Stories and Systems

I’ve been playing a ton of Fallen London lately, and I’m going to take a little bit of time to gush about it.

Fallen London is a browser-based resource-collection adventure game. There are a bunch of little mini-stories (they call them “storylets”) that generate and consume various resources you collect as you progress through them and discover mysteries, explore, socialize, etc. The whole thing is set on the backdrop of London, having been swallowed by the earth and existing in a dark, supernatural underground. It’s very dark steampunk Victoriana, and is absolutely jam-packed with flavorful little bits throughout.

It reminds me of Crusader Kings 2, a game I spent a bunch of time in. Broadly, Crusader Kings 2 is a pseudo-historical game like Civ, where you’re the ruler of some nation and you manage that nation as it spreads, as your dynasty evolves, and so on. It’s an absolutely overwhelming game at first, and the tutorials only really serve to expose the dizzying depths of the game’s systems, which interact in extremely complicated, somewhat unpredictable ways. It’s fascinating in that the death of your ruler is not the end of the game– provided you have an heir, you’ll continue your game as your heir, though progressing through a lineage can have its own pitfalls.

What I love about both games is that your interactions with them are fairly simple and relatively straightforward; gameplay is about choosing what to do next, generally from a list. The ramifications of doing so, however, drop inputs into these complicated systems whose outputs alter your experience. Essentially, they’re storytelling engines, all of the interlocking systems working together to generate (often surprising) outcomes that make for good stories.

In Crusader Kings 2, I had a well-loved and powerful king in a patrilineal kingdom. In the previous generation, my king had had a conniving and clever older brother who was ultimately unfit to rule– my king had taken power with the backing of most of the nobility and the love of the commoners over the elder brother, something that left the elder brother seething.

To appease the brother and prevent him from fomenting rebellion, I wound up making him my spymaster, because I lacked a suitable candidate and the scheming brother was an excellent fit for the role… provided he could be kept happy. Maintaining this happiness (particularly as a war broke out on my kingdom’s borders) meant allowing my brother to be the tutor for my king’s eldest daughter and only child, who learned extremely well from her uncle and became a highly skilled spy (and ultimately assassin). She was in line to inherit the throne and had both her uncle’s skill at spycraft and her father’s gift for oratory, making her both supremely capable and well-loved.

I’d thought I’d made the best of a tricky situation… until my king and queen bore a son, who (due to the patrilineal lineage) immediately became next in line for the throne. Conniving brother and suddenly-spurned daughter immediately began plotting against my king, in the midst of an invasion from the south. In trying to repair the rapidly deteriorating situation, the king’s daughter was married off to a (faraway) kingdom, the seventh in line for rulership and, while politically good for the daughter, also neatly got her out of the kingdom. In the meantime, my king was pulled into the war and, while able to deliver a crushing blow and put the enemy in retreat, wound up dying in battle… leaving a two-year-old heir.

My play transferred to the two-year-old, and the game’s systems started using my two-year-old’s stats to work out what I knew and could find out… which was very little. For fifteen years, my child-king recieved updates like “you are no longer being mentored by your mother, but your uncle instead, but you’re not sure why” and “you hear arguments but don’t understand what they’re about”. As my child-king came of age, his uncle had slowly poisoned the nation against him and wound up taking over the kingdom, doing such a poor job that the older sister wound up intervening, assassinating her younger brother and taking her claim to the throne… after she had carefully engineered herself as the queen of the faraway kingdom by carefully arranging “accidents” for everyone in line ahead of her.

This is a small slice of the story, but it all played out through these complex systems, and the story is a result of me playing through these systems and seeing the various outcomes, and then (this is important) being able to attach my own narrative to them.

It’s kind of like the stories people come up with in the Sims, and I’m a big fan of the sort of thing people come up with when faced with a complicated but narratively shallow experience– an evocative-enough setup allows some great emergent storytelling.

I need to return to my spy-queen in Crusader Kings, and my “captivating and insightful” gentleman in Fallen London, and see what new stories unfold.

Make Me Laugh

I’m currently replaying Dragon Age: Origins, in preparation for Inquisition later on. As with many Bioware games, it has the “standard” male secondary lead in Alistair, ex-Templar Grey Warden who accompanies you.

Alistair, on the surface, is Carth Onasi (from KOTOR), or Atton Rand (from KOTOR 2), or Kaiden Alenko (Mass Effect), or Jacob Taylor (ME2). The loyal, male ‘best friend’ character who tends to live by a code of some kind, tends to provide skills that clearly and easily support your party (often either tanky or straightforward support-style characters), you know the drill. Normally, I find these characters somewhat hit-or-miss, as they’re often vanilla enough to be boring and lack strong story hooks to keep me interested, usually far overshadowed by other characters.

