Keep it in the client

Why do I ever need to leave your client to play your game?

I recently achieved the maximum level in Rift and was awarded a nice weapon from a raiding adventure with a guild. I set about looking for an enhancement for this item only to be confronted by an auction house full of things like “Incandescent Savvy Rune”. There is no way to get the Rift auction house system to show me things that are useful to my character. It’s just a list of things that I have to spend time examining and researching. And, this is only the list available for sale. I don’t know if there is anything I could use that I could purchase elsewhere, or ask someone to make for me. I could go to a 3rd party website and look this information up, but even those do not tell me anything about these enhancements. Why am I reduced to fumbling through your game, guessing through trial and error as to what I should be spending my in-game money on?

This experience seems to be a very common issue that most MMORPG players have come to accept. After spending time leveling up with every decisions being of no consequence or being made for the player, they are suddenly faced with questions that the game seems at a total loss to answer. How do they play their class so that they don’t cause their raid group to waste time dying over and over? How do they know what gear is the best gear for what they want to do? How do they even know what options are available?

A player should not be dependent on a fan site to enjoy playing your game. Even if they do, why wouldn’t you build a browser into your game that allows players to visit it without alt-tabbing, running a second computer, or quitting your game?

Item data and community information.

Players want information. They actually need information to enjoy a game. The players don’t live in the game world, but their characters do. Their character probably know things in that world, from years of living there, that the player does not know. Such as, what craftsmen can create to enhance armor and weapons. Let me see this all in-game. Let players review items, potions, armor, etc. Let them post boss strategies and videos. Make your game the best place to find this information.

Finding a guild.

If joining an in-game player run organization is important to the players of your games, why make them leave the game to participate? Bringing guild recruitment into the game can root the guilds into the world and show players that they aren’t just secret societies that exist outside the game. In most games, if it were not for guild names showing above character heads, you might not even know that guilds existed. Where are the guild recruiting posts on the kiosk in town?

Use your client to collect more player information.

The MMOG developer has many different tools to determine what is and isn’t working in their game. How many people actually use those rare and hard to find potions? Do people run the same content over and over? How do most people die in a certain location? All gathered through the game itself. In my experience, the only time an MMORPG publisher or developer has asked me what I thought was when I cancelled the game. That’s far too late to be asking players what they think of your game. In addition to that, forums probably aren’t representative of the player community, but the people actually playing your game for more than ten minutes are.

Use the client to gather meaningful feedback about how much people enjoy your game. Take several questions you have for your players, and randomly ask them a new one each time they quit. Keep them as yes/no questions and you’ll get actual feedback from players. Not from malcontents on the forums or just people who are angry at your game.

Shards

A game divided into shards has many different “copies” of the entire world running in parallel with different populations of players. For the purpose of this article I am talking primarily about the sharding mechanism used by MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, Rift, etc. This is a hosting technology or method, and not a game design decision. Shards have been around for a while and are a simple method of handling lots of players.

Shards separate your players.

Ask anyone who has started playing a sharded game and they can tell you the problems of picking which shard to play on. Friend group A is on shard X and friend group B is on shard Y and a player will have to choose which group to play with. Dividing your players from all their friends means smaller groups and a higher chance that they will fold when a few people quit. A sharded game doesn’t have a single fifty thousand player community, it has ten five thousand player communities. And, if your game has factions, you might have twenty communities of two thousand five hundred players each. Each cut making the potential pool of team-mates smaller for the players.

Shards are inflexible.

When an MMORPG grows, or shrinks, shards get in the way. There is no smooth waxing and waning in population. As the population shrinks, shards need to be consolidated to keep each shards population healthy. As the population grows, new shards are added, yet new players want to play with friends already playing the game. Guilds and players are shuffled from shard to shard to try and keep populations dense. In practice, as populations shrink, several shards become desolate and empty of players. Even if the overall game community is a healthy size, the perception of the game being empty is a negative impact on the players. The reverse effect is having players wait too log in a queue because there are too many people on their shard. Even if shards can be added quickly, transfers of characters are still required to actually reap the benefits of shards.

The net result of shards is that the only method to “balance” populations across them is transfers. One possible solution is to make transfers between shards transparent, effectively turning shards into instances. Another options is to design the hosting system to scale without sharding. Sharding is another method of managing MMORPGs that is long in the tooth and should not be used any longer.

