Here we are – NaGa DeMon Day 3. The entire thing is still unsuitable for actual use, but a picture of where we’re going is slowly emerging.
I spent way too much time today on other things (I will shamefully admit to finally getting that last level for my World of Warcraft character; which took about six hours) and thus started fairly late. I’ve probably worked 3-4h on this today, and I will continue working after I post this – but since Nov 3rd is over, I thought I should post today’s update.
I do think I found a “method” that works for me – it’s a combination of brainstorming and patching in bits and pieces one by one and in a decidedly non-linear fashion. I expect that I will end up with a collection of rules that “kinda work”, but do not mesh perfectly; balancing and fine tuning is a second step, to be done later.
I’ve started slowly, mostly because I had other things to do.
Most of my time spent, so far, has been on research – I already had some notes, and I haven’t incorporated everything in this very basic first document either, but anyway, it’s a start.
I’ve decided that I will upload the state of my document every time I post a status update to my blog. I encourage you to download it and very much would welcome feedback, but don’t expect anything “usable” for a while.
The lead system designer for World of Warcraft, Greg Street, posted an article about a proposed “item squish”. The Item Squish, he argues, is necessary because stats on items will at some point become meaningless – and illustrates this with hypothetical items from the endgame of Mists of Panderia and whatever expansion would follow that.
That World of Warcraft would at some point get problems with the constant inflation isn’t new; I recall discussing this with some buddies of mine back when Burning Crusade came out. It’s also been a problem in the economy, but unlike say Eve Online, WoW’s economy isn’t really an integral part of the game.
I do think that this kind of shows that Blizzard did not originally think about power levels much, and didn’t quite anticipate how long WoW would be popular. Or perhaps they simply chose to ignore the problem at first. With a power progression as implemented, I am sure they knew they would run into trouble eventually, they are way too good at what they do not to. Had they taken a long term view, they would be scaling their gear accordingly. When Arjan and I build Underdark Adventures 3, one of the very early things I did was set up rules on gear design, and set the general levels of power items for characters level 1…30 would have. It worked really well, too; game imbalance existed but mostly because of the way some of Neverwinter Nights spells worked. The items were never an issue.
Anyway, Greg’s is a good lesson to anybody who has to balance a game of any kind.
I’ve recently gotten involved in a “new” type of game: The Alternate Reality Game. New, in that it’s still fairly niche. ARGs have existed for a while and are slowly gaining in popularity. I heard about them some years ago but never actually participated, and that’s changing now (well, within the limits that my time allows for).
An ARG is basically a mixture between a puzzle game and a scavenger hunt. The organizers – the so-called “Puppet masters” – invent a plot and leave a trail of clues and riddles for the players to unravel. By its nature, these games are “viral”, and players organize themselves on forums etc to work on the clues and riddles together. The ARG is used a lot as a viral marketing tool, most famously a campaign run for the Cloverfield move. Another was the “I love Bees” campaign to promote Halo 2.
ARGs are not the same as viral marketing, however. Alternate Reality Games do not try to trick consumers into believing a falsehood. While the ARG pretend that they are not games – “This Is Not A Game” is the ARG mantra and part of their design aesthetic – it will acknowledge its artificial and fictional nature, usually by using obviously fictitious elements. An Alternate Reality Game has more in common with Live Action Role Playing Games, except there is no set rules system, and people do not have to meet, dress up, etc. Also, where the Game Masters are quite obviously present in LARPs, they are hidden behind “The Curtain” in an Alternate Reality Game.
What makes an ARG so interesting, to me, is that they weave an interactive story to a possibly fairly large audience, limited pretty much only by how much money and effort is put in. They seem to be an excellent method to build a community. ARGs are fairly intense experiences, and even when they reach a smaller target audience, this audience has a much more intimate contact with the material in the game.
Links to get you started on Alternate Reality Games:
World of Warcraft, still the dominant MMORPG, lets players purchase mounts – riding animals like horses and so on – in order to speed up travel across its virtual world. As such, they are a greatly appreciated convenience. With Burning Crusade, the first expansion to the game, Blizzard added an improvement over the classic mounts: Flying mounts. Since the world featured in The Burning Crusade, the Outlands, is a ragged, torn-apart world with many mountains, valleys, and even outright gaps between areas, this addition made perfect sense. Flying mounts were also usable in the second expansion’s new continent, Northrend (with the purchase of an additional skill at a higher level). And since you can’t take something like this away from players again, Flying is going to be available all over Azeroth with the next expansion, Cataclysm.
