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Posts Tagged ‘Champions’

This weekend, I finally decided that I would buy myself an X-box 360. I have not had the console anywhere near enough time to write a review, but it led me to thinking about something else, as a consequence of the game I purchased — Mass Effect.  Now, I already have a review of Mass Effect here, and it wasn’t very positive, so you might wonder why I bought it (a second time) for the X-box. There were a couple of reasons. First, it was on sale ($20). Second, as I said in the review, part of the problem seemed to be my dinosaurian computer system.  I heard from other friends that the game was much smoother on the console.  And so I tried it, and it is definitely much better on the console. When I finish it (assuming that I eventually do), I will be giving it a re-review.

Mass Effect, as you might know, is a Bioware game, which means it’s a computer RPG.  It is like most other RPGs in that you start out as a beginning (“Level 1”) character and the character slowly becomes more skilled and gains better equipment over time.  You can select from about 6 different classes. I chose (again, because I thought it was an interesting class last time) the “Infiltrator”, which is kind of a mix between electronics powers and soldiering skills.  What I like most about them is the sniper rifle.  I was reading up a little about the class on the Bioware forums, just to get some advice on the types of skills that help the most, and someone made a comment that was interesting, and got me thinking about RPGs and the difficulty level. The comment was, “It gets easier as you level up.”

Before I go any further, I want you, gentle reader, to think about that statement, because it is a general truth of how most RPGs — from Dungeons and Dragons to MMORPGs to Mass Effect — are structured.  Let me repeat it: It gets easier as you level up.  It’s true for almost all RPGs (the one exception I can think of is the Pen-and-paper game Champions), and I think it’s a bad thing. I want to discuss why I hold that opinion.

What do I mean by “easy”?

I’d like to discuss why this happens, but first let me define “easier” relative to “harder.” The ultimate failure in an RPG is for the character to die. In pen and paper games this is often permanent. In computer games it usually “resets” you somehow — you load from a save game, or respawn at a spawn point, or lose some experience, or something of that nature.  Therefore, death is the ultimate consequence.  Speaking in general terms, therefore, a hard game would be one in which death was frequent or difficult to avoid, and an easy game would be the opposite.  I recall my first D&D adventure. There were just two of us — my friend Stu, who was the DM, and I, who was the player. We wanted a “full party” but there were only two of us, so we each made up five characters, and then I played all 10 by myself, while he DMed and ran the NPCs.  It was a lot of fun, but even with multiple raise dead scrolls and all sorts of DM intervention and assistance, only 6 of the 10 PCs made it out of that (very long) adventure alive.  That’s a 40% mortality rate of our level 1 characters.   In the next adventure, of which I was the DM and he played all 6 characters, there was only 1 death by the end (one that “stuck” after scrolls and the like, anyway), so that’s only a 17% mortality rate.  Clearly the second adventure was easier than the first.  Our final adventure with this group had no deaths out of five, or a 0% mortality rate. I’d call that one the easiest.

Therefore, having an “easier” time in an RPG means “you have an easier time keeping your character alive.” The battles are less likely to be lethal. The enemies are easier to defeat. The traps are less likely to be sprung, and if sprung less likely to kill you.  And my assertion is that these things become easier as you level up the character.

Why it gets easier as you level up

There are a few reasons why RPGs become easier as your character levels up, quite apart from the obvious cause in any game — the gamers become more experienced.  In a regular, non-RPG, this is the only thing that really makes a game easier — you get better at it.  Turn on Madden NFL or Major League Baseball XXII, and set the game to “normal.” You will find over time that the games later in the season seem easier (notice, I didn’t say “get”, I said “seem”), because for a given (e.g. normal) setting, the game’s difficulty is constant, but after playing 16 or 100 games, or however long the season is, you, as a player, are better. That’s always going to happen, in any game, because humans learn by doing.

However, in RPGs, there is another layer of experience gain layered on top of the experience of the player, and that is the experience of the character.  As a character levels up, many things happen. He usually gains more hit points, and that makes him harder to kill.  He gains attack ability, which gives him (1) more options of ways to defeat enemies, and (2) the ability to damage enemies more or faster. And he will gain non-combat skills, like trap detection or conversation manipulation skills. This will make it easier to find and disarm traps, or to convince NPCs to do the character’s bidding.

