The Silent Protagonist and its Effect on the Psyche

Something interesting I noticed about myself, and I’m curious if anyone else shares this experience.

I grew up playing a *lot* of Zelda, JRPGs and point-and-click adventure games, particularly the Sierra style with the interaction icons. Many (most?) of these have silent protagonists, and in some recent discussions with friends, I’ve come to realize that this may have been a notable formative experience that’s flown under the radar for quite some time.

In a lot of these games, you play a character who “talks” to a lot of other characters. Really, what happens is that the other characters are prompted by you to monologue at length, and the things they say can become useful things for you to do later. When you have a (rare) choice to select some kind of response option, it’s generally abstract and it falls into one of two categories: the more common “which information do I tell you next” monologue branch or the less common “choose the right answer to proceed” selection.

I’d like to contrast this with certain other major types of RPGs, specifically the ones like Black Isle’s CRPGs (Baldur’s Gate, etc), Arcanum, nearly every Bioware game, etc. In a lot of these, even when NPCs are the only characters with speaking voices, you’re making conversational choices that define your character (and, while they may get you in trouble, rarely cause a point of no return where you need to come back and choose the “right” answer from the same dialogue). I’ve played a number of these, and while they are in many ways spiritual successors to the previous, “classic” type, there’s a really subtle difference that leaks in: how you feel (and what choice those feelings drive you to make) is relevant. Not just from a “the game progresses when you choose the right answer” perspective, but from the perspective that your experience is different based on how you express yourself.

Here’s where it gets interesting for me. The classic silent protagonist goes out and does a lot of things for a lot of people without expressing his or her opinion on any of the things being done. People ask you to do things, and you do or don’t, but you don’t weigh in on them, except privately. For me, this is the sort of interaction that defined my game-playing childhood, and it happens a LOT.

While it’s not a connection I made for a long time, it’s a pretty easy hop to get from that to a developed personality that very rarely divulges what it thinks about things even when talking to people. I’ve been called a good listener because I’ll pay attention to what people tell me without judging, because I’m used to prompting (virtual) people to tell me things and acting (or not) on the information received, but not expressing any opinion on the matter.

I find that, in a lot of cases, I don’t even *develop* opinions on things. I’m generally guided by very broad tenets, rather than specific opinions– as an example, I’m in favor of easy access to birth control not because I have a particular opinion on the politics or medicine involved, but because my general tenet of “live and let live” means that I’m in favor of people having choices about how they live their lives, particularly when it doesn’t directly affect me in any meaningful way. I strictly follow a number of rules that I apply to myself but don’t hold other people to, for similar reasons. There a link there, I think, to the nonjudgmental silent protagonist whose opinions on a given subject are inscrutable at best, absent most of the time, but who behave through broad tenets that are universally applied throughout the game– help people in need, don’t harm the innocent, etc.

It’s kind of problematic as well. Slipping into the “silent protagonist” mindset is easy, and tends to cause me to just listen to people and not offer feedback unless directly asked. I also have in the past had a very bad habit of filing people I talk to in terms of how relevant they are– are they a random person on the street or are they a close trusted friend and party member? Someone being “upgraded” is generally accompanied by a bit of mental fanfare and occasionally comes as a surprise to me, where I realize that a given person isn’t in the file I thought they were. This manifests frequently in the form of people I don’t think I know very well saying things to me like “I really appreciate your advice, it was extremely helpful” which is followed in my head with “oh shit oh shit oh shit what did I say to this person I hope it wasn’t anything really stupid” because, like the random beachgoer in Costa Del Sol, I said some things to someone, they seemed pleased with the result, and I put it out of my mind.

Even typing that sounds callous to me, like I don’t care about people, and perhaps it is– while I do care very deeply about people and want to help out where I can, I tend to have conversations, offer advice when asked, and not really think about it more– again like that silent protagonist interaction with an NPC– the protagonist’s input is silent and essentially null, but is effective nevertheless, as is my own. What matters is that the person I’m interacting with gets the help/listener/actions they need, and whatever opinion I (don’t) have on the matter doesn’t really enter into it.

I remember the advent of RPGs with a distinct player voice, where my character actually had spoken lines. I saw it in the King’s Quest series first, and was heavily detached from the characters in that series because they spoke, said things I didn’t think I would say, and expressed opinions, and rather than being the self-insert that the silent protagonists were, they were more like friends who I was helping out and guiding along. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the prior years of silent protagonists made me treat games like King’s Quest differently, where I silently watched and helped a character through a story but kept my opinions and thoughts to myself unless they were directly helping out.

I also remember getting into the more modern, “Bioware-style” RPG, with Mass Effect, the first one I played with a fully-voiced protagonist that I nevertheless dictated the personality of. These fit a weird sort of semi-self-insert, where I made the choices I would make, but they were spoken and done by a different person. I can’t help but wonder if these games coincided with me taking a more active role in my interactions with people– the timing is right but my memory for specifics is murky.

It’s interesting playing more explicitly silent-protagonist games now. The Persona series comes to mind, where the mostly/fully silent protagonist seems like a familiar shell to slip into, but doesn’t *quite* fit; I find myself mentally inserting my opinions and trying to express them (something the game seems to recognize and gives you the ambiguity to do, which is a big reason I like the games so much).

This blog is actually an intensely difficult venture for me, because it requires that I push back against years of childhood conditioning to listen and react to people but keep my opinions to myself unless asked, because they (in the game and in my head) aren’t relevant. Expressing an unasked-for opinion is a struggle unless I’m talking to my very closest friends (and sometimes even then).

Miniatures: Games Without Analogues

I really, really like minis games. I’ve talked about them a bit elsewhere, but I want to talk a little bit about why I like them so much.

There is, effectively, no other type of game that’s like a minis game. It combines math, tactical analysis, creative expression, collection, storytelling, and both theoretical and applied strategy in a single package. It’s tactile in a way that you don’t get in other games, every piece has a personality and I’m not bound by the designer’s visual choices or even the physical construction of a given model.

I get to find a sculpt that I really love and tweak it, turning it into a sculpt I love even more, then paint it in a way that works for me. I’ve commissioned quite a few minis from artist friends, and I get a handful of little works of art that I can then play a game with.

