2013 — Overgrown Sticky Notes

January 18, 2013

I wouldn't tank under his heals
There's an article explaining reasons behind typical MMO class setup. As the article correctly states, when a game allows flexible playstyle inside a character class, it immidiately faces a problem with unpredictable pick-up-groups. How do I know if a cleric I just accepted to a group can heal? He could be a battle cleric with insane DPS, having no single healing spell at all. There's nothing wrong with DPS, be it a cleric or a rogue, but my group currently only needs a healer!

I perfectly understand this dilemma and reasons behind it. Still, I cannot decline flexible playstyle in any RPG. And at the same time I admit that playing with random people is the core of any MMO. So, this issue has to be addressed.

The problem: design RPG class system so that it allows both:

  • ease to form balanced pick-up-groups with strangers,
  • and a wide range of gameplay styles.

And I came out with the following suggestion.

Allow each player to rate his character against criteria important to gameplay, like:

  • Healing:
    • 1: No means to replenish health.
    • 2: Ineffective self-healing out of battle.
    • 3: Can manage own HP, but would benefit from external heals in emergency.
    • 4: Able to sustain self and throw occasional heals on others.
    • 5: Effective regular healing of self and others.
  • Damage dealing:
    • 1: Takes ages to kill a single foe.
    • ...
    • 5: Among the best DPS for my level.
  • Aggro management:
    • 1: If I get aggro I die in seconds.
    • 2: Can't fight effectively under aggro.
    • 3: Can fight effectively when attacked and live to tell the tale.
    • 4: Able to switch aggro from other allies to self, and survive.
    • 5: Can switch aggro to self, keep it, and efficiently mitigate the damage.
  • Crowd Control:
    • 1: No means to disturb foe's plans.
    • 2: Can impede one or several foes.
    • 3: Can disturb enemies sufficiently to protect allies in emergency.
    • 4: Can severely impede one foe for a long time.
    • 5: Can severely impede several foes, or totally disable one foe for long time.
  • Buffing:
    • 1: No means to increase allies' effectiveness.
    • 2: Take it or leave it, not much difference.
    • 3: Situationally useful and/or short buffs.
    • 4: Provide substantial lift to allies' abilities.
    • 5: Indispensable buffs to keep at all times.

Make this ratings conveniently visible to everyone in group, as well as people who wants to join. This makes possible to evaluate group's robustness at a glance, while each player having unique playstyle at the same time.

Allow group leader to select similar ratings when looking for new people, and make it visible to applicants, too.

This measures implemented right should solve the issue.

Tags: MMO, RPG

January 17, 2013

This is a continuation of previous post where I stated that endless repetition kills gameplay.

Therefore, game should encourage players to use different tactics in different circumstances. The goal is to make player guess and search for the most effective playstyle again and again. Game does this by varying relative cost-effectiveness of skills and tactics in different situations. Especially important here is the word relative. There's no point in making all tactics equally harder or easier: the one that used to be the best will still stay the best.

My goal here is to explore options of bending gameplay this way in real, MMORPG-like game.

The problem

The goal is to design a battle system (core of a gameplay) for an MMORPG, so that it encourages player to experience as much gameplay options as possible. Different gameplays must indeed feel different enough to be fun for the player.

I accept the following restriction. Set of skills/spells/abilities player is allowed to choose from does not substantially change from quest to quest. "Substantially" means, say, 95% of all abilities are fixed and available in all quests. Sure, list may change from patch to patch as a result of balance tweaking, but in every public game release the list is fixed.

Refusing to fulfil this restriction is risky. It is nice to have different gameplays available in game, but it is way too dangerous to force player into gameplay that is too different. Player must be able to use previous knowledge gained in game. Abusing unique rules for every quest makes such use essentially impossible. Imagine chess when every other game you have to learn new pieces. Not the best game design example. Something has to be fixed in stone, and I choose to fix the list of abilities.

What is allowed to change from quest to quest without restrictions, though, is the situation player gets into.

Solution method

The idea behind it is to change gameplay by making different tactics effective in different situations. This is accomplished by tweaking effectiveness of individual abilities from quest to quest.

Cost-effectiveness of an ability is by definition its usefulness relative to its cost. Therefore, to increase effectiveness of an ability, in-game situation should empower its useful effects and decrease costs; and vice-versa to have effectiveness decreased.

Following sections explore exact means to achieve that in MMORPG.

