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Archive for the ‘Game design’ Category

Before I start I want you to ponder a moment on a maxim I’ve heard a thousand times. It has been said by game designers, studio leads, guild leaders, exasperated raid leaders, common players and just about anyone who has ever played an MMO at end game.

The leveling game should teach players the skills they will need at endgame.

Now, you being smart, already know that I plan to tell you gating is the solution but please follow my reasoning. Even better, FF14 is currently giving us a masterclass on how this works.

A warning, this is a very long rant and it will probably piss off a lot of people… funny how liberating it can be when you don’t care about blog statistics.

Community, accessibility vs endgame

No-Way-Out

The big debate started in WoW, first in Vanilla and then continued in Burning Crusade. The caveat was this, players loved the game but when they reached endgame a disconnect happened. More casual player suddenly found themselves without anything to do and felt locked out of great content because of very real obligations like time-constraints.

Blizzard agreed for the most part and worked to make the game accessible for everyone. This happened in a number of ways but one of those was making the endgame content easier so people with less time could complete it. There’s logic here, someone with less playtime should normally be less skilled if you believe that more practice equals more skills. As a long time raid leader I can tell you it’s far from an absolute truth but generally speaking, the more you play and the more challenging encounters you do, the better you become.

This touched other aspects of the game too. With a more top-heavy game, it became a necessity to get players at endgame and barriers were removed or made easier to make sure the max-level population stayed at a healthy level. And you need more players for a bigger community.

Most important were the financial reasons. If more people are playing the game, you make more money and it would stand to reason that more people will play your game if they are feeling less frustrated. To resume, bigger happier community = more players = more money.

It then all becomes a number game. Every decision you make will create a number of happy players vs a number of unhappy players. Evaluate which costs you more and you end up with the decision you should make. Since Blizzard has stated a few times that the most important factor was to make new players stay from a revenue perspective, it stands to reason that most decisions are made to cater to a more casual crowd with less experience in the game.

The famed “dumbing down” of WoW is not a dumbing down, it’s simply the game slowly changing its target audience.

The state of WoW

banniere.jpg

So WoW got up to 11.5 millions people, which is insane money.  Now, let’s go back to the original statement, The leveling game should teach players the skills they will need at endgame.

Well , Wow and some other games like it don’t. In the name of being accessible and friendly to new players, it’s now possible to get to max level without ever talking to anyone or setting foot in any kind of group content. Since all frustrations and difficulties have been removed from the leveling experience in order to speed it up and make it more fun (open for debate), it’s not uncommon to find players with very basic skills at endgame. And why should it be different? At no point did the game require more from them.

What happens? These people reach endgame, start doing LFR, LFD and are generally very bad at it. Again, frustrations! So they make the content easier and figure that the more dedicated players will find guilds and set the difficulty level at what they want. That’s all fine and dandy as long as the old guard remains but over time there’s less and less of these old players remaining and not a lot of replacement coming up.

And why would there be? For the new player coming up, he doesn’t need to step up his game to see the content. He can access all of the story with minimum effort. Why join a guild with schedules and more demanding skill requirements when you can have everything you want with a lot less effort and at the time you want? So unless you find a player who really wants to challenge himself and has a lot more time available, you won’t see him make the switch and the more classic types guild are slowly all becoming ghost-towns.

But that’s not the only effect. By slowly killing off the guilds and established communities, you’re reducing the game overall community. By making your entire game accessible without the need to ever get involved in its community, you are in effect destroying said community. Remember when I said better community = more players = more money. Well, you’re working against that and I believe WoW numbers to be showing that right now.

One last thing before moving on, how long do you think it will take for a player to quit the game at endgame once he’s done the raid if he’s not part of any group?

Sacrifice players along the way, build a better communitymaya

I’ve said it often, what is the main difference between an MMOrpg and a classic single player rpg? The fact that you can play it with others.

What is the main condition for an evening dungeon or raid to be fun? agreeable people with a hint of progress.

