Thursday, August 17, 2006

Game Balance

There is already a great deal written about game balance, such as how to achieve it, its importance, and even the pitfalls in dealing with it. Game balance is one of the most difficult areas of game design. Both paper & pencil and on-line multiplayer games need to ensure that each class or profession is balanced. This is vital to the overall health of a game and while it may be an impossible goal, it is a goal the designer must strive for nonetheless.

Game balance imperfections do not often show up during theoretical discussions or even during internal testing. Games are often pushed into a live environment with flaws that make a class out of balance with the others. With the dynamic nature of MMORPGs, changes can be made and pushed live as a patch. When such a change occurs and a given class is reduced in ability to bring it in line to other classes, the term used is "nerf".

While the hard-core role-players might pick their class based on a preconceived idea and not on the over/under powered nature of a given class, the out of balance nature of a class cannot be ignored. When these nerfs appear, players affected cry and whine in frustration demanding to understand why the change occurred, and more importantly, why even bother with game balance. A select few even try to argue that their out of balance character really wasn't and instead of reducing the ability of the out of balance class, the other classes should be raised to compensate. So a class was more powerful than one or more classes (or all of them), what is the harm in that?

At its most fundamental level, when one class possesses the ability to outstrip other classes in terms of advancement potential players will flock to that class. The other classes cease to serve a purpose. To look at it another way, you have 2 very distinct and different classes, each with a different set of abilities. A third class can do both just as effectively, why would anybody run the other two. In order to balance the "draw" of the third class, its ability to mimic the other 2 classes need to be reduced. Yes, this third class can do both, but at the expense of the other specialized professions. Raising the ability of the two specialized classes can set a bad precedent. It encourages even more whining by the player community and serves to increase the overall power level of the game, requiring even more powerful opponents, something already a problem in long term games as an aspect of mudflation.

When a game possesses a player versus player combat option, the need for class balance is even more pronounced. There has to a check and balance. Each class should have something it can defeat and something it cannot – someother class must do that.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Developer Arrogance

There is no other profession that offers the same exhilaration as game designer, especially MMORPG designer. Your thoughts and dreams become seen and experienced by thousands if not millions of players. In some ways, it is similar to the script/screen writer or even the director of a movie, but where the movie patron is passive in the experience, the gamer is interacting with your vision.

Under these conditions, it is little wonder that game designers often develop a horrible condition known as “developer arrogance”. This disgusting malady drives away paying customers and frustrates those that remain.

What is Developer Arrogance? Well, it is a condition where a designer stops having any type of internal or self-criticism for their own work. It is the belief that their work, no matter how bad, no matter how foul, is the best in the world. Those suffering from this condition believe, quite strongly, that their creations, theorems, algorithms, and concepts are beyond inspection. They have stopped creating imaginative designs and no longer think about what they are creating because they firmly believe that all that spews forth from their mind is perfect, beyond belief, and awe-inspiring. Worse yet, the long time sufferer of this infection starts to have a low opinion of the paying customer and the scum who have the audacity to criticize their work.

So many games have been corrupted, if not destroyed, by Developer Arrogance. Games loaded with poorly thought out ideas because the lead designer never paused for a moment and thought things through. His arrogance blinded his viewpoint. Instead of good concepts, we get junk.

Perhaps the best example of Developer Arrogance run amok is Star Wars Galaxies. It’s a shame that I have to keep beating on the same MMORPG for bad examples, but SWG is loaded with so many choices made out of arrogance, it's hard not to. In SWG, before saner heads prevailed, the lead designer’s planned path to opening up a special option of a Jedi character was starting, mastering, and then abandoning several professions in the hopes of discovering the six randomly selected professions. It was arrogantly thought that the professions were so well designed, so wonderful to behold, that players would be unable to contain themselves from wanting to experience the width and breadth of the various professions that a Jedi would emerge in only a mere three months. Developer Arrogance at its finest.

In a worse case scenario, you would have to start, completely master, and then abandon 144 professions (the 24 professions 6 times). When 6 months came and went with no unlocking a Jedi appeared, players became to complain that such a thing was never really part of the game, it was nothing more than a trick to entice players. To offset this bad press, designers introduced ways to speed up the process. Through the use of special devices in game, players could discover 5 of the 6, but they would still have to cycle through every profession until they discovered the last random one. More details regarding this can be found found here.

Game designers, especially lead designers, should remember some ideas, even theirs, are not ALWAYS the best in the world, Instead of arrogantly believing that every single idea is beyond belief, a good designer should retain a certain amount of modesty and self-reflection. Nor, should designers believe that the paying customers are mindless, marching morons willing to salivate at all their creations.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Group Versus Solo Play

While on the subject of grouping, game designers in MMORPGs are faced with a difficult dilemma when it comes to solo versus group play options. Back in the day when Everquest was the only game in town (MMORPG speaking), its designers had free reign over the amount of options available for solo play. In their case, none really. Unless you selected a one of the few classes that could solo or were very skillful you really were stuck if you could not find a group of players.