Alistair is different. Alistair is funny. He has a ton of really excellent lines and while his character development is interesting (though not that outstanding, with a notable exception I won’t spoil here– anyone who’s played the game knows what I’m talking about), the real draw is his one-liners. He’s constantly irreverent and amusing, and the writing in Dragon Age is excellent in that it allows you to either shoot him down or play along, usually leading to a string of more and more ridiculous jokes from him.

It makes me think of a scene in Saints’ Row 3, where (relatively early on) you and another NPC character wind up idly chatting on a drive in between locations, which devolves fairly rapidly into singing along (badly) with the radio– I actually had the pause the game I was laughing so hard.

My favorite characters in games are the funny ones. HK-47 is a ruthless, evil machine, but his commentary is (often unintentionally) hilarious– but, importantly, for the player, not the player’s character. Alistair is different in that he’s entirely aware he’s being funny and cracking jokes; his jokes don’t break the fourth wall (like HK-47’s do), he’s genuinely trying to lighten the mood and make you laugh.

It’s one of the reasons I love Dragon Age. Funny moments are funny in-world, not just from my couch. I’m not laughing at the ridiculously over-the-top violence suggested by an inhuman robot (which, were I in my character’s shoes, wouldn’t be terribly funny and would be in rather poor taste), I’m laughing alongside my avatar in the world.

Make me laugh, but better, make me believe my character would laugh, and I’ll love a character very quickly, often despite a panoply of other flaws. Fourth-wall humor can be fun, and I often enjoy it, but I much prefer when the jokes fit into the world. It’s much more difficult to write, but the payoff is excellent.

Player Fantasy

I’ve talked a bit about player fantasy before, and as I load up Dragon Age: Origins to play through it again in preparation for Inquisition, and as I keep playing Fallen London, I’ve been thinking about player fantasy again, and how important a concept it is.

I’m going to be indulgent and talk about my own player fantasy a bit here; if you’d rather not hear about it, scroll down a bit, there’s another article that’s mostly about other people below here. I won’t blame you, those other people are pretty great.

People tend to think of me in one of a couple of ways, usually based on whatever class I was playing when they met me. Almost always, the characterization I get is “rogue”. It amuses me, because by the numbers I’ve played a little bit more than twice as many wizards as I have rogues, and my rogue playstyle tends not to be the usual poisoning, backstabbing, dirty tricks type. I greatly prefer the intelligent, charismatic, mastermind sort of characters.

It’s why I like wizards as well. I really like to play characters that are worldly, intelligent, efficient, and skilled. I don’t tend to like brute force, and I like a precision lightning bolt over an indiscriminate fireball. I also tend to like a bit of nobility in my characters– not in an aristocratic sense, but in an honorable sense. It’s why I don’t like poisons, and why I prefer the duelist-swordsman kind of rogue over the cloak-and-dagger backstabbing rogue.

Whenever I’m looking at a character for a game, I like a blend of natural gifts (cleverness, magic, etc) and noble skills (swordsmanship, persuasiveness). It’s really hard to find these in a lot of games, so I tend to split the difference and go with either rogue or mage depending on the situation.

It’s one of the reason I like Jedi as a concept– not because they’re the powergamers of the Star Wars universe, but because there’s a mix of nobility, magic, and finesse, versus raw power.

I don’t tend to like warlock/necromancer sorts of classes, because they tend to lack the nobility I’m looking for.

Back to Dragon Age, it’s very difficult for me to pick a class that I like. The noble background appeals to me, but the play of the mage satisfies my desire for cleverness and efficiency. Mages tend to be pariahs in the setting, which bugs me.

We’ll see if I can find a way to enjoy the rogue in Dragon Age this time around. I suspect I’ll be coming back to mage relatively quickly.

Leading a Team

I’m really proud of my FFXIV guild team. We took a rather lengthy break from the game, something like eight or nine months with only a few breaks in the middle, so when we got back, there was a ton of content that a lot of people had already done (but still struggled with) that we’d never touched.

Last night, we did The Howling Eye (Extreme), also known as Garuda EX, the hardest mode for the first hard-mode Trial (single boss) in FFXIV. It’s a challenging fight, with fairly complex mechanics, and while it’s intended for gear markedly below where we were at (recommended ilvl 70, most of us are ilvl 90+), it’s also meant for a group that’s been working together for quite some time and are very familiar with the game’s mechanics, their approach to boss fights, and so on, which few to none of us are.

It was also a return to raid leading for me, one of the first times I’ve actually led a team in any significant way in an MMO in quite a while. We’ve done some previous forays into the Binding Coil of Bahamut, but I haven’t really been leading those as much as curating while someone else does the direction and leading, and mostly letting other folks run the show. It’s been a rocky start, as the needs and wants of the team aren’t always immediately clear and I have to feel them out.

