Moo Tang Clan: April 2008

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Storytelling 101

Go read It’s Story Time, Boys And Girls! for an excellent write up about building storytelling into MMO design.

Monday, April 28, 2008

why only one end to the game?

The game starts with different starting zones, based on your choice of race. Each is different and interesting, some are better than others, but eventually everyone converges into the same few zones, such as the Stranglethorn Hole. After that the game then progresses with some divergence and paths, but all eventually leading back to the same end-game series of instances, and eventually to Black Temple.

The design concept underlying all this is that all roads lead to Rome - a plethora of choices early on, narrowing as you go, and ultimately being funneled towards one end destination. This idea is all well and fine at first blush, but there are problems becoming very evident.

Problems like: the only way to add new content is by shifting the goals further down the road, resulting in an even longer leveling death-march; and then whatever was the previous end destination becomes obsoleted and henceforth completely skipped; end-game epic gear becoming obsoleted by the trash greens that drop in the expansion; and fewer and fewer choices of where to play just at the time when your character finally has lots of capabilities (spells, talents, skills, etc).

What if the game had multiple ending zones, each rivaling the other, each requiring the same massive investment of time and effort to gather necessary faction reputations, resistance gear, etc. Now, not only could you experience a totally different game by choosing a different starting zone, but you could experience a totally different game by choosing a different ending zone.

Importantly, pursuit of one particular ending zone should come at the opportunity cost of the other ending zones - the simplest means might be via different resistance sets, more complex means might involve rivalrous factions. The point being that you don't get everyone congregating in one end city/zone/instance, but instead are spread out over different places. It should still be possible to take your champion from one place and go explore the alternative end zones, but the success in that first place shouldn't result in easy success in the second place (due to gear etc). Some advantage, but not much .. the same way success in the PvP arenas doesn't result in being equally suited for success in PvE raiding (and vice versa).

This divergent-endings design could be further enhanced by introducing meaningful faction rivalries, such that it might be quicker to level an alt to take on different ending, rather than grind down the hatred your main accumulated with the faction in charge of the other end-game instance.

I can imagine entire guilds being formed around different end-games. Fellowship of the Mountain, Black Rock Raiders, Underdeep Underdogs, Southsea Buccaneers.

Each expansion of the game could introduce new end-zones and instances, but no raising of the level cap (by not raising the level cap, you don't further exacerbate the death-march grind required to reach the level cap). Introduce new talents and gear and potions and enchants which are tuned for that expansion, but all at the same level as what is already in the game.

This idea isn't without it's own problems of course: many players get precious about their one character, and after the hard struggle to topple Illidan they would want to take the same character into the content of the next expansion. Counter that by ensuring there is enough divergent paths through leveling content, with the barest crossovers and melting pots like Stranglethorn.

Monday, April 21, 2008

a wild west of magic

Are most fantasy MMOs set in ancient worlds, places where the extent of the lands have not only been explored at some time, not only been settled at some time, but are even littered with the ruins of ancient civilisations? Sure, there might be pockets of wilderness, but they are like national parks, preserved, carefully delineated on the maps, and nonetheless likely to contain the aforementioned ruins of ancient civilisations.

Are there any fantasy MMOs which are instead set in an "new world" environment, one where the frontier beckons, vast and unmapped? I wonder if a fantasy "new world" setting could be developed to include wild west themes. I don't mean steam punk elements like guns and trains and such, but instead sociological themes such as dirt poor pioneers scratching out the beginnings of empires, boom towns under constant threat from wild natives, a constantly moving and expanding frontier.

At least you wouldn't have to go write up a few millenias of lore with fanciful creation stories involving doomed immortals and such. Well, not until some intrepid adventurer stumbles across an ancient monument in the jungle or a hidden valley of ruins.

big worlds, big problems

What would it take to make a large world work? I'm talking of MMOGs with worlds bigger than Manhattan. One of problems with huge worlds is that unless you fill it with lots of content, there will be vast expanses of empty wilderness, and there would be long tedious travel times involved.

That's assuming that the whole expanse is part of the game from the beginning.

Imagine a world which has vast wilderness areas, with pockets of civilisation along one edge - perhaps primitive colonies on the coast of a new world. Everything you need is pretty much within close distance, but the frontier beckons. You could, for instance, set off into the new world and never see a civilized soul for days at a time.

Add to this the possibility of player impact on the world, something deeper and richer than simplistic "player housing", and this vast empty wilderness might slowly fill up.

Friday, April 18, 2008

balancing solo dungeons for different classes

On WowInsider, I saw this comment and similar like it:

Sounds like a great idea in theory, but just trying to balance a "solo" dungeon for any character class seems to be a bit daunting. How do you balance it so a squishy mage can crowd control and burn mobs while a tankadin can't CC and needs to tank try to DPS?
Good question. My answer would be to design dungeons such that they are not so damn linear. Provide a multitude of alternative paths from the entrance to each of the bosses - in Shattered Halls you can skip some tedious oozeling trash if you have a rogue with lockpicking, or an engineer with a seaforium charge; in Karazhan there's a seldom used route from the stables to the back entrance, another route that starts from Opera and goes upstairs, and there's also the kitchen off the side of the Moroes encounter .. I have no idea where that goes.

In Kara, these alternate routes are a failed design - everyone ignores them simply because it's just more trash to clear and there's no advantage. The design of the locked door in Shattered Halls works. Apart from that one encounter though I'm struggling to think of any others, which is a real shame as this is a missed opportunity.

Imagine some dungeon where behind door A is a series of trash requiring lots of AoE, while the trash behind door B is handily despatched via CC, while door C is locked and leads to encounters which can be avoided via stealth. Someplace further in there's a long winding path downwards requiring either lots of tanking or clever ranged attacks .. or some classes could skip all that by jumping off the edge and slow falling, levitating, or bubbling.