How do you get progress and people to remain agreeable? By not having a bad player ruin it for everyone else.

Again, I’ve been raid leading for years and the quickest way to destroy a raid and the guild along with it is to have a few bad players prevent all kind of progressions. It might be fun for a week or two but sooner or later the constant failures will sour everyone attitude, especially when the main point of failure is so obvious to everyone. The solution?

The leveling game should teach players the skills they will need at endgame.

It’s not a perfect solution mind you but it would go a very long way. If the leveling game teaches you how to play your class, how to play with other people and how it’s necessary to participate in its community to succeed, then you dramatically reduces the number of bad players at the end. Why?

Because those players will have either quit or they will have stepped their game up.

It sounds callous in 2013 to say such a thing but here we are. I believe WoW to be proof of what happens if you don’t. Endgame is a mess right now, guilds are dying left and right and it won’t be long before WoW becomes simply an RPG that happens to be playable with others when you feel like it.

And if you think that it would be a bad move then take a moment to think back to how WoW became the giant it is now. There was a time when WoW servers were full every night, when I would wait over an hour in the queue to play and when it threatened to turn into a full-blown addiction. That time also happens to be when WoW was at its less friendly, when there was no LFD, LFR and when certain quests and milestones required you to actually talk to other people.  WoW did not begin its ascent to 11.5 millions people during Pandaria, it did so in Vanilla.

Proof that losing some players due to difficulty might be wort it.

Gating and FF14:ARR example

spider-eyes

The recent FF14 is doing really well at the moment and is close to breaking 1 million players if it’s not already done. There’s queues most nights and people are having a blast. I find myself playing for long hours when I didn’t mean to and that’s something that has not happened since Vanilla WoW. I’m not alone in this and I think its proof that FF14 is onto something here.

And that one thing that jumps to my mind is that it uses gating. FF14 has a main storyline that you need to progress through to reach endgame. It’s not an absolute necessity and someone dedicated enough can grind to max level but he will be missing a lot of features. He won’t have access to the dungeons and raids that make up endgame. He can’t cheat either by overleving the dungeon content since dungeons will scale down your level to the appropriate one.

There’s the first gate. In order to reach endgame you have to do the main storyline and surprise, the main storyline features mandatory dungeons, a few of them in fact. Please bear in mind that you can’t overlevel this content, so what level of skill is needed is decided by the game.

And there comes the second gate, the skill one. FF14 can roughly be split into tiers with corresponding required skills.

  • 1-15: being able to play your own class. WoW skill level
  • 15-20: being able to play your class in a group setting. Dungeons with minimal mechanics. About one per boss. About WoW standard level
  • 20: Ifrit trial. Single boss, involves more complex mechanics (staying out of bad, target priority). In WoW this would be in line with heroics bosses and some raid bosses.
  • 20-35: Advanced class mechanics. Resource management, changing battle conditions, being able to know when to take a hit and when to avoid. Being aware of surronding. Dungeons difficulty is around WoW heroics
  • 35: Titan trial. Raid difficulty encounter. Multiple phases, abilities, tests all roles.
  • 35 and onward: Increasing difficulty and we’re not even to max level!

If this sounds good for you right there, then you might want to look into getting FF14. But let’s continue first. What do you think happens when a bad player stumble upon something he can’t overcome? In this example, Titan is a particular roadblock for many players right now. Well, the bad players has two choices. Either he quits, or he find a way to step up his game.

How does he step up his game? Maybe he’ll go read about the game, improving his game and mechanics knowledge. Maybe he’ll join a guild to find “better” players to play with. Maybe those same players will teach the bad player to be better… it could happen no? And finally, maybe teaching a new player who’s leveling is not the same experience as teaching someone who’s making an entire raid wipe. In either case, the player will get involved some in the community which is ultimately better for the game because it’s that same community that will keep him playing at endgame.

He could even tell other people about the game and how great it is and maybe these people will join… sheer insanity… oh wait it’s not. It’s exactly how WoW got to 11.5 millions people.