In a lot of ways, minis games are about interactive art. The minis themselves, the board you play on, the sculpts and background all work together with the game rules themselves to create situations from which stories emerge. The best minis games are ones that generate dramatic moments and nailbiting conclusions, stunning upsets and decisive victories. I choose my team of minis based on some combination of the theme and story I find appealing and the game mechanics and tactics that spark my interest. It’s rare that I get to blend both storytelling and mechanics in play– the closest I get are playing characters in tabletop RPGs, which I also love.

Unlike tabletop RPGs, though, I can change up my story every time I play, and it can be a fully-realized snapshot. I’m not playing a character that’s aspiring to a particular cool tactic and may take weeks or months of the same experience to reach it, with little change– I’m generating a force with a theme and a strategy that’s wholly realized before I sit down to play, and I can change it up next time I’m at a table, with a completely different set of minis if I so desire.

In a lot of ways, I get the same enjoyment out of DMing tabletop games; I can generate interesting characters repeatedly and pit them with or against my players, but there’s always a line. If I optimize a character too well and s/he overshadows or outright defeats the party, that’s not fun; I have to build in weaknesses to exploit and restrain my love for optimization. With a minis game, I can indulge, optimizing a list and refining it, and genuinely testing my strategic and tactical skills.

My favorite game right now is Infinity, which I got into because all of its rules were available for free online and the minis were gorgeous. I love the neo-anime style that a lot of southwestern Europe has been exploring in the last several years, and playing a minis game where all the sculpts have that theme is exciting. It’s also a sci-fi world that isn’t USA-centric, and in fact has a really fascinating history-of-the-future that I find both reasonably plausible and compelling.

The game is also one of the most tactically deep games I’ve ever played. Unlike games where you determine your strategy before you put minis on the table, then execute your plan and try to ensure your opponent doesn’t get in your way, Infinity requires that you look at the board state at every part of every turn to decide what to do next, and sometimes you just have to make a choice and commit to it, hoping the dice go your way.

I’ve also got minis that remind me of friends that I don’t get to see that often anymore, who have put their own artistic twists on my forces. It’s great, because I have the minis I’ve painted myself and am proud of, and I’ve got minis that make me think of a good friend when I put them on the table.

There is also nothing like seeing a set of painted minis on a table of actual, physical terrain, knowing that all of it was assembled and painted by hand. Kodra loves his board games, but for me I’ll never find little cardboard or wooden shapes to be as visually or tangibly satisfying as a painted mini that might have years of stories, victories, and defeats.

I have a mini, my favorite version of my favorite character in the Warmachine line, that a friend painted for me in 2008, back during the Mk1 rules. She could only be played in really large games, and my group never played games that large, so as much as I liked her, she never saw the table. She was a display piece for four or five years, looking pretty and collecting dust on the shelf while I didn’t play the game for a while and the rules changed to Mk2. A couple years ago I decided I would go to a friendly tournament, using a new model I’d just picked up that needed a controller. I wanted to bring a fully painted force, so out came my long-painted display mini, ready to see the table and some dice for the second time ever, and the first time in years. She had a brand new, shiny, powerful friend to command and I put her at the head of my force– a group of minis that had either been collecting dust for years or were brand new. She led my troops to a solid 3-0-1 victory in the tournament, and a second place finish overall. Now she stands tall on display, next to her big companion who helped her come off the shelf and get some table time.

You can’t get that with a bit of cardboard or wood that looks like 30 others in the box. She’s more than a glorified counter, she’s got a story all her own.

Now I’ve got to go paint a mini that I used in a recent game. He got swapped in at the last moment from the shelf, an awkward bare-metal addition to an otherwise fully-painted force, and defied probability to become my most valuable piece for the entire set of games I played. That deserves a bit of honor, and he’s earned a paintjob to fit in with his fellows.

MMO Futurism (Part 2)

Okay, so, I ranted a bit. It’s not all bad news. How do we revitalize the flagging persistent world MMO?

I want to approach it like it’s a design problem, because it kind of is. We need to know what we’re working towards. So, what makes an MMO? It’s a lot of things:

–Big, persistent world, capable of comfortably supporting 1000+ players at once.

–Character progression (levels, equipment, new abilities)

–Interesting group dynamics (often dungeons and raids)

–Customizability (in gear, appearance, progression choices, etc)

–Enjoyably repeatable content

–Setting and story that gives context to the big, persistent world

–Various forms of content, from combat to crafting to exploration to PvP

–(optional) Player interactivity in the world, the ability to leave a mark on the gameworld of some kind


Each of these have their own subcategories, things like “interesting enemies to fight” and “varied art assets” and “ways to express player fantasy”, but the above are the big ones. Without these, we don’t have a game that’s going to feel like an MMO. Design problem continues: for each one, how do we make something that feels new and appealing? Is it necessary for each one?

Big, Persistent Worlds And The Stories That Go With Them

I talked about this yesterday, and some games are skipping this entirely, but it’s key to our concept here. We want our neo-MMO to feel like, well, a world, not a game.

I want to do this by adding inconvenience. Sometimes the industry refers to this as “friction”. It’s the little things that you grumble at having to do but that, in aggregate, make things feel more real. A prime example is travel time. If you have to run for three hours to get from Qeynos to Freeport and can’t find a teleport, that is a massive inconvenience and a giant pain. It is also an adventure. It’s an adventure you skip entirely if you open up your map in Guild Wars 2 and jump from Lion’s Arch to The Grove. Convenient, yes, but doesn’t feel like a world.

Running on foot is boring, though. Hit autorun, wait. Maybe align yourself just right and go make dinner while you run. It’s boring because the stuff that’s actually worthwhile for you to do is at the other end, not in between. You probably outlevel all of the stuff in between, or you’re so far below the appropriate level that you can’t reasonably gain anything other than death. Hmm. This makes me think about player progression.

Another form of friction is decay. You see this in gear that needs repairing. Some (older) games have experience loss on death, now anathema to MMOs. Some games have skill decay– go without using a skill long enough and you get worse at it. We come back to player progression again.

A third type of friction is maintenance. If you’re hungry, you need to eat. If you’re tired, you need to rest. Resting too long is boring, though, because you’re just sitting there.