Overview of character abilities

I bring this rough classification of in-game character abilities, because it proved useful to develop means of changing each ability's cost-effectiveness.

Each ability has associated costs and effects. Costs are undesireable consequences of using the ability, such as draining mana or HP, wasting time standing still, etc. Effects are, on the other hand, beneficial, for example: damaging foe, healing self or ally, etc.

By beneficial effect: show...

By costs: show...

By use case: show...

This classification is by no means exhaustive. There are abilities that, when allowed, can substantially change gameplay on their own. For example:

  • Instant teleport to target destination or foe.
  • Disable traps temporary or permanently.
  • Ability to see through the walls.
  • Stealth: way to become ignored by enemies.

These powerful game changers are dangerous, though. They tend to be either overpowered and used all over the place, or underpowered and forgotten by everyone. Would not be wise to allow them everywhere at any time, as it is way too difficult to balance them against normal-style gameplay. But being used carefully as special abilities tied to particular places and quests, they can be indispensable.

Tweaking skills

The above classification gives a good hint on how to vary effectiveness of each skill from quest to quest without changing skills themselves.

Tweak ability power.

  • Foe's vulnerability to certain skill obviously increases its effectiveness; resistance to skill decreases it.

Tweak resource availability.

  • Making resource plentiful makes skills that use it more effective; scanty resource makes them less effective overall.

Make use cases suitable or not.

  • Facing lots of weak foes increase effectiveness of AoE, multi-target and weak but cheap spells; few strong enemies do the opposite.
  • Foes that share a weakness make it effective to exploit the weakness; absence of such common vulnerabilty makes universal spells more effective.
  • Slow-moving meelee foes encourage use of quick-cast ranged abilities, cast-on-the-move spells and mobile playstyle.
    • To promote cast-on-the-move even more, make enemies able teleport once in a while.
  • Foes casting ground AoE with noticable cast time promotes cast-on-the-move, too.
  • Fast-moving foes encourage fixed-target ranged abilities and discourage melee and AoE.
  • Not sure how to shift predictable/probabilistic effectiveness...
    • Same effects, same cost, same probabilities. What can make unpredictibility more desirable? Some kind of defence against all previous attack types? Rather pathetic reason to use unpredictable abilities, but may possibly work.

Tweaking gameplay

Finally, when we have developed predictable means to tweak usefulness of player's abilities, we can use them to manipulate the gameplay. Kinda the point.

There's not much I can say at this point besides that it is not easy and requires thorough consideration. Not every change in skills results in change in gameplay. Some tweaks result in trivial change in player's behaviour. Some even result in poor gameplay with no fun at all. Obvious advice here is to playtest everything. Possibly, when/if I have more actual experience in this, I'll be able to write more on subject.

January 17, 2013

How a battle system should be designed in a perfect new-age MMO RPG?

Short answer: I don't know yet. But I can point out what feels badly wrong in existing MMOs.

One at a time

In conventional MMOs player usually fights 1 foe at a time. Simply because it is cost-effective.

  • Player can manage 2 foes, rarely 3, at the cost of wasting HP/mana (and ultimately time and/or other resources to gain them back). Against more than 3 enemies you're almost inevitably screwed up badly.
  • Rare classes/builds are capable to use AOE tactic. Gather 5-10 foes (usually considerably lower leveled) and use area skills to damage them all at once.
  • There are occasional twists in multiplayer mode. Like, again, "Tank runs forward and gathers 10 foes, then the party tears them apart with AoE damage." But even in party it is mostly the same old one-foe-at-a-time.

One at a time isn't bad by itself. What makes it bad is endless repetition. And by now, people played it enough and deserve something else as the core of battle system.

Boss fights

Best MMO bot ever
Best MMO bot ever
A boss fight in conventional MMO feels like usual one-at-a-time with a single difference: the one is freaking BIG. It's not unusual to see players activate single skill or macro and go AFK for 15 minutes. Some people manage to kill those things alone. It takes hours of AFK with one skill activated in a loop.

This is obviously wrong and should not be like that. A good bossfight must require skill, not time. It should feel different from normal gameplay, although not too different at the same time.

To be honest, it does indeed require some skill for a party to beat such bosses. But essentially it all boils down to simple rule: whoever takes damage, must take less than healer manages to heal over time; and must have enough HP to survive 1 strongest hit.

