I went on a walk today and invented an idea for an RPG. When I say “invented”, I’m partly concerned someone else has thought of it and my subconscious has presented memory as inspiration. Anyway, it’s not an idea I have any time to pursue, so feel free to run with it yourself.
Thanks to the lovely folks at RockPaperShotgun, I managed to snag a weekend beta pass to Star Wars The Old Republic. I’ve never been huge on MMORPGS but I’m not alien to them – I invested a fair amount of time into Matrix Online, a reasonable amount of time in Lord of the Rings Online, played some WoW and D&D Online, and I still play the heck out of Kingdom of Loathing (although KoL is a slightly different beast). SWTOR has been dubbed a potential “WoW killer”, so I was interested to see how it panned out. I wasn’t personally interested in playing, until my friend showed me this:
I mean, seriously. A Jawa with a rocket launcher? What’s not to love?!
So this weekend I put in a few sessions with the game as a female human Smuggler (in that I’m a female smuggling goods, not ladies). She’s got the whole Han Solo thing going, which is cool. She’s at level 8 or 9 now. I’m still in the newbie class-specific area (that I share with Troopers). My character’s recent skill acquisition was effectively “kick them in the groin”. It complemented my “throw a grenade into their face” skill.
What’s it like? Well, it’s like a MMO. It’s like WoW. It’s like expansive, slightly low res environments where nameplates run around and there are little pockets of bad guys standing around, waiting to die. It’s like watching cooldown on icons so you can do your same cycle of skills to kill yet another insurgent that’s getting in the way of you running to a dude and getting the next location to run to. Of course, I’m overly cynical here. SWTOR is definitely an improvement over the WoW style (last time I played WoW). Having conversations with quest-givers actually be little cutscenes (a la Mass Effect or any other modern Bioware game) is neat. My first bunch of NPCs were really boring and I was a bit disappointed that they had spent a lot of time and money getting voice actors to deliver boring stuff. But as I got on, the animation got better, the writing more nuanced and the voice acting more varied and interesting. I wasn’t blown away by it, but man, it’s so much of an improvement over WoW “oh gawd, I dunno, fetch 10 wolf pelts” streamlined quest givers.
I don’t know if Lord of the Rings started it, but I like the seemingly new design choice to make the quests from quest-givers actually something with a plot, and incidentally along the way you can kill 10 bad guys and get a bonus. LotRO invested more in it (in that the “kill 50 dragonflies” were quests that hung around) but SWTOR seems to make them more thematic. For example, all of mine thus far have been to teach a lesson to the separatists as part of a larger campaign, so I kill 12 separatist scum whilst travelling between quest-giver and quest-Macguffin.
All the things you’d expect for a MMO to have is there: an extensive list of social actions, quick-fire slots for all your skills, hub cities with clusters of vendors, if you hover over an item it’ll tell you what you get by equipping it versus what you already have… There’s a fast travel taxi service between areas, and my character at least had a special “Quick travel” skill to zip between known areas. It’s all from Ye Mighty Checklist of Modern MMORPGs and it’s all done pretty competently. The UI is slick and help isn’t too hard to get. The codex entries are fairly detailed, but I never read them. There were some nifty surveys on quests to help them fine-tune the game. I grinned at a support request coming back to me via “Protocol Droid M0-T0 of Human-Cyborg relations”.
It’s all very well done. Maybe better done than WoW. But to me, it’s still just polishing that old tile. A lot of my time was spent creeping between pockets of bad guys, gradually nuking them with grenades, or finding the racing line between them to avoid aggro. All the bad guys exist to die, and you kinda have to wait your turn for them to respawn before you get your chance to kill them. It’s like an oversized fun park where you have to travel sizable, awkward distances to get anywhere, and all the rides are Skinner boxes. In this sense, SWTOR was not much different to the Star Wars MUD I played about a decade ago.
The writing here is much better than I’ve seen in other MMOs, but it’s not excellent as far as real writing goes. Most characters are introduced just to discard once the quest is complete. Despite their plight, there’s nothing to invest in here. I like that quest-givers are voiced and animated, and there are usually interesting camera angles on the action. But the animation in cutscenes is merely serviceable, and the vast majority of your interactions in the world are with very strict animation state machines (aka bad guys).
All-in-all I think SWTOR is a good take on the modern MMO formula, but with all the money and talent they threw at it, I’m a little disappointed that it’s a shinier version of more of the same. It’d be risky to do something new and there’s a lot of money on the line, but the gameplay has barely evolved since the mid-2000′s. I would love to see someone turn the formula inside out and produce something new. Regardless, I know a bunch of my friends will invest sizable chunks of their life to this game, but I don’t think I will. My mistress has and probably always will be Team Fortress 2, but if someone would do something significantly different from prettier, more fine-tuned Skinner boxes, I’d be into MMOs in a heartbeat.
So while Jawas with rocket launchers are hells cool, and I enjoyed my weekend as a female Han Solo, I think I’ll leave SWTOR to the millions and millions of people who will enjoy the heck out of this game.