These changes, these advances in character power, make the character less likely to die than he was in earlier adventures, and thus, make the game easier as you go.  A higher level Infiltrator in Mass Effect, to use the first example, has an easier time of it because his snipe ability gets better.  A higher level wizard in D&D can cast Power Word Kill, and one-shot kill an enemy, or Meteor Shower, which is like a multi-cast fireball.  At first level he was lucky if he could fire a single magical crossbow bolt out of the palm of his hand once a day.  At higher levels, the thief or rogue can detect traps from across the room while half asleep. At low level he could stare right at the trap and miss it.

Hopefully, as the above paragraphs indicate, this is something that happens in most RPGs. It happened in Dungeons and Dragons. It happens in Mass Effect. It happens in most MMORPGs. The characters’ survival rate goes up as they gain experience, because the experience gains lead to character improvements that make the game easier to play.

Why are games designed like this?

By now, I will assume I have convinced you that RPGs get easier to play as the character levels up. I hope you’re already thinking about where I’m headed with this, which is that games shouldn’t be designed to get easier as you go forward.  But before we get there, you might want to wonder why games are designed in such an obviously reverse orientation (you would expect challenge to go up as players get more experienced, not down). There are some reasons for this, which are the following:

  • Easing players into the game. Although it’s true for pen and paper, this is especially important for computer RPGs, where the game is played in real time and there is little chance to think (as there would be in a Pen-paper game). The player has to learn to react quickly to his surroundings or else his character will die.  If you started characters with 20 or 30 abilities, all showing up as buttons on the hot bar, the new player would be overwhelmed.  In video games, then, it makes a certain amount of sense to start the character out with only one or two simple abilities, and then add one every couple of levels.  The new ability can then be practiced for a while until the player becomes comfortable with it, by which time he’s gained a few levels and it’s time for a new ability.  I have no objection to this line of reasoning and I would not suggest changing this aspect of it — go ahead and start with few abilities and then increase them.
  • Lower level characters don’t need mega-abilities. Many games withhold the “mega” powers, like Power Word Kill or Meteor Swarm, to the higher levels because, for lower level characters, these abilities would be overkill. When a single dagger does enough damage to 1-shot an orc, there’s no need for Power Word Kill, a spell whose main claim to fame is that it can one-shot an enemy.  You need that in the higher levels, where it would take 100 dagger strokes to kill a foe, and one-shotting him is therefore very useful.  I have no problem with this line of reasoning either.
  • Characters become more powerful as they gain experience. Most games are designed to follow a story much like a fantasy novel or a comic book. It is a standard convention of the genre that older, more experienced characters are more powerful.  Although this is a sound principle, this is where the wheels start to come off, because “being powerful” becomes equated with “being harder to kill.” And since the main thing that makes an RPG difficult is dying, becoming more powerful = harder to kill = easier to play.  And here is where we get caught in the inescapable quicksand of pretty much all RPG design with the possible exception of Champions.  When characters become more powerful the challenges need to become equally more powerful. And I will grant that RPGs try to do this… The Malta in COH, a level 45-50 enemy group, are more powerful in absolute terms than the Skull gang. But the problem is that the power increases of PC vs. NPC do not match, so that a level 50 PC is 50x as powerful as a level 1, but the enemies are only maybe 25x as powerful… making the high level enemies an easier challenge for the player, than the low level enemies were.

Why making the game easier as the character levels up is a bad idea

Now I’m going to get to the point of this whole post: Why this is a bad idea.  The reason should be blatantly obvious but I will spell it out.  Although you can sometimes have a level 1 character played by an experienced player, you will pretty much never (under normal conditions) have a level 50 character played by a newbie, and all new players generally have to start out at level 1.  The player is gaining experience as the character does. It makes no sense to present the most difficult challenge to the player and then make the game easier as the player gets better. That’s why so many RPGs and especially MMORPGs get boring in the upper levels.  The game is super hard early on because you are weak, have few abilities, and can die in one shot (Magic-users in 1st edition D&D with 1d4 hit points, anyone?).  Then as you gain levels, it slowly becomes easier as the character’s ability to soak up hits increases.  What’s going on here is that higher level characters give their players much more margin of error. But a wide margin of error is needed by new players, not veterans — so why are we increasing the margin of error as the character (and by extension the player) becomes more experienced?  That’s what I call a bad idea.

Before anyone tries to claim that this lowering of difficulty as you go up in level is an illusion, I want to provide a few examples of how it’s not just all in my head.  The two I will use will be Dungeons and Dragons from pen-and-paper, and City of Heroes from MMORPGs.