I’m not saying that improvements like LFD, pet battles or a slew of others things Blizzard did are bad. I’m saying that not forcing player to play together and work together is the wrong way to go in an MMO.

Let not confuse topics here

layton

Before anyone start saying that gating creates entitlement, that it excludes players, that your 15$ is worth as much as mine and that you’re life doesn’t allow you to commit to long sessions, etc… etc… well you’re right. I often defended that time should not be the deciding factor in your access to a game. That you should not have to be a super skilled player to see the content  a game has to offer. I still stand by that.

But I’m going to change my stance a bit here. There’s a limit to how low the skill level needs to go. There’s also a limit to how short meaningful sessions can be. If I only have 15 minutes to give to a game, I shouldn’t expect to make much progress in dungeons. Also, not every game is for everyone and that’s okay. Dark Souls is a very difficult game that’s not for everyone. Most people accept this and the game is stronger for it. Why couldn’t it be the same for MMOs? Why are we having so much trouble accepting that maybe an MMO could cater to a more hardcore audience?

Again, MMOs and group content are, or should be, inseparable. Not all of it all the time but they should be aimed at providing engaging for groups firsts. Or at the very least involve you in a living world and community. If not you’re better off with single players RPGs.

How do you provide great group content, which should be the main aim of an MMO?

Confused with all the hype?

Again, my raid leading experience is speaking here but the times I had the most fun in groups were when I was playing with groups of the appropriate skill level for the content we were attempting.

Again, to obtain that you need to train your players.

This means that if someone refuses to improve, then he should not have access to whatever I am attempting to do. Either he will improve and participate in the game, or he won’t and leave.

But if the game doesn’t do anything for that player, not only will he end up at the same spot later, faced with leaving or engaging the community but he might ruin my experience too and end up making two players leave.

So I hope you enjoyed this and thank you for your attention.

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The other day I stumbled upon this article from the Penny-Arcade Report where the author explained to us what might be looming ahead of us in regards to companies tailoring cash shops to extort ever more money from us. It’s food for thoughts and I highly recommend you go read the article in question. To sum up, it seems some companies are thinking about displaying different prices to the user based on our buying habits.

Easy example, people in North America (more fortunate) pay more for DLC than people in more impoverished countries. By the way that is a real example. Many companies price their games differently based on where you love. Starcraft 2 for example costed around 60$ in the US, was going for less than 20$ in Asia and was even free in Korea. This is nothing new in itself…

What’s new is that there might be changes in price depending not on where you live but also your buying habits. Example, if you buy a lot of Cartel Packs, then the price of the Packs could be raised since EA knows you’ll be buying them anyway.

Some people will say that such a move would drive people away cause we would figure out what was going on and it would create customer backlash…. but companies can be creative when they need to. Let’s say an MMO drop boxes that you can loot but to open them you have to buy keys. Same prices for the keys for everyone so it’s fair right? But what if the rate at which the drop boxes dropped changed based on much keys you have bought in the past?

Instead of changing the price of item what if they made it so the more you spend the more opportunities to spend the game puts in front of you? Way more sneaky but it would have the same effect as rising the prices….

I’m not panicking yet… but it’s definitively something I’ll keep an eye on… food for thoughts…

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Pandaria has been confusing to me. Not because of its layout or quests or storyline (although they can be confusing in a fun way) but because I was supposed to hate it and get bored with it quickly but instead I’m finding myself enjoying it. I wrote last year about how this expansion was WoW jumping the shark, how it would be the final nail in the coffin for WoW, how it was proof that WoW had lost its way.

Today I am eating my own words.

And apparently I am not the only one finding Pandaria to be surprisingly fun. Quite a few friends who had quitted WoW for a long time are making returns. People who skipped Cataclysm altogether and people who had sworn off WoW. In all cases it seems positive word of mouth got them back. Going around blogs I get the same feeling. It’s not all perfect but the general vibe is positive.

