Monday, August 3, 2009

Game Design Day Two: Penalties

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. I will be discussing game design from the abstract to the specific. Today I will be discussing Player Penalties, such as character death penalties.

Why talk about Penalties early in game design? Game play influences character penalties and vice versa. For example: in Planetside® a character is expected to die a lot. Therefore the character death penalty is very short, and a player is back in the game quickly after dying. EverQuest (EQ) was originally designed so that a character death was a rare occurrence, which influenced EQ to have a very severe death penalty.

Interesting read: Chris Bateman on Time and Punishment.

Early in the design process you should have a foggy picture of both game play and penalties. The problem comes in if you assume consciously or unconsciously that your penalties should be similar to World of Warcraft (WoW) or some other game, and let that assumption drive your game play design. Easy penalties make a lot of sense for a beginner game such as WoW. There are good reasons to have hard penalties, see my discussion “Casual vs Hardcore.”


We are all familiar with death penalties in Massives. At the level cap in vanilla EQ the death penalty for a caster was 20+ minutes. In vanilla WoW this penalty was reduced to just a couple minutes in most cases. The death penalty is the most noticeable and most important influence on game play. There are other penalties in Massives other then the death penalty. Any restriction in game play can be considered a penalty of sorts.

Bag Space. The ability to carry and store items is restricted in most Massives. In Planetside this meant a character could run out of ammunition, so had to be aware of ammo expenditure. In WoW a character has to balance the desire to carry beneficial items such as food and potions, additional gear, and still have empty bag space to loot items.

Movement Speed. Vanilla EQ had a weight associated with items. Once items in a player bags went over a certain weight, a character moved slower.

Instance Lockouts and Resets. Some Massives have restrictions on how long a party can take to complete an instance, and how soon a new instance may be opened.

Gold Sinks. This is a bit of a grey area. To me a mount in WoW is a gold sink. While mounts are not technically necessary for game play, it is something most players want. Another example would be potions. Potions are necessary to be competitive in War. Some players feel penalized if they must take time from their preferred form of game play, to acquire game-money items such as mounts, or potions.

Spawn Location. After death, a character typically spawns (comes back to life) in a different location from where he died. In WoW, a character spawns in the nearest graveyard as a ghost and must choose between running back to their body or paying a fee and accepting a stat loss for a few minutes. In War, a character spawns at the nearest camp with a stat penalty that he can remove for a bit of in-game money. In vanilla EQ a character spawned at a location a player previously set without gear and spells. A character had to run back to their body to retrieve their gear. The further a player is from their spawn point when they die, the longer it takes to get back to where they were, in addition to other death penalties.

Experience. Getting an experience bonus for a character being in a “rested state” has become the norm. In WoW beta a “tired state” with an experience penalty was tried, but not implemented in the live game. A quick side note, penalties can have intended or unintended consequences. Rested experience makes leveling up alternate characters much easier.

Other Penalties. There are lots of other less obvious penalties in current games, such as weapons that can only be used by a certain class or race. Another example is level requirement to enter content. On a personal note, my first Massive was EverQuest. When I took my level four character to Najena, one of the guards said “We don’t like your kind” and beat my character into the ground. That actually hooked me on EQ. Imagine, if instead I got a message, “Level 12 is required to enter this content, access denied.”

Penalties drive Macro Game Play

In vanilla EverQuest the death penalty was severe. Players would lean forward in their seats, one-hundred percent focused on the game during combat. [Of note for another discussion, this focus was balanced by an even larger time of inactivity after combat.] In WoW, with its less severe death penalties, players often multi-task during routine game play; such as watching TV or surfing the web. In Warhammer with its minimal death penalty, players deliberately suicide to quickly get from one side of the zone to another.

Another way to think of macro-game play is to compare it to a workout at the gym. EverQuest would be heavy Interval Training with a trainer yelling at you. WoW and Warhammer would be a light aerobic workout while reading a magazine and listening to mp3s.

As this point is so important, I’m going to try one more time. Dying in EverQuest is like having a bowling ball dropped on your foot. A player gets completely focused in the game so their character will not die and they will not have a bowling ball dropped on their foot. Dying in WoW or Warhammer is more like a housefly briefly landing on your arm.

The death penalty is the overall intensity setting of your game. It is not the only way to set intensity, but it is the most pervasive. The intensity of your game dictates other design decisions. Vanilla EverQuest’s formula (for grind mobs) of two minutes intense combat followed by four minutes recovery, was either inspired design or just lucky, but the combination helped make EQ popular.

Rereading the above I’m sorta wandering around. I’m going to let it stand as I think penalties should be part of the core design process rather than added in as a method of modifying player experience. Let me throw out one example of penalties used to create gameplay in WoW-like massives.

Penalties in WoW-style Dungeon runs

The goal in a WoW-style Dungeon run is to kill a Boss mob, as the Boss mobs drop the best rewards. Blocking access to a Boss is an array of Trash mobs, which drop inferior rewards. After fighting through the Trash mobs, a group stands in front of a Boss and the intensity level goes up a bit as the Boss mob is more challenging to fight than a trash mob.

In some dungeons the trash mobs do not respawn, and so have no impact on intensity level. Other dungeons have trash mobs that respawn behind the players, so that if they fail a Boss fight, they have to fight back through the Trash mobs. This respawn can up the intensity level of a Boss fight a lot, the longer it takes to fight through the Trash Mobs the higher the intensity. As killing Trash mobs is not fun, a player is effectively faced with a potential time penalty when killing Boss mobs.