Garuda EX went well, I think, and it reinforces my belief in trusting my teammates rather than micromanaging. When raid leading (or team leading in general), I like to approach things from a more hands-off direction; I tend to assume my team is competent and knows what they’re doing and only intervene when or if that assumption is proven wrong. Individually, people tend to know what they’re able to handle and where they have more maneuvering room, and being able to adapt strategies to accommodate this is much more useful (in my opinion) than simply declaring what each person will need to achieve and demanding they reach that minimum level of performance.

We took shots at Garuda for a little more than an hour last night, with some fairly significant pauses between attempts to work out what happened in the previous pull. We defeated her as the timer approached zero, with about 30 seconds total left on the clock. More importantly, we won in a single night of attempts, when most of us hadn’t seen the fight previously and hadn’t yet gotten comfortable with the way the game approaches raids.

It’s exciting to me, because I feel like it proves that our group, despite playing casually and not really pushing terribly difficult content for years now, still has our edge, or enough of it to relearn old skills quickly.

It’s a good feeling as a team to win, and it’s a good feeling for me that everything ran smoothly and effectively such that, as the team leader, I can fade into the background and let skilled people do their thing.

Invisible Friends

I had a discussion earlier today with a friend who basically does not want anything marketed to him– he finds the experience sleazy and inherently dishonest, likening the experience to a salesman at a store who only cares about making a sale.

It’s a point of view that I bet a lot of people have– there’s a really strong current of mistrust and adversarial emotion regarding the whole concept of advertising and marketing among the general public. It’s not really surprising — a lot of marketing and sales cares only about you making a purchase.

As my friend put it: “I want to find what I need, when I need it, and not have solutions to problems I don’t have shoved in my face.”

It makes me think of user experience design, in a way. I can’t help but think of tutorials, and how people will get upset when a game is too heavy-handed with a tutorial that goes on too long. Similarly, when a user interface or keybinding setup or other interaction method doesn’t feel quite right, or is too cluttered, or not customizable enough, or whatever, people get frustrated. Conversely, when a tutorial is entirely absent, or the UI too sparse or not informative enough, there’s an equal amount of frustration. In the sweet spot, though, where the game explains how to play it at the right pace and with the right amount of thoroughness, and the interface is responsive, informative, and not too cluttered, no one notices.

As many UI designers will say: the best UI is one no one notices. The same, I think, is true of marketing. The very best marketing sells someone on a product without them realizing they’re being advertised to. Most truly successful marketing wouldn’t even be recognized as such by the people receiving it. Blatant advertising frustrates and annoys us, and makes us feel like we’re being disingenuously spoken to, or at worst, scammed.

Over the past couple of years or so, I’ve allowed various social media and social networks access to my browsing and shopping habits, feeding into their data collection for targetted advertising. It’s been interesting and somewhat informative– as I started the experiment the ads quickly became ham-handed and laughably inaccurate. After a little over a year, though, the ads became more and more accurate, until I started legitimately discovering things I wanted to buy that I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise– a specific set of juggling equipment, an appealing sale on miniatures, an introduction to an author I hadn’t read and now quite like, and an incredibly handy set of magnets. I carefully forced the system to curate out anything I was likely to already know about, or things that didn’t apply to me. The end result is that, for a while, I was getting very well-targeted, very accurate ads. Unfortunately, for a while I stopped purchasing anything but gifts for other people, which badly skewed the data and caused my ads to become far less accurate.

What’s interesting to me isn’t having the ads remind me about things I already knew, but the introduction of things I didn’t know existed and quite enjoy.

We are, collectively, very suspicious of marketing, I think because it taps into our latent distaste for having another person manipulate and affect our wants and desires– marketing is in many ways applied psychology, after all. Yet, despite this, we are beholden to marketing for its ability to introduce us to new things that we love and are fascinated by, both because we’d never hear about them otherwise and because for every new thing that’s created and we love, our handy technology, our favorite games, the movies and TV shows we obsess over, someone had to “sell” that idea to someone else.

It’s why I’m hesitant to think of marketing as “evil”, even though there are plenty of things done that are questionably ethical at best.

Difficult situation, and it puts me in mind of how people generally feel about free will. We as humans have far less free will than we like to believe, but the best way to ensure we can exercise it is to accept that we’re not as free-willed as we think.

Titan’s Fall, and MMOs

So, Blizzard officially cancelled Titan. What a strange world we live in, that the cancellation of a never-announced game is newsworthy.

In this case, however, I think it might be. There’s some small amount of information out about what Titan actually was, and I feel like the description is really telling. I’ll try to sum up the description in an elevator pitch:

Titan is The Secret World meets Team Fortress meets Superman, only you’re a butcher or a chef or a businessman that leads a secret double life in a post-alien invasion sci-fi world.

The game designer in me just cringed. It’s a bunch of neat ideas all mashed together, and from the press release and talk about “not finding the fun”, it’s not terribly surprising to me that it was ultimately cancelled. As a general rule, if a game is actually several games all at once right from the start, there’s probably going to be problems in development.