I’ve been puzzling over this for the past few days because quite frankly I had trouble trying to pinpoint what exactly happened. On the surface it’s all pretty much the same game we had in Cataclysm. Same type of quests, same reputation grinds, dungeons, raids, pvp, etc… So it should be as fun as Cata… meaning not a lot… but we’re having fun… so why?

So usually this is where I get all detective like and start a long-winded post but I’ll keep it short.

It’s all about choice

Nearly two years ago I wrote a post about what I felt was Cataclysm biggest problem and I ended up with the conclusion that it was lack of choice. When I began to write this post I was going to do another detective like post but everyone was telling me different reasons for loving Pandaria and then I remembered that old Cata post and it all clicked together.

Pandaria gave us back choice.

Well not complete and total freedom but they added so much different activities to the game that you get that feeling of choice again. Choice as to what you want to do a particular evening (battle pets, crafting, raids, dungeons, challenges,pvp…) and choice in how you get there. You actually have so control over how to progress through Pandaria this time around.

WoW is not an entirely new game and in the end, you still grind gear to raid but all those little extra pile up and I end up with choice again in my game.

I absolutely love it.

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Ever since I started this blog I’ve wanted to try to tackle the challenge of endgame raid design, not design an actual raid but rather the concept of raids. Even if I don’t foresee a future where I’d actually do that, as a purely intellectual exercise I still think it’s worth a try because as raids stand right now I believe they still need to be improved upon.

So why raids in particular and not other endgame features? Because raids are the one feature that has the most impact on the endgame of an MMO and because they are, I feel, the most distinguishing feature of MMOs. A lot of the activities proposed in an MMO can be done in other types of games but raids are the one thing you cannot easily find elsewhere and they still are the main reason many people are playing MMOs in the first place.

A note about my method

Some of you will ask where and how I got my information. First of all when I set out to do this I was interested mainly in finding three things, what people expect out of a raid, what features they liked and what features they didn’t like.  I worked hard on getting information from players of multiple games so I could see broad patterns and not only get what WoW or Lotro players love. I’ll say right now that I was really surprised to find out that the reasons and expectations given were pretty much always the same no matter what game is being played.

As to where I got the information I got it a bit from all over the place so I hope you’ll forgive me  for not listing it. A lot of it is forums and I don’t want broken links all over the place and it was hard to keep track of all that I read. I searched games and guild forums, fan websites, blogs, I asked people directly, I asked them on this blog… I just grabbed whatever I could.

The big expectation we have toward a raid

Raids as we know them in MMOs are the online versions of single players rpg endgame dungeons. Those dungeons were often the fortresses of the main villain, full of deadly enemies and traps, it’s where we would learn the details of the game plot, face and defeat the villain after an epic boss battle and save the world at the very last-minute.

And to this day this is what we want out of an MMO raid. We put a lot of time an effort preparing ourselves to storm the castle walls, we study the strats, we shine our armor, we fine tune our abilities, our skills and out teamwork so we can take down the guy that has been messing with us during the whole game if not multiple games and expansions.

So this is our big expectation toward a raid and its most single important feature. A raid needs to be a proper ending to a particular storyline we have been working on for so long. It needs to feel special, it needs to deliver epic battles and when we come out at the end we need to feel like we’ve accomplished something special. When we raid we bring our A game to the raid and we expect in return the raid to be the pinnacle of what a game can deliver.

Ulduar

According to many, this is the best raid ever.

The three elements a raid need

When I asked on my blog which were your favorites raids and why you all have answered pretty much what I was reading everywhere else about why players find a particular raid fun. To my surprise, it turns out to be rather simpler than I thought it would be when I began. Everyone has been citing mostly the same three reasons for why they loved a particular raid and usually all three together.

1. The raid needs to tell a story

Tying into what we expect from a raid, we want our raids to matter and to tie into the greater story. Glorified instances or obvious fillers between the meaningful content have all been thought of as bad.

