Kicking a Dead Horse: Expansions Should be Stand-Alone Games (WoW’s “Hero Classes” proves my point)

March 28, 2009

Although this may be common sense to a lot of you, I just figured out my problem with joining new MMOs after they’ve had time to become well established. Expansions are just a re-release of the original game in a much smaller setting. Because it’s easy to use I’ll pick on WoW, but lots of MMOs have this problem.

In WoW: The Burning Crusade once you stepped through the Dark Portal your chances of ever returning to Kalimdor or Azeroth are little to none. The entire world is now completely new because the new content is the only content that means anything anymore. This is pretty fun, my old character in a brand new world! The problem comes in with new players, who have to solo through all of the old content (usually 50 levels for the first expansion, WoW is on 70 levels of “old” stuff though) to reach the populated zones and instances that people are actually playing in.

We’ve all seen it, there’s no use denying it, the old world empties out after an expansion. This is actually 100% okay if everyone is close enough in level (58 in WoW) to access the new content (with respect to The Burning Crusade) but there are inevitably people who are behind. Even if they’re not playing to level swiftly they will have even LESS opportunity than normal to experience any kind of grouping before they’ve “caught up” with everyone else.

Joining the MMO, however, becomes very problematic. I would love to go back to EQ and piddle around with the raiding frenzy it’s become, but there’s NO way I an catch up- it’s just too much to grind alone! (not to mention soloing is pretty hard, even if I were willing). The response is shortening the pre-expansion levels because developers know that if new players (or just new characters) have to do the old grind from 1-60 alone when no one is around it will become a significant deterrent to continued play (and pay! :D).

Hero class(es… but not yet) in WoW prove my point. With the exception that you are only rewarded with the ability to play the class after reaching a certain level (basically playing through most of the original content), the consequences of starting at level 55 let the player effectively skip the entire original game to help them catch up faster. They could make Deathknights make that slow progression up, but who wants to waste their time doing that when you could start at 55!?

I’m not saying they shouldn’t do what they’re doing with hero classes, but maybe they should just drop the fancy name and call it “just another class” and make every class start at 55 regardless. That would let everyone experience the new game together (although now I suppose it would have to be level 65 to work like that) because that’s what an expansion really is. As far as the capped players are concerned when an expansion comes out the previous world ceases to exist except as a vehicle to revist some nostalgic locations and grind up more characters to the new game.

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I Love Blocky Terrain, Simple Spell Animations, and Cube-Headed Character Models

March 26, 2009

Posting something new is easier than figuring out all the intricacies that will make the blog look nicer, and give people links to the blogs I try to keep current with- and so here I go with what is currently on my mind so I feel like I’m keeping the blog fresh.

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EverQuest. I probably mention it in at least half of my comments, and I often find myself wistfully looking back to my memories of playing it while it was in its prime. I’m now in complete burnout mode in LOTRO. I’ve let my subscription run dry and the only thing tempting me to take my subscription back up is my kinship (guild) because at this point I’ve just disappeared. That may not be enough to get me to go back though, as much as I’ve enjoyed playing the game with them, because I would NOT be going back to play the game.

There’s a final all-powerful set of armor in the game that I’ve essentially almost completely acquired (I have five pieces out of six, but one of them (and the one I’m missing) have superior versions only available from a raid that I don’t plan on doing). My other gear is only good, definitely not great, (I have a full raiment of the second-highest rarity rating, which is basically everything but the rarest drops) and I almost have enough reputation to finally get a mount that can get around in Moria. I made it to level 60 (from 50) and did all this over the last two months and I’m left feeling like my game has ended!!! That’s not so bad I guess, but I’m in full on jaded mode now. (Someone mentioned this on Ysharros’ Blog just today (or maybe yesterday by the time I’m done with this)).

Nothing is new, surprising, or even remotely interesting. I do not like the crafting system a whole lot- Vanguard was the closest thing to an enjoyable crafting system I’ve managed to find and that was a grind that might as well have been its own separate game! I think I’m supposed to be talking about EverQuest here, I did enjoy EQ’s crafting system *pauses for groans* because I felt that it fit in well with the game.