Levels

Levels are a mainstay of most modern RPG games. And for a single-player game, I do think a leveling system can work well. I don’t think that is true for an online game, specifically for a MMORPG. The more I play them, the more I grow to hate leveling and the problems it creates.

Levels segregate players.

Games like World of Warcraft and Rift penalize players of different levels who want to play together by limiting the experience points gained by the lower level character. If you aren’t willing to carefully moderate your playing and experience income, you will be unable to play with your friends without penalizing them, or you will just need to wait till you are both at the level cap to play together. Net result here is that levels restrict who you can play with.

Levels break the 4th wall to control a players progress.

These games also use levels to prevent you from experiencing content before you are the appropriate level, and make previous content worthless once you have out-leveled it. There are plenty of other methods to restrict content to players by using thematic, in-game, in-character methods. Levels serve as an arbitrary throttle to players advancing through the world and exploring places. Some enemies are just “better” than others at killing you. Levels become an immersion breaking system of content consumption.

Levels go away regardless.

The irony of a level based game is that when most people are at the level cap, their level becomes irrelevant and they are basically playing a level-less game. This is the sweet spot for guilds and friends who want to play together. So why does it have to come at the end of a pointless level ladder climb? The game still offers power upgrades and growth, but sans levels.

Levels divide your game into two.

A game with levels will fall into two parts. Leveling game, and the post leveling game. These two games are played very differently. The leveling game is mostly played like a single player game, and the post leveling game is mostly played as a multiplayer cooperative game. Players who like one, might not like the other. Players who learn one, if they play long enough, will have to learn another to keep playing. Players who like your post leveling game, might not like playing your leveling game to get to the game they like. As a game creator, there seems to be little time to actually teach anything to a player except the leveling game. The post leveling game is often a “you’re on your own” game. Why make two games?

Wasted content.

Levels beget level cap increases, which makes your game daunting to newer players and trivializes previous end-game content. A game with a level cap, that then increases that level cap, turns all of the end-game content for the previous level cap into pointless content. Why would a new player spend time trying to raid level 50 content when level 51 quest rewards (added from the previous expansion) are equivalent? It would be more efficient to create content that drives character growth rather than let character growth drive your content. Even without a level cap increase, parts of the leveled world become trivial content for players. There is no reason to ever return to a previous location to help other players or to re-visit for new challenges in a previously visited area. New content at lower levels can only be experienced by playing the leveling game anew.

The MMORPG genre is aging, and it’s not seeing a lot of innovation. Many conventions, such as levels, are included because “that’s how an MMORPG works.” A few games have abandoned levels as I describe them, and those games are better for it. Games like Planetside and EVE Online, for example. If game designers don’t re-examine mechanics like levels, the genre is doomed to repeat itself into obscurity.

Rift and Education

Rift isn’t exactly a brand new invention. It’s obviously, a take on World of Warcraft, which is a take on Everquest, which is a graphical twist on MUDs, etc. Nothing new under the Sun and all that. Thus, it inherits many design concepts from it’s predecessors. Some good. Some bad.

Like many people, I purchased Rift online. I received no manual, nor did I purchase a strategy guide. I suspect that many people who play this game do not have any written material to help them with the game. Like many video games, though, Rift does use in-game help to teach a new player how to play the game. It tries to teach you how to move by using the keyboard keys and mouse. It teaches you basics of how a common MMORPG works with looting, questing, etc.

But, when you get to the higher levels, the game (like others before it) is silent. No pop-up to tell you that you’ve reached (or are nearing) the highest level and that you should start preparing to take on new challenges like raiding.

Rift doesn’t expect its players to know how to use the keyboard to move, but Rift certainly expects them to know how the end-game works? Seems backwards to me.

Running Games on my Netbook

I seriously don’t know what’s up over there at Wizards of the Coast. But, as I am fond of saying, it’s not my company to run into the ground.

The latest monster builder/catalog is pretty lacking in features and capabilities that I want as a customer who runs Dungeons and Dragon games for friends. My concern isn’t really for this one product not rocking my socks off. Really, it’s about the little things in it that, in my eyes, reveal a future that D&D tools will take over time. In short, the lock-down is on like Donkey Kong. This new tool doesn’t allow copy-and-paste of information. It doesn’t allow linking to images with a DDI login. The only way to get information from it is with a screen-capture.

