Broken Systems Were The Funnest

Over the past week I’ve done a lot of thinking back to older games I’ve played like DAoC, SWG, EQ, etc. Raph Koster’s posts have been particularly enlightening since they discussed the hows and whys of their decisions, and even revealed what they were actually trying to create when they delivered something entirely different.

I started to think about the fun I’ve had in older games, and then realized a lot of that fun came from systems that were completely broken or so stupid they should be considered broken. Despite that fact, I still enjoyed them. In fact, I think the games might have been less fun without them!

Here are just a couple examples.

SWG’s HAM

The health, action, and mind bar system of SWG was both brilliant and horribly designed at the same time. Using different abilities depleted these bars. Being hit by certain abilities wounded those bars. Let’s say my pistol used my mind bar, and someone shot my mind to wound it and thus reduce my total available mind resources. I could then use fewer mind abilities. The result was that you were killing yourself every time you used abilities.

I’m laughing right now thinking about how stupid this system was, and how much I wish it was like what Raph describes as “bouncy” where your resources regenerated and the entire thing was a rock paper scissors game of undermining your opponents weapon choice and tactics.

All that said, it worked even by not working. Yes, I enjoyed being able to see someone who clearly didn’t work on their mind pool enough. I would one shot them with my pistol.

EverQuest’s Mob Camping

I remember standing in a single spot for 15 hours just waiting on the right monster to spawn. When it finally spawned, it didn’t drop what I wanted. The wait began again. People would stand in line for these monsters to spawn. It could take weeks for it to be your turn. Yeah, it sucked.

At the same time, forming lines and relying on the honesty of others meant you were communicating and building a community of players who cooperated. If you broke the rules, stole a spawn, etc., you were ostracized; your life was over on that character and you would probably never get a group again.

Screwing Up Character Stats in DAoC (or any game)

Who didn’t screw up a character in a game at some point in time? It was a right of passage! It was also completely stupid. To be able to ruin a character and start over without some form of fixing it? I remember in DAoC back in the early days when you messed up your character’s stats or skills or whatever it meant you … screwed up. They eventually added respec stones so that you could undo a mistake and reallocate those skill points.

Screwing up a character and committing to a path that ends up being terrible is… terrible. At the same time, actually having to commit to something and put up with consequences or having to care about how your character progressed gave us substance and meat to character progression. No decision was made lightly.

Strafing in EverQuest

Mob pathing in EverQuest was terrible, and pretty much broken. Characters could strafe (run at an angle) and that meant that mobs had to make an additional path to move into your path… something like that. I won’t pretend to understand it all (it’s probably geometry or something and I don’t do math) but it meant that mobs struggled to actually hit you. Exploit? Maybe. Broken? Yep.

While broken, strafing allowed us to circle kite, and avoid enemies (who always seemed to run just a little faster then us) from killing us when we flee. It became just something you did.

Okay, now that I think about it this post was sorta stupid and broken itself. But do you get what I’m trying to say here? These dumb features/mechanics, when combined with other mechanics (which were often dumb) made that game what it was and if removed would take away a huge part of the magic that made it all work.

New games can come out that refine those broken mechanics, but I think when we fix too much we lose a little bit of the heart and soul of these MMOs. Rather than remove them, I think they can simply be modernized. Modernizing =\= removing.

Of Society and Carrots

Raph Koster is still on a roll with his retrospective analysis of all things SWG. He’s written about TEFs, Dynamic Worlds, and now today he’s written about something that once again draws my commentary: Living Societies in Games.

While the entire post is enormous (only part one…), and actually worth reading, I want to focus on just one small and tiny quote. In fact, this is Raph quoting himself from well over a decade ago:

“A sad fact about you players, as a whole: you only do what you are rewarded for. You will do something less fun if you see a carrot at the end of the stick, and you will ignore something more fun if it doesn’t give you a “ding” or an XP reward or a title.” – Holocron (11-26-2002 10:55 PM)

This is why…

Battlegrounds are favored over Open-world PvP
Players endure Raiding
Exploration is dead
Combat is always king

I could go on, but I want to stop there and flip that quote upside down. Developers realize players only want to do things they are rewarded for, and despite being less fun and underwhelming/underdeveloped players continue to do so ad nauseam — and pay for it! This means that creating content that is more fun, and yes quite possibly much harder to create, is easily set aside and deemed less profitable, niche, and “not what the players want.” You see? Players seek the path of least resistance, but what they are seeking after is actually that which the developers themselves have done — the path of least resistance! It’s a vicious cycle!

The solution is, quite simply, to never have a situation wherein players are given the opportunity to chase a carrot that is contrary to a ‘fun’ and desired experience.  Yep, that’s one of those “WTF obvious” moments, I know. Yet Raph quite perfectly points out a similar phenomenon when developers come to him asking him to create a crafting system for them like that found in SWG. He has to go back to them and point out that they have already created their game, when in fact the game should have been created around crafting. This idea of working backwards or putting the cart before the horse is happening all around us every single day in game design.

As Raph says, “players flow like water around obstacles.” Yeah, but so do developers. While in the end quite true of both sides, I’m in the camp that believes it is up to the developers to take control as it is the developers who are creating the experiences through which players exercise their inherent shortcomings.

Before you think all of this sounds impossible, SWG — despite its shortcomings — managed to pull this off the best we’ve ever seen. Every activity matters. Every activity is connected to something else someone had or has to do. Everyone is tied together. It’s a world. It’s a society.

DAoC was about PvE

In yesterday’s post about Crowfall I mentioned long-term goals and driving factors for why players should care. What makes someone wake up at 3am to defend a relic? Why should I care if I lose my keep? Many games creating a PvP system these days seem to look to DAoC as an example. WAR, GW2, ESO, and Crowfall all have the keep capturing mechanics and really did/do borrow heavily from the system. While they miss many features like proper character advancement in PvP, map size, and the nitty gritty details of how sieging should work, etc., there’s one bigger picture key ingredient they’re all missing: A focus on PvE.