Before I get going on this though I feel that I need to point out that when I say EverQuest “was” I AM talking in the past tense. To be unnecessarily specific the first two expansions and earlier- maybe throw in three, but I wasn’t too thrilled with four (although it was in my humble opinion a hardcore raiders paradise the likes of which we have yet to see since).

Now I could bore you all (all of the three people that read the blog so far ;))  with an endless description of what I loved about EverQuest, in fact that is precisely what I intended to do as I began to write, but it all really boils down to one idea; The game, by design, refused to let me look at it as a game.  Because that might not be as clear as I’d like it to be, I’ll do my best to explain- although I worry that I will fail. This is what my first few days were like playing the game.

Purchase: I saw a game with a hot elf chick on the box in the store, no joke- that’s why I picked it up (oh and am I ever so glad that I did! ^^), and the strategy guide next to it (for Ruins of Kunark (Expansion #1)).  I browsed through, looking at the Races and Classes, and was overcome with some arcane feeling of wonder. I was instantly enchanted by everything about the game.

Day 1: I created a Wood Elf. I can’t remember if my gamma was too low or not but I was on a platform in the tree city of Kelethin and I couldn’t see ANYTHING. The platform was circular and the only light was a fire by some houses, so I guess I could see those, and I wandered around a bit slowly nearing the edges. I couldn’t find a ramp so I jumped. Died. Respawned. I couldn’t find my way around in the darkness of the forest floor so I camped and quit. Time to sleep. Not a great first impression, but at least nighttime was REAL! Cool!

Day 2: Enter the Barbarian Warrior! I wish I could remember the name, I remember thinking it was an amazing name but I deleted the character and promptly forgot 😦 Before he met his end, though, I appeared in the town of Halas. It was fun walking around. In first person everything seemed pretty real. Single click to open doors. I’ve got a note of summons to my class trainer in town. I set off wandering around- completely lost, this is a town i’ve never been to before! -and I eventually find her. I give her the note and she says some words of welcome and I recieve my first tunic! Somewhere along the way I learned to hit ‘H’ to hail NPC’s and see if they have any quests. Naturally I want to know what everyone wants/needs done so I go around talking to everyone. I find out there is a bounty on gnoll fangs from Blackburrow, the home of the gnolls that separates the near human town of Qeynos and the city of my homeland, in Everfrost peaks.

I ran around in this game without a map. I got hopelessly lost more times than I can remember, but I learned the landscape. I became intimately familiar with each fork in the valley-passages of Everfrost! I hunted goblins for their beads (oops! another bounty!) and bears for pelts that I could turn into my first set of armor! The skill requirement was so low you had a reasonably good chance of succeeding on the combine, just take a Ruined Bear Pelt (most common drop off of bears, maybe 1 in 5 or 6 kills sounds about right, sometimes much better than that) and go buy the pattern for the slot you want, put ’em in your kit and hit combine! Before I knew it I was sporting my own handmade gear. Yes it was bad. Really bad. But it was all there was! The world didn’t give you full sets of plate/chain right off the bat, but you didn’t need it.

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Okay I got sidetracked there. My point was, though, that it all felt real. I logged into a world different from this one. I got lost, had to run to stronger people to save me (mobs never stopped following you ’til you left the zone/found a guard to one-shot them), and handcrafted my starting way in the world. I had to learn from another player how to craft my starting gear too, I used absolutely zero internet resources (wasn’t much of a surfer back then) to get stuff done. It was a totally immersive experience. I learned everything first-hand, or second-hand from another denizen of the world. I didn’t go to the other cities for a long time, I had no clue how to get there, but when I did it was a fantastic adventure to a unique and beautiful new place to explore! It didn’t feel like a game like everything does now.

