Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Transwarping through Star Trek Online

Although most of my time is still being spent meandering my way through The Old Republic, when I feel the need for a break from blasters and lightsabers I've been exploring the options provided by phasers and photon torpedoes.  Yeah, not much of a change thematically, but the gameplay is vastly different as is the structure of the games.  I've been dealing with fantasy settings for years, I can handle a glut of sci-fi for a bit.

The new Odyssey class, free to everyone during Anniversary event
Star Trek Online is about to celebrate it's 2nd anniversary (this Friday) and just recently went free to play.  I played the game at release . . . briefly.  It was interesting, but plodding and ultimately unsatisfying.  Some of the systems they had in place just didn't work, or worked in a way that made no sense, or worked sensibly but were worthless.  The ship combat was pretty darn good, sort of Pirates of the Burning Sea in space (I LOVED the ship combat in PotBS, but that was the only thing I enjoyed about the game) but the ground combat was an abysmal mess of sluggish controls and slow painful combats that could leave a player wanting to tear their hair out . . . or maybe their eyes.  I'd say it was actually worse than Pirates of the Burning Sea ground combat, plus it was buggy as heck (I lost track of the number of times my away team members beamed under the surface of the planet leaving me to try and solo a ground mission).

After two years of additional development, the game is much improved.  I'm not sure that someone logging in for the first time in a long time would immediately recognize all the differences (other than being bombarded with a swarm of system messages and character updates from two years worth of patches), as most of it is actually fairly subtle, but the game just plays a lot better, is far more player friendly, and provides a much smoother gameplay experience overall.  Below I'll give a brief overview of each major system.

Ground Combat:
Sniping in shooter mode
Ground combat is still a bit of an ugly duckling for
the game, and I still dread missions with lots of ground combat sequences, but it's vastly improved over the release version.  Mostly it's just much faster.  Enemies seem to have far fewer hit points, or the damage of weapons and special abilities has been increased dramatically.  Either way, you can get through the fights quickly and that's great.  They finally added the ability to set your basic attack to autofire, an omission that made switching from space to ground combat jerky and disjointed.  It's extremely nice to not have to click that button over and over and over and over.  Unless, of course, you switch to the new "shooter" mode for ground combat.  I've tried it, and it's not bad.  It's an over-the-shoulder 3rd person view with a targeting reticle, sort of like Mass Effect.  You shoot with a left mouse click, alt-fire with a right mouse click, and melee with a center mouse click.  It actually makes the basic shooting combat much more fun, but I found it much harder to use special abilities, so I've generally stuck to the "rpg" mode.

Space Combat:
Space combat is still great, I don't think they've changed it much at all.  It's possible they've made low level space battles easier --I'm not really sure as it's possible I just know more about the game and do better now.  Of course, that means if you hated it before you're still going to hate it now.

Skill Gains:
New skill screen
They've completely revamped the ground and space skills that you spend your skill points on, combining or eliminating categories, clearly marking what the skills do, and providing player characters the ability to train bridge officers with rank 3 combat abilities if they spend enough points in certain skills.  For example, rather than having a skill to increase phaser damage, another to increase disrupter damage, a third to increase plasma damage, and so on, there are now two skills -- one to increase energy weapon damage and one to increase projectile (torpedo) weapon damage.  You also don't have to choose which type of ship to increase your skills in, you just get better at captaining ships.  It makes increasing your combat potential independent of the  equipment you find, craft, or buy.  You just get better, and that's a great change.

They've also greatly narrowed the number of ground skills, consolidating things into a few sensible categories.  You are now forced to split your point expenditures between space and ground skills (3/4 for space, 1/4 for ground) which prevents you from being an unstoppable monster in space combat that couldn't kill a Klingon blood flea on the ground.  Another sensible change.

I have not experimented with the new crafting system, but I know they've completely revamped it at least twice since launch.  The launch version of crafting was really quite stupid, so whatever it is now, it has to be better.

Sector Space:
One of my gripes with the launch version of the game was Sector Space, the candy-coated abstraction of interstellar space was nothing short of painful.  I understood why they did it, and what they were trying to accomplish, but it grated on the nerves and was extremely immersion breaking.  In the current version of the game you can turn the overlay off, and even if you leave it on it's much more subdued than the original version.  It's still not what I'd really like to see, but it's an improvement for sure.