There’s no guarantee things will continue like this. It’s possible that each of these decisions was just a coincidence. Maybe it was just easier. But, to be honest, the realist in me couples these things with the move to online only tools and other decisions made by Wizards of the Coast and it’s just depressing. The RPG community as a whole is growing smaller each year and the largest and most popular brand in that community is not trying to grow their market. Every step down this path means people are forced to jump higher and higher hurdles to play their game.

So what does this have to do with me running D&D games on my netbook? It has to do with the tools I use to run D&D games. Let’s look at my options.

  1. Pencil and paper. It’s classic and old-school, but I just don’t have the time anymore. Especially with the fourth edition of D&D. Tracking conditions, hit-points, initiative, delays, readied actions, etc. Not to mention jotting down NPC names as I make them up and making notes for future plot points. Pencil and paper just isn’t viable anymore. In a pinch, I can do it. So this remains the backup plan.
  2. Masterplan. This is a nice tool and I really like many of its features for designing adventures and running combat. But, due to a cease and desist letter from Wizards of the Coast, you can not move libraries of monsters and other information between computers. I’m not going to spend hours preparing for a D&D session on my little netbook when I have a desktop with a nice large screen. That limitation seems minor, but if I need to throw together a quick encounter on the fly and run it, I would have to enter all my data on my netbook in advance. Not to mention that there is no way to import monsters from the new monster builder, or the compendium. You can only import monsters from the old Adventure Tools offline application. If you want to use Monster Vault monsters, you have to import by hand. Nuts!
  3. MapTools. I just participated in my first online D&D game as a player, and we use MapTools. This is a sweet tool for playing a game totally online. But, it’s a bit heavy for my netbook to run just to track combat. Not to mention that I would have to, again, manually enter all the monster information by hand. Even with a clever modification from the community, it won’t read information from the new monster catalog since you can not copy-and-paste from it.
  4. inCombat 4e. The paragon by which I judge all other tools. It’s effecient and clean. It does combat tracking well and is 100% integrated with iPlay4e. Until recently, it was just as limited as Masterplan. But with a quick bug report, Andrew Siefer quickly turned around a patch allowing me to screen-capture stat-blocks from the new monster catalog and paste them into inCombat 4e. This means I can quickly go into the new monster catalog, re-skin a monster and adjust its level, then screen capture the stat-block and put it into inCombat 4e. I can save the monsters as an encounter and have them ready to go at a moments notice. In short, this tool is doing what I need to run a session from a computer.

I know that Wizards of the Coast is working on a virtual tabletop application. It’ll be online only. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to use that to run a face-to-face game. Does Wizards of the Coast even want people to keep running games in person anymore?

Off the Rails

After running Keep on the Shadowfell, Thunderspire Labyrinth, and a couple Scales of War adventures, I’ve gone off the rails. I’m making it up as I go along. And it’s nothing like I remember. But one thing is for certain, combat is going to be much easier to keep interesting. I was never happy with the pre-written adventure combat and while I could have spent the time making them better, I might as well have written them from scratch.

Our aggressive warlock has already found out that these new encounters mean business. Muhahaha.

Cute little mice?

Most of my time running RPGs has been of the variety that has the game master driving the players through scenes and settings. Many of the adventures I have run that were pre-made tended to be giant scripted set pieces that the players would be pushed and pulled through. Not unlike meat through a meat grinder. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this method of playing and running games. A good game master can make that roller coaster feel like a wild ride. But, many times I feel like my roller coaster is more like the tea cup ride at Disney World. Not that I’ve had to wake up players for their turns to act (yet).

I read about Mouse Guard and I was gifted a copy by some friends. It’s a very different sort of RPG than anything I have played or run before. It places an emphasis on players taking ownership of their characters and what they will do in the world in a way that is very different than other games. It’s not that I think other RPGs are incapable of having these qualities, but they aren’t emphasized like they are in Mouse Guard.  The concepts of turning a team mission into personal goals, and being rewarded for completing them is a nice way to hand over the reigns of what’s going to get done to the players. I also really enjoyed the methods of conflict resolution that elegantly tiptoe around failure with more obstacles and success at a cost. All things I enjoy enough to try and fold back into my 4e games.

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