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 =)

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