Thursday, May 28, 2009


Welcome to my blog. I will be discussing “A” list Massives aimed at the American and European market, such as EverQuest®, Dark Age of Camelot®, World of Warcraft®, Lord of the Rings Online®, Eve Online®, Warhammer Online®, etc. Today I will be focusing on Fairness in Massives.

One of the hot topics on game forums is Balance. That is, one character class should be equal but different than another character class. At first glance this is reasonable and Fair. Another hot topic is that all players should get to see all the content of a game. Again, at first glance this seems Fair. In addition to these and similar concerns, the concept of Fairness influences much more of game design that you might think. Today I am going to show you where Fairness meets game design and hopefully get you to challenge some of the assumptions both designers and players make. But first a trip back in time to the year 1066.

The Cleric

In EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, World of Warcraft and others, the character class The Cleric is a healer who heals with divine power and fights with a mace (or club). Why a mace, why not a sword or an axe? I could not find any mythology featuring a fighting healer who could not use an edged weapon. Finally I came to this image from The Bayeux Tapestry, a contemporary artwork showing William the Conqueror’s version of his conquest of England in 1066.

In this image we see William’s half-brother Odo. William made Odo bishop of Bayeux in 1049. In the image above you can clearly see Bishop Odo is wielding a club. Some believe that Odo was trying to get around the Biblical proscription on spilling blood by bashing his enemy’s heads in. That interpretation is certainly in line with what is known of Odo’s unsavory character. However, Odo is too little known to have inspired The Cleric class.

So I stopped looking in mythology and history and instead looked in modern literature and arts. I found Friar Tuck. In modern retellings of the tale of Robin Hood, Friar Tuck is often depicted as pulling a club from somewhere under his tunic and administering some rough justice when needed. This was particularly prominent in the 1955 TV series of Robin Hood. What makes this interesting is that producers of the 1955 series hired English historians as consultants. These historians most certainly knew of Odo and may have influenced the portrayal of Friar Tuck.

So when Dungeons & Dragons® is first conceived, it is not improbable that the designer, consciously or unconsciously remembered seeing the TV series Robin Hood in his childhood and from that was born the Cleric Class who could not use edged weapons. So something we all know as gamers and designers, clerics can not use edged weapons, can be traced back to a single frame from the Bayeux Tapestry, made over 900 years ago.

I started off with this discussion about clerics because we all just accept that clerics use maces and clubs only. Luckily that actually works well for design purposes. However there are many elements of game design that we currently just accept that should be challenged and in many cases changed.

Pen and Pencil > Single Player > Massives

Pen and Pencil. Our particular part of the game industry started with pen and pencil (pnp) games like Dungeons and Dragons® and Traveller®. Typically these games were played with a small group of 4 to 6 player, with a GameMaster (gm). According to Wikipedia “the Gamemaster’s purpose is to weave the other participants' player-character stories together, control the non-player aspects of the game, and create environments in which the players can interact.” A good GM can moderate the environment depending on the player-characters gathered together for a particular session. For example, if a rogue that was much lower level than the rest of the group were to join, a GM could add traps and locks and such to include the rogue.

In very broad terms, pnp is a small group, shared, cooperative, moderated game experience. A player is responsible for the story of his player-character. If a player misses a session, the other players will bring him up to date. Player-characters are not expected to be equal in any sense, they are just expected to positively add to the group. There is no winning in pnp as there is in more traditional games.

Single Player. The Ultima series is one of the best known single player game series. According to Wikipedia “[Ultima I] was one of the first definitive commercial computer RPGs, and is considered an important and influential turning point for the development of the genre throughout years to come.” Ultima VII “The Black Gate” was released in 1992 and is an early example of a mature single player game. In Black Gate a player controlls one player-character and gives orders to 8 (non-player character or npc) members of his group. Ultima has a unique character creation system. A more typical system allows a player to select a player-character’s class and statistics (stats).

A single player game is not a shared experience. Designers simulate the shared group experience by having npcs group with the player-character. In very broad terms, the game story is revealed to the player as his player-character progresses through the game. A player expects to experience the full story and win the game regardless of the initial condition of his player-character. A single-player game has a limited play time. That is from character creation to winning a player spends 40-60 hours playing a typical game.

Massives. Massives are influenced by the pen and pencil games and the single-player games, which came before them. Perhaps the major difference is that Massives are competitive games. Where pnp is about a small group of friends going through cooperative adventures together, and single player games are a solo experience, current Massives for a lot of players are about who has the best gear, who is in the best guild, who has experienced the highest dungeons, etc. So a player may find cooperative play within his groups of friends, he will feel he is in competition with most other players.

Current Massives are very derivative of each other, with new Massives making evolutionary not revolutionary changes. So the early Massives, Ultima Online, EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot have strongly influenced current Massive design. Now these early Massives had a different type of player base. When Massives were new and not mainstream they attracted Challenge (competitive) players as I discussed in “Casual vs. Hardcore.” These early game designers knew they had to cater to these competitive players. And what is the one thing that competitive players want? Fairness.

Where a pnp gm can modify a dungeon crawl to accommodate a lower level character and single player games like Pools of Radiance can alter the difficulty of encounters based on the strength of a group, that would be considered unfair in a competitive game. A competitive player would be happy to bet on which particular sugar cube a fly will land on. They will find things to be competitive about that designers couldn’t dream of. As long as there is fair competition they are happy.

The desire to make Massives Fair pervades most game systems, which I will discuss below. Fairness, particularly as implemented in current Massives is not necessarily a good thing, and the systems I describe below are not the only way to design a game. Just as Bishop Odo influences our cleric characters, so does game decisions made when the industry was new. As designers we need to challenge our assumptions about how games should be made and only use systems that work for us.