What I think the cancellation of Titan (and its very confusing-sounding descriptions) speaks to is the uncertainty in the MMO side of game development. MMOs are fickle, and their players both moreso and less so at the same time. “More of the same” has become a damning term among players, and the things that the MMO offered to players are becoming available elsewhere, in different forms.

At one point, at and before the launch of WoW, being able to easily play games online with your friends was a novelty. If you wanted a stable server for your CounterStrike clan, you were probably paying for it. MMOs were huge worlds that you could play in with your friends, and promised months or years of entertainment for you. A big part of the reason so many MMOs were released (and almost certainly why they were so promising-looking to investors) was less “chasing the WoW jackpot” and more the almost-assured return on investment as players played them for months or years. Consider the number of MMOs that have actually shut down– it’s a very small number and games that you may not even remember are still up and running. Ultima Online is celebrating 17 years this week, as an example, meaning that there is an MMO out that may well be older than some of its players.

Now, the drop-off in an MMO after even a single month is devastating, and three and six months are further hits that companies prepare for. I suspect that there are a couple of things happening with that. As mentioned above, the novelty of easy multiplayer games has dropped off significantly, from being surprising and exciting to being an expected feature in nearly every released AAA game. The same is largely true of a lot of other “standard” MMO features, enough so that the genre gets a lot of criticism for being stagnant.

I’m not sure I disagree with the criticism. There is a lot of conceptual space in the MMO genre that hasn’t been explored outside of niche titles, and one of the problems with a niche title is that the lack of resources for such things means that the end product is often buggy or otherwise problematic– see Darkfall, Fallen Earth, and a variety of other niche MMOs. The tried-and-true approach with relatively small variances works well for the games industry at large, as frequent release cycles and short game lifespans mean small variances add up over time, such that the Call of Duty you buy this year is fairly noticably different from the one you bought five years ago, but the changes have been incremental enough that you notice them without the game alienating you.

With their longer development and life cycles, MMOs move along this path much more slowly, and the infrequent development cycle and longer intended lifespans mean that risks are extremely concerning– a project that takes a risk on a year of development is one thing, a project that takes a risk on 5 or more years of development can be catastrophic. I feel like that’s why we see relatively few risks taken on MMO projects, and I’d hazard a guess that most of the ones we do see have some interesting stories behind them and were almost certainly highly contentious during development.

I feel like, particularly with the cancellation of Titan and the rocky releases of the last few MMOs (the two most recent being Wildstar and Archeage), we’re unlikely to see a whole lot new appearing in the MMO sphere anytime soon. I think the next thing for the genre is going to be a significant departure from what we’re used to, and what shape that will take I can’t say, but I don’t think the current model for MMOs has, in hindsight, been terribly sustainable, and moving forward the genre will need to find new ways of distinguishing itself as an experience worth having.

Abolishing Levelling

Yesterday I talked about endgame, and why it’s problematic. I’d like to go into a bit more detail about that.

Ask any devoted player of online multiplayer games with levelling systems, and you’re extremely likely to hear phrases like “the game really starts at X”, where X is a level (often max level), or “it really starts at endgame”. It’s a very common sentiment. Generally, this is paired with a disdain for the levelling process, because that isn’t the “real” game. Ask Kodra about levelling in games; he absolutely hates it, and the quickest way to get him to quit a game is to leave him a few levels behind and make him feel like he needs to catch up. He seeks the endgame, where the “real” content is. I also have a variety of friends who relish the levelling process, and for whom the endgame is mainly dead air, with little interesting going on. I understand (and agree with) both viewpoints.

Levelling, by which I mean the process in which you gain experience points that increase your “level” and therefore power by some arbitrary value, is generally thought of as the best way to show progress. You want to feel like you’re getting more powerful as you progress through the game, and “level” is a handy shorthand for this process. I believe it’s toxic.

In classic RPGs, little mattered other than your level. An increase in level raises your base stats, allowing you to hit harder, live longer, and do more. This eventually graduated to unlocking abilities– achieving a certain (again, largely arbitrary) level allowed you to use a new ability, which is always fun and can change how you play the game, sometimes drastically. This evolved further during the MMO era, where level became tied to equipment. Without achieving a certain level, equipment would be closed off to you. Any deviation from this level-based progression is almost always met with extreme hostility within the industry– “how do we make it clear that you’re progressing?” is the common question, with the undertone of “no answer you provide will satisfy, this discussion is over”.

It’s a valid concern, but I think an unfounded one. Levelling is merely shorthand for increased power. What we need is to ensure that playing the game makes you feel like your power is increasing, and that those increases in power are messaged clearly enough to make them feel meaningful. It’s worth noting, most games already do this, it’s just additionally locked behind this trapping of some overall “level”.