And now that i’m done with LOTRO I feel like returning to my first MMO-love. Does the nostalgia come from it being my first MMO? Maybe a little, as I mentioned earlier I have become quite jaded with the genre, and now they’re all just games again. I want something as genuinely as immersive as EverQuest to be created. Now that i’m ready to be done with this the title seems kind of vague.

EverQuest had blocky terrain, but I loved it. You do NOT need grass and smooth curves to make good terrain. The game was immersive because of its size and your perspective, not because it was on the cutting edge of state-of-the-art graphics.

EverQuest had stiff characters with boxy features, but they looked fine. I tried WAR recently and I could not get past the strange way my guy held his shield and sword while he ran. EQ models at least seemed relatively natural (natural enough for a video game) in the way they moved with weapons in-hand and while standing.

The spell graphics were just  spheres made up of space out twinkling lights sparkling from the casters hands and around the target, which a few different shapes and configurations and colors for different spells, but it worked! As you leveled up your buffs even added more dense particles and sometimes particles of different colors to certain spells! It was cool and did the job well.

*Mental Burp* I understand that we can make everything look pretty now, but that doesn’t mean that we should. EverQuests graphics were functional, simple, and the design made the world incredibly immersive- more than anything I have played since (1st person views do not show the player’s weapon swings in newer games, that’s an immersion-killer for me). *Mental Burp*

I had some reason earlier to link to Muckbeast’s Blog, I think it had to do with the whole Virtual World topic. Check it out!

Bottom line: JediOfTheShire wants an immersive experience first and foremost! Nostalgia is kicking in, and it shouldn’t have to!

To Level, or not to Level

March 11, 2009

All the talk recently about questing and general game design consequences has gotten me thinking a lot about what leveling means to an MMO. Leveling has been there since well before MMORPGs and the morphing of it from a system of character development into a character restriction mechanism has, I believe, ultimately undermined the enjoyment that could be gotten from many games.

In Dungeons & Dragons your characters are always put into a level-appropriate campaign, they go off on their adventure and occasionally they will level up- adding many small bonuses to their characters skills, statistics, and set of abilities (feats/spells). The focus of the game is tailored to each individual group, but generally speaking people played to enjoy being the heroes and heroins of their very own story while slaying dragons, interacting in a plethora of ways with local NPCs, rescuing villagers from the clutches of evil, and looting the humble (or ridiculously extravagant) abodes of every evil bad guy you can imagine. There was no “end-game” like we see in MMO’s- the point of playing was just that, to play. Leveling up was exciting, your character became more powerful and more skillful, but it was always secondary to getting to roll the dice to see how much you crit that ogre for, or for how much the guard trusts that you’re his replacement for watch duty tonight even though you’re wearing nothing but pants- whatever your style.

Quite simply, the fun was in the dice. You could take just about any character (depending on your preference) on just about any adventure and have a good time sitting around a table and enjoying a game together. There was nothing else to it- get together and have a good time. Notice the lack of levels being mentioned here. You could sometimes go many sessions without leveling your characters but it was still a grand old time. Leveling doesn’t matter except to help your progress through the campaign, and if you want to you can experience an entire campaign without gaining a single level. Leveling was a system of character development because it meant something to your character and their potential, but had no real bearing on what adventures your character could take part in- You can very easily alter campaigns to fit a certain level range at a whim(e.g. you could take a level 15-20 campaign and make it a level 1-5 campaign). Essentially all content is available to any player at any time, regardless of how new/experienced they are.

Breaking the mould we have MMOs with rigid designs that keep us focused on leveling and loot, on “getting things,” instead of enjoying ourselves while playing. Leveling become a character restriction when you no longer are capable of doing certain types of adventuring in certain places based solely on the fact that you are the incorrect level. If you enjoy playing through a specific set of instances in your MMO of choice then you can have fun while you’re in the appropriate level range (as long as you can find a group) but before then you will be too weak to compete with the mobs, and after then you will be too powerful to enjoy any sort of a challenge. In this way leveling forces you into certain areas of content- some of which you may have no desire to experience.