The last, most common form of friction is an economy. Things don’t always cost the same amount all the time, and you have to adapt to what objects are hotly desired or uninteresting right now. The more granular the economy, the more fragmented it is, and the more friction there is. A single, global economy for a game (or a single game server) will find an equilibrium more quickly than a different economy for every city, but traveling to different cities is a pain (friction!).

Why is all of this friction good? Because it makes the things you do meaningful. What we want in an MMO is an engine that we participate in that generates stories. All kinds of stories, from tales of heroism to new fast friendships to tragic stories of woe. We need the things we do to have meaning, so that we can generate those stories. The more friction there is, the more meaningful the small things we do are, and the more likely we are to create memories from them. I have traveled from Lion’s Arch to the Grove a hundred times, and the most comment the experience ever elicited was “ugh, this loading screen”. I can tell you ten stories about one run from Qeynos to Freeport, something I did over ten years ago, and while it’s easy to say “ugh, the bad old days, that sounds miserable”, the reality is that reaching the safety of Freeport’s walls after the effort of running cross-country as a weakling level 5 character was nothing short of magical, and is the kind of accomplishment that people would brag about.

MMOs have been reducing friction for a decade now, trying to keep up with WoW, which peels away friction to drive players towards the content they consider relevant and focus their playerbase. It used to take six months to a year to reach max level, even in WoW, and now it takes hours. Other games have followed suit, lest they be called “grindy”. In so doing, we reduce the number and types of stories we tell from things borne from our unique experiences to the crafted, scripted experiences of the game’s writers and designers. While that’s not a bad thing per se, it means that when you run out of written+designed content in a game, you’re out of stories. Your time spent in game loses context, and you’re more likely to leave.

Having a good MMO story isn’t just about the text in the game, it’s about creating a setting where stories can write themselves.

Player Progression

So, we fill up a bar until a number next to our name goes up and we do that until the numbers stop going up. We have levelled up. Basic player progression trope. It’s also a quiet death for MMOs.

You see, MMOs are supposed to be about playing with your friends. Specifically, one of your friends says “hey, this game is really neat” and you say “cool, let me try it” and you log in and you’re level 1 and hopelessly behind. You play with your friends and you take a vacation and when you get back you have to “catch up”. You started this game to play with your friend and then you can’t.

Levels in an MMO are a distillation of your entire breadth of skills and stats boiled down into a single number, that is the determining value of your character until it doesn’t go any higher, at which point it instantly becomes meaningless compared to other progression paths. It creates the “endgame”, where in every MMO, the game suddenly stops being about doing things and becomes about doing the RIGHT things, because if you’re not doing the right things you’re wasting your time.

It also separates us from players we might interact with who aren’t our immediate friends. We see someone who isn’t our level, and we shut them out of our minds. Maybe they’re much higher level than us, in a zone full of things our level. Why are they there? Are they just going to steal everything? Competition.

Let’s abolish levels. Easier said than done. What do levels get us? A concrete sense of progression, of measuring accomplishment, a way of evaluating relative strength, a simple requirement check to access certain pieces of content.

We can progress in different ways. EvE is a great example of this; a huge variety of skills to improve that increases breadth rather than depth. We can work on improving stat points individually, can work on building up skills, can work on being faster, smarter, stronger. All of these are things to do, and all of these are like mini-levels. The granularity is really helpful, here. You might have just started playing, and you’ve got 10 points in Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma, and no points in any skills. Your friend might’ve been playing for six months, and have 15 points in Strength, 40 points in Agility, 25 points in Intelligence, and 30 points in Charisma, with skills in a bunch of magic and sneaky tricks. If you focus on your Strength, you can be just as good as your friend with only 5 points, and you can start to focus on Strength-based skills. Without each level being a huge jump in power, you can hang with your friend despite that friend’s six month lead in relatively short order.

Instead of levels gating content, we use a different method– reputation. People have to know and trust you to ask you to do things, so how well-known you are becomes another form of progression. We can make this granular like the economy, too. You might stick around a little in a given place because they know you and they offer you more lucrative work. It stops being about “what zone is good for level X” and more “who will give me the jobs I want, and do I want to work on being better-known somewhere new?”

When the places that are worthwhile for you to go aren’t tied to a number, the whole world suddenly feels more meaningful and more, well, like a world.

Customizability and Various Forms of Content

These go hand in hand for me, because they’re both essentially about the same thing: tailoring your MMO experience to your tastes. You want to do the things that are interesting to you in the way you want to do them, and you want to look and perform the way you’d like. Whether you want to roleplay a reknowned pastry chef who dons ninja gear and hunts villains by night or you just want to smash whatever enemies you can find with an axe that must be on fire, you want your experience to suit your tastes. If you can’t find the right beard, or an appropriate body type, or the right class, it’ll sour your experience.

The trick here is to remember that it’s about customizing the experience, NOT about trying to drive players to a given single experience. In a game, everyone works towards the same end goal. In a world, there are a lot of people having totally perpendicular experiences whose only real intersection point is that they happen to be playing the same game. Having people who are in the game you’re playing who are having a wholly different experience than you are makes your world feel bigger, and makes the choices you make as far as your experience feel more meaningful.

Enjoyably Repeatable Content and Player Interactivity in the World

Two things that I also think go together. Enjoyably repeatable content is stuff you don’t mind doing over and over again. Maybe it’s fighting, maybe it’s crafting, maybe it’s exploring the world. Maybe you just like the feel of movement so you run back and forth or in circles, just enjoying how the controls feel. Player Interactivity in the World is when you can make a change in the world that affects not just you, but players around you. If you build a house somewhere, and it stays there when you log out and other people wander by, that’s player interactivity. The two go together because they’re about what you’re doing, moment to moment.

Devs like to talk about moment-to-moment gameplay because it’s one of the smallest units of play. A common sentiment is “if it’s not fun for thirty seconds, it won’t be fun for thirty hours”, and oftentimes this is true. From my perspective, this comes down to verbs. MMOs have very few verbs. There’s Use the Interface, there’s Move, there’s Chat, there’s Interact, and there’s Fight. Using the interface is when you shop at stores, or go through your inventory, or check your character pane. You’re not playing the game at that point, your looking at the UI. Move is straightforward, it’s how you walk or jump or fly around the world. Chat is similar, it’s you communicating with other players or NPCs. Interact is when you walk up and click some object in the world, to collect it, or turn it on, or off, or change something about it (usually for a quest). Fight is the one you do the most.

