, beetle-raising, winemaking, and everything else, you can. The odds of you being a master at more than one or two skills, however, are slim.

The thing that I find most fascinating, and a complete breath of fresh air, is the interactivity of the crafting system and the involvement required by the player. Crafting an item is not simply a number comparison; it's the player interacting with the game in a meaningful way to create useful objects. This is what MMO crafting should be like, not number-crunching in a spreadsheet.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Building a Bigger Obelisk

So it's finally done! We have completed our Very Large Obelisks in ATitD and cancelled our accounts. A good number of players in the game probably think that we're jerks for making them larger than we need to (your obelisk only has to be 1 size larger than the current largest to pass the test), but we didn't build them to please the rest of the player-base. We built them to leave our lasting mark upon the desert. It took a lot of work to gather the materials for these monstrosities. Not only the sweat and time of making thousands of bricks and hundreds of linen, but I also spent many hours negotiating trades throughout the desert to acquire all the rest. All told it took 2 canvas, 8 rope, 528 cut stone, 44 medium quartz, 624 crushed eggshells, 120 candles, 686 slate, 871 dried flax, 402 linen, 335 flint, 2184 clay, 3120 boards and 31,080 bricks to build both of these obelisks!

But, aside from the obelisks, we left no mark upon the land. All of our compounds were stripped and demolished, our copper mine made public, and we even left 4 huge chests full of thousands of unused goods open to anyone who passes by (if you're interested, they're right by the obelisks, just a short jog south of the Cradle of the Sun chariot stop, though they've likely been looted by now).

No you may wonder why people would be annoyed at us? It's because anyone else after us who wants to pass the test of the Obelisk in our region, now has to build it much bigger than they would if we had built ours the minimum size we needed, rather than going for overkill (both obelisks were size 120, and I think the cut stone one is probably the largest of its type in all of Egypt).

Since the obelisk test is determined by what region you're in, many regions have tried to implement 'obelisk queues', where everyone signs up and obediently stands in line, waiting their turn to build. This reminds me of a time way back when, in the Asheron's Call beta, when I went to a dungeon to attempt to acquire some armor (I forget if it was a quest or I had just heard about it). I fight my way into the depths, nearly avoiding death at several points, finally reaching the last room, eager and nervous about facing my foe, when lo and behold, there's a group of ~10 players standing around, waiting for the spawn. They tell me there's a line, and that I'm welcome to grab a place in it. I stand around for a bit, consider trying to just snag the armor and ignore their carefully organized plans, but, in the end, I simply left. And soon after, I quit the beta and never played Asheron's Call again. I see this sort of over-cooperativeness as one of the downfalls of ATitD, as it leads to stagnation and boredom.

In this game, there really is no conflict. And without conflict, you don't have an interesting story. There are occasional games and contests that you can play against other players, but they're only available at certain times, and often, only a few players actually participate. There's no external threat, and really, no internal threat either. The biggest problem is having people build near you and crowd your space. In other tellings, Teppy (the game designer), had a 'stranger' come into the land who brought with him various issues that created conflict. But, in this telling, this external force hasnt appeared yet, and the knowledgable player-base is simply tearing through all of the technology, completing tasks at a record pace.

Anyway, it seems that the obleisk queue system has been pretty much abandoned in every region by now. And I feel no loss. But I'm not an unreasonably mean guy. If another player had announced in regional chat that they were building a size 92 obelisk and waiting to pass their test, I wouldn't have screwed them over by building my size 120 obelisk before their test was done (your obelisk has to remain the largest in the region for an hour).

In my mind, these obelisks are both a mounument to our time spent in the desert, and a challenge to those who come after us: Build a bigger obelisk... if you can!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Core MMO Concepts

I just recently discovered the MMO Roundtable site, and on their forums saw a thread wherein posters listed their top 10 requirements for the ultimate MMO. Reading through the posts was interesting in of itself. Seeing what sort of things people focus on is very informative, and you can often get an idea of what MMOs they have experience with as well.