PvE Content:
The missions themselves haven't really changed, but how you get access to them has.  There's a whole new interface that pushes content to the player rather than you having to flail about trying to figure out where to go or who to talk to.  The main storyline missions are provided in order through this interface, and it can also be used to queue for group PvE or PvP combat.  The game also has events that run for an hour starting on the hour, and the current event is detailed on this screen, along with information on how to access it.

Overall it makes for a much more pleasant leveling experience, and remains useful at the level cap as you can use it to re-run old missions, join task forces, etc.

The Foundry:
Another feature I've yet to use is The Foundry, a tool used by players to create missions for other players much like City of Heroes' Architect.  I understand that there are also daily missions with real rewards that involve running Foundry missions (as in Daily: Run Foundry Mission 0/1).  Sounds like good stuff, and I'll check it out eventually.

Free to Play:
Obviously the biggest change is the switch to the Free to Play model, and I have to say Star Trek Online probably has the most generous F2P scheme of any game that's made the switch.  Free players are not denied any access to any content at all (unlike City of Heroes), or relegated to only playing certain "builds" (unlike Champions Online).  Instead, free players are limited to only two characters, have a cap on the amount of credits they can store, smaller inventory, and don't get all the free bridge officers, ships, and duty officers that subscribed players get.  However, they can easily get those things using the cash shop, so it really is a case of choosing between "pay as you go" and "all inclusive".  Free players are barely second class citizens here, they're simply paying a different way.  I can easily continue playing my Vice Admiral character without paying a dime, and not miss out on anything.  I can only assume the difference between the Champions Online model a Star Trek Online model are a result of the acquisition by Perfect World Entertainment.  I never thought I'd be thanking PWE for anything, but they've overseen a great F2P transition.

Overall, I think Star Trek Online has come a long way over the past two years.  It still isn't a game for everyone, but if you'd thought about trying it, or tried it but didn't quite like it, now is a great time to give it a go.  The game is free, and heck, if you log in between February 3rd and 6th, get a character to at least level 5 and run a special mission, you'll get a free ship.  Sure you can't pilot it until level 50, but it's still a free ship that would normally cost $10-15 in the store.  You can't beat free, right?

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Nature of MMO Gaming

A friend of mine recently read this post by Raph Koster.  He suggested (perhaps "demanded" would be a better word) that I write a blog post about it, and give my opinion.  Well, he's sort of going to get what he asked, but not really, because instead of analyzing and/or discussing Raph's post, I'm going to describe how what Raph wrote (which I agree with, by the way) applies to MMO gaming, and why it clearly illuminates one of the fundamental problems with current MMO design.  First up though, I'm going to further discuss "feedback" as described by Raph, and how feedback affects us as gamers.  Here is what Raph has to say:
Ah, but the feedback for even a trivial action is very important. It matters that we hear the sound when we click the mouse. And should the designer choose, they can make the feedback be hugely disproportionate to the problem solved. Feedback serves the purpose of cueing the user whether or not they are being successful in figuring out the black box. So we provide feedback each time an input is made, and the feedback is intended to help guide the user as to whether they are doing the right thing.
In short, feedback is any sort of response that occurs as a result of player action.  That could be pressing a button on a mouse to get a "click", tripping a lever in the game and having a door visibly open with an audible rumble, or clicking on the "fireball" icon and killing an enemy.  Through this feedback you learn that levers open doors that might be blocking your progress, and fireballs will defeat an opponent that would otherwise kill you. The lever opening a door you can't see or hear would be an example of bad feedback -- you don't know whether your action accomplished anything at all, let alone the thing you were trying to accomplish.

Game rewards are also a type of feedback (and indeed, as Raph notes feedback is itself a reward), earning experience, gold, items, levels, etc., are all feedback that lets you know you're doing the right thing, but they also serve as rewards that trigger the chemical responses in the brain that react to accomplishments and acquisition (typically dopamine I believe).  Leveling up or acquiring that great item you wanted can provide an actual rush, a burst of pleasant chemicals in the brain, albiet one that diminishes with repetition (an issue I will discuss later).