A big problem with MMOs is that only one of these is developed enough to be fun: Fight. Certain games (City of Heroes) make Move fun as well, and WoW accomplished fun movement simply by being far more responsive than any of its predecessors. That still leaves several verbs that aren’t fun, and we can improve that.

We also want our verbs to reflect our progression. If your Strength and Agility determine both your combat stats and your movement stats, you can alter those values to make a slow but brawny character who fights like a mack truck, or a fast, speedy character who jumps around and dodges. These are different, and should both be fun. Consider a really simple example. A big, beefy tank moves and turns more slowly than a dodgy thief type. If the two fight, the tank might take out the thief in one blow, but the thief can keep moving and avoid attacks. By making movement variable and tying movement abilities with stats and character skills, you get an experience that’s more varied and more fun, and once again, feels more meaningful. Varied, interesting movement adds a dimension to play that goes beyond “don’t stand in the fire” and can make stories by itself.

This also applies to travel– we can have different forms of travel with different strengths and weaknesses that make our verbs more fun. Walking from city to city along safe roads might not be interesting, but driving a speeding stagecoach and trying not to drive off cliffs between the two cities is much more fun.

Making the individual moments interesting and varied gives you good reason to repeat them, either to improve your performance or to try a different method. In an MMO, where you might play for months or years, the power of variability and being able to try different things is huge.

Interesting Group Dynamics

A touchy subject for a bunch of people. The key to satisfying group content is putting a group of players in a situation where they have to rely on each other for specific, direct interactions. It’s why role systems are so effective and functional– a role provides a set of specific, direct interactions that you can provide to your party while your party provides what you lack to you.

It’s this byplay that divides weak and strong group content in MMOs. Some of the worst MMO group content I’ve played was a result of a lack of solid, functional group roles; the experience just became a senseless free-for-all or some extremely fiddly interactions with badly-messaged abilities that might or might not interact with one another.

Content that requires a group adds a sense of scale to the game, that there are things bigger than just one player that are worth pursuing and satisfying to overcome.

Putting It All Together

A revitalized persistent world MMO is going to need friction to make actions meaningful and to bring players together. It’s going to need a wide breadth of player progression with relatively shallow depth, to both lessen the gap between players and allow them to play with one another and provide a greater variance of experience, lending more replayability to the content. It needs player verbs, and each verb needs to be independently interesting. It will need well-defined and compelling group dynamics, to give the game a sense of scale in encounter to go with the scale of the world.

It’s going to draw a lot of the old-school concepts and pass them through the lessons learned over the last decade, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I don’t know if we’ll ever see it, or if we did, if anyone would actually play it, but I think that’s where persistent world MMOs have to go if they’re going to play to their strengths and survive. They need to become highly customizable settings in which players have experiences that yield unique stories. That’s where we go from here. It’ll look weird, but hopefully good.

MMO Futurism (Part 1)

This week: deep, brutal cuts at SoE, that bastion of the traditional MMO-as-virtual-world. No one knows what’s happening over there, but it seems bad, and it doesn’t bode well for Landmark.

WoW got a shot in the arm with Warlords of Draenor, continuing the status quo. This is not dissimilar to pretty much all of the last few expansions they’ve released.

FFXIV continues unabated, quietly continuing to up their game and content catering to their existing fanbase.

Every other notable MMO has faltered in some way or another, and the ones that have seen success have been, shall we say, outside of the “traditional” norm.

A slight aside: when I talk about “success” in video game terms, I’m not talking about units sold, or dollars made, or Metacritic scores, or any of the data that people like to trot out when the topic of game success comes up. I’m talking about the one thing that matters to the devs on the inside: “Do I have a job X months from now?” where X is a number from 3-12+, depending on how optimistic you’re feeling. That is the omnipresent question, that is the nagging, pit-of-the-stomach feeling that prevents a dev, any dev, from ever feeling really comfortable.

MMOs should be good at success. They’re not supposed to be one-and-done, there’s supposed to be a continuing trickle of content, that drip feed that justifies the subscription fee. That is, after all, what the subscription fee is supposed to be PAYING for, and for a goodly number of games, that’s what you’re getting.

Don’t believe me? Feel like the subscription is fleecing you? Blame WoW. No, seriously. Take a look at the last year’s worth of content patches– not all patches, just the ones that add new non-trivial things for you to play. I’m using the official site as my reference. It’s currently February 12. The last content patch was November 13, the expansion launch. The patch before that was early September… of 2013. Before that, May 2013, then March 2013, then November 2012, then late August, 2012. Six content patches in two years. This is why you don’t trust subscriptions.

As a point of reference, I’ll use a game I feel like I get my money’s worth out of: FFXIV. Last patch was January 19th. Before that was late October 2014, then July 2014, then March 2014, then December 2013, and before that was the relaunch of the game in late August 2013. As another reference point, I was only just barely caught up with the last content patch by the time this current content patch hit, and that’s mostly because there are a lot of things I don’t bother doing in the game. In some things, like crafting, I’m four or five patches behind, and there are entire questlines introduced in the March patch that I haven’t even gotten to.

I don’t say any of this to compare MMOs, or make some claim about which games are worth subscription fees and which aren’t– that’s entirely a choice people decide to make for themselves; if a game’s content isn’t fun for you, it’s not going to be worth your money no matter how much of it gets made. What I’m more concerned with is what this all means for the future of MMOs.

Massively, now also defunct, posted an article about the “Best MMOs of 2014”, which quite pointedly commented that it was “nothing”. Aside from being an wholly unnecessary potshot at the hard work of a great number of developers across at least seven studios in the US alone, it speaks volumes about the current state of the industry. The tone of MMO reporting now seems to come in one of two flavors: bitterness about the current underwhelming options on offer, or continued gushing about the minutiae of a particular specific game. This, too, speaks volumes about the current state of the industry.