In Dungeons and Dragons, weapons do a fixed amount of damage. A dagger always does 1d4. A longsword always does 1d8.  Higher level enemies might have a small additive bonus to their attack (e.g., 1d4 +2), but that’s all. Hit points, however, go up much faster than damage bonuses do. In 1st edition AD&D for example, most NPCs got +1 to hit and damage per level, but even the weakest class (in terms of hit points), the  Magic-User, got +1d4 hit points per level, meaning that he rapidly outstripped the dagger’s damage. Thus a level 1 mage attacked by a dagger-wielding kobold had a 1 in 4 chance of insta-death. By level 10, that mage would have (on average) about 25 hit points, but the level 10 kobold (still wielding a dagger) would be doing 1d4 +10 (at most), averaging less than half the number of hit points per blow as the mage has, and making it impossible to one-shot him.  (We are leaving aside spells the mage could use to buff his hit points, whether the mage has a CON bonus, and other possible weapons, just to make the example easier).  Now, later editions of D&D have done some to correct this, but the problem still remains: at low levels, one or two hits can kill you. At higher levels, it takes a dozen hits to kill you. This dramatically increases the player’s margin of error, making it much harder to die by accident at higher levels. But again, it’s the new players that are more likely to make mistakes, so why aren’t they the ones given the higher margin of error?

Or, consider the game City of Heroes. I played a martial arts/super reflex scrapper to level 50.  Then I played more characters. Then I made up another MA/SR scrapper. At level 1, I had a much harder time surviving than I had with the same (essentially, other than name/costume) character at level 50. Why? Well, first, over level 25, I had health and stamina, which helped my character recover faster. Over level 25, I had “Single Origin” enhancements which could basically double the power and accuracy of my character.   Enemies get a little more versatile as you go up in level in COH, but they don’t become more powerful relative to your character. It takes about 3 kicks with martial arts to bring down a white conning enemy at level 1, and about 3 to bring him down at level 50.  Because living long enough to deliver 3 kicks is harder at level 1 than at 50, that means the game at level 50 is easier. In fact, at higher levels I used to talk on the phone or watch a video while playing the game, and not die once in a long mission. If I tried that at level 5 there would be a lot of face-plants. And remember, I’m not talking about back when I was a new player… I mean after I already had gotten the same character type to level 50.

I could give a lot more examples, but for the sake of space I will end with those.  The point here is that RPGs, by their very nature, almost always get easier for the player as the character levels up. This is a bad idea, because it’s the new player, not the veteran, who needs the easier experience, and yet it is the level 1 experience that is, in most games, the most difficult to survive.

Solutions

So what possible solutions are there?  When giving the reasons why the difficulty goes down as level goes up, I didn’t really disagree that the reasoning in most cases was sound. We do want to ease players into the game by giving them less options and thus hopefully less confusion. We do want to have characters grow in power as they gain levels. But there needs to be some sort of increase in the power level of the enemies as well, perhaps also an increase in AI… something to make the difficulty higher as you level, and lower at the start.  So here are my basic suggestions:

  • Give the best AI to the highest level enemies. A few games give a token nod to this idea, but I’ve not seen anyone do it well yet.  The higher level AIs should be smarter, not just more powerful.
  • Give new characters (and new players) some “panic buttons”. Things like (full h.p.) healing potions or scrolls of invincibility seem to only crop up at higher levels, when the characters are able to cast those same spells or do those same things. Here’s a news flash for game designers: a high level character is probably never going to need a scroll of invincibility. He is already nigh-invincible. The guy who needs it is the level 2 with the newbie player, who doesn’t realize that poison arrows are done as a “save or die” roll.
  • Give low level characters a bigger margin of error. This really has to do with the problem of hit points and “how many hits” you can take.  One way or another designers need to make sure that level 1 characters can take as many hits as level 10 or 20 characters.  If you are expecting a new player to be able to make all the right decisions or else die in one shot, you are asking for trouble in terms of player frustration.  I veteran player may know how to deal with potential one-shots. A new player will not.
  • Start the game out slowly and then speed it up. One big problem with computer games is speed.  Right now the idea is to give players few abilities to start with and then add more abilities as they level up. This effectively “speeds up” the game slightly as the player has to train himself to consider more and more options over time.  But it’s not the only way to speed things up. You could have things actually go more slowly at lower than at higher levels.  Have enemies attack, for instance,  once every 4 seconds at level 1, every 3 seconds at level 10, every 2 seconds at level 20, and so on.  (I am not suggesting these actual timings but just the idea of having it speed up over levels.)  Let the player ease into the speed rather than easing into the options.  Too often the game play speed doesn’t change, so if the player is having a hard time at level 1, there is no remedy but to somehow level until it “gets easier” (that is, the character lives long enough that the speed is no longer an issue).

I’m sure there are other ways to deal with this, but those are four obvious ones that came to my mind as I was thinking about this. New players are going to be poor players by definition — why give them the hardest time? The vets are the ones who can handle the tougher game-play.

You may be thinking “well that sounds good but it can’t be done.” I’m not so sure. Most non-RPG based games are already doing this. Most racing games start you out on easier tracks against slower cars and dumber (in terms of AI) opponents and then ramp it up as you complete races and prove that you can handle it.  Most fighting games in the vein of Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat are the same way. Arcade games have been doing this for years. Each wave of Space Invaders or level of Pac-Man was basically identical except each went slightly faster.

Right now, most RPGs and especially CRPGs and MMORPGs are designed in reverse difficulty order… they make the lower levels harder than the higher levels, which makes it so that veteran players are facing substantially easier challenges than newbies are.  I can’t see how this could be thought of as anything but backwards, and although I know it has been a part of RPG design for as long as there have been RPGs, I think it’s a bad idea… and that designers need to re-think the whole thing.

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In a few days, Cryptic Studios, the creators of City of Heroes, will be launching their new game, Champions Online, which is loosely (and I mean, very loosely) based on my favorite pencil-and-paper RPG of all time, Champions (by Hero Games).  This weekend I downloaded the open beta to take a look at it, and it wasn’t pretty.  Here is an open letter to them, that I’m sure they will ignore, but it will serve as the only “review” I will do of CO, since I am not going to buy the game based on what I saw this weekend.

Dear Cryptic,

All throughout the last couple of years, reading your forums and your press releases, I could see the direction Champions Online  was taking, and as time went on it looked less and less like something I would be able to enjoy (at least long enough to warrant a subscription). I got tired of arguing with people and especially with trying to make you folks understand my point of view, so I moved on to other games, other things, etc.

Just the other day someone informed me that open beta had started, and as it had been a while, I decided to be optimistic and give the game a try, hoping that I had been wrong and that the game had turned out great.

I’m sorry to say that it really is as bad as I expected, and I probably would not find it worth my time to buy and subscribe. On the off chance that you folks might get some constructive feedback from my decision, I post this open letter here… and that, in all likelihood, will be the last your company will hear from me.

And so, why I won’t be playing this game after trying it out in Beta:

#1 Reason: My computer just can’t handle it. I have a 4 year old P4-3.2 GHz with 256 MB nVidia card (7800GS), and although the game is technically playable with ALL the graphic settings (and I mean, each and every one of them) turned down to nothing, it’s still a slide show in crowded areas, and my frame rates are not what I consider acceptable. As I have never in my life bought an entire computer just to play a video game (the idea of doing it is just ludicrous), this is basically the only reason I need. There are, of course, others. But I will suggest that Cryptic may have aimed a bit too high on the sys-reqs for this game. They’re pricing a large chunk of the audience out of the game (not just people with older desktops, but also nearly the entire laptop market, which is huge).

#2: The game feels clunky and unfinished. Yes, I know it’s beta. But it’s open beta. Launch is mere days away. At this stage in COH’s development, the game felt smooth, polished, and complete. Even in closed/early beta, the game looked solid and polished, the UI was slick and clean, and everything worked in a very intuitive manner. I’m honestly shocked by this, as I did not expect such a sloppy feeling to come out of the same company that made COH.

#3: The UI is a mess. It’s ugly, hard to use, and unintuitive. Again, see for reference, COH. That is a good UI. What you have here is just… hideous. The comic font, although I realize it is themely, is atrocious and totally inappropriate for computer-screen viewing. I have never before in a game had to sit up closer to the screen just to read what the quest-giver is saying. Just yuck, all the way around, on the UI.

#4: The open-world system is just unacceptable at this stage, given the instanced-mission method pioneered by this company. I’m happy to have other players around the world itself, but when I am doing a mission or quest, I want to own that mission (or, I with my team-mates). It is simply unacceptable to me that I have to stand in line to rescue an innocent or destroy an object. Not only does it utterly and completely destroy immersion, but it wastes my time, and I will NOT pay to have my time wasted. If COH did not exist, if it had not been made by this VERY company, I might not find this so completely intolerable. But when Cryptic pioneered the clearly superior instancing system, it is inexcusable that they abandoned it for a WOW style open-world system. I refuse to play any MMORPG at this point that doesn’t have significant privatization. ” I have to stand in line for content” = “I do not play the game”. Period.

I would like to point out that if #4 were not true, #1, the main issue that absolutely prohibits my purchase of the game (performance issues on my older machine) might not be true either. After all, COH is pretty resource intense and in the Atlas Park costume contests I used to lag like crazy. BUT… In COH, 90% of my time was spent in mission — just me, a couple of friends, and the villains spawned for us. And guess what? My system can handle it, and handle it without trouble! My frame rates in-mission were always excellent. So, if CO had simply gone with an instanced setup instead of this tired old open-world baloney, I might actually buy it. I could probably live with the UI, with the clunky animations, with having to turn all my options down, if I could play with a pleasurable frame rate. If they had instanced missions as the bulk of the content, that would be possible. Since they don’t, I have to play in the open world, which is unacceptable in the first place, and which triggers the performance issues in the second place.

As a result of these things, I simply can’t justify spending $50-60 on this game, let alone a monthly fee. I truly do regret this, as I love superheroes, and I love the Champions universe. But without instancing and with poor performance, there is just no point to buying it.

Sincerely,

Chessack

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The online RPGs of today — World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Star Wars Galaxies, and so forth — all trace their lineage back to the same original source: pen and paper roleplaying games of the 80s and 90s. These are games like Dungeons and Dragons or Champions. One of the “holy grails” of computer game design, particularly designs that allow multiple players to interact, has been the re-creation of the pen-and-paper RPG experience. Unfortunately, though quite good, most pen and paper games do not convert well into an online setting. The reason for this has to do with how time works in the two media.

To see what I mean, let us use the commonly adopted technique in online games of the “time sink.” A “time sink” arises when the designer creates a chunk of the game that has as its purpose just taking up your time. An example would be making your character walk across 10 miles of basically empty terrain to get to a quest or mission area…. It might take half an hour to get from point A to point B, and the only thing you’re doing is wasting a lot of time. Or in Star Wars Galaxies (when it first launched) shuttles took 10 minutes to arrive at the station. Standing around waiting for the next shuttle so you could get to the place you wanted to go, was just a time sink.

As common as this design idea is in online games, it is totally absent from pen and paper games. For example, in D&D, resting was required every so often, but although a lot of time may have passed for the characters, resting is not a time sink in pen and paper D&D for the players. Unless you have a very odd DM, when your characters rest, your game group usually “fast forwards” to the end of the rest period (the DM may roll a 1d8 or something to see if a “wandering monster” attacks but, in the 7/8th of cases where one does not, the rest takes 10 seconds to “game out”). Basically, you say to the DM, “We bar the door with iron spikes, set a guard on our standard watch schedule, and rest 8 hours.” The DM says, “OK, everyone heals 10 HP and gets all their spells back. It’s now 9 AM.” (Or whatever.) And you move on.

In Pen and Paper, you have the ability to “telescope” the time activities take. “We walk down the hall for 100 yards” doesn’t take any longer to say than, “We walk 10 feet.” If nothing interesting happens during that 100 yard trip, the DM just lets you do it that fast. If you’ve cleaned out a dungeon, you might well be able to say, “We head outside and go back to town,” and the DM might roll 1d8, not get a 1, and say, “OK, back in town….” The game-play minutes are thus taken up by important things not by irrelevant things.

One of the serious issues online games have is that in the effort to achieve verisimilitude, they force you to live through every second of your character’s life, and this includes all the boring, tedious parts. That walk 5 miles from town to the dungeon through a low-level area where nothing interesting happens (because you are +10 levels above everything else)? In Pen and Paper, the DM just says, “You arrive without incident.” In an online game, you have to walk it whether it’s easy to get by or not, leading to tedium, boredom and, ultimately, a time sink.

You see, the designers of Pen and Paper games were smart enough to know what was fun. The resting and spell use and HP healing features of a game like D&D are all the way they are because Gygax et al. knew that you would just skip the boring parts. They didn’t expect the DM to make the players sit there feigning sleep for 8 hours (or even 8 minutes) just because their characters were resting. So the rest/spell/heal rules are there to enforce tactical game-play — i.e., you have a limited pool of points, spells, and so on that you can use over a finite series of battles. Say, for these 4 battles, you have this many spells. That means you can’t just “spam fireball” — because you will run out.

In online games this becomes a serious problem, because combat happens so much faster (in D&D, a battle between a party and a band of orcs might take half the night … in an MMORPG it probably takes half a minute, as it did in Neverwinter Nights). If you follow the same ratio, then having to rest every, say, 4 battles might mean once a week in D&D (for the 2 minutes resting takes in terms of book-keeping), but it might happen every 4 minutes in a video game. It then goes from something that adds flavor to the game on occasion, to something that controls the entire game and becomes onerous.

NWN, which is a single player or small group game, not an MMORPG, really didn’t deal with this well either. There were a variety of scripts you could use to make resting limited but not onerous (or at least that was their purpose) but they all had drawbacks and it often was necessary for my game group to replace them (I had a custom one that only allowed resting every 6 “game hours”, or about 12 minutes of play, which we found to be about right for our game-play style).

Frankly I’m not sure what to do about this, but I think games like City of Heros, Guild Wars, and others that just have continuous regeneration probably are more reasonable in an online, continuous-gameplay environment, than the punctuated regeneration that games like NWN, DDO, etc, have. The fundamental problem with punctuated regeneration is that sitting around watching your character not do anything is boring. One way or another that needs to be gotten around… and so far the methods of doing it have not really been satisfying.

Indeed I would go far to say this is one of the “great unsolved problems” of MMORPGs… The first MMORPG that comes up with a good way of making health, endurance, mana, etc, important tactically, without making it onerous to the player, and ultimately a huge time sink, is going to really have something.

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You know what’s interesting? Pen and paper games do not have taunt. Pen and paper games couldn’t use it if they did. There is no AI, and thus no “aggro.” How come wizards and “energy projectors” and non-tanks survive without taunt in these games? After all the human DM could presumably just nuke them if he wanted to. And sometimes he has the bad guys try. But the good guys survive, including that weako squishy.

Why?

I think the answer is speed. As these games convert to real time, we lose one major thing in the translation: strategy. When I was in junior high, there was a club you could join called “Games of Strategy.” You could play checkers or chess or that stuff and some did. But most people formed groups of 7 or so and did D&D. Or later when we explained Champions to the teacher who ran it, she allowed Champions in it. These RPGs were considered games of strategy.

There is no strategy to the online versions of these games. There is occasionally a very simplistic form of tactics (“the tanker taunts, the healer heals, and the nuker nukes” — ah yes, high strategy in its most sophisticated form!). This isn’t because the players can’t do it per se, but rather, because the real time nature of these games does not allow it.

In D&D the wizard didn’t usually get creamed on round 1 because the party had time to figure out what to do, how to react, and how to protect the wizard. In real time games, you don’t have that luxury. You have a split second to taunt the purple boss or red LT. If you delay even half of that split second, your taunt will fall after his attack, and your blasters just died, and you just failed as the team tank.

I think that because we are doing real time, split second gaming (and games are getting faster and faster over time, accelerating the speed with which the player has to respond to stimuli on screen), the amount of thinking that the engine can demand of the player has to be very tiny indeed. This adds to the “excitement” or adrenaline rush in the short run, of course — but only in the short run! In the long run, gameplay has to be so simplified to allow for play to even be possible at these high speeds, that it is very repetitive, boring, and rote. Every COH battle is exactly like every other one. You click the same 3-5 buttons, in the same order, every battle, against every enemy (pretty much). The main answer to “this sequence doesn’t beat this type of enemy” is not “find another sequence” — because you CAN’T, in COH! — but rather, “Find a team mate who has a sequence that works.”

In contrast, no two Champions battles were ever the same, and no good Champions team or GM ever found itself doing the same exact thing over and over again. Ironically Champions players did not have any more attacks (in general) than a COH character does — usually a 5-slotted multipower of attacks and a few defenses were about all you had, aside from misc. powers that are rarely used, skills, and so on. But, those powers could be used much more creatively… you could bounce your energy blast off of a window. You could pick stuff up and hurl it. You could do “fastball specials” and the like. You could do this because you had time to survey the battle.. time to think creatively. If the villain was immune to all of your attacks, you could sit there and think… look at the map, look over your character sheet and the character sheet of the guy next to you… think about past battles and how you won them… Ponder, think, consider. Five minutes might go by and that was OK. And in the end you thought of a creative way to beat the guy, who 5 minutes ago, was immune to your attacks.

In COH you can’t do this. Think for 5 seconds, and you have faceplanted. Reactions are reflexive, not strategic. You play COH with your cerebellum… whereas you play D&D or Champions with your cerebrum.

Until online games — heck any computer RPG — start making us use the cerebrum more and the cerebellum less, they will all just be poor imitations that have you do the same simplistic repetitive thing over and over again — because that’s all our minds can do in fractions of a second.

Personally, I think “real time” is the bane of the online RPG. The game that can manage to get around this problem, will be the true next generation game. Nobody has yet even tried though. (NWN is close — you can PAUSE it, which lets you think just like in D&D… and with instances, I would love to see pause-able instances, but it’s never going to happen, because the gamer jock-dudes would think that’s cheating and carebearish, and any dev team that tried it would be made the laughing stock on places like MMORPG.COM.)

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The year was 1996. I had just gotten my first external 28.8 modem. While surfing the internet, I had found a game called “Battlestar MUSH.” This game was a MUSH (RP-oriented MUD) about the old TV show Battlestar Galactica (the original show on ABC, not the recent one on the Sci-Fi channel). I played the game for a couple of years, and greatly enjoyed it at first. But after a while, the admins of that game decided they needed to make a change in the timeline and in how the game worked. They converted it into less of a MUSH (which is more RP/conversation oriented) and more into a MUD. One of the things the admins of that game loved was an old MUSH add-on feature called “Dynamic Space” or D-space. This was special code that allowed you to have rooms that would be dynamically generated when players were in the room, and then de-generate when no one was in there (to save on memory). This wouldn’t be so bad except, because D-space let you make huge massive maps with virtually no more overhead than a single room within the MUSH, the admins decided to map out the various ships of the “Colonial Fleet”, including the enormous Galactica herself, in all their gory detail. I remember just going from my Colonial Warrior’s cabin on the Galactica to meet up with a friend of mine on the hospital ship took about 200 moves, and probably over half an hour. Considering we only had about an hour of time to roleplay with each other, I thought this was a supreme waste.

When I complained about this on the BSM mailing list, I was called all manner of names. After all, “that’s how big the Galactica really is — we have the old maps from 1978 to prove it.” My point then, and I make the same point now (though more generally) was that “how big it really was” shouldn’t matter. The goal of a game is to have fun, not to be realistic. The goal of BSM was supposedly (even then, with all the D-space and other MUD-style coding) to roleplay. How much “roleplaying” was I doing by pressing “w, enter, w, enter, w, enter” to go west, west, west to find my friend Lyssa? The answer is: none. I wasn’t roleplaying, and I wasn’t having any fun. At the time I accused the admins (rightly so in my opinoin) of “sacrificing playability on the altar of realism.” I still think they did that, but I think this points out a more general truth. Often game-creators or game-masters become so slavishly bound to their vision of the game (in the case of BSM, the vision that they were going to map out the whole ship in gory detail) that how much fun it might be gets lost in the shuffle.

Before I go on, let me define what I mean by playability. To me, playability includes (1) Ease of “use” — an easy user-interface, easy to understand writing in the help files or game manual, (2) Fun — it should feel like play, not work, and (3) fulfillment of its overall goal. Note that by “overall goal” I do not mean the “vision” of the game designer, but the overall goal of the general game type. For example, a roleplaying game’s overall goal is for you to roleplay in it. An RPG that impedes roleplaying isn’t “playable.” Again, keep in mind this doesn’t mean “you can’t play it,” but rather, “you can’t play it as a roleplaying game.” See the difference? Similarly, by “ease of use,” I do not necessarily mean “easy to play” so much as accessible. For example, Champions is usually considered one of the most complex RPGs ever written. However, I would argue that the rulebook, at least through 4th edition (the last I’ve read) is extremely easy to use because it is accessible — it is written in a clear manner with wonderful examples to illustrate each rule. Thus it might be hard to keep all those rules straight in your head, but if you sit down to read the “Energy Blast” power’s rules, you’ll probably get it right away.

My main thesis today is this: the most important thing for a game to be is playable, as I have defined it above — easy to learn and use, fun to play, and compatible with its over-arching goal. Since this is a roleplay-oriented post I make today, the over-archging goal of significance here is “roleplaying.” If a roleplaying game doesn’t promote roleplay, support it, encourage it, make it “front-and-center,” then it has less playability than it should.

The problem with all that D-space on BSM, then, was this: it was not fun, and it was not promoting roleplay (it wasn’t hard to use, but that’s 2 out of 3 it failed on). Therefore, the playability of the game was low. Given that having fun and roleplaying are (or ought to be) the primary intentions of RPG design, why then did the admins of BSM make their game something that had neither incorporated into the design? The answer is that they had a vision of how the game should be, and they put that vision first, before fun, before ease of use, and certainly before roleplay. “We want to replicate as realistically as possible the world of Battlestar Galactica,” sums up their vision (though they never said it in so many words). And they sacrified everything else — most especially playability — to make sure their vision was brought to fruition.

I firmly believe the following rule holds in any game: Playability is all that matters. After all if the game is an incredibly accurate simulation but is not playable (is too hard, not fun, etc), who cares how realistic it is?

Unfortunately, GMs and game designers forget this rule all too often, or perhaps they never learned it. They develop a theory of how they want their game to behave, and what they think will make a good game or campaign, and then they call that the “vision.” They then work very hard to implement their vision, in spite of feedback from players telling them that their game isn’t playable (“This isn’t fun,” or “This is too hard,” or “This is hampering my roleplay ability”). Often, no apology is made for the lack of playability. Players who complain that the game is not playable (though usually not using this term directly) are regarded as “violating the vision” — as if somehow they are to blame for wanting a playable game, rather than the designer being to blame for making one that is not playable in the first place!

In my view, the designer is entirely at fault for an unplayable game. A game that sacrifices playability on the altar of the “vision” is frankly not worth playing. The reason is simple: You’re asking me (the player) to play a game that is not fun, just to further your own vision. And that, I am sorry, is not going to work. People play games to have fun. They play roleplaying games to roleplay. If your vision of your roleplaying game or campagin is stopping either of these things, the vision is wrong. There are no two ways about it.

Now, clearly fun is defined differently by each person. I am not suggesting that because I personally do not find something fun, it is automatically a bad game. No, that is a matter of taste. However, if when I say it isn’t fun, you respond, “Well I know it’s not fun, but that’s how I want it for thus and such reason,” now you are guilty of sacrificing playability on the altar of your vision. This is what the admins of BSM did — they knew D-space was going to hamper roleplay and they did not care, because they wanted D-space representations of the starships more than they wanted good roleplay on their server.

We can, of course, see modern analogues to this all over MMORPG-dom. Just check out Dungeons and Dragons Online. In that game, they want you to group up because “that is how one plays D&D — with a party”, and so they basically made it so the game more or less could not be soloed. When told during the beta and design phases of the game that this would hamper many people’s fun, their answer was the same as the BSM admins: “Tough. This is our vision.” The vision trumps playability. Nevermind that someone playing at 3 in the morning might not be able to get into a group. Nevermind that some people don’t like grouping with random strangers. Nevermind that their grouping interface leaves a lot to be desired, according to reports (I haven’t played the game myself). What matters is the vision — how much fun the vision leads to, be damned. Oh, and the fact that the game is an action game, more than an RPG, and thus hampers roleplaying, impeding it rather than promoting it? Too bad, little roleplayer… the vision is all that matters. Here again we have a game where the playability (ease of use, fun, and roleplaying) has been sacrificed to the almighty vision.

Unfortunately, too many designers these days, seem to care about their vision, rather than about playability. And I think that is why a lot of games fail. Take a look at the utter mess that is Dark and Light right now. Again the designers have a “vision” — basically a huge, giant world, a “sandbox”, but one that has no real help for new players, no way to get started, no real “content”, and nothing particular for most players to do. When told that their game is hard to use, not fun, and doesn’t promote roleplay, these devs similarly have responded that the players do not understand the “vision.” (They didn’t use that word, but maybe that’s just because they are French… heheh.) Once again, the vision is paramount, and playability be damned.

One of the harsh realities that game designers and, to a lesser extent, GMs, all end up facing is that you cannot survive for long without a playable game. The BSM designers found this out when their user base dropped by a good 50% within weeks of their “upgrade” to the high-vision but unplayable game. Star Wars Galaxies found this out when they lost thousands of subscribers after their April 2005 “Combat Upgrade” that turned the game into basically a chore to play. And eventually DDO released a new patch that allows level 1-3 characters to solo a bit more easily… showing that they are finally realizing that one cannot survive long with a game that ignores playability in favor of vision.

You would think, after this lesson has been repeated time and again with the same results, after so many games that sacrificed playability to the vision have either failed, or had to change to become more playable, that game designers would have figured it out by now. But they haven’t. A friend of mine said recently that this is because there are some mighty big egos in the game design world. The designers are all convinced of the absolute “rightness” of their vision. I suppose that might be so. But you’d think they could start learning from their mistakes, instead of making the same old ones over and over again.

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