So what's my point?  That you can essentially change Raph's problem --> black box --> feedback paradigm to problem --> black box --> reward.
Totally ripped from Raph's post.  Please don't SOPA me!
Sometimes that reward is feedback that you're on the right path, and sometimes that reward is an actual reward, it all depends on the context and scale of the problem --> black box --> reward/feedback.  A quest in an MMO consists of multiple levels of these paradigms, everything from "how to get there --> use the griffin --> flight cutscene" and "defeat enemy orc --> use abilities --> xp/loot" to "kill 10 orcs --> repeat defeat enemy orc 10x --> quest reward".  Within those are even smaller ones, such as how to use abilities, or how to walk to the griffin.  An insane person could draw out a nested diagram showing all the problem interactions and it would be enormous.  I'm not that insane, sorry.

Point, Warsyde, got one?  Ok ok, I'm getting to it.

The point is that there are diminishing returns on the enjoyment of rewards.  The more, and bigger, rewards you get, and the faster they come, the less you enjoy any particular reward.  Humans have the remarkable ability to become accustomed to almost anything if exposed to it enough.  This is part of what makes addiction so dangerous, as an addicted person gradually needs more and more of whatever they're addicted to in order to achieve the same sensations they started with.

This has two effects.  The first is in a game situation like Raph describes:
Disproportionate feedback
If the game offers huge feedback all the time, it's likely to rapidly become tiresome as the constant barrage of feedback causes each additional instance to have less impact than the one that came before.  Not right away of course, but eventually it would happen.  Because so many games are using the model above it's a good thing they're short - a 50 hour game like the one above would burn a player out, but an 8 hour game might be able to get away with it.

What I'm really interested in though, is how this applies to MMOs.  MMOs are games intended to be played for hundreds of hours.  They simply, absolutely, cannot use the model above, as the reward structure would result in burned out players wandering off after a week or two at most.  Instead, the MMO model looks more like:
Large number of small interactions, one large reward


Large number of small interactions, large number of small rewards
Additionally, you can have a combination of the two that gives small rewards on the way and a big reward at the end.  The first method is the Everquest method, the second method is that used by most modern MMOs. Both methods are designed with the intent of keeping you playing for as long as possible.  The Everquest model did it by giving you really big rewards (class epic, omg!) for a large number of tasks spread over a long period of time.  The more modern method does it by giving you a lot of little rewards, hoping to both keep you going with the rewards while not overstimulating your brain and diminishing your appreciation of the rewards.  Both methods only delay the inevitable, but delay it they do.  It should be noted that raiding, even modern raiding, essentially follows the EQ model, though World of Warcraft is trying to make raiding fit the second model with their raid finder tool.

These models combined with how humans react to rewards accurately describes player behaviors in MMOs over the long term, and explains why casual players tend to be the happiest and hardcore players the most likely to burn out.  Someone who only plays an MMO for a couple of hours a week is unlikely to become inured to the reward structure as they get rewarded infrequently enough to not build up much resistance.  Compare that to a hardcore player who burns through two months worth of content in a week.  Not only is he or she now bored with nothing to do, the rewards they accumulated through the course of playing came so hard and fast that additional rewards will trigger almost no response in their brains.  At this point, they're either addicted and clamoring for another, bigger fix, or burned out and leave for a new game, or a new hobby entirely.

Is there a solution to this?  For MMOs, I'm not sure that there is.  The need to make the games essentially endless means that content needs to be designed a certain way, and excessive activation of reward mechanics is effectively in the hands of the player, the one thing the developer can't control.  A game that is perfectly balanced for someone who plays 10 hours a week could quickly bore someone who plays 50 hours a week.  It does suggest though, that the greatest potential for long term retention of players could be found by catering actively to the casual player.  The biggest issue is attracting the casual player to your game in the first place, as while the hardcore/burned out player will always try something new, the truly casual player is generally happy with what they've got.  Blizzard has clearly profited from this as the more casual World of Warcraft became the larger their subscriber base grew, and the fluctuations in their subscriber base can generally be attributed to the more active players leaving for new games and coming back again.