MMOs are stuck in a rut. They’ve been stuck there for years, and the only reason it’s lasted so long is because the MMO industry moves much, much slower than most of the other genres of video games. We haven’t had a quantum leap since WoW, and that’s ten years old. Also coming out at the time of WoW (in the same month, even!) was Half-Life 2. Call of Duty, the original, back when WW2 shooters were new, that was 2003, a mere year before WoW. We have had an entire console generation, one many people agreed was far too long, in less time than it’s been since a major quantum leap in MMOs.

You might be silently (?) railing at me, now, about some feature that really changed everything. Maybe it’s LOTRO’s housing and crafting (Ultima Online, 1997). Maybe it’s microtransactions (Project Entropia, 2003). Maybe it’s Rift’s spawned events (Everquest, 1999). Maybe it’s TERA’s action combat. You’d have a point on that last one, it’s within the last ten years that we’ve had the technology to pull something like that off.

Here’s the point I’m getting at: MMOs are stuck, badly, and the most recent highly successful model (WoW) is the last quantum leap that MMOs have had (in WoW’s case, making MMOs accessible to the mainstream) and is anchoring both the community and the development of new MMOs. There’s a nasty duality to MMO development right now– make it too much like WoW and people will complain that it’s a clone, diverge too much from WoW and players won’t find your game familiar– they can’t settle into it like a well-worn chair. Ask Bel what frustrated him the most about Elder Scrolls Online: I can tell you he went months being frustrated that he couldn’t set the game up just like WoW, like he’s used to.

There’s not a lot of MMO on the horizon. Eastern MMOs continue development, but are brutally cutthroat and rarely make it West (and are catering to a somewhat incompatible audience when they do arrive West), and Western MMOs are being pretty quiet or slowly fading into the ether. I only see a couple of paths out from here. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to engage in a little MMO futurism.

One of three things is going to have to happen for us to see new, successful (see above definition of success) MMOs:

1) One possibility is that people could start embracing new releases for what they are and start sticking with them for more than a month or so at a time. Seems unlikely.

2) Another possibility is that one new quantum leap — a breakout hit — could usurp the current status quo and usher in a new era of MMOs. I think this is what a huge portion of the MMO-playing community has been hoping will happen for years, and it’s why the trend of MMO-hopping became big in the last five or so years. It also hasn’t happened in more than a decade, and attempts at making it happen have fallen harder and harder as the expectation of quality rises and the games get more expensive up-front to create.

3) MMOs change significantly, alienating a significant portion of the community and catering to a different audience, shifting focus. We’re already seeing this in games like Borderlands, Destiny, Diablo 3, and others. They’ve taken all the key features of MMOs and removed all the rest, and many of them are excellent games, but they don’t satisfy that MMO itch for many.

I think #1 isn’t going to happen, not on a broad enough scale to help anyone. #2 might possibly still happen, but is a really dim hope. #3 is already happening, and it’s mostly games pulling from the MMO genre and adapting features and concepts to fit a different type of game.

Here’s the thing. MMOs were founded on the concept that it was really cool to be able to explore a really big, open world with your friends, and playing with your friends was as easy as logging into a central server, you didn’t need to set up your own server, invite only people you knew, or any of that. You could log in, meet new people, fight monsters, and when you got back the world had moved on without you so you wanted to catch up.

Nearly 20 years since the first major MMOs, it’s no longer special to have a game you can easily play with your friends. That’s a pretty basic requirement of every video game now, to the point where single-player-only games on major platforms are a novelty. Exploring really big, open worlds is old hat, we’ve long ago decided that the quality of content is worth more than the quantity, and filling up big spaces means lowering the fidelity of content from sweeping The Last Of Us masterpieces to “kill ten rats”. We’ve even found that, in an MMO, making content more complicated than “kill ten rats” comes with a whole slew of complex interactions that put a brutal quality cap on the content– something like The Last Of Us just isn’t possible when a thousand other people are doing the same thing in the same space as you.

It’s that last part that we’ve lost. MMOs have spent a decade chasing the single player, and after years of the occasionally dissonant approach of catering to players who want to play in a massively multiplayer world by themselves, some games have just gotten more honest– here’s the MMO experience distilled into something you can play exclusively with people you know, none of those pesky strangers clogging up your game. MMOs themselves have turned the idea of “more players” into a detriment rather than a benefit. If you’re in a space in an MMO and see another player, you’re not happy, because instead of being a potential ally, that person is competition. You don’t need them to succeed, so if they’re in the same space as you they’re taking your stuff. We no longer like forced grouping.

I’ve ranted enough for tonight about what’s wrong with MMOs right now. Tomorrow (hopefully!) I’ll talk about what’s right, and what a new, modern persistent-world MMO might look like.

Elite: Dangerous and The Game I Want To Play

I recently loaded up Elite: Dangerous and have heavily backed Star Citizen. It’s been an interesting ride on E:D, and it makes me think of the game I really want to play.

I love Firefly. I love Star Wars. I badly, badly want a game that lets me play out the fantasy of cruising through the stars with my friends, getting into fights and blasting our way out of them. I want to be navigating an asteroid field while Bel and Kodra fight off a boarding party, Rae is keeping my ship running, and Ash is shooting down fighters who are chasing us. I want to be the aerial support while my friends go treasure hunting on a hostile planet, chased by bounty hunters. I want to fly under a catwalk and catch my team as they flee an overwhelmingly powerful boss.

Elite: Dangerous gives me the flight part of this. I really enjoy the flying, and the space combat is really enjoyable. I also grew up with flight sims, so I’m familiar with flight controls. I want to play it with my friends, but I want something for them to do while I’m flying the ship that’s just as interesting.

The closest I’ve been able to come to this sort of experience is games like Battlefield or certain Halo maps, where you can be the pilot for a vehicle and race for mission objectives. I want that experience in a co-op PvE game.

One thing that I think MMOs have missed the boat on (so to speak) is the idea of travel as a skill, like combat. Getting from point A to point B is rarely interesting or exciting. At best it’s uneventful, and at worst you’re actively annoyed because something attacked you on your way to somewhere. I’d love to see an MMO with a suite of travel skills, allowing you to get from place to place in various ways and making the travel itself an adventure. Having travel be an adventure unto itself is one of the really big advantages of a persistent world, and a great way to meet new people and be glad there are other players in this giant game you’re in, and I think we’ve lost sight of that.