We've already seen that some existing dungeons are more suited for certain class combinations than others, some dungeons go real easy if you have a warlock, others require plenty of CC, and so forth. Just put all that into the one dungeon, with alternative routes.

Update: another timely post at wowinsider reminds me of some old world dungeons with alternative pathings: Dire Maul, Blackrock Depths

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

slow, stupid, but fun

So there I was in AV, and one of them, still mounted, gets past our blockade and is making a dash for FW. I pop a Concussive Shot which slows them just enough for Garumeow to catch up, his Intimidation lands giving me time to catch up too .. and he's still mounted and with enough health to get away.

What does a hunter do? Spams Wing Clip and chases them, keep spamming Wing Clip and they can't ride away fast enough to get out of range.

It's a slow and stupid way to kill anyone.

Sure is fun though.

Monday, April 14, 2008

two quick moments in the city

I've been meaning to upgrade one of my rings for quite some time, and spotted a pair of [Truestrike Ring]s on the AH. I only needed one, but they are pretty spiffy so I figured I'd grab both and gift one to the nooby hunter of the guild. I place my bids, time passes, and sure enough one of them shows up in my mailbox. I equip it and feel pretty darn nifty.

More time passes, and the other auction concludes and I now have one more in my mailbox. Time to be generous ... oh crap, now I discover that [Truestrike Ring]s are Unique, meaning I can only have one in my possession. The first one is already soulbound so I can't forward that one on, and it doesn't matter whether it's equipped, in my bags, or in my bank: it still counts as in my possession, and thus blocks me from grabbing the second one from my mailbox.

Crappity crap crap.

Conundrum, and I'm pretty sure I'd get the usual totally unhelpful response from a GM petition. So I let it sit in my mailbox while I go take out my frustration on some alliance in AV. Winning is good for creative thought as there is a happy end to this tale: I simply asked Barkeep Morag to hold onto the soulbound ring for a while, I cleared the second from my mailbox and sent it to my guildie, and then went back to the ever helpful host of the Orgimmar tavern to buy back my precious. That qualifies as creative use of game mechanics, right?

Drama over, time to chill for a while ... and then I get a whisper, a hunter asking me for some gold for his first mount. I'm feeling charitable tonite, so I whisper back "ok, here is your quest: go kill ten boars, return with proof, and I shall reward you handsomely". Well, he didn't get all huffy like most beggers do, just said "really? serious?" and the next thing I see him heading out the front gate lickety-split. Wow. A few minutes later I'm now the proud owner of 6x Chunk of Boar Meat, 7x Broken Boar Tusk, and a Practice Sword, and he's a proud owner of a spiffy new Timber Wolf.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

hidden ways

Neat. I just discovered the back passage from the Wayfarer's Rest in Silvermoon city. It affords a shortcut from the Walk of the Elders through to the Bazaar. There's another one through Silvermoon City Inn, connecting the two main throughfares.

more quests for healers?

Reading What Makes the Healer Class Unpopular? it occurred to me that most questing/leveling activity in WoW involves going out and killing stuff (and of course you can't kill a mob by healing), and very little involves standing your ground against waves of attackers, supporting the defenders, and surviving.

All that comes to mind is a Netherwing daily, defending Sergeant Bly, counterattack against centaurs in the barrens, and an epic priest quest. Add Torek's Assault for a twist on the theme. Surely there are more?

Additionally, why couldn't healers also travel the land seeking out sick and the frail NPCs, and gain some XP for healing them? Also, surely it would be a more interesting world if various nasties were to come bounding over the hill and attack some unlucky NPC farmer or traveling merchant. Sometimes the NPC will fall and die, sometimes they will prevail but with great wounds or lingering pestilence .. both opportunities for a passing healer to ply their craft.

The basic paradigm of WoW seems to be find, kill, loot, repeat, with the occasional fedex quest designed to move you on to new areas. It could be a richer and more interesting game with a different underlying paradigm.

Now, if class specific quests were to be provided during the leveling process, then there's a good chance that some of them would quite simply be skipped which would be a shame. They could also be provided as daily quests though, which would provide repeated opportunities for players to hone their skills.

hijacking quest returns, and other hypertext opportunities

So, here I am with a sack full of bears' hearts or some other gory trophy for some lazy peon, and I'm heading back into town.

How cool would it be if on the route home I got a whisper from some shady character lurking in an ally way, and he says "hey, don't be returning them thar parts to that lazy peon for a pitiful reward -- give 'em to me and I'll make it worth your while."

The storytelling opportunities would be interesting.

Currently, quest lines are strictly linear, with only a few exceptions. While there are many cases where the completion of one quest opens up three or more dependent quests, all which must be completed before the next link the the chain unlocks, I can't think of any substantial quest line which forces a choice of a branch.

Another dynamic is possible too for those quests which are started by an item routinely dropped by a mob - you might be given multiple choices as to who you could return it to, with each quest giver starting a different branch.

For example, Daniel Whitcomb at WowInsider presented this scenario:

Say you intercept a messenger from the Venture Company speaking about a stealth clear cutting operation in Ashenvale. Do you send word to Astranaar and help them ambush the logging crew, saving the trees and becoming a hero of the Night Elves? Do you negotiate with the Venture Company to keep quiet about the operation for a cut of the profits? Or do you offer to help them slip past the Night Elves and into Ashenvale, setting up the possibility of further business dealings with them on down the road?
Now that would be interesting.

One caution though: you can't afford to design dynamic quest lines like this as a rare exception. Since the players would be trained by repeated exposure to linear quest lines, they wouldn't even stop to consider if they could hand it in to different quest givers, instead handing it in to the the first obvious one they stumble across. Stupid mistakes will occur if branching questlines are rarely encountered.