I think in the long run there will be two types of MMOs - casual MMOs, and niche MMOs.  World of Warcraft is very casual friendly, while EVE Online fits a very specific niche.  A generic fantasy MMO that is not casual friendly, however, probably doesn't have much long term potential.  I'll be interested to see how The Old Republic does in the long term, as the dialogue and cutscenes provide large amounts of feedback for small amounts of input, which suggests players should eventually reach the point where they become bored and skip through the dialog even if they haven't heard it before, but the game is also fairly casual friendly, and those players could consume the content at a slow enough pace that they don't reach the spacebar-spacebar-spacebar stage.  Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ilum PvP Change

Well, SWTOR patch 1.1 went live today and Ilum PvP has turned out almost exactly as I predicted in my previous post.  I really don't know what Bioware was thinking, or how the current implementation managed to go live without anyone stopping to say "hey, you know, this might not work out . . ."

For those who don't know, the issue arises as a combination of bad design and faction imbalance.  They added daily quests that require killing players of the other faction, greatly increased the valor (essentially PvP xp) rewards for killing players of the other faction, and then let the ravening hordes loose without any safeguards in place.  What do I mean by that?  I mean there are no safe zones in the Republic base on Ilum, so Imperial forces (which greatly outnumber Republic on almost every server) are able to storm into the Republic base and spawn camp Republic players.  As you can't choose your respawn point there's no way to regroup unlike in WoW where you could at least ghost run to a different spirit healer.  It looks like this:

My god, this looks like fun!

Republic players are essentially stuck as they get endlessly farmed for valor with no way to fight back and no way to escape.  This goes beyond my expected /facepalm into the realm of pure insanity -- how could they set this up without a safe respawn area?!  Players eventually figured out a workaround, which is to queue for a Warzone and then use a Fleet pass to get back to the fleet once in the Warzone.  That's . . . ridiculous.

The other issue is that the turrets that are supposed to protect the respawn area are far too weak and, more importantly, actually reward valor when destroyed and then respawn instantly.  As a result Imperial players have been rapidly advancing their valor ranks by constantly destroying the instantly respawning turrets.  That has got to be a bug, and thus an exploit that will likely result in a valor rollback.

If you want to brave the mind-numbing insanity of the official forums, you can read about the official response to the whole issue here.

Now, I'm not trying to overly bash Bioware here as they've done a lot of good things with SWTOR and I'm really enjoying the game, but some of their design decisions are telegraphing the fact that they're relative greenhorns when it comes to this whole "MMO" thing.  I'm sure any schmuck with a computer that's ever PvPed in an MMO could have predicted the result of the Ilum PvP change, yet somehow Bioware missed all the warning signs.  I thought Mythic was supposed to be providing input and support for the PvP side of things, but if they are there's no indication of it.  WAR had many faults, but spawn camping wasn't something they allowed to happen, certainly not on this scale.

Admittedly Bioware has really boxed themselves in here.  If they make proper safe zones around respawn points then the poor Republic players faced with vast armies of Imperials simply won't come out until they go away.  If they don't make proper safe zones, Republic players will simply learn to avoid Ilum like the plague.  Either way, Ilum will fail to be a useful game area.

I think most players would be willing to face impossible odds as long as they had a chance of taking someone down with them, so some sort of buff to the outnumbered side might be the way to go even if it's not enough to turn the tide completely.  If you can charge out with a massive buff on your character and knock off a few Imperials before they swarm you down, wouldn't everyone win?  The Republic player gets some valor and a feeling of accomplishment, the Imperial players still get to farm valor, they just have to fight harder for it.

Whatever Bioware does, they're going to have to do it quickly.  Players will be making their decision whether to subscribe to the game or not . . . this week.  I'm not going anywhere for a while, but plenty of players could quite easily quit over this if Bioware doesn't respond appropriately.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alarm bells ringing