Recently I’ve been working on The Day After, my board-game that became a board-game themed PC game. Primarily I’ve been writing the scripting language for it so I can start sewing in game mechanics and messing around with things. I’m using a scripting language because you can iterate (and debug) quicker that way. Anyway, working on the general gameplay model lead me to working on the scripting language, which lead me to nailing down some of the concepts I had floating around. One of them is Roles and balancing them for gameplay. I thought I might chat about that.
So there we were – a few weeks’ trek underground underneath the Silverstep mountains. We were on a mission to free a town of kobolds from their goblin and drow oppressors, mostly for our illustrious leader Jope’s prestige1. We didn’t have the firepower to take on an entire town of bad guys, so we were making our way across a massive chasm to seek an audience with a kobold elder and start an uprising. The direct route to the city, a thin bridge guarded by towers, was of no use to us. My character (a ranger named Rainor) had a pet half-celestial wolf (Rainin). Due to some shenanagins with interdimensional portals, my wolf had spent many years in the Elysium Fields, hunting celestial stags, even though he was only lost for a few minutes in my timeline. A pegasus is a celestial horse, more or less. A half-celestial wolf is a very large wolf with healing spells and the unusual ability to fly (sans wings).
To cross this chasm, we had to use Rainin to shuttle people across. We had to be quick because patrols were already on the prowl. We had gotten our fearless warrior-leader Jope (Andrew’s character) and our new cleric (Tim’s character) across. I was next with our mage-thief Switch (Paul’s character) waiting behind, literally invisible but with only a limited amount of protection. When Rainin and I were halfway across the chasm, some plucky drow had spotted the giant wolf and pinged us with a blazing light. In the dark depths of the goblin city, an illuminated flying wolf and rider was no less spectacular than a firework. Did I risk heading towards our leader and spoil the whole plan? Or our mage and risk both of us dying? I had two further options. The chasm rose at one end to some kind of bluff – the whole ascent allegedly the flight of an ancient and mountain-shaping dragon who, as it so happens, might have been sleeping at the bottom of the chasm. Up and away, or down into the inky depths? The party were panicking. We were split over a chasm, low on resources and truly outnumbered. So I plunged – down, deep down – hoping my betraying light would be swallowed up by the darkness. And hoping that I myself would not be swallowed as well.
- It was his character arc quest. ↩
The tension at my end of the table was incredible. Here I was, for once the only party member who had an inside scoop on what was going on, but I faced that one make-or-break question from the DM: “Well, dude, you made a decision how you’re gonna play this?”
Rewind a little. Our adventuring party had struck out to explore the kingdom neighbouring ours. A travelling merchant had disappeared and there was no word of what had happened. We hit a tower and there was no-one there. Everyone had decided simultaneously to up and go. We figured the capital would have some answers so I as the party’s Ranger led them down the mountains towards the city. On our trip we saw nothing. My wolf was uneasy.
We decided not to risk travelling at night so we hung out in an abandoned farmhouse. Being on the lookout for zombies (because there were lots of human tracks and a weird smell in the air), we mostly ignored the DM’s talk of a poster in a child’s room and went to sleep. And then, just when night hit, the raven familiar of our Witch Morgana spluttered out, “Look! Look!” In the distance were hundreds of people, distorted people. No, not hundreds, but thousands. And they were sprinting towards our shelter. We were screwed. With no time to prepare, we got ready to make a bolt for it. In no time zombies swarmed the house. Our illustrious warrior leader Jope and the Arcane Trickster (mage-thief) Switch barged through the crowd. I hung back. Something wasn’t right. Only when a huge, bulbous zombie vomited bile over my two companions did it become clear – our game had taken an unexpected left turn into Left 4 Dead 2. And though it came a little later, I had to make the decision: “Do I clue the other guys in, or do we have fun?”
I recently acquired a shiny new Android phone. Over the Christmas holidays I spent a lot of time in airport lounges, so I decided to dive into a few little games from the Android Marketplace. One of them was Game Dev Story, a game available for Android and Apple phones. I had heard a fair bit of buzz about this game through the gaming blogs I read, but hadn’t had a chance to try it out. Not long after I started, I declared the game “clocked“. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about game design, especially with regards to mobile devices. As a very late Christmas present, I’ve wrapped those thoughts up for you and presented them here
So last time I talked a bit about the four different models you can adopt for a “to-hit” mechanic. This time I’ll focus a bit on the ones involving randomness.
Across many genres we have the following dilemma for the game designer: I want the player to attack someone, but how do I model that? While people are instinctively familiar with the main solutions, we often don’t think about the different choices and what it means for the game. I thought I might jazz a bit on the taxonomy of the “to-hit” mechanic to explore the idea. Note that we don’t necessarily have to be modelling combat, but it’s the most common example with an easy-to-use vocabulary. This sort of stuff applies equally to fishing in a social game, many board game mechanics, making items in a MMORPG, sweet-talking someone or just gambling.
I’m ever thinking about game design for Kung Fu Legends. One thing I’m concerned about is that it is supposed to be a sandbox game. In such a game, how do you push a player forward to experience fun things? I thought I might look at a bunch of games I’m playing at the moment, figure out how they do it and think about that.