Fairness & Story

Players that come to Massives from single player games expect a similar experience to what they had in a single player game. They expect to experience the game story from start to finish. This in large part has lead to the creation of the unchanging (static) worlds that comprise most current Massives.

Challenge players want a fair game. Risk® is not a fair game. At the start, cards are randomly dealt which determine where a player’s armies start. Chess is a fair game as it always starts the same. Risk is random, chess is static. Note: both risk and chess are very good games.

Static World. In a static world a Player uncovers the story through doing quests, exploring and generally interacting with the world. Except for special occasions, such as Warhammer Online®’s live events, these quests and such are unchanging. A player that joins the game on opening day has a similar experience as a player that joins the game one year later. The ultimate expression of this Static World is Warhammer Online’s “Tome of Knowledge”. By playing the game pages of this book are unlocked, and the story revealed. All players have a chance to unlock all the pages of the book.

I do not want to imply that Static Worlds are not good games. They can be. And, they can be a great place for a new Massive player to get a start. My point is that Static Worlds are not the only way to make a game. The main challenges to a non-static game are involving a new player, catching the new player up on the story to date, informing a player of what happened in his absence and keeping the competitive players happy and/or perhaps designing a cooperative game without the need for competitive players.

Seeing all the content. World of Warcraft® brought a lot of new players into Massives. A lot of these new players were drawn from single-player games. These players expressed a desire not seen in earlier games that is they paid their money and they had a “right” to see all the content. With each expansion WoW has accommodated these players more and more. To me, that is a good way to get new people involved. That does not mean your game needs to accommodate them. Note: if you are not going to make a traditional game, it is up to you to educate your potential players before they purchase your game. A long open beta is a great place to educate potential players.

Fairness Everywhere

Fairness, or the expectations of competitive gamers and single-player gamers get into every part of Massives. Just one example is movement speed. Generally all characters move at the same speed. The big heavy troll in full plate armor runs at the same speed as the elf with a bit of cloth on. (Note: in EverQuest character’s speed could be slowed down due to the weight of stuff in their backpacks.) You could consider everyone moving the same speed as fair, and it does make designing game mechanics such as combat easier. On the other hand it is unrealistic and having player-characters, or even all characters move at different speeds may add an interesting complexity to a game.

I’m going to briefly mention other areas where fairness may get in the way of good game design. I may get into more detail in a future discussion.

Fairness & Player-Characters

Players coming from single-player games have an expectation that their player-character will be competitive in all aspects of the game. In World of Warcraft this is one of the biggest problems identified by players, that their player-character is not as good in one aspect of the game as another. This leads to player unhappiness and massive amounts of developer time to balance the different player-characters. For example in WoW a rogue is very desirable for player vs. player, but not as desirable for end-game raid content. I feel that all Massives could be improved with a more robust character selection process, along with a full disclosure of a player-character strengths and weakness.

WoW and most others use a class-based system. That is a player-character has a specific set of skills, based upon the class chosen, such as a Priest, Mage, Warrior. Asheron’s Call (AC) used a skill-based system, where all players had a option to mix and match skills. In AC this led to many players using the same build, which defeats the design intent of having a broad range of characters.

Keep in mind what your potential subscribers want from a game from day one of design. If you use a class-based system, which is relatively easy to design, you are committing your live team to spending a lot of resources keeping the classes balanced. A hybrid skill/class system may be one way to go. Another would be educating your player base, that not all player characters are the same. There are other methods of differentiating characters as well.

Fairness & Player vs. Player (pvp)

I will focus on Battlegrounds (BGs), which is a mini-game of WoW. In these BGs, an equal number of opposing players fight each other on a mirrored map, for equal objectives. Basically the BGs are variations of capture the flag. At first glance the BGs I’ve described sound fair, equal number of players, equal maps, equal objectives. However, there may be wide variations in character level, character classes, character gear and character skill on the two sides. In the smaller BGs 10 vs. 10 players or 15 vs. 15 players, one side may lack a needed class, and is doomed to failure from the start. In my opinion, most BGs start off with an unfair advantage to one side.

One method to resolve this unfairness would be to have a more robust BG matching system. WoW in fact tried this, but the system not only did not alleviate unfair teams, it also added additional time before matches were found causing players to wait for their BGs an unreasonable amount of time.

I think the way to start is to move away from the position that a mirrored map and even number teams makes a fair game. I think a better game can be made if we start our design with the knowledge that no game is completely fair. Even in chess, a completely mirrored game, the player that moves first has an advantage. Let’s start our thinking with we will design a game that is fair-ish.

If we throw away the mirrored map we can move away from a static map to say a randomly generated fair-ish map, such as Ensemble Studios used in their Age of Empires® game series. If a disparity between the two sides were found, perhaps the weaker side could be given a terrain advantage of some sort. I’m just throwing some ideas around, but the point is a better system fits the players to the game.

Now there are many different types of military maneuvers, which could be turned into BGs. One of the problems I see is that the majority of current game designers come from a D&D background, and not a wargame background. And that is why we have multiple variations of capture the flag, and no BGs where one side is tasked with military maneuvers such as a reconnaissance-in-force, or refuse flank. If you don’t have a wargame background, add someone who owns a copy of David G. Chandler’s “The Campaigns of Napoleon” to your team.

To Sum Up
Our potential subscribers expect Fairness in a game. If we let our subscribers define what is fair we are not doing our job as designers. We want our games to be fair-ish. We need to educate our subscribers on our game’s version of fairness and what they can expect before they subscribe. And most importantly, whether it is a class-based character system or mirrored maps, we have to examine every system in our game to make sure what we are doing is right for the game, and not because it is how the other guy did it

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