The "New Year's PvP Update" post on SWTOR.com mentions the following:
 Ilum will also become a major source of Valor. Valor buffs will increase and decrease based on the objectives your faction owns. These buffs increase the amount of Valor you receive per player kill. However they do not give anything in and of themselves, so players will still need to defeat other players for significant Valor rewards. Additionally, daily and weekly missions will require player kills to complete. Player kills for quests and Valor credit will have diminishing returns per player killed. So, the more players that are fighting other players, the better it is for everyone.
Am I the only one that reads that and wants to /facepalm at the inanity of the design here?  Most servers are imbalanced in population, so one side will typically have an advantage over another in open world PvP.  The way they're planning to do Ilum, the side with the advantage will capture all the objectives and then farm the other side for Valor points.  The more objectives captured by one side, the more players from that side will flock to the area to get easy Valor points, and the more miserable the experience will be for the underpopulated side.  Players will end up learning that if all (or most) of the objectives are held by one side, the best thing they can do is get off Ilum and do something else, and world PvP will die on any servers that don't have a reasonably equal distribution of active players on each side.

They've got the team behind Dark Age of Camelot working for them and this is what they come up with?  In some ways it's similar to DAoC Relics, but without the built in safeguards.  Relics provided a PvE bonus, not PvP, so once a side had a majority of the relics they'd run off to PvE, giving the other side a chance to retake them.  DAoC was also a three faction game, so population balance could be combated by teaming up, except in extreme cases.

Now, what should they do instead?  I'm not sure (I never said it was an easy problem).  The objectives have to provide something to make taking them worth it, need to be designed in such a way that flipping objectives back and forth provides no benefit (no reward "on cap"), also need to be nearly impossible to keep permanently, AND allow an underdog side a chance to participate in a meaningful way.

Obviously they could go the DAoC route and make the objectives provide a global PvE benefit, but that doesn't feel right, and I'm not convinced players would feel motivated to PvP for PvE benefits in SWTOR.  PvE in DAoC was pretty hard and leveling was slow, so PvE bonuses were a big deal.  Plus, of course, Darkness Falls.  In SWTOR though, a game where you could solo to the level cap?  I think people PvPing would want a benefit for themselves, right there and then.

One possibility would be to leave the bonuses for capturing the objectives the same, but provide some sort of counter benefit to the losing side to prevent it from becoming a Valor point farm fest.  One possibility that occurs to me is that when one side starts losing, Force using NPCs spawn in the losing side's base areas and provide a persistent buff to the losing players.  The more objectives the enemy controls the bigger this buff gets, giving the losing side a significant combat advantage.  If the enemy controls all or most of the objectives the buff should be significant enough to let a numerically inferior group of players have a chance against larger numbers of unbuffed players, possibly leading to them recapturing objectives and pushing the enemy back.  At the very least it should allow the losing side to kill off some enemy players before they go down, allowing them to progress and participate despite the unbalanced situation.

Of course, this has flaws too, namely that it encourages the winning team to NOT capture all the objectives, and as the losing side retakes objectives they become weaker, leading to an eventual stalemate.  It gets even worse when sides are evenly matched, as it could quickly become impossible for either side to make much progress without making their opponents too difficult to defeat.  That still might be preferable to what Bioware has planned though, I don't know.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there with good ideas on how to make open world PvP work, but it doesn't seem to me that Bioware is listening to them right now.  PvP Designers need to scrutinize how players will behave in a PvP environment, and take into consideration all the possible factors (such as population imbalance) that could upset their design.  Sadly they need to do this pro-actively and aggressively, as testing players will not display the sorts of behaviors that will break their design.  Warhammer Online should have taught this lesson -- RvR (PvP) was great during beta, and completely fell apart when the game went live and players all sought out the path of least resistance.

Monday, January 2, 2012

SWTOR's PvE Challenge

If you can never lose, you can never win.

This thought occurred to me as I was killing some time with Bejeweled 2 on my phone a few days ago.  I decided to try "Endless" mode, not really sure what it was.  I certainly didn't expect it to be a mode so easy you can never lose, such that you can endlessly play the game with no risk of having to stop.  After a few levels I began to wonder what the point was, and why on earth it bothered to keep score.  The score no longer represented skill, it represented time invested, and with no risk of losing it was a fairly meaningless indicator of "winning".

It didn't take long to see the parallels with MMORPGs.  A MMORPG is a game you cannot (with a few exceptions) ever "lose".  There's no game over, no "oh crap, that's too hard, I died and have to start over."  I'm not saying that's good or bad, it's just the way it is.  I know some people long for "hardcore" servers (or games) where character death is, in fact, game over.  I'm not one of them.