I was going to wait until I could cross-post this on their forum, but they don't seem to be in an hurry to activate my username to let me post (been waiting a week and half now), so I'm just going to state my ideas here and they lose out!

For many years I've shuffled numerous MMO system ideas through my head and on various scraps of paper. About a year ago, I decided to try and compile then all into one notebook, and then from there see how/if they could be integrated together or made to work as standalone concepts. This progress on this project varies as time goes by, but, at one point, I did sit down and make a list of what I called Core Concepts. Now I present them to you, with a bit of extrapolation on each item.

1) Dynamic world - NPCs, Mobs, towns etc. Very little is static. All mobs have desires, needs, wants that affect what they do within the world. Players killing them repeatedly? Well then maybe they'll move to a new location, farther from town and the ravages of a bloodthirsty populace. NPCs dont just buy up every little trinket that an adventurer shows to them. They only want things that they are interested in, or that they can resell if they're of that sort of mindset. NPCs can go broke, close up shop, switch professions, get killed, open up new stores, move to other cities, become player-followers, give birth and die. Resources can be used up or severely diminshed. Localized resources can be effected by local conditions. Towns grow and shrink based on player activity, economic viability and external threats. The more static a world is, the more quickly it becomes boring and overly predictable.

2) Component-based crafting systems - Every crafted item is created from component parts. Quality of component parts determines quality of whole. Magically enhanced components can be used to create better items (like the socketing system in Diablo, but on a much grander scale). Items can often be broken down to salvage some or all of the component parts. Spell-crafting also falls into a similar system. Spells are composed of component parts, which can be used to alter the characteristics of that spell (similar to Saga of Ryzom, but with even more options). Players can find unique ways to combine spell components to create their own individualized spell system. Certain components may actually have a negative effect when combined with other components. Parts create the whole.

3) Players can affect the world - This kind of goes along with #1, but is more specific. The world isn't just dynamic in of itself. I would instead use the terms flexible and malleable. Like a combination of Play-doh and Stretch Armstrong! Town and building creation and destruction. Enviroment and landscape alteration. Political ramifications for player actions. Put opportunities for change in the hands of the

4) No Junk System - Every item has some use in the game. If it cant be used directly, it can be converted or processed into something useful. This carries over to NPCs and Mobs. All NPCs and Mobs have some purpose. Even if they don't have a specific programmed purpose, by giving them driving factors that determine their behaviour (see #1), they create their own purpose through their actions and the effects those actions have on the world. Structured and purposeful design.

5) Minimal statistical info given to players - Number crunching is not encouraged or supported. Certainly, players have the uncanny ability to backwards research all of your formulas, but I dont want that to be encouraged. Rather than comparing numbers (My strength is 403.54. What's yours?), players should instead be comparing their stats by various feats they can accomplish in-game (I can pick up this boulder and carry it from here to the end of the road without getting tired.) Find ways to make character development and abilities more interesting than a simple linear progression through a spreadsheet full of numbers. Allow the players' imaginations to fill the gaps

6) Every action has a reaction.. and repercussions - Factions are actual choices, not just a farming opportunity for special rewards. If you're doing things to help out one faction, it's very likely that you're pissing off their enemies at the same time. Wholesale slaughtering of all the wildlife while leaving their bodies to rot? Nature-lovers are likely to be unhappy. Killing a farmer's dog? You can bet he'll be unhappy! Strip-mine the mountain? Maybe you cause avalanches, screw up the water in a nearby river, or release a Balrog! I want the players to put some thought into what they're doing, why they're doing it and what might happen as a result of their actions. Everything is inter-related.