Long story short: starship pilot, LFG.

How I Design: Returning to the Moment (Finale)

Previous entries, for a refresher:

Part 1: Worldbuilding

Part 2: The Chapter

Part 3: The Moment

Part 4: The Medium

Part 5: The Message

I’ve put together all the pieces of the scene, our player finally tracking down a rogue mage in Atlanta, working through mage gangs to do it. I want to talk briefly about the pieces of this sequence in-game, and then go piece by piece to talk about how I’d build it.

It might be a bit cliché to talk about the three-act structure, but it’s really important here. It’s a really solid, really familiar framework for pacing, and when we lack it in our entertainment, it makes that entertainment feel badly paced (often, it is!). We normally think of the three-act structure in terms of the overall story, but it scales to a variety of sizes, from the overall story itself to an individual scene, or level, in a game. Here’s how I’d apply the structure to the scene we’re setting up:

–Act 1: Exposition–

We don’t have a lot of exposition here, because we’ve (theoretically) set it up in the previous few hours of gameplay. We’ve communicated a lot up to this point, and this scene is the climax of the story arc. There are two types of exposition in a game: explicit and implicit. Explicit exposition is text you read, or spoken dialogue, or cutscenes, or mission briefs. It’s the moment where the player is aware that the game is telling them something. Implicit exposition is how we subtly suggest how the player should play, either how they should move through the space, what they should pay attention to, or how to defeat their enemies, using visual or nonverbal audio cues. When the music slowly ramps up before a major boss fight, that’s implicit exposition. When you see a skeleton on a strange-looking floor panel and realize there’s a trap there, that’s also implicit exposition. When you follow lights through a dark area to find where to go, that’s another form.

We don’t have a lot to set up here as far as explicit exposition goes, but we will have to set up the area. We’re going to want to establish the play space. Notably, I want there to be some dialogue with the rogue mage character, and I don’t want the player distracted by the space. A nearly-abandoned building at night in a bad part of town works really well here– I can have the player move deeper and deeper into this building as part of the setup, and then have to fight their way out with the rogue mage at their side. This gives me some time to work on the first impression for this character, and having her help out the player in a tense situation is a good way to establish that early.

Act 1 will be moving through the (relatively quiet) space, getting a feel for the layout and looking for the rogue mage. I want it to be tense but not actually dangerous– in fact, I’m really likely to have few if any enemies in the building proper, and the only things that might exist are environmental traps. The whole of Act 1 should take relatively little time– 5 minutes or so, because it’s going to be very low-action and dragging that out isn’t interesting.

I set up this segment last. All of the rest of it has to work first, so that I know what I’m setting up. The biggest part of this is planning out Acts 2 and 3 with my art team, then coming back to it. For me, a lot of this is running through the space over and over again, working out little details and planning out how long it takes to get from place to place. I’ll return to how I set this up once the other two acts are crystallized.

–Act 2: The Spark–

Act 2 is where things really get rolling. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2 should be the moment of weightlessness as the roller coaster crests the very first rise.

That transition moment is the first really touchy, really difficult segment of the sequence. If I’m working with cutscenes, that’s where I’m building one of them, and if I’m not, it’s where I’m setting up a heavily scripted sequence. The player isn’t getting out of this sequence without a fight, and I’m not interested in setting up the rogue mage as the boss of this area, because I need the player to like her for the next part of the game. We also need to wrap up her situation with the rival gang boss, which we can neatly do here– he’ll be our final encounter.

The transition moment is the moment where the player’s conversation with the rogue mage is cut off by the hideout being attacked– in this case by the rival gang boss. To play up her reputation and set up a more interesting scene, we’ll have the gang boss’ main ploy be burning down the building with you and her in it. If we want to be tricky, and depending on the tone of the game, we can have the main gang member that the player’s been dealing with have been the rival gang boss all along, but we run the risk of things being a little too pat when we do that. In a choice-heavy game, where the player might side against the rogue mage and take the gang boss as an ally instead, this might work.

Either way, our transition to Act 2 is the first shattering molotov cocktail against the building, or the activating sprinklers. I want a beat, for the player to realize along with the characters that everything is about to go very wrong, and then action ramps up quickly– “We have to get out of here!”

I want this transition scene to be easily triggerable on the backend so that I can tweak the timing. I should be able to paste a single command and have it run so that I can see it and make tweaks, because it’ll need a LOT of work.

What we’re going to have here is the player moving in reverse through the space they just walked through, only with some noticable changes. I want the path back to be recognizable but blatantly different (in this case, largely on fire) and we can use environmental changes to alter the path– big patches of fire, collapsing hallways and stairwells, etc. A lot of this will get planned out with the level designer and artist(s), if they’re someone other than me, to figure out which rooms have the key encounters and where there will be slightly longer run-time segments to squeeze in a few lines of dialogue (hallways are good for this).

This is also where I want to plan out the enemies. I need the building to transition very quickly from quiet to burning down, and I want to play up the enemies a bit– cowardly is a theme. Fire elementals work well for this, syncing nicely with the environment and making a lot more sense than a bunch of gang members running into a burning building to make sure the occupants are dead.

This also gives us a lever to extend the sequence if it turns out we need more gameplay– if the fire elementals are coming from some sort of summoning apparatus hastily set up throughout the building, we can then have a secondary objective of disabling the summoning. If necessary, this also gives us a good way to characterize our rogue mage– she either doesn’t want to risk innocents or she thinks wasting time disabling summoning circles is a bad idea; we can communicate this in one or two lines of dialogue and, because it’s delivered in a high intensity situation, it will stick with the player a bit more.