To me, varying intensities during gameplay is a good thing. Using respawning Trash Mobs as penalties seems… uninspired. Instead
· Have the Boss get harder to fight after each failed attempt,
· Have the Boss drop lesser quality rewards after each failed attempt,
· Have the Boss get into a snit after a failed attempt and retire to a player inaccessible Fortress of Solitude, for a period of time. This penalizes the player while not dictating his subsequent game play.

The point I’m trying to make is recognize when you are penalizing players, why you are penalizing players and review how you are penalizing players.

Penalties drive Micro Game Play

Penalties can drive players to or from content. Consciously or unconsciously players are always evaluating risk vs. reward when deciding what content to experience.

A good example of this is in vanilla WoW. There was only one spawn point in one of the largest zones, “The Barrens.” The content in the very south of the The Barrens involved one of the longest runs from a spawn point in the game. Interestingly enough the content in the South Barrens was in many respects more rewarding in terms of gear and farmed materials than elsewhere in the zone. Yet even though the North Barrens was relatively crowded, South Barrens was under-populated. At some point another spawn point was patched, cutting the run in half, and South Barrens player population went up.

Personally, I liked South Barrens. As a designer I wanted to see the content. As a power gamer there was some gear I wanted from there. As a T-type personality I enjoy high risk - high reward situations. I am not a typical player.

Before a second spawn point was patched in, the content was under used. I think we can say the typical player of WoW (a beginner game) is not only risk adverse, but also seeks a consistent game experience. Therefore, given a choice players will pick the easier area to experience. So as far as content is concerned, a player will rate it by:
· Reward (Exp, Gear, etc.)
· Encounter Prep (Travel time, how long to get a group, acquire appropriate potions and such, etc.)
· Encounter Time (How long to finish a quest, get to a dungeon boss, etc.)
· Difficulty (This is very subjective, and a moving target as it changes as a character gears and/or levels up, but let’s consider it the percentage chance of failure.)
· Risk (Penalty or Penalties for failing the encounter)

Penalties are not fun! Or are they?

Talking about penalties may make you a bit uncomfortable. After all penalties are not fun, and who wants to make a game that is not fun? Look again at the bullet list above. Now, let’s say you got the best reward in the game for a quest that requires a character to walk for 10 seconds and talking to a non-player-character (npc). Not much fun right? Now, let’s add the requirement of grouping up with five of your buddies and traveling through every area in the game world. More fun, yes.

Consider two versions of our revised quest. First, if a character dies while on this quest, he respawns in place after ten seconds. Here we have (High Reward + High Encounter Time + Low Risk) = a low intensity encounter. By putting in whatever time it takes to travel around, a player character is guaranteed to get the reward. Contrast this with a second version, where if a character dies while on this quest he respawns at the start of the quest, and has to travel the world again from the start. In this second version we have (High Reward + High Encounter Time + High Risk) = a high intensity encounter.

Game design is more art than science. Just making an encounter more intense does not necessarily make it more fun, but in this particular case I think you would all agree it would. So in this little example we have made an encounter more fun by adding in a rather severe penalty. Now our encounter still isn’t tuned. The best reward in the game should require the group to at least fight the biggest, badest boss in the game. Tuning is a topic for another discussion.

Penalties and the Game Community

I am a firm advocate of actually listening to your players most of the time. A significant amount of game forum postings are about reducing penalties in some fashion. For the most part this should be treated as background noise. As I have discussed above, penalties are necessary for good game design and tuning of course. Players are human and are prone to want things easier without thought for good design. Trust your empirical evidence and not forum postings when it comes to penalties.

Penalties and My Game Design

I am working on a game design, let’s call it ST. On day one I choose my nitch and roughed out my game-play. At this early point of the design of ST I am more interested in the intensity of the player experience than whether they are fighting orcs with swords or zombies with AK47s. So without getting into specifics at this early date here is the base-line experience I want a player to go through.
· 15 minutes prep time (low intensity)
· 30 minutes maneuvering and skirmishing (medium intensity with short high spikes)
· 15 minutes the big fight (high intensity, with the possibility of throwing a keyboard through the monitor)
· 15 minutes social time (game mechanics that encourage social interaction)

To get the really intense high intensity gameplay I want I need a very harsh death penalty. For this game that translates into a player character’s death equals the character is booted from the encounter. Pretty harsh, but what I want. This penalty brings up another issue. I now have to find game-play for the player whose character is booted out, knowing that most of his friends or guildies are still playing the encounter. This is really something I need to consider very early on in the design process, so the solution can be an integrated, natural part of the game design, and not something just tacked on.

To Sum Up

Well, rereading this it is apparent I cannot separate game penalties from game intensity. I don’t think that is wrong, so I’m gonna let this stand as written. Let me restate it as Penalties set Game Intensity, which is necessary for fun gameplay. My discussion has wandered a bit, let me try to bring it home.
· Understand that penalties are an integral part of but different from other game mechanics,
· Don’t let your game mechanics alone determine your character penalties. A back and forth is needed.
· Penalties are not for punishing your players. Appropriately used they may punish your player’s characters, but enhance game play for your players.

Design Day One is about finding a good niche for your game that can make it profitable, and sketching out your game play. Design Day Two is about reviewing your game play and determining what type of penalties will be needed to achieve your game play, and integrating the penalties into your design.

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