There’s no question that using these flying mounts makes travel much faster, much more convenient, and lets one progress through the game much faster. In the old days, you had to travel to wherever your quest took you, often fighting unrelated enemies on the way, and now you can swoop in on the back of your griffin, complete your quest, and fly again on out and into the sunset.
But there’s also a price for this convenience. And it’s actually one that is much higher than most people realize.
These days, there’s the Midsummer festival in Azeroth, and with it came a lot of festival specific quests. As I was completing them with my mage, I kept coming across other high level players in places that are usually completely deserted. In one case we even grouped up for mutual defense against our enemies, the Horde, and at the end I teleported everybody to a safe city.
Memories came back to me, of my early characters. When I had to ride through the same landscapes to complete quests. Back then, I’d meet many people, and oftentimes, we’d join forces to complete the quests, role-playing and chatting along the way.
Once flying mounts become available, though, what would have happened is the same thing that happens in Outlands and Northrend now: People swoop in, take their quest objective, and leave again. They have a much smaller chance to meet each other, and even when they do see each other, they never form groups, except for the hardest of quests – and in those cases, it’s not usually by chance, but by out of character chat.
So the price of flying mounts is reduced interaction, reduced socializing, and reduced role-playing. I know some people couldn’t care less, but personally I think this is sad. Not only does it take away opportunities to meet new people, it also lessens the immersion in the game world.
Naturally this does not mean that Blizzard should remove the flying mounts, or even limit them. It’s too late for that anyway. But I know if I were to ever design an MMO, I’d think long and hard about adding such freedom of movement – and err on the side of caution.
Richard Bartle – the man when it comes to MMO design – held a very interesting talk at IMGDC. In it he’s discussing the different types of MMO designs, and how “social” mmo’s contrast with the linear World-of-Warcraft design and the more freeform games like Eve Online. His talk is definitely worth a read, I just wish there was a recording.
In this quest, the player has to torture a prisoner to obtain information about the prisoner’s organization. This continues past the point where the NPC begs the player to stop, until he eventually reveals the location of a prisoner.
Stop! I beg you, please stop. Please…
When I reached this quest I was playing Juria, my sweet little innocent Gnome mage. Not only do I personally find torture disgusting; Juria would also never do any such thing. (In a perfect world, she would be a complete pacifist, but that is not a course of action that gets you far in World of Warcraft.) Quests in the game are completely linear “like it or leave it” affairs, so there was no option to refuse torture besides declining the quest. Since it seemed that the quest chain was important in the storyline progressing, and because I figured I’d have enough of an annoying time gaining enough experience points to level 80, I decided to simply do the quest. After all, I am capable of distinguishing between a vector model and a real human being.
Games are – besides a fun activity – about teaching us something. Whether it is practicing one’s dexterity and reaction speed in a platform game, our logic or intuition in an adventure or puzzle game, or moral choices. This doesn’t mean games should be preachy, but when a choice can be made in the game, it should offer consequences for those actions and – ideally – reinforce correct moral choices.
The correct moral choice in this case is that “torture is bad”. This is a general consensus, and I would say that anybody who categorically disagrees with that statement has a serious mental problem. Humane treatment of humans and also of prisoners is the basic idea behind the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such works.
This is also the morality that should be valid inside the game’s fiction. While the Alliance has not always been a “force of good” (there are the Orc internment camps, after all), the Alliance as represented by the players in World of Warcraft is definitely a force of good. Likewise, the Horde is attempting to reform itself to become better people than the horde of the early Warcraft titles. Torture of prisoners is what the antagonists engage in: The Scarlet Crusade for example.
Blizzard does not offer the player any choice; they reward the player for incorrectly torturing the player. The character will gain experience points and gold and – though I haven’t done the math – it is possible that the quest is required for certain in-game achievements like “Complete x quests in Borean Tundra”. There is no necessity to actually torture the prisoner (he does not reveal anything crucial, nor anything that could not be found out in any other way). There are no consequences. The whole thing is meaningless.
Blizzard has passed up a great opportunity to let the player make a meaningful choice. They have failed to teach us anything, and, even worse, are teaching us something that is counterproductive. It would have been very easy to implement two alternate quest lines, one where the player accepts to torture the prisoner, and one where he does not, with appropriate in-game consequences. (For example, in The Burning Crusade, you can choose to follow either of two factions at one point, so it is possible to do this with the World of Warcraft engine.) The torture quest could be the “easy option”, but result in a penalty; the “humane” quest may be a lot more effort, but result in a greater reward.
As it stands, this one quest is a good example of how not to do quest design, and also a very revealing insight into the minds of the Blizzard game designers – and the many, many World of Warcraft players who have attacked Richard for stating that torture is a bad thing.