With the plethora of MMORPGs now available, each one is vying for a market share. That means trying to provide an even balance of both solo and group options. This may be an impossible goal. Gamers, by and large, are anti-social. Perhaps it’s this anti-social nature that draws them to games, or perhaps playing so many stand-alone games makes them anti-group. Regardless, if players CAN solo, regardless of the benefits of grouping, they will, and in large numbers.

In nearly every MMORPG, the advancement gains for grouping far out way those soloing, yet the die-hard anti-social of the anti-social soloers loudly clings to the firm belief that solo play is faster. They cite how much they gain per defeated creature; all the while neglecting to take into account that while the individual gains are much more than when in a group, a group gains more over time.
For example:

Nevehcus defeats High Cleric Amica, gaining 1000xp in the process. The combat took 5 minutes leaving poor Nevehcus drained and needing another 5 minutes to replenish his powers before taking on another creature. A group of 5 players defeated the same High Cleric Amica but were rewarded only 200xp per person. But, in that same 10 minutes, they defeated High Cleric Amica's entire 6-person entourage, her outer chamber guards, and a few wandering creatures that were foolish enough to get in the way. During the non-stop action, each player was able to draw on the group strength to share the burden of combat. When the dust clears, each group member gained more than 1,200xp. Using these fictitious numbers, Nevehcus would see 6,000exp in an hour, but the group members would see 7,200.

If a solo play option exists, even if it’s just a mindless grind of wandering opponents, it will be the major option selected by the player base much to the frustration of players who prefer to group. Making a game more group friendly is not a matter of penalizing soloing, it's a matter of overcoming that innate anti-social nature. The rewards for grouping must be far greater than those for soloing; otherwise, you have almost all soloers. However, if any options that exist for groups only, the soloers become very vocal and demand equal access. It starts a viscous circle that spirals down until everything that can be done, can be done solo, and that is all anybody does. Groups effectively cease to exist.

Why is grouping so important? Why does it matter? From a design point, it doesn’t. From a long-term growth viewpoint, it does. Grouping forces players to interact with each other, in some fashion. Players may chafe and grind playing in a group, but under these conditions they will, eventually, build a social network that will keep them playing even when the next MMOPRG game comes along. It fosters a need to play, to socialize, to be with friends made during these grouping sessions. It helps make a game, to use a web development term – sticky. Players stick with it through the ups and downs, and long after the game has ceased to be envogue.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dynamic Group Interaction

Understanding the concept of dynamic group interaction and its proper implementation is one of the core concepts of any good MMORPG. It provides a solid foundation of game design and shapes the development of classes or archetypes available to players. Unlike stand-alone games, massive multiplayer games thrive on a diverse environment and play styles. Most importantly, players in these games frequently form cooperative units for mutually beneficial goals. The interaction of players within these groups is a driving force of any popular MMO.

Dynamic group interaction is the concept of how and why each of the different professions, a common element to role-playing games, interacts within one of these groups. When players form a group, each player must enter knowing not only what their role will be, but with certain pre-conceived expectations of the other members as well.

At a fundamental level, there must be somebody to:
Suck up the damage (tanker type).
Mitigate or heal damage (healer type).
Dish out the damage (dps, or damage per second type).
Control the number of opponents to prevent or limit damage (crowd control).

Each profession, regardless of the genre of a MMO must fill one of these roles to achieve not only game balance, but, more importantly, provide the other members of the group a clear understanding the role each person will play within the group dynamics.

For game balance purposes, when a profession exhibits a strength in more than one of these roles, each are less than a dedicated person, a.k.a. the hybrid.

These core roles must exist in some capacity, even if they are ignored. Such as when a group is comprised of all DPS classes. Here the output of damage is greater than the input so the need for the other roles is diminished. However, the DPS classes still know their role, and know what the other group members will be doing.

A fine example of the importance of dynamic group interaction is the MMO, Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). On its initial release, SWG failed to understand the concept of dynamic group interaction. Player professions/classes were not created with a specific role in mind, but instead the idea of “wouldn’t it be kewl if players could . . .” Each player could fill any role at any given moment depending on skill and/or equipment selection. Players entered into groups with no preconceived expectations of group dynamics - of who would do what and when.

While this creates an unprecedented level of diversity for players, the lack of dynamic group interaction created a certain level of chaos and fostered player frustration with the uncertainty of what professions are designed to perform what task.

In COH, Everquest, Everquest II, World of Warcraft, and a host of others, each player joins a group instantly knowing not only what his/her role is, but from the professions of his/her teammates, what roles they will be fulfilling.
Why is dynamic group interaction important? Because it allows players to instantly know what their role in a group is, and what they expect other players to do. This is a core requirement in the design of any good MMORPG. It also allows for an ebb and flow of combat – another stable in RPG games. The CC person limits the number of combatants, the tanker absorbs damage, while the DPS classes return damage, and when required, the healer type repairs the incoming damage. It is an equation of group dynamics that most players know, if only at a superficial level.