2. The fights have to be about skill

Memorable boss fights is another of the reason mentioned all the time as to why a raid was great. If we’re a bit more specific, players really remembers fights that had fun mechanics to them. For example, Shade of Aran is remembered fondly by many for its famous “Don’t move phase”. What struck is that every single time the fights and mechanics that were given as example all relied on learning a particular dance or relied on player skill, not gear, not perfect play.

Simply, we want to be able to beat a boss because we mastered its strategy and tactics, not because we can push our buttons really hard.

Good news everyone! We love this fight!

3. Exclusivity

This is the element that turns out to be a complete surprise and it’s not exactly the easiest to express so please forgive me if I have a bit of trouble explaining it.

In our minds, raids are special places and we expect and even want that little extra work that make the place special. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it can be a simple attunement quest or a special boss you only see if you do the raid under X time but there’s need to be a little something extra. There needs to be a little something extra that says “This is a raid and not just another instance”.

What a raids needs to avoid

This post is already running long so I’ll cut to the chase here and say simply that raids needs to avoid the opposites of the elements above. Storywise, a raid cannot be a big instance or a filler between two patches, it needs to be relevant. Likewise, avoid gear checks or encounters tuned to tight that any little mistake will result in a wipe. We want to be rewarded for learning the fights, not punished because someone missed one keystroke in a 10 minutes fight. As for exclusivity I think it’s simply not forgetting to include it. Like I said it doesn’t need to be complicated or long, it just needs to be there.

So what should we change to the current endgame?

When I set out to write this I had envisioned complicated changes, technical stuff that would take multiple posts to explain and finely tuned details but after having done all this research I find myself reaching a very simple solution. A simple solution but one that would probably change the face of endgame if it was to be done.

Let’s remove gear out of the equation.

I can already feel the initial silence, then the low rumble as people forms ideas and finally the outburst at the heresy I’m proposing but let’s take a moment here.

Of all the reasons mentioned as to why people loved a particular raid, whether on Elitist Jerks or on a casual family site, gear has never ever been mentioned as one of the reasons why a raid was great. While some people fondly remember a drop for a number of reason, it’s never what makes a particular raid the best ever.

Likewise, fights that are used solely as gear checks are almost all reviled. They’re seen as boring facerolls at best and frustrating progression walls at worst. People don’t feel rewarded because they had the ability to equip gear, they feel rewarded for playing their characters.

So I’m not saying to remove gear from MMOs, I’m saying it needs to be a lot less relevant in the design of raids. Gear should not be used as a gating mechanism and it should not be the primary component in your ability to beat a boss.

I know that there’s a lot of reasons, mostly about content pacing and rewarding players and they’re probably not entirely wrong but if, like me, you believe that endgame needs to be improved and that we need to get out of the old model that we’ve had for the past ten years then I think this is probably the best way to do so.

There’s going to be a part 2 to this post where I want to go more into details about what would our current MMOs look like without gear being an issue at endgame but I’d like to see your comments first and what you all think about this.

Think about what I wrote above, that we expect raids to be the pinnacle of what a game can offer, that in the end it’s about story, interesting boss fights and that feeling of being somewhere special that’s not easily accessible. Gear doesn’t play into that equation and in fact can be detrimental to it.

So, what about we get rid of gear as an endgame mechanic?

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I’ve been working on an ambitious project these past few days and I need your help. I want to figure out what makes a great raid and what to avoid doing and I’ve been doing quite a bit of research trying to find elements common to the raids people find are the best. So far I’ve found quite a bit of info on what to avoid but figuring out exactly the best raids have been a surprisingly harder task than I thought it would be. To put it simply, people are keen to say that they loved some raids but not why.

Today I’m asking for the help of anyone reading this. Please write down in the comments which raids you think are the best and why. It can be any game and for any reason you want to but I’ll just ask that for a bit of objectivity if possible. I know there’s quite a few people reading this and I’d like a ton of comments so I can get a good overall view.

So, which raids do you think were/are the best ever and why?

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