In search for perfection

Endless repetition kills gameplay.

Therefore, game should encourage players to use different tactics in different circumstances. The goal is to make player guess and search for the most effective playstyle again and again. Game does this by varying relative cost-effectiveness of skills and tactics in different situations. Especially important here is the word relative. There's no point in making all tactics equally harder or easier: the one that used to be the best will still stay the best.

So, we seek a method to vary relative cost-effectiveness of skills and tactics.

By definition, cost-effectiveness is the usefullness of effect relative to amount of resources spent.

  • Effect could be: dealing damage, buffing self and/or allies, restoring resources (healing, replenishing mana, etc.).
  • Resources could be: time, health, mana, in-game currency, real money, etc.

Therefore, it is possible to vary cost-effectiveness by changing usefullness of effects, as well as costs, in different situations. For example, something like:

  • In one place enemies hit hard but are vulnerable to disabling; in another place enemies do almost no damage, but are capable to disable the player.
  • Traps can hurt a lot, thus making players think about some forms of protection; or can damage so little so it's safe to ignore traps altogether, "heal through", to save time.
  • Can be plenty of resource-replenishment inside dungeon, like one-time healing or mana pots. Or none such at all, making HP and mana a valuable resource.

All this requires careful thinking and a lot of design work to do right.

Article continues in Situational gameplay.

Tags: MMO, RPG, Gameplay

January 15, 2013

How would an MMORPG look with no grind? Let's go a bit crazy here. Insist on instant creation of characters of any class, any level, with any equipment!


Let's describe game basics to draw some background for further discussion. Consider a conventional MMORPG. WoW-like controls with little change, if any.

3D environment. One character to control at any given time. 3rd person view. Can move camera further from character to get from-the-top view. Movement via WASD and/or by mouse-clicking on the ground.

Gameplay is centered around fighting enemies. Combat abilities are activated by first selecting an enemy using mouse click, then pressing corresponding hotkey on the keyboard.

Some playstyles require extensive movement in combat. Almost all players benefit from mastering movement in combat.


Why would anyone play it? What's the fun? This is the most important question for any game.

One-sentence answer would be the following. It is fun to tweak selection of character abilities to become more effective in combat.

Therefore, such game must encourage players to spend much effort tweaking their effectiveness. The game does so by rewarding for difficult achievements. The best reward is appreciation from fellow players for completing tasks that are known to be challenging. The most dificult achievements are the ones player issues himself. The game only have to track them.

There's a suggestion how to implement that in real game.

The game proposes a set of fixed quests of constant difficulty. The player himself chooses the power level of character to use for each quest. The lower character's power level, the more difficult (and more rewarding) the achievement is going to be.

Upon quest completion player receives an achievement record in their public profile. List of such achievements player ever made is visible to all other players in game. For each achievement game also remembers (and publicly shows) the lowest character level used to gain the achievement. Community statistics for each achievement are also available. Player profile shows something like: "Killed Huge Evil Monster being character level 15. Only less than 5% of playerbase ever managed that. Good job!"

Other self-applied penalties are also possible to track, like: never being resurrected during mission, killing less than 5% of enemies (stealth completion), etc. The more such handicaps are taken, the more honourable the achievement is.

Described above is the core of gameplay fun. Other fun things are also possible as a side activities, such as: good story, customizing character's visual appearance, enjoying cooperative play, competitive PvP, etc. - as in any other good game there is.

Player levels are still needed

Surprisingly, despite the requirement of instant creation of characters of any level, a good game would still limit a new player in many ways.

The reason for that is simple. If the game throws at player all the abilities and everything supposed to be hi-level in conventional MMORPG, the player's brain is likely to explode instantly. Player would close the game and never run it again. And would be right.

The game needs some kind of tutorial system to gradually introduce player to all its features. Perfect tutorial would teach at exactly the same speed at which player can comfortably learn. With that in mind, the perfect solution for the problem turns out to be a leveling system designed as a tutorial instead of as artificial slow-down. That's how it could be implemented.