We want to increase in power on a variety of axes:

  1. Abilities: We want to do new, cool things.
  2. Equipment: We want to have newer, shinier equipment.
  3. Base Stats: We want to be stronger, smarter, faster, sturdier.
  4. Power Relative to Enemies: We want to fight harder enemies, and we want to see the enemies that were once hard become easy.
  5. Cosmetics: We want to look cooler (often tied to equipment).
  6. Customizability: We want to tailor ourselves to how we like to play, and differentiate ourselves from other players.
  7. Freedom: We want to be able to go more places and do more things.

Consider how many of these are tied to a single bar, a straight line from 1 to 50, or 20, or 90, whatever the maximum level is. Furthermore, consider that a major complaint of players is that there “isn’t enough to do”. This complaint doesn’t surprise me at all. We have these seven different things that don’t really have a lot to do with one another (with the exception of #4, which is inextricably tied to 1, 2, 3, and sometimes 6), and they’re pretty much all tied to a single bar. If they aren’t tied to that one bar, they’re tied to a different one: currency (where you see most of the cosmetic stuff).

We’re wasting our content by oversimplifying it to a single, unchanging slider. Each one of those could easily be a separate progression, where one day you’re working on a new sword, another day you’re increasing your strength, and the day after you’re practicing a new type of feint.

I spent a bunch of time blasting Destiny yesterday for what it does wrong, let me return to it and talk about what it does right. Progression in Destiny, to a point, is fantastic. Almost every weapon has a small progression path; as you use it it gets more powerful, and when you inevitably replace it, you have another set of (often different) unlocks to pursue. Your abilities increase independently of your level, and continue past maximum level– indeed, three-quarters of the way through the level progression, you unlock what is essentially an entirely different class with its own set of abilities that you can unlock, that can play very differently from your core class. As you unlock new abilities, you have more and more choices in terms of your customizability. The major weakness of this system is that the progression is entirely linear– you can’t choose what you want to work on next.

Levelling in Destiny is fun. You’re constantly unlocking upgrades, getting new abilities, getting the option to change the abilities you don’t like, and tweaking things as you get more powerful. All of this can be changed on the fly, so options = power. Equipment itself has a similar progression, and you

Final Fantasy games have been doing this for ages as well– FFX’s Sphere Grid, FF7’s Materia, essentially everything in FFTactics, all of these are progression paths that are much more interesting and engaging than the linear levelled path that passively increases raw stats.

Determining the overall “level” of the player can simply be a weighted average of their levels in everything else– some combination of their stats, their gear, their abilities, and how any or all of those things have been upgraded. It’s a more honest indicator of power anyway– how many MMO players have entered a dungeon at max level and seen the difference between a “fresh level 50” and a seasoned raiding vet? The difference is massive, and the level is (at that point) not an honest indicator of power.

There’s an additional bonus to this sort of philosophy, as well. Without a central, core “level” that dictates stats and player power, the overall power curve of the game can be a lot flatter. A level 1 enemy need not be effectively irrelevant to a level 60 player. Destiny does this rather well– a level 28 Warlock in legendary gear may flatten level 1 Dregs in the Cosmodrome with contemptuous ease, but enough of them will still force her to take cover, and their shots aren’t entirely irrelevant. She doesn’t need to play with as much skill to beat them, but she does need to play.

As a result of this, it’s entirely possible to play with players of varying level, and indeed, even find strong ways of normalizing level. Monsters can be min-maxed for their apparent level, giving depth to encounters, and players banding together can take down enemies stronger than they are but still be threatened by enemies weaker than they are, particularly depending on where they’ve focused their progression. Anything that reduces the barrier to players playing together with their friends is a good thing. EvE Online has a very interesting take on this– even very new players are valuable to the high-end EvE ecosystem because they can quickly specialize in useful skills– flying small fighters while other player pilot massive battlecruisers, but still contributing in interesting ways to the fight. A new player is not necessarily simply deadweight, and can play with their more experienced friends.

Note that nowhere here do I recommend abolishing progression; I’m looking for it to be broader, more nuanced, and more engaging.

Let’s abolish level as the core determinant of character power, and watch as our systems become deeper and more nuanced as a result.


The “endgame”, as it is known, is what you play in a persistent world once you have reached max level, completed the game’s story, or whatever other accomplishment denotes the end of the game’s content. This is a rant about Destiny.

In Destiny, there are twenty levels of content, broadly speaking. You level up at a fairly reasonable pace, unlocking more difficult (read: higher-level) missions, new planets, etc. Reaching level 20 more or less coincides with the end of the game’s story missions, which are an issue unto themselves which I won’t go into here. Afterwards, you can work your way to level 30 by way of gear upgrades. This is, broadly, the same as the standard MMO model– reach max level, progression is tied to your gear rather than your experience bar.

Destiny’s content is not terribly varied; the environments are varied, but the missions themselves tend to be very standard “go here, shoot this” fare, and the enemies differ only slightly from one another. This is not inherently a problem; the variance in the enemies is enough to keep the different types distinct and interesting to fight, the levels are relatively quick, so they don’t feel like slogs, and while the missions could be a bit more inspired, the gunplay is fun. Playing various missions to upgrade your gear is, theoretically, quite a lot of fun.

