Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Making Housing Matter

I love the idea of housing in MMOs but have never seen it manifested in any satisfactory manner.  Usually houses are nothing but prefabricated boxes, with minimal decorating capacity, that are used to hold stuff.  What can be done to improve on this?

First off, houses in real life serve three important purposes besides storing stuff: they protect us from the elements, they give us a safe place to eat and sleep, and they provide a contact point for socializing.  Let’s take those in reverse.  

The necessity of having a house to communicate with others is fading over time as people rely less on snailmail and landlines, and increasingly use means of communication that aren’t location-specific (e.g. email, mobile phones).  Still, a house provides a place to get together with friends, even if it’s no longer needed in the process of long-distance coordination.  It’s a desirable setting where the environment is controlled, where people can enjoy food and entertainment of their choice without interruption, at least in theory.  How can this be implemented in an MMO?  Clearly global chat or whispers remove most of the benefits of a virtual physical address; one might however allow packages to be sent only to people’s houses, instead of the generic mailboxes one finds in cities in today’s MMOs.  Honestly, those generic public mailboxes make no sense at all except as drop-off points; how can one explain being able to pick up personal mail in the middle of Orgrimmar or Thunder Bluff or the Undercity, depending on which is most convenient?  Even the catchall “magic” explanation seems pretty questionable.

I also like the idea of having buffs applied to characters over time when they stay in inns and homes; this would tend to increase the density of players in “realistic” locations, which aids in socializing and provides a purpose for such structures.  Perhaps spending time in a player home might increase one’s crafting or other noncombat skills, while spending time in an inn might increase one’s adventuring/combat skills?

Houses in real life are of course used as places to rest and recuperate; in MMOs characters rarely need to sleep (since it’s hard to work into any sort of consistency without making it extremely boring… e.g. either I can lie down and spring right back up fully rested, which is inconsistent with the flow of time, or I have to actually wait for 6-8 hours of in-game time, which is boring for me as a player).  Perhaps instead, houses could provide a bonus to healing effects, especially to recovery from poison and disease?  I think current games over-rely on combat healing anyhow, though of course there’s a balance to be struck here between realistic mechanics and fun gameplay.

Finally, and most essentially, houses protect us from the hazards of the environment; they keep us warm and dry, which is essential to our health.  In MMOs the temperature is very rarely, if ever, even a remote concern.  Characters tromp around in snow wearing chainmail bikinis, and trudge through volcanic caves wearing full plate and heavy cloaks.  OK, stepping in lava usually does damage, and occasionally being in a really, really cold place will also bring adverse effects, but generally there’s no consequence to the weather.  Honestly, this is a tricky one, and I don’t have a perfect answer; any attempts to require shelter or to emphasize weather effects will likely make the game lose some of its fun.  Players don’t want to log in and watch their characters lie in bed with a nasty flu, after all; at least, most players of MMOs don’t; perhaps players of Sim games feel otherwise.

So what else are houses used for?  How else can we emphasize them in MMOs, making them more than simply trophy halls with storage capacity?

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Fungible Loot

I’ve been wondering lately why loot in RPGs tends to be so fungible; that is, any +1 sword is in all regards identical to another +1 sword, and every Shield of the Holy is the same as every other Shield of the Holy.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a host of equipment properties each worth a point value, and items had a combination of properties that added up to a given point total?  This is more or less how items are constructed in D&D, and I don’t see any good reason why it couldn’t be implemented in RPGs.

Examples: A sword with +1 to attack, +2 to damage, that rarely procs a fiery burst might be worth 5 points.  Another sword that does ice damage instead of normal slicing damage, with +3 to damage, might also be worth 5 points (assuming damage mitigation by type is one of the game’s mechanics of course, and that slicing is more common than ice).  Yet another sword might have +5 to attack, and be worth 5 points.  Yet another sword might sometimes heal its wielder by 25% of the damage dealt, and be worth 5 points.  So a given encounter difficulty might be assigned a loot table like “drop 2 items worth 5 points or one worth 8”, or even have a small range, e.g. plus or minus one point for each item.

Et le voila!  Items are no longer fungible, and my magic sword isn’t the same as yours.  Such a simple concept, and so easy to implement.  Yes, there are possible mechanical consequences, e.g. players are free to build equipment collections to heighten only their attack skills, so they almost never miss, but honestly, this is far from insurmountable as a design problem.

Obviously, the larger the table of properties, the better, strictly from a uniqueness POV.

Granted, this idea is already implemented to a very minor extent in a handful of games (in that items with the same name sometimes exist, with the same properties but very slightly altered values, e.g. +4 to attack vs +5 to attack), but in general, loot tables remain filled with static items with very minor variations between them.  People work to obtain the best static item they can (which they look up online of course), by killing known droppers of the item, again and again and again until they get the random drop.  How tedious!  With dynamic loot tables this predictability is out the window; all one can determine beforehand is that a given difficulty challenge has a chance of dropping loot within a certain point range – what’s actually dropped though will be a surprise every time.

Skeet shooting

Epic Necromancy, the Wii, and you

So, yeah.  It’s been months since I posted here; life’s been pretty busy for me, with a divorce and moving to a new location.  “Nuff said.

Anyhow, I took a few months off from gaming (gasp!) but have started up again.  Since I’m moderately burned out on existing MMOs and await the next batch – which involve bright costumes and superpowers – I’ve been getting my gaming fix through my new Nintendo Wii.  It’s a decent little system.  The graphics aren’t overwhelming, but they’re decent, and the controller allows some very unique gameplay options.

The games I’ve enjoyed the most thus far are Ókami and The Godfather.  I know, I know, these aren’t new games, but they’re new to me.  Ókami is set in feudal Japan, and the protagonist is a wolf-avatar of the sun goddess Amaterasu.  The wiimote is used for conventional movement and camera controls, but also and more engagingly as a Celestial Brush, which allows one to e.g. repair damaged features like bridges or windmills; create wind; cause wilted plants to bloom; etc.  It’s an engaging fantasy MMO with a unique tone, but I will say it does have one drawback – I’ve found it to be quite easy to defeat more or less every foe I’ve come across.  The character customization is also a bit lacking… basically you can increase your health, Celestial Ink pots (which allow use of the brush techniques), food bags (which serve as extra lives if you ever die, which hasn’t been an issue for me), or the size of your gold purse (which increases the maximum amount of gold you can carry; again, not an issue for me thus far).  You gain points to customize your character by gaining Praise, which comes from healing the plants, feeding the animals, and defeating the demons that plague the countryside.  It’s a decent enough mechanic.

The Godfather is an excellent translation and extension of the basic storyline of the first movie.  Virtually all of the actors from the movie are doing the voice work for their characters, so e.g. when Tom Hagen talks to you, you hear Robert Duvall’s voice.  That makes a substantial difference in the immersion of the experience, especially if you love the movies as much as I do.  The game is a sandboxy action-RPG, a bit like GTA or Saint’s Row, with a lot of freedom to do what you want in New York, and a linear storyline you can pursue or ignore as you wish.  You get reminders from time to time to head out and meet Clemenza and the other members of the Corleone family, but you’re free to take your time in getting there – meanwhile spending time extorting money from businesses and taking over rackets.  There’s a fairly decent level of customization available; you gain Respect by doing missions, bribing cops, performing contract hits, taking over businesses, etc. – and then spend it to increase stats like firearm accuracy, movement speed, negotiation skill, etc.

The sequel is coming out in a few weeks, based on The Godfather II, so though this review isn’t terribly timely, it’ll lead to one that’s moreso.