DAoC was about PvE. The game long-heralded as the best RvR/PvP game of all time was driven by the players caring about PvE and how their characters performed outside of the frontiers (where the realm war/RvR took place).

DAoC had relics which increased your character’s stats and damage. Owning these was paramount and the goal of RvR was typically to try and push hard enough that you controlled the keeps necessarily to make the relic vulnerable. To make players care a bit more about those relics, the realm controlling most keeps had access to the best PvE zone in the game: Darkness Falls. Darkness Falls was the best place to level characters, get gear (that wasn’t player made), and earn money.

I have memories of being in Darkness Falls grouping for Legion and hearing the announcement that Albion was advancing and taking our keeps. We bailed out as fast as possible and rushed to the frontiers to defend or retake our territories in order to keep our coveted Darkness Falls longer.

Player made gear was typically the best back in the day. You weren’t going to earn that gear by PvPing. PvPing gave you realm ranks and points to buy new abilities which made you much stronger, but you still needed that player made gear. Player made gear, like all gear, wore out and broke over time. There was always a need to earn money which meant PvE.

Perhaps I should have started with this, but getting to level 50 was through rigorous PvE. Leveling wasn’t quick (before people macro’d and abused the leveling system like they do in every game). Leveling could take months to reach 50, and you weren’t a ton of use before level 50 out in the frontiers. Leveling through PvP wasn’t an option, and the silly “scaling” systems of today (another way for these games to ignore Pve) did not exist.

Although the “end-game” of DaoC was PvP, and one could PvP the entire time they played (after reaching level 50 and gearing up), the core of the game still maintained a healthy focus on PvE. The key isn’t to ignore PvE or come up with systems to avoid it. The two play-styles needn’t compete against each other. A great game can and perhaps should utilize both in harmony.

Evaluating Crowfall’s Recent Siege Concepts

Crowfall has given me plenty of reason to pause and question. Everything from temporary battleground experience to arcade matches, and then the idea of fragmenting communities (the foundation of group pvp) by creating FFA campaigns, guild vs. guild campaigns, etc.

I’m finding a few more issues with Crowfall’s proposed PvP mechanics that were recently shown in a video. Take a look.

Vulnerability Windows – “For the next two hours the city can be attacked.” That’s a mistake.

Scripted Events – (Bloodstone telling players to go here, go there) This essentially states that players should zerg. The bloodstone says to go to X,Y? Okay, everyone go to X,Y.  That’s a mistake.

Expecting true Emergent Gameplay within a ‘Battleground’ – You can’t expect emergent gameplay when you create victory scenarios centered around timed capture the flag mechanics and vulnerability windows. You’ll only create an arcade experience. Basing your entire PvP campaign system around it… That’s a mistake.

There needs to be a long-term drive or a purpose, which I have yet to see explained. There must be a ‘reason’ to keep fighting. PvP for the sake of PvP will not last in 2015+. Games like that are a dime a dozen. This is why when people start to lose, I expect they’ll simply stop playing.

Now I’ll be constructive and offer advice.

Let’s assume they did stick with this. There are a few key points they’ll have to consider. First, to make this scenario work (which I realize is just one example of many “emergent” gameplay opportunities) the map has to be huge. Any map where players can realistically turn back to defend after committing to going after a Bloodstone will fail. Second, the reward for this Bloodstone thing has to be incredible. Third, the Bloodstone reward has to be diametrically opposed to the Keep reward so that players are actually having to choose which reward they want rather than simply choosing to double down. Fourth, they have to remove those vulnerability windows. That keep should be vulnerable 24/7; if it’s worth defending and not designed to fall in 30 seconds to a zerg then it will be defended.

It’s not impossible to make such a system like this fun, but it will be incredibly difficult to make it fun for long.

Out with the Old, In with the New?

Posts here tend to reflect back on older games, our love for them, our memories, what worked and didn’t, the evolution of MMO design, etc. As a result, we often see a theme in the comments section:

“X game would never work if released today. If X game were released today it would fail. People don’t want X game.”

Those saying these things are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It’s like anything old vs. anything new. People want and gravitate toward the newer thing. The market changes as people’s tastes change. What we want and think is heavily influenced by the here and now of our culture. But don’t lose sight of why something worked in the past.

An old PDA if released today would fail. Why? Because people want the iPad. Does that make what the old PDA did bad, or undesirable? No. People still want a touch device, an organizer, something that can make phone calls, store contacts, take notes, play games, etc. People still want the same things, but they want them ‘sexier’. The limits of what we desire today have expanded. There’s no reason why new games can’t do what those games did while taking into consideration the proper expanded desires of today’s market.

I think Apple has done a nice job proving this point.

iphone evolution

‘The original iPhone would never work if released today. If the original iPhone were released today it would fail. People don’t want the original iPhone.’ That doesn’t mean we disregard everything from the original iPhone. We take what worked and we adapt it for what the market demands. The market demands bigger? Give them bigger! The market demands faster, more color options, higher resolutions? Give it to them! But the core concept and design of the iPhone — from the user experience down to the very core of what the iPhone does — remains consistent and can not change or else the iPhone ceases to be the iPhone, and would fail.

So when I see people saying that a game like EverQuest, DAoC, or SWG wouldn’t work today, I’d like to see proof that someone has really tried. Release a sexier version of DAoC, EverQuest, or even SWG (maybe The Repopulation?) and let’s see if it simply wouldn’t work. My honest belief is that it would work, just like it already did, and it work a heck of a lot better than the games releasing today with models that are supposedly ‘what the market demands.’