  • Players have experience.
    • Player level depends on their total experience.
      (Player level and character level are different concepts. See below.)
    • Experience is gained by making achievements.
    • The more difficult the achievement, the more experience it gives.
      • Achievent made on lower character level (and/or with other penalties) is considered more difficult and give more experience.
  • Players have a set of abilities available to them.
    • Abilities become available to players when they reach certain player level.
    • All abilities (and therefore all possible builds) in game are available to player up to his player level.
  • From player abilities players select a subset to become character abilities.
    • Player may change set of character abilities at any time when not in quest (dungeon) instance.
    • Each character ability has an experience cost.
      • When selecting character abilities players are limited by their total player experience.
      • When player revokes character ability, they get all the experience back, no penalty.
    • Character level is calculated from the total cost of character abilities the same way as player level is calculated from total player experience.
      • Therefore, player with player level X can create and play as any possible characters up to character level X.
      • Players are encouraged to use characters with as low level as sufficient for the task, as it gives more experience and unlocks more difficult and rare achievements.
  • Game starts as a single-player game with no class selection and level 1 character with simple gameplay and a couple of very basic abilities.
  • While playing, player permanently unlocks more abilities and classes to use.
  • There is a selection of goals at every moment during player's progress. Game uses these goals to guide the player:
    • Gain levels and learn to use skills as they become available.
    • Change character's specialization (i.e. class) and skills as needed for each goal.
    • Find groups and play with other players.
    • Notice achievements and titles.
      • Titles show in different colors above the player's head depending on how many other players completed the achievement on player's level of completion.
    • Customize character's visual appearance.
    • Finally, goals are used to tell the story.


Not flawless, but still looks rather playable to me :)

Tags: MMO, RPG, Gameplay

January 15, 2013

Things applying to any game, not just MMO.

Easy and fun to start playing.

Hard to master: encourages creativity and personal development.

  • Great diversity of playable strategies with none 100% effective.
  • Effectiveness in game highly depends on human skills.
  • Implementing and perfecting strategy ideas do not require neither real money nor repetitive playing.
  • Game encourages to find unusual, rare solutions.
    • Nicely implemented in SpaceChem: after finishing a level game shows statistics how the solution compares to other solitions for this level from different players.

Sticks to its own unique theme: visual, sound, story etc. all together.

  • Resist temptation to accept a feature if it does not fit into selected theme.

Particular notes about MMO games.

Encourages benevolence that results in joy of giving.

  • Player gives something that they have plenty of. E.g. a buff to another player.
  • Receiving gratitude or other proof of usefulness of their effort supports benevolence.

Fun, challenging and rewarding PvE/Coop.

  • "Icarus-hard", see concept described in comparison of Diablo 3 vs Diablo 2
    • Player may choose difficulty, ranging from super-easy to super-hard.
    • Higher difficulty = better rewards, both in terms of loot and public image among other players (ratings, etc.)

Competitive play requires careful thinking.

  • Never rely on competitive play to implement new circumstances. Instead, improve random generation and AI of PvE games.
  • "Dick measuring" CAN be harmless, but not always is.
    • "Dick measuring" denotes pleasure from having rare things that others would like to have.
      • Including but not limited to: items, statistics, achievements, etc.
    • Requires players to have access a lot of numbers, ratings and graphs to measure everything there is.
  • It is highly questionable to have PvP at all.
  • If to have PvP, it must be fair.
    • Spirit of sportsmanship above all.
    • Any strategy can be countered without much money or time invested.
    • Players in PvP keep chances to win until the very end, be it through opponent's mistake or own creative play.
      • Everything else aside, at least allow to give up and leave instantly at any moment.
Tags: MMO, RPG

January 15, 2013

Thoughtful link: Quotes from famous game designers and others.

What is gameplay? Gameplay is simply the actions a player is allowed to perform in a game. If those actions are enjoyable and the controls are intuitive, you have the most important ingredients of a great game.
Duane Alan Hahn
A good game has to have a fun core, which is a one-sentence description of why it's fun.
Paul Reiche III

Fun cores of different games:

  • Tetris: keep glass empty no matter which items are randomly generated next.
  • Rayman Origins: find everything on a level to reach maximum score.
  • Strategy-type fun:
    • Dominion: invent the best strategy with 10 random kingdom cards.
    • Diablo: build the character able to defeat any foe.
    • Diablo 3 AH: find a way to earn money as fast as possible.
    • StarCraft: invent an effective strategy and adapt it depending on your opponent's actions.
    • MtG, Berserk: invent a deck.
    • LoL: Invent a build for a single champion, and/or strategy for the whole team; adapt depending on opponents' actions.
  • Story-type fun: find out what happens next.
  • Customize the look of your character.
Tags: MMO, RPG, Gameplay