Saturday, March 22, 2014

[Game Design] MMO Customization thoughts

I have been playing FF14:ARR for a couple of months now and it was exactly what I expected it to be. It wasn't new  or fresh in anyway. The Armory system is basically multiple characters in one character. FATEs are dynamic events made popular by Guild Wars 2. If I were to consider WoW an EQ 2.0, FF14:ARR would be the WoW 2.0 in a sense.  Get to max level, farm for gear, go PvP or PvE, raiding, crafting...same old song and dance. Some implementations got upgraded, some parts got streamlined, etc. Mostly improvements though in my opinion but I can see why some other people might not think so.

However, what I found interesting is the lack of customization. In FF14:ARR, what you can do as a class is very specialized towards your classes' role in the party. Most people see that as a games in general. It was an interesting thought that I held with me throughout my university days but I never discussed about it openly.

Taking us back in time...

I remember that ever since a decade ago, making games with the idea of 'allowing players to customize' was celebrated notion, both to players and to developers alike. It still is. I grew up playing Black Isle games, Bioware games and PnP Dungeon and Dragons. In these games with small social interactivity, customization was really an awesome thing. As I was studying to become a game developer, the phrase 'let players customize' was often thrown out during discussions and written in game design documents as a very very positive thing. Thinking back, people rarely talk about making or discussing about games with strict-but-well-defined roles. It is much easier to pitch a game to others if you have 'customization' in your games. It is much easier to pique the interest of your friends if the game you are trying to get him into have 'customization'.  Why is it that games that offer 'customization' so alluring? Is it because idea of 'customization' implies 'near limitless possibilities'? "Oh you can create a Orc rogue, that sucks at sneaking but uses magic really well!" Wha-?

So what spurred the idea of having customization in games in the first place (not just MMOs)? Usually, developers just want to throw a, say, skill tree they designed and see what players do to it. In a sense, it's like throwing a bunch of tools at a person and asking him to make a table. The player can then, depending on the restriction of the tools, make a proper 4 legged table,  3 legged table, a dysfunctional table, a round table or even a chair. It COULD be that the designer cannot make up his mind and decided to leave it to the players. *shrug* There are times where I see skill trees in games that made sense, and there are times where I just feel that the designers don't care, don't know jackshit of what they are trying to do, or simply overwhelmed by the decisions they are giving the players.

I think that it is great having customization in single player games or instanced games with small scopes like Diablo or Neverwinter Nights, where the damage you can impose onto others for having crap builds is minimal due to its single player nature (you can test builds in an isolated space). But in MMOs, I start to wonder if it is really a good thing.

Consider DDO, Dungeon and Dragons Online. (Warning! DND jargons below)

It's easily the first game where a character you recruit into the party might not be what you think it is. When I played, it was p2p so we had access to all the now-premium dungeons. We wanted to go to this dungeon called Catacombs and we know for a fact that bringing a level 8 cleric with logically sound stats would easily clear the first few levels of the dungeon with the Turn Undead skill (it starts at level 2!). We saw a level 8 cleric looking for party, grabbed him and went straight into the level 2 dungeon. What we did not know, or rather, it wasn't shown that the cleric has crap for Charimsa stat, causing his Turn Undead to be really crap. I was astounded when I saw a level 8 Cleric casts Turn Undead at level 2 undeads and nothing happens. To prove my point, even the level 8 Paladin, a class with Multi-Attribute-Dependency, has 14 Charimsa and weaker Turn Undead (casts at 1/2 Paladin level I think) manage to fear the undeads. That wasted lots of our time and since it's p2p, money as well.

The thing that irks me is not the skill of the player. Sure, in MMOs, we do run across people with really bad skills that waste our time, but that can be remedied over time and that's one aspect that makes MMOs beautiful; to see other players become better. However, characters with a bad build that no skill can overcome is simply bad and will always be bad. It's like putting points into useless talents in vanilla WoW (like wand specialization) or playing a two weapon fighting dexterity fighter in any form of 3.5 DnD (like DDO). DDO is a really special cdase because players can do things like playing a Rogue without points in Disable Device which can heavily impede the progress of your party. In the end, there exist a 'right' way to build a character, which will progress fine in the game, and a 'wrong' way, which is bring pain to the player and those around him. If so, why not just implement the 'right' way?

That sort of leads to my main point, which is 'Is customization really what it is in MMOs?'. I'm going to throw out a phrase: "Viable Builds".  If you throw 'limitless possibilities' onto hundreds and thousands of players in your game (doesn't really matter what game), viable builds will start to surface. Like during the time I played Guild Wars 2, despite preaching about 'customization', the very versatile Elementalists really only have a finite amount of viable builds (I think Elementalist has 3?). So what is the point of customization if in the end, people are defining these viable builds? In a sense, it's like they are solving a puzzle for the designers. It's like genetic algorithms.