7) Horizontal growth of individual player power - No levels, Skill-based, with a very complex, intertwined tree structure (Eve Online is a good example of the direction Im thinking). Players gain new powers to bolster their arsenal, rather than simply scaling up damage and hit points to the point that a developed character can lay down on the ground and take a nap while a new character can swing at them all day with no chance of killing them. Character skills and abilities definitely have an effect on your play experience, but character uberness comes mostly from player skill, not items or levels. Everyone has the ability to defeat everyone else given the proper circumstances.

So there you have it. I've tried to limit my list to fairly broad core concepts rather then detailed mechanics, and also divided in such a way so that they're not reliant on each other. Of course, in my mind, they all form part of an integrated whole, but I think that any of them could be taken and implemented as a single entity within an MMO.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vote 'Yes' on Logical Loot

Again I'm a little late on this (one day I'll make posts in a timely manner), but, last Friday, there were several blog discussions stemming from this post on Nerfbat about 'WYSIWYG' Loot. This refers to the concept that when you kill a mob wearing chain mail andwielding a sword, you're likely to find chain mail and a sword on the corpse. I've always called this idea 'Logical Loot' and it's one of my primary foundations for an excellent MMO.

The idea of Logical Loot is... well... logical! Anytime I play a game where I find a Halberd of Smiting on a rabbit, the inevitable joke comes up of, 'Where was the rabbit keeping that Halberd!'

One of the concerns brought up is about trying to 'balance' the loot. But, you know, loot balancing wouldnt be such an issue if everyone didnt make NPC vendors into gold-spewing vending machines. All it takes is a very minimal economic model and an ability to reduce and re-use 'junk' items for crafting. Two things that the venerable UO has had for years! If all you're doing is assigning some arbitrary, static value to an item, then yes, balancing this sort of system does become an issue. However, if you put some thought into how your game economy functions, and make the value of items dynamic, then any imblances that occur will quickly work themselves back into balance. Eve Online is a prime example.

Another complaint I see amongst those posting are cries of 'But I dont want to get a bunch of junk as loot'. I don't know what game these people are playing, but I haven't ever played a combat-oriented MMO where I didn't find junk on the corpses! If you don't want the 'junk', just don't pick it up! Not every mob can carry a pair of Pantyhose of Giant Strength! 'Junk' loot can be just an annoyance, if it's simply thrown in just as a means of extra gold generation (ala WoW). It can also add a lot of flavor to the game if done in a thoughtful manner, and especially if supported by other game systems (reprocessing and item decay to name a couple).

And finally, there is Psychochild referring to it as a 'useless feature'. Well, depending on how you look at it, pretty much any feature in a game is useless. Why should mobs carry loot at all? Everything is going to be useless to someone at some point. Why not just give experience points that allows players to buy the exact equipment they want? And, believe it or not, some players actually find it interesting and engaging to have game systems that make sense and attempt to emulate the world in minor ways. I'm not asking for a world that acts and behaves exactly like the real world, just one that is fun without following the rails of the typical level-up, gather loot model that we all know so well.

In summary, if you want a living, immersive world, Logical Loot is pretty much required in my opinion. Those who decry this concept, haven't put much thought into the matter, or are simply uninterested in a world-type game.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

EA Used to be Cool

I was thinking recently about all the great games I used to play on my Commodore 64. And then I realized that a lot of the most innovative ones had been published by EA!

I remember they came in a slick, thin, bookshelf type packaging. It opened up like a record album, with screenshots and blurbs on the inside. One flap held the 5 1/4" floppies while the other side held the game manual and any other documentation.

Not only was the packaging accesible and minimal, but the games themselves were fountains of creativity. M.U.L.E, Seven Cities of Gold, Archon and Archon II, The Bard's Tale, Mail Order Monsters, Adventure Construction Set... just to name a few.

Now what does EA give us? The same sports titles year after year, and expansion after expansion for their Sims titles. They buy up smaller companies in an attempt to harness and leech off of their creativity. But, ultimately, their overbearing corporate-ness seems to drive off the more creative types, leaving EA holding the shattered remains of once great gaming companies.