It does leave MMORPGs clearly in the land of games you can never lose, and as has been noted many times in the past there's no "game over, you've won!" screen in MMO land either.  However, it's necessary for a game to provide the feeling that you can win or lose, whether or not that's really true in the larger sense, or you end up with a pointless treadmill like Bejeweled 2's Endless mode.  MMORPGs do this by breaking content up in to smaller chunks, and giving you the potential to fail at completing that chunk.  You can't lose the game, but you can lose an encounter.  This gives the illusion of winning by creating an illusion of loss. A quest is an example, as is a dungeon, a raid, or a PvP battleground.  These are all discrete items of content that can be failed within the context of the game without providing a "game over" scenario, yet generate the sense of accomplishment players need to keep playing.

The chance of a player failing at any given task can be considered the challenge of that task.  Quests are almost always a sure bet, unless it's coded in such a way that the player can fail the quest and never get it again.  Group content such as dungeons or raids tend to be harder, and PvP in a way is the most challenging of all, as in any fair encounter you are unlikely to win more than 50% of the time (pre-made groups vs. randoms, twinks vs. normals, notwithstanding).

Tuning the challenge of content, then, is a key part of making an MMO work, not just because players will quit if the game is too hard, but because there will be no sense of winning if the content is too easy.  Quest based games such as World of Warcraft tend to have the lowest point of entry for new players, because quest content tends to be easy, and so players can get into the game and get used to things before trying harder content.  Unfortunately, the trend seems to be for quest content to stay easy, and in some cases (again, WoW is a good example) quests tend to get even easier as your character levels up and you get better at the game, eventually becoming completely trivial content that most players could complete with their eyes closed.  We've just entered Endless mode for MMOs.  Mash the buttons and "win".

One of the reasons I think WoW has suffered in recent times is that the entire leveling experience is "no loss, no win" endless content, and then things get switched up at the endgame such that you can lose, quite brutally, and take your whole group down with you when you try to do the heroic dungeons.  Blizzard's response to the outcry against this was to make the heroics easier, but what they really needed to do was make the quest content harder.  Making the endgame content easier just results in lowering the sense of accomplishment players have by completing it, thus more rapidly leading players to reach "endless mode" and quit at the pointlessness of it all.  The big jump in difficulty between the two modes of play was a serious issue, and while the fix they made was probably the only reasonable one (re-tuning an entire games worth of leveling content vs. endgame dungeons?) it's not going to help the game in the long run.

This all comes back to my recent experiences in Star Wars: The Old Republic, where it feels like quests are actually getting harder as I level rather than easier.  This is good.  As my character builds his strength and I improve my skill at playing the game I should be able to handle more difficult tasks, and I have some hope that SWTOR is going to do this, at least some of the time.  As an example, last week my Jedi Guardian had a class quest that pitted him against a boss level mob.  He had 4 times the hit points I did, and both my character and his companion were defeated 3 times before I found a tactic that worked.  It was a challenging battle, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to do it at all (lose), yet in the end I managed to do it (win), creating a great sense of satisfaction with the results.  Of course, the potential of losing was an illusion, as I could have simply leveled up some more or found some friends and tried again, so I was never in any danger of NEVER completing the quest, but the illusion of losing was still there.

I had a similar experience last night where a friend and I attempted a Heroic 4 quest (a quest tuned for 4 players) with just the two of us and our two companions.  We almost did it, with careful planning and coordination we got most of the way through it, before hitting a wall at the end in the form of a boss with 26,000 hit points.  We couldn't beat him, so we "lost", but we'll be back with reinforcements, and I know beating that boss will feel good.

So far, in my view, SWTOR has "challenge" down better than WoW, though whether that stays true in the long run is yet to be seen, and whether that is actually a winning formula is also unknown.  WoW has millions of subscribers, and while there's evidence those subscribers are finally starting to burn out, they've maintained those levels for years and made more money than any other MMORPG in history.  It's hard to argue against success, so I'll be curious to see how things sit a few years from now for SWTOR and WoW, and what tack Blizzard takes with their new game, Titan.