In Destiny, it’s misery. Gear can be upgraded via one of two methods: random drops (which are entirely random, every mob has an apparently equal chance of dropping gear, regardless of level) and reputation/currency grinding, wherein you accumulate alternative currencies and spend them on gear, once you are of the requisite reputation level. The grind portion is hours of play, estimates suggest 20 or so hours of play per faction to hit rank 2, if you’re dedicatedly focused on that rep. Each faction has different items, and there are 3-4 factions… you can do the math. Random drops take the form of “engrams”, which are basically randomly dropped objects that can be turned into random items of varying quality. A random drop for a random drop is a system worthy of mockery.

These items that you may or may not get have a stat on them called “Light”, which does nothing other than increase your effective level. These items can be upgraded to occasionally grant more Light, and a new piece of equipment is, of course, not fully levelled. Upgrading nicer gear also requires exp to make the upgrade available as well as resources to actually acquire the upgrade, both of which require (you guessed it) grinding, often a lot.

Destiny’s endgame can be summed up thus: Grind for drops/rep in order to grind for gear exp in order to grind for materials to upgrade your gear. There are no shortcuts, and there are no guaranteed drops anywhere in this process. Do the same content repeatedly, at increasingly harder difficulties (with modifiers, most of which translate into “you die more easily”), and grind, grind, grind.

This is, fundamentally, not that much different from other games. After all, Diablo and Borderlands work on this model, many MMOs work on this model, any number of F2P games work on an even more egregious form of this model (where you pay real money to open up your random boxes). What makes Destiny different?

As with many things, it comes down to pacing. The primary difference between the older, roundly hated Diablo 3 and the more recent, post-expansion, rather enjoyable version is the frequency and quality of drops. In their game where progression was bounded by loot drops, increasing the frequency of quality drops made the game more fun, because progression was more tangible. They also took a page from MMOs, and made a handful of bosses reliably and consistently drop the highest quality items; this is a function of many MMO dungeons and raids– while you might not get exactly the item you need, SOMETHING of value will drop (even if it’s not for you). When drops are considered worthless, they tend to be mocked (see: Vendorstrike, from Vanilla WoW).

Final Fantasy XIV is the other game I’ve been playing lately, and their approach to endgame is starkly different. FFXIV has an astoundingly huge, highly elaborate set of interlocking systems, all of which you can work on at any given time. Some of these, if focused on exclusively, are highly grindy, but at any given moment there are a massive variety of options. If you are grinding at something, it’s not for lack of something else to do (unless you’ve already done everything, which is daunting for even the most highly dedicated players). The worst parts of FFXIV’s endgame are the parts where the grinding is unavoidable; if you don’t like repetitive tasks, you will be incredibly bored.

One of the things I’m looking for in my entertainment is engagement. I don’t watch TV almost at all, because I don’t find it engaging. There are countless things I can do with my time that keep my mind working and my senses alert. Grinding is a great way to turn off my brain, but turning off my brain is the last thing I want to do in my leisure time. FFXIV keeps me engaged, and when it doesn’t or when I’m not feeling it, I don’t play it. Destiny was fairly engaging throughout the levelling process, when I was gaining new abilities regularly and seeing new story missions, but on the whole it’s presented me a more or less unchanging grind with increasing diminishing returns, only now I’ve run out of new things to see. The moment to moment gameplay is fun, but I’m not feeling a point. By comparison, its primary competition (FFXIV) has much less compelling moment-to-moment gameplay, but I feel like there’s a point and that, by and large, the game respects my time.

I think that the concept of “endgame” is incredibly problematic, and it’s clear that a lot of games don’t really know how to handle it.

I think the solution is abolishing “levelling”, but that’s a complex topic, likely for tomorrow.

“Traditional” Healing: Part 2

I spent last week blasting the “traditional” healing style, talking about a variety of things it does wrong and not a lot of time talking about how to make it better. Today I’d like to talk about that latter part.

Before I get into that, I want to talk about a concept called “player fantasy”, which is extremely important for the discussion here. Player Fantasy is largely what it sounds like– the fantasy that players have about themselves. When Halo drops you into a battlefield as Master Chief, it is fulfilling the player fantasy of the unstoppable futuristic military hero. When Beyond Good and Evil drops you into the shoes of Jade, it is fulfilling the fantasy of the spy, the reporter, the explorer, the powerful woman, the capable investigator, etc. Games that are predicated on playing a character (so, generally not puzzle games) tend to draw broader audiences based on how many player fantasies they address and fulfill. MMOs specifically tend to cater to a very broad range of player fantasies– this is why one of the things that people will praise/criticize about MMOs right off the bat is the number of classes they have/lack. One of the best new additions to the new D&D is the very wide breadth of player fantasies covered in the basic player’s handbook, accomplishable without complicated multiclassing.