Once your character is forced into that area of content there is no going back. EQ2 has an intriguing mentoring system that scales down your stats (health/mana/damage) to the level of an ally in your group so you can help them level, but you remain far more powerful than you really were when you used to be that level. To re-experience fighting off orcs in your favorite dungeon once you’ve leveled past the appropriate range you must create another character, and then you can only enjoy that experience until that character is also past the appropriate level range.

In this way of segmenting off different parts of the population into different areas of content you limit who your characters are capable of interacting with. Helping out lower level characters is one way to breach this level-induced restriction, but that action reveals the disintegration of the enjoyment of the lower levels- If you’re having fun then why would you want someone far too powerful for the encounter to come destroy it for you? I can only think of two answers: To get free (no work required) loot, or To get free experience (ascend the levels quicker). Another consequence of what I’m going to call “level segmentation” is that loot in a higher segment is more or less required to be able to participate in that level of content. If you are level 40 and have level 10 gear then more likely than not you will find yourself having a far more difficult time than more well-geared players your level.

I would like to bring us back to D&D for a moment. The encounter was always contained, you never saw characters of significantly different levels or with far better loot. MMO’s open up the world to everyone so we can see the level 60’s running around with awe-inspiring sets of gear and this breeds a feeling of superiority in the higher-leveled characters and inferiority in the lower-leveled characters because level/gear is worn like a badge saying “I have done more than you” (in a game with a healthy PvP system (Think WoW, not PvMP like in LOTRO) this becomes “I could kill you without thinking”).

But I digress- by becoming the maximum level all content in the game becomes either level-appropriate or trivial to you. There is no further to climb, you are now free to experience content at your leisure without feeling that there is something at a higher level that you could be missing out on. In this way the low-level content of an MMO may become trivialized because its value is reduced to almost nothing when any player at the max level can run through and crush everything in sight without blinking.

Please, share your thoughts on the issue. I’m very eager to know what other people think about this, and how viable you all think a game without levels could be. Should we opt for a new system or try to fix the one we’ve got? Is it even as broken as I suggest?

Build Out, Not Up

March 10, 2009

Muckbeast’s blog post on the end of Tabula Rasa’s brief run sparked a line of thought that has been running through my mind for quite some time so I decided to lay it out. (Click here for the original article)

MMO’s now have a general cycle of releasing an “expansion” almost every two years. I use quotations around “expansion” because they are not actually expanding the games we pay money every month to play, they’re extending them.

An MMO today is almost exclusively focused on acquiring better gear to improve your character, raiding, and leveling up so you can do both of these things. There’s not a whole lot wrong with this formula on the outside- after all the most successful MMO of all time, Blizzard’s World of WarCraft, used this formula to suck in many millions of players and create potentially the most profitable video game America (the World?) has ever seen. This is fine for the monster that is Activision Blizzard, who has the money to continue creating content to keep their players happy, but the repercussions for the genre in general may be crippling.

The problem comes in the single direction of play, of player development towards one end- up. Player levels go up, player abilities and skills go up, the amount of gear available goes up. Players move up to more powerful zones, and they move up to the cities in these zones. Intrinsic to these games is the sense of advancement, this upward movement, and by the nature of advancement players are encouraged to leave everything behind, to abandon all thought of those past zones and dungeons, and only to return for the sole purpose of helping others achieve quicker and more easily.

To say that this game design is folly would be to deny its inherently attractive nature. Quite simply- it is exciting to achieve. Leveling, getting cool/good gear, discovering new places, and defeating more powerful enemies is always enjoyable, at least for a while. Once again there is not a whole lot wrong with this picture, but it is the latent functions of the “gimme-gimme” formula that give me reason to be concerned.

The “gimme-gimme” system does exactly what it’s supposed to, it gives players things, but it only works while there’s something to give. This is where we run into problems. It’s enjoyable to be raiding and getting fun new gear that blows your old stuff out of the water, but what happens when you get it all? It’s not enough to give players pseudo games and things to take up more of their time (for crafting grinding insanity see LOTRO) to distract them from the fact that they’ve “finished” your game. Eventually alternate characters will pop up and you will discover that some players have up to 5 or 6 max-level ‘toons’ they could play on any given day. If it was fun enough to achieve once then it will be fun enough to achieve again! But where does all this achieving leave us?

It leaves us with 1-dimensional game play focused on getting gear, and the best way to do that is usually by depriving other players of instance loot, at the end of the day this is not very helpful in creating a friendly and helpful community. When I log onto LOTRO or WoW I really have very few objectives that I can consider- Raise crafting skills (unless they’re maxed), Run instances for loot, or start an alt. I admit I haven’t found a game I prefer to LOTRO, but I would be remiss if I ceased my pursuit of the ultimate game.

This is the endgame. With no more levels to achieve you’re left with gear, crafting skills, and alts. Your character is more or less in a tunnel and once you reach the end and your max level, you have all the best gear, and your trade skill(s) is maxed you have nothing to do but do it all over again.

ENTER THE “EXPANSION!”

Expansions remedy the problem of “finishing” the game by adding more content!!! New places to explore! New instances to learn how to bug (err defeat)! New gear to get! New levels to attain! This all sounds and looks great, and it IS great- until it’s all gone again. Two years is really far too long for most players to acquire all of these things if they were at the maximum level before the last expansion. It would take very little playing time to not acquire most of what you want in even one year after the expansion’s release. Also, when the expansion is released the old game-world is emptied as everyone of a capable level rushes to explore and acquire in the newer, and therefore cooler, areas. In this way every expansion essentially wastes 100% of the pre-existing content. New cities (usually only one city) is added as the new center of the virtual world, and the rest of the game-world might as well be deleted except for the newer players/alts trying to catch up to the new content.

In this way “expansions” don’t truly expand the game at all, they just extend what is available to give players more things to acquire and achieve. A game is no longer viable unless the income acquired from subscriptions added to the initial box sales will be enough to continue to fund the constant creation of new content. Shadowbane is an excellent example of a game that did not rely on constant new content. It’s still around, albeit in a free form, because the focus was on the rise and fall of player-created cities. I’m not sure if there is a limit to the size of cities, but other players posing a constant risk to your city made, and still makes, for compelling game play without adding new content as players constantly vie to protect their homes and destroy their enemies’.

A lot can be learned from the ideas present in the game play of Shadowbane- that game play does not need to be reliant on new content, and failures like Tabula Rasa show us how powerful the monetary barrier created by “gimme-gimme” game design creates. RPG(single-player) games give us intriguing stories to go along with deep character development, Strategy games give us opportunities for complex strategic thinking, Action games give us exciting action-packed adventures, and MMOs should give us the opportunity for meaningful and enjoyable interaction with other players. I don’t say anything about game play in my description of MMO’s because they are their own genre in their own right, and you will never play any game that even remotely resembles an MMO that isn’t one. The gate is wide open on this genre, and they have only been developing MMOs in one direction- the direction of advancement, up. There is so much more that developers can do to make games truly expandable, or even sustainable, without relying on adding more content and raising the level cap to keep things interesting.

Expansions should be what their name implies- an expansion to the game; An increase in the depth and complexity of existing systems as well as the implementation of new systems across the board- not just at the level cap! (If your game has levels) Instead of designing a tunnel with shiny pretty things along the way to give your players immediate satisfaction work on developing how your characters can interact with others because that is at the heart of what the genre has to offer, and until players are having enjoyable interaction with other players throughout their entire game experience you don’t have an effective MMO.

Imagine an instance that you return to over and over because you want to, not because you haven’t gotten all of the best loot from it yet, and not feeling a constant push towards generic objectives like a set of gear just because your character needs it to be considered a worthwhile group-mate. I don’t believe that an enriching experience, one devoid of much of the meaningless play we see in the now standard MMO, is so far off the horizon.

Let me know what you think about game Expansion vs. Extension.