The other technical detail that’s important here is how well the game engine supports active AI companions– this is often a nasty sticking point, and the way the sequence plays out relies on this bit of tech. It’s really important to know the limitations before going into something like this– we can spend days or weeks trying to get a sequence where the rogue mage follows along and fights with you to feel good and still fall short, or we can have a fantastic sequence where the mage is watching you on security cameras, having sent you to stop the attackers while she performs some other useful off-camera task. That last bit is important– we need the player to believe in the competence of the rogue mage for later on, and to make this whole story arc seem worthwhile, so we want her doing something valuable if she’s not fighting alongside the player, and if she *is* fighting alongside the player, the player should be glad to have her along. Getting this wrong is how you get a lot of famously terrible game characters, and having an experience shoehorned in that the game doesn’t support well sours the experience.

This is the most action-intensive sequence and will require the most playtesting. I HIGHLY recommend a checkpoint immediately as the action part of Act 2 starts, with possible extra checkpoints scattered after major encounters in the section (if it proves to be long). I personally spend quite a lot of time running around the space and visualizing combat to set up these sorts of sequences, so that I don’t find myself surprised when I go to set up fights in the space. I also like to plan for about 20-50% more combat space for discrete separate encounters than I think I need. Movement doesn’t take long and if there’s nothing doing in a given room I can use it for a dialogue line, and if I suddenly need to cram more combat into a full space, it makes the sequence feel long and tedious, because there isn’t constant forward motion.

–Act 3: Finale and Denoument–

At the end of the sequence, we drop the player off in a boss arena, where they’ll face off against the opposing gang leader and possibly henchmen. We’ve set up this characters specifically to be a throwaway boss, so fighting him here is payoff. He’s the representation of all of the frustrations the player has developed up to this point, and if we’ve delivered our story properly, we blame him for the rogue mage’s reticence to join our cause, rather than the rogue mage herself.

First off, if we haven’t already found something else for our rogue mage companion to do while we fight the boss, now’s a really good time. Unless we have truly top-notch companion AI, the complexity of a satisfying boss fight is going to clash badly with our rogue mage friend. However, one of the “alternative” things she can do is play a support role throughout the fight, either setting up traps for the boss or helping sustain the player through the fight. It’s a great way to showcase her abilities but not rely on the standard AI packages to control her. It adds a lot of complexity to the fight, though, as you’re now working to set up two entities (or more, if there are gang members) in sync. This will be the other major endeavor of the sequence, and will require a lot of fine-tuning to get right.

This is where testers are your best friends. You need people who aren’t you playing your boss fights, so that you can tell if they can figure them out and win. It’s trivially easy to make a boss fight players can’t win– it’s much harder to make one that they think they can’t win at first but actually can and do. It’s similar for me to GMing a tabletop game– you can kill your players easily in a tabletop RPG (“rocks fall, everyone dies”); the greater challenge is pushing them right to the brink but not quite over, unless they themselves slip and fall.

The specifics of scripting this sort of boss fight will differ with every game engine, but essentially I find it useful to script the boss in phases, getting each section of the fight working independently, whether that’s individual abilities or entire JRPG-style boss phases (or both, for sufficiently complicated bosses).

Having defeated the boss, there’s almost certainly going to be a brief payoff victory scene, which may wind up being expensive on the animation/FX/audio side, but is going to be fairly simple (or, at least, simpler than the previous poignant transition scene) on the design side.

After this scene, there’s a temptation to drop the players somewhere more useful than “right over the boss’ body”. I tend to think this isn’t a good idea unless there’s a really good story reason for it (at which point, the aforementioned post-boss scene is going to be a lot more complicated). I find that it makes the whole sequence feel better if you can run around in the area you just conquered to get a last look at it on your own terms before shuttling off to the next area. Sometimes this isn’t possible, and that’s fine, but whenever you can I think it’s a good idea to offer that in-world breather in a space where the player isn’t taking in new, potentially dangerous surroundings. If you do shuttle players off immediately, it’s a good idea to return them to a hub, or some familiar location: that moment of in-control calm to let your mind catch up with your reflexes is a very useful add.

With a few moments to look over the burned building, the defeated opponent, and our new rogue mage ally, we then take our own action to move forward and onto the next part of the story, like actively turning the page.

This whole sequence has a few notable Moments. The transition from Act 1 to Act 2, fleeing the burning building, the boss fight, and the final denoument are all Moments. This whole sequence probably takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on the size and complexity of the encounters, and has roughly four Moments, sections that players will remember.

A shorthand for it is this: Will players either put the scene on youtube or talk about it with their friends? If so, that’s a Moment, and you should make sure you’re pacing them appropriately. I mention the Act structure because it’s a very good fallback when you’re juggling a large number of things; it’s easy to lose your sense of pacing when you’re in the nuts and bolts of why an NPC won’t stand quite right during her dramatic monologue.

I hope this series has been fun or interesting to read. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, I’ll see what I can do about answering them.


For all of my reader, wanted to make a quick post to apologize for the dearth of updates.

I’m moving cross-country, so I haven’t had time to get situated and get posts done. I’m hoping to return to a regular schedule come the new year, though there may be some posts before then.


How I Design: The Message (Part 5)

I’ve talked thus far about the Medium, tailoring your experience to use the strengths of the medium it’s being presented in, rather than wasting effort and fidelity to struggle against your own presentation medium. A movie that tries to actively engage the audience tends to fall flat, whereas a stage production that ignores the audience entirely from curtain up to curtain drop is missing out on a strength of theatre as a medium. Mostly straightforward, hopefully.

Here, I’d like to talk about another important meta-concept for an experience: the Message. At a really high level, all entertainment is communication, and much like talking to someone, simply using fancy words or complex sentence structure or dramatic tone without any substance simply makes the audience confused at best. I find it very important to be aware of what I’m communicating, and how that message is coming through at any given point in the experience.

This isn’t necessarily about a moral, or a political statement, or any larger concept, although it can be. More often it’s about something much simpler — “this guy is the bad guy”, “this landscape is beautiful”, “this city is corrupt”. Often, there are several messages occurring simultaneously, and balancing them is important. You’ll occasionally see stories where the overarching “world is ending” plot is so overwhelming that it devours any other side-story that might occur, making those seem trivial. Alternately, when faced with a world-ending crisis, investigating a couple of people having a clandestine tryst seems trivial and unbelievable. Scale and pacing are important.

I like to establish messages on the Chapter and Moment levels, figuring out what (usually more complex thing) a Chapter is saying, and peppering Moments with simpler, more direct messages.