So, back to healers. My critique focused on the healer glass ceiling– their value to the party drops off sharply at the point where they’re no longer restoring lost health, and at that point the gap between a barely passable (but still passable) healer and an exemplary one is functionally nonexistent. In the current paradigm, healers are only capable of showcasing exemplary skill when another party member fails at their job and something in the group goes wrong; they are effectively invisible otherwise.

I consider any situation that makes a player effectively invisible to their party members a bad situation. It means that they are largely incapable of praise except in the event of someone else’s failure, and responsible for blame if things do go wrong. This is blatantly apparent in the behavior of players towards their healers, especially in random matchmade groups.

I suggest that the traditional healers gain the ability to showcase their skills in a standard group, when things are going well. At this point, I bring in player fantasy. The immediate answer is “well, healers can just DPS if they don’t need to be healing”, but the problem with this is that a devoted healer’s DPS is going to be terrible, for balance reasons, and that DPS is counter to the “support the party” player fantasy of the traditional healer. A great many players playing healers find damaging enemies directly at odds with their feelings about their group role, which is a big reason why healers like Rift’s Chloromancer tend to be rare and not played as often, and why if they come out mathematically ahead in a patch cycle, they come under harsh criticism.

Instead, any skill increase should directly focus on the supporting aspects of the traditional healer. I’ll use the FFXIV White Mage as an example. Here is a peek at the White Mage’s abilities:

Cure – basic single-target heal, has a small chance to make Cure 2 free

Cure 2 – more powerful but less efficient single-target heal, has a chance to halve the cost of Cure 3

Cure 3 – powerful heal (but not as powerful as Cure 2) that heals in a small aoe around the target, also very expensive

Regen – instant cast, powerful heal-over-time

Stoneskin – powerful “bubble” shield with a long cast time

Shroud of Saints – threat reduction and mana regeneration

Benediction – instant cast, full heal on a long cooldown

Presence of Mind – short-duration buff that vastly increases casting speed

Medica – point-blank AoE heal

Medica 2 – point-blank AoE heal that also has a heal-over-time component, more overall healing than Medica 1, slightly less up-front

What I see here are a whole bunch of fairly redundant abilities with, at best, cornercase use cases based solely on raw number crunching. If everyone in the group is at full health, few if any of these spells are useful and the White Mage turns to their relatively meager DPS additions, or just stands around and waits to be needed.

I’d want to alter these to something more active. Three direct heals with the same speed and varying sizes is excessive, even with the small adds they provide. Medica is made nearly obsolete by Medica 2 except in extreme group damage situations where the inefficiency of wasting the heal-over-time is a concern. Cure is the bread-and-butter spell, cast the vast majority of the time unless a low-chance proc occurs.

By comparison, Bendiction, Stoneskin, Regen, and Shroud of Saints are interesting spells. One is a powerful “oh shit” button, another is a proactive damage preventative, another is highly efficient and very useful for both additional healing and fire-and-forget heals over a period of time, and the last is a powerful utility button whose dual-purpose fits nicely into a healer’s needs.

What is entirely lacking in these abilities is any sort of function other than “low health/not low health” that is noticeable for anyone other than the healer. Tanks notice their incoming damage, DPS notices their outgoing damage, mostly neither notices the healer’s work unless something goes wrong and they die (blame point for healer). There is no point where they can go “oh man awesome!” due to a healer’s actions (praise point for healers). The only possible praise point for a healer is when someone does not die who, by all rights, should have, at which point praising the healer for keeping them alive is equivalent to them admitting that they failed. In the eyes of the party, there is no healer success without blame, which is a huge problem.

I propose tying healer support functions to the outputs that the other party members notice. An ability like WoW’s Bloodlust (massive groupwide damage output buff) should be the sole purview of healers. Short-duration performance spikes should be directly attributable to the healer, but ideally easy to use.

Here’s an alternate presentation of those abilities that I’d like better:

Cure, when cast on a target with one of your HOTs, has an increased potency, provides a temporary buff that boosts Cure 2. Can consume its own buff to provide a short-duration damage buff to the target, if the target is overhealed
Cure 2 remains largely the same, will consume the above buff to refresh the duration of Regen,  provides a temporary buff that boosts Cure 3
Cure 3, also remains largely the same, consumes the Cure 2 buff to reduce mana cost and makes your next Stoneskin free and instant
Stoneskin, largely unchanged, restores mana over time when it expires
Medica, as it is now, gains a trait to add the HoT (previously provided by Medica 2) at later levels
Medica 2, now instant cast with a higher cost, consumes Medica’s HoT for potency boost proportional to the remaining duration of the HoT, if targets are overhealed they get a damage boost

Most of the abilities are fundamentally unchanged, but there’s an escalation that both benefits the White Mage and their party, providing resource efficiency for the White Mage and noticeable offensive buffs for the rest of the party (provided they’ve kept themselves healthy enough to receive them).