However, there is one thing I love about this 'customization' which I must give credit for, which is the discussion process among the players.  Active discussion among players is invaluable to an online game and is a key aspect of a successful long-lasting community. I just feel that it's a bit funny that players are, for example, drawing DPS statistics for the developers (who might refer to it). You see, in a sense, it's like players working for the developers. What a grey area -_-;;

Now this might seem like a anti-customization rant, but it only is because many people I talked to seemed to be attached to the idea of 'customization' like it's always a good thing to have in a game. It's not always. If games have lack of customization, they are more focused on the role of the players and game content is designed to challenge those roles. I just feel that it is more interesting doing content designed specifically for roles. It would boil down to the execution of the players. It is also one of the many reasons I loved Everquest; because of its simplicity. It is kinda of why I'm enjoying FF14 now. Everyone has the skillsets; just how well they execute it. No nonsense like "I'm a Rogue without Disable Devices" crap.

Seriously, I no longer look at 'customization' as a key feature in MMOs anymore. If I am going to be slipstream-ed into a role, might as well let me choose the role from the beginning instead of taking me for a ride. However, I feel that both can co-exist somehow. Like say for skill trees, we can make the skills only enhance the role of the character, instead of allowing the character to step out of their roles. Much like Etrian Odyssey's skill trees. Just an example..

Mmm, some food for thought =)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Dungeon Keeper Mobile controversy thoughts

Quite some time ago, I downloaded this new EA social game that uses the beloved Dungeon Keeper IP. I played it for a good while, chose not to commit into it and moved on. That's the end of my side of the story.

Months later, I saw waves of hate resonate throughout the internet about this Dungeon Keeper spinoff, both before and after this article went viral.  It seems like the usual hatred towards social games by the same elitist people who believes micro-transaction, endless content and DLCs are evil. What a crazy age we live in now eh? Stereotyping games and stuff. It's almost like racism. Anyway, just a word of warning: this is a rant and my rants are usually devoid of structure and subjected to derailing.

As a Dungeon Keeper fan myself, I honestly didn't find this social version particularly bad. Sure, it could use some balancing, like how long it takes to complete an action. But overall, as a social game, I think the game as some potential and EA is just doing what every big game company is heading towards: social games. Why? Because market is there. There are actually people willing to put money into these social games, and to pay to win. If 10% of their players actually pay regularly, it's good enough. I have no doubt that despite the many hateful Dungeon Keeper fans out there, there are a good amount who think otherwise and play it anyways. We don't 'see' them because they aren't the ones complaining.

But my point is mostly this: Games are evolving and moving into a certain direction, whether you like it or not, whether is it within your tolerance or not. Social games are the money making machines for game companies now and it is really hard NOT to attempt developing them. Making AAA titles is unlike the days of the old. It is getting more and more expensive, teams are getting larger, the market is getting more saturated, players are getting busier, technology is getting more complex and all that for a 'hit-or-miss' design. Compare that to social games which are significantly easier to develop and offer unlimited playtime as long as developers maintaining it comes up with interesting events, it is way cheaper to develop social games.

Why are social games so popular in the first place? It is BECAUSE of people. Back then, we did not have Facebook, Twitter, 9GAG and all that stuff to keep us busy and entertained so we simply play games with no distraction. Phones had only 1 function and that is to call people. Now that everyone carries a pocket computer, and that social networking sites are accessible through it, people will constantly check it for 5 minutes. Thus why not make games that require small attention spans...which brings us to social games.

But back to Dungeon Keeper. I won't dictate what the angry fans should think or anything because everyone has their own rights and stuff. I personally feel a little happy that EA is even bringing life to the Dungeon Keeper IP, which means that they have not forgotten it. If response is positive, EA might even consider making an actual new Dungeon Keeper (using this mobile version as a gauge to see interest levels) but I doubt these haters considered that possibility and prefer to bash and label. The games wasn't THAT bad to begin with. EA could have done a lot worse for a lot more damage, like maybe release a crap AAA Dungeon Keeper title for $60.

Hating goes nowhere, is a waste of time, and is unhealthy. At one point, I hated Mass Effect (save Mordin Solus) and Dragon Age and even Skyrim but that took me nowhere. Mainstream games will never go back to the way it was before. I learnt to accept that these company have to make money before they choose to do what could have been AT MOST a 'cult hit'. That's why Mass Effect was created, because it appeals to the crowd by streamlining RPG elements by adding FPS elements. That's why Skyrim was created, because it appeals to the crowd by removing the intricate RPG elements from Morrowind (including crafting spells!) and focusing on the FPS element of the game. Likewise, because most teenagers who grew up playing games in the 90s are now busy working adults, social games will be appealing to them and were thus created. They don't require long attention span, is free to play and spending money rewards them with good stuff.

I have come to learn and appreciate, instead of hate, the mechanics and techniques they implement to appeal to the masses. It is unsurprisingly not as easy as one would think it is. Seriously, I love me my old school games, but hating on Dungeon Keeper Mobile only shows denial to let go.

And dammit, to top it off, it's a free to play game.


Just my 2c.