As an example, returning to the modern-supernatural mage gangs concept, and the Chapter I described, I might have messages that look something like this:

“There is a significant divide between trained, ‘official’ mages and the unlicensed hedge mages that make up mage gangs.”

“In the world of mage gangs, power is everything, and the power structure is volatile and prone to disruption.”

“Mage gang members tend to resent ‘official’ mages because their world revolves around power and is volatile, and the comparatively high power of trained mages to their untrained magic puts them at a severe disadvantage (and the rejection of their power-based structure by more powerful mages is akin to a rejection of their worldview).”

“Nonmagical people have a variety of effective means to deal with unlicensed, potentially dangerous untrained mages, which the mage-gangs have become more or less adept at avoiding but which remain a constant issue.”

At the Chapter level, these are fairly complex statements, which a variety of resources would be bent towards communicating. In some cases, actual NPC dialogue might communicate these, and the twists in the story and behavior of the opponents/environment might reinforce it. Others might simply be hinted at, if they’re not plot-centric, and left for the player to consider and discover on their own.

I’ll talk about Moments next, and the next in this series will talk primarily about crafting Moments, and the messages are an important part of them. The Moment I’d like to make is the point at which the player catches up to their target, the former licensed mage, gone rogue, who has thrown in with the mage-gangs. There are a variety of things I want to have communicated by this point:

“The rogue mage is highly dangerous and seemingly unpredictable.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is very powerful, but not the most powerful.”

“The rogue mage’s gang is the most organized of the powerful gangs, reflecting her background.”

The Moment relies on these messages being communicated properly, and understood by the player. In the moment, I want to communicate a few important details:

“The rogue mage is powerful and well-equipped, but desperate in the face of the opposing gang.”

“The rogue mage is reasonable, can be negotiated with, and has sensible motivations, but is entirely uncompromising on certain key points.”

“The rogue mage is very attached to Atlanta and is defending it from a greater danger that won’t be addressed by official channels.”

I’ll return to the Moment next time, and actually walk through constructing it, using everything I’ve set up thus far.

Feedback Loops and Class Design

A little break from the How I Design series.

I had a conversation with a friend recently who had a hard time understanding the difference between different classes in MMOs, and why some people so heavily favored one class over another when they appeared to be very similar.

He’d played the Gladiator in FFXIV and found it interminably boring, and asked if anyone liked “pressing 1, 2, 3 over and over again”. The answer, “yes”, baffled him, and I think convinced him that MMOs weren’t for him, though I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

In an MMO, specifically the ‘traditional hotbar’ MMO, there’s generally a bit more nuance then “press buttons in order” or “hit all the buttons whenever they’re available”. Most of the time, any classes that use those mechanics exclusively are considered extremely boring. The concept boils down to the class’ feedback loop, or the thing you’re doing when fighting in order to win.

There are a few different types of feedback loops that are popular in MMOs:

The Availability System

This is the oldest MMO class design, and is the simplest. It’s often criticized as “all MMO classes”, although it’s notable that very few such classes exist in modern Western MMOs.

Availability System classes have a variety of abilities that take a certain amount of time to become available after using, called “cooldown” time. A pure Availability System class will press every button as it becomes available, and cooldowns will determine how often they’re available. No secondary resource is required, because time is the only resource used. A common twist on this concept is a passive ability that refreshes a cooldown whenever certain criteria are met, such as a critical hit refreshing a powerful attack. It raises the skill cap of the system slightly, but this is still a fairly old, little-used design concept.

These have fallen mostly out of favor (largely due to the low skill cap), though players will occasionally opt into classes like this when ability systems allow a lot of customization.

The Rotation System

An evolution of the Availability System, a rotation-based class generally has fewer cooldown abilities and usually has a secondary resource. These classes can use abilities far more frequently, but there tends to be an efficient order that is repeated. Skill in this system is determined by completing the rotation in a timely, efficient manner and not losing opportunities to continue the rotation.

A common added feature of rotation-based classes are what are known as “off-GCD” abilities. Essentially, there is a mechanic called the Global Cooldown, abbreviated GCD, that is the minimum amount of time between actions. It exists essentially to prevent key spamming as a successful strategy and maintain the desired pace of combat. An ability that’s not bound by the GCD can be used between other abilities, allowing quick reactions even if the standard abilities are still unusable. Abilities like interrupts are often like this, or certain temporary power boosts. Juggling these in between standard abilities allows a perceptive player with quick reactions a higher skill ceiling.

The Priority System

Priority systems have mostly been relegated to healing classes until recently, but they have had increasing popularity among other class roles in the last few years. The general concept is that for a priority system class to achieve maximum effectiveness, it needs to use abilities both proactively and reactively, so that whichever ability is needed at any given moment is based on the current situation. Generally speaking, this revolves around either maintaining self-buffs, applying and maintaining layers of debuffs on a target, or using/consuming said buffs for a power spike.

Early concepts of the priority system were the purely reactive healing, where there is no set “rotation” and the unpredictability of encounters means that a cooldown-based availability system is less functional. The spell needed by the healer was then applied to the situation at hand, on the fly. This has bled into other class roles, most often tank classes but occasionally damage classes as well.

These sorts of systems tend to be less complex but require more situational awareness, in the case of damage classes often reducing the risk of tunnel vision that rotation-based classes often have.

Feedback Loops

Each one of these types of systems have a built-in feedback loop that appeals to a different sort of player. Rotation systems are favored by players who enjoy memorizing a pattern and then executing it with precision. Availability systems are favored by players who enjoy having a broad selection of abilities to use, and don’t like hitting the same buttons repeatedly. Priority systems are favored by players who are less interested in memorizing patterns and prefer to react to the moment.

For any game featuring classes, where the core gameplay requires a lot of one or a small number of verbs (usually, “fight”), it’s important to develop a functional, fun feedback loop, which requires some understanding of the above systems, or any new system that’s devised.

Without a core feedback loop that works, your class won’t be interesting moment to moment, and while you may have larger systems that make your game fun on a macro scale even if the basic gameplay loop isn’t interesting (EvE Online is a very good example of this), it’s important that this design choice is a conscious one.