This is a quick, flash-in-the-pan design, but the overall philosophy is to provide more opportunities for healers to add more noticeable benefits to their party without either significantly raising the basic skill level necessary to succeed at a base level or breaking the player fantasy of the devoted healer. A passable healer should not need to use all of the functionality just to achieve basic competence, much like DPS classes may not be juggling every cooldown and perfectly executing every combo and maintaining every debuff to be competent at a basic level, but a truly exemplary healer, like a truly exemplary DPS, can shine.

“Traditional” Healing: A Critique

Time for me to step on some toes. The traditional healer design in MMOs is a bad design. A bunch of people just got upset and don’t know why (because they don’t read my blog) at this statement, because it’s their favorite class, the one they’re the most comfortable with, everyone loves them on it, etc etc.

Let me clarify the statement. By “traditonal healer”, I’m talking about a healing class that is primarily reactive, filling up health bars as they deplete and attempting to do so without running out of [resource], which is its own bar that depletes. By “bad design”, I mean several things– it’s a dead end, it messages badly, it doesn’t reward players well, and it limits players of high skill.

Consider a few (very common) scenarios:

1.) A traditional healer at an appropriate gear level is in a group with one or more undergeared characters, one of which is the tank.

2.) A traditional healer is undergeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

3.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is otherwise appropriately geared.

4.) A traditional healer is overgeared, in a group that is undergeared.

5.) A traditional healer is undergeared or appropriately geared, in a group that is otherwise overgeared.

In scenario 1, the healer is likely going to struggle. Reactive healing will create some issues, as the tank’s HP is going to swing wildly from full to critically low at a much faster rate than expected. A healer might be able to struggle through this, but will be under a lot more stress than the rest of the group (they’ll be carrying the party). If anyone does anything wrong and takes avoidable damage, the healer will likely be unable to catch up. Consider how similar this looks to scenario 4– the overgeared healer in scenario 4 is also carrying the group, and is probably powerful enough to make up for the shortcomings and mistakes of the rest of the party. There is no real way to know which situation this is until you actually try it (though occasionally it’ll be blindingly obvious). Note that the same is true in scenario 2, though the lack of incoming healing will likely be more obvious. Essentially, the healer’s situation here is binary: either the party lives or it does not, and only in scenario 2, where the healer’s knowledge of his or her own limits would allow them to make sense of the situation, is the healer the active decider of success or failure.

Now look at scenarios 3 and 5. Odds are very good that in both of these, the healer may be bored or otherwise undertasked, either because their excess power is going to waste (scenario 3) or because the group needs them less (scenario 4). Again, the healer’s agency is diminished because once the party has reached a certain threshold (either not needing the healer’s full power or diminishing the need for the healer due to their own excess power), the healer is less and less useful. A group that is powerful enough obviates the need for a healer entirely, though rarely can a healer be so powerful as to obviate the need for a group.

All of this is to point out that the traditional reactive healer lacks agency. If your only output is ensuring that health bars are full, then when health bars are full you are unnecessary until they deplete, and if they don’t deplete at a rate requiring your intervention, your spot in the group is better served by, say, more DPS. Similarly, the healer’s threshold for skill is limited by the health pools of their party members– fine-tuning your heals to be hyper-efficient is only relevant if you run the risk of running out of resources.

Compare this to the standard “tank” or “dps” paradigms– as these roles get better gear and more skill, their agency also increases, and as their power increases the effect their power has on the overall experience increases, often without bound. As a player gets more and more skilled and ekes out more and more performance, they can often materially alter the experience, generally by noticably increasing speed.

More modern healers do this as well, usually through the use of DPS abilities that also assist the healer in solo play, though I would argue that this is a substitution, rather than a natural extension of the healer’s support-oriented role. Tanks often have this issue as well, though they too can trade tanking functionality for damage, and this is generally a more natural extension of their role (as tanks are interacting directly with the enemy, whereas healers generally aren’t).

Offensive buffs, in my view, should be primarily the purview of the healers, a natural extension of their support role that also allows for a higher skill cap. Smart use of offensive buffs allows the healer to support the party on more than one axis, extending the class past simply “keeping everyone alive” and into “helping everyone perform at their best”. This also helps to solve the messaging problem, where a healer of barely passable skill can be differentiated from a healer of exemplary skill.

Worth noting: healers that primarily heal via damaging enemies (see: Rift’s Chloromancer) have much higher skill caps, though this design isn’t as refined as the more traditional healer (and furthermore doesn’t suit a great many players who are looking for a pure support role).

I’ve spent a bunch of time bashing the traditional healer design here, I’ll try to balance it out with some designs that solve the problems I see. If you’re a big fan of the traditional healer, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts!