Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Practice makes perfect

Tobold has a post today that talks about the elements of skill involved in fighting a boss monster in an MMO, and it got me to thinking.  One of the elements he lists is what he calls “practice skill”, which refers to the knowledge gained by reading up on the elements of the boss fight, as well as practicing that fight over and over until there are no surprises.

Frankly, this seems pretty tedious to me.  I know, I know, I’m beating a dead horse here, but bear with me.

Why is this design element accepted as the norm?  Boss fights are designed to be challenging encounters, and they’re (largely) completely static.  I can understand the thought process… in order to make a fight challenging, special elements are introduced into the encounter, such as special moves or allies appearing at various stages.  In order to make certain that the boss fight is finely tuned, the fight is designed one way and one way only, and it’s precisely the same every time someone faces said boss.  Correspondingly, players practice fighting the same boss until they know every special move, every appearance of an ally, and the fight is completely predictable.  Or they read about the details of the fight online.  Or members of the raid explain, step by step, what’s going to happen next.

When I think about how pervasive this design choice is, I cry a little inside.  I’d personally prefer to see players practicing their character’s skills, mastering theorycraft and tactics and learning how to work well with others, rather than memorizing the 7 steps to killing Boss #31.  I’d like to see some variety in fights, so people don’t farm the bosses via rote memorization, but instead develop a general and transferable skillset that they can use against any and all bosses, as well as normal fights.

In short, I’m arguing for the abolition of “practice skill” as Tobold refers to it, and for the implementation of dynamic boss fights that lack predictability.  How much more exciting is it when you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen?  How much more fun is it to beat a boss because everybody knew their characters and their group role… and not because it was all memorized in advance?  I’ve done it both ways many times… fought bosses where nobody in the group knew what to expect, and fought bosses where everybody knew precisely what to expect at every step of the way… and I can tell you firsthand that there’s a huge difference.

Some would say, “So just don’t seek to learn about the fights in advance” but this isn’t really a solution.  First, a lot of people would continue to rely on “practice skill” instead of character skill or tactical skill, so the community as a whole wouldn’t shift focus to developing more flexible approaches.  Second, designers often plan for practice skill to be an element of boss fights, tuning encounters so that the only way to succeed is to memorize the precise steps needed.  Third, once I’ve fought a boss, the surprise is forever ruined for me… so anytime I return I’ll know the steps to take.  So it’s not a personal choice that I can reasonably make… instead it’s a choice on the part of the designers.  Let’s just hope that someday it’s a choice they feel free to make differently.

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

I checked out Legends of Zork today and found it to be rather fun.  It’s an online turn-based browser game with a good sense of humour, based on the famous Zork IP from Infocom.  You create a character who’s recently been fired by FrobozzCo International’s sales team, and you start out by the White House made famous in that eponymous seminal text game.  Actions are limited to 30 things per day, so I created a few characters and mucked about to get a feel for the game and the world.  For a light, amusing turn-based game that’s fun to play at work, it’s a good fit.  It’s best suited to small bursts of activity, and the 30 actions per day limit encourages either playing a few alts, or, I dunno, maybe working.  No, that’s crazy talk.

So far the equipment my characters have found has all been sold for cash immediately upon my return to the White House, which serves as a base (safe place where you heal to full immediately, and where you can train, buy equipment, etc).  The weapons and armor for sale are amusingly Zork-ish, including pen knives and frying pans.

An interesting mechanic is the inclusion of Double Fanucci cards… these are a rather huge assortment of different cards, which are found on the corpses of slain enemies; of my 4 characters, one has one card and 3 have 2 cards.  The cards can be used to gain bonuses to attack, defense, and perhaps other things… it’s all very mysterious, and the FAQ tells us, “The game itself is so complex that not even its greatest players can fully explain the rules.”  One of my characters has two cards that don’t work well together (their combined effect is less than the effect of one of the cards alone) but the other two who have multiple cards find benefit from playing both cards.  It’s an amusing diversion, anyhow.

Ten Questions

1.  What is your current main character’s name (or names, if you play multiple games)?  Explain how you chose the name.

I don’t play an MMO right now.  I dabbled in AoC and WAR but never really felt immersed in the experience.  The last MMO that I played “seriously” was LotRO, and I had rather a lot of characters there, as I typically do.  This complicates things a bit; e.g. in LotRO I had 4 lvl 50s (yeah, I know, I know) and 3 more characters lvl 35+… and this was when there were only 7 character classes.  * coughs *  Where was I?  Right, I guess my main there was a Champion named Torang; he was a dwarf and I chose a dwarfish-sounding name using the phonetics Tolkien adhered to (mostly two syllables, Norse/Germanic sounding).

2.  What was the name of your very first character in an MMO?  Explain how you chose that name.

My first MMO character was a woodelf bard in EQ named Aloro Silvertongue.  I chose the name Alorolindulaë as sounding properly elvish, but the character’s visible name was Aloro since that’s easier to type.  I tend to favor short, easy names to facilitate chatting… or if my character has a longer name, I pick a nickname for them (since somebody’s going to, it might as well be me).

3.  Have you kept a specific name through various games, or do you tend to change your naming habits based on the individual game?

All of my characters have different names in every game I play.  I’ve only re-used a name once, and that was because my ex really liked that previous character and she re-used her character’s name from the previous game with the intent our characters would play together.

4.  Do you ever reserve names, planning to use them for characters that you might play later?  If so, what are they and why do you hold on to them?

Nope!  I don’t have any trouble coming up with names, and don’t worry about what’s taken.  I make something up to fit the new character each time, with the one exception as above.

5.  Of the three common archetypes in MMOs — tank, healer, DPS — which is your current main character?

I’m an anomaly… I play more or less everything.  I suppose I play more healers and support classes than anything else overall, but it’s not a clear preference by any means, and will vary by game.  My main in LotRO was DPS, though the first character I made in beta and the first character I made post-launch were both Minstrels (healer).

6.  What archetype was your very first character in an MMO?  Why did you choose it?

The bard I played in EQ was a healer with a touch of DPS.  I chose it because I wanted to roleplay being a bard.  I’d take that character and sit in cities and “sing” songs (old songs and poems, nothing remotely modern) for hours, asking for tips.  I really enjoyed that and did it again in DAoC.

7.  Are you usually attracted to one archetype over another, or do you play them equally?  Why?

Other than liking to roleplay minstrels, I tend to play characters pretty equally.  I like the diversity of experiencing content in different ways, and like to have multiple options when playing with friends.  E.g. if my friend has a DPS character, I might bring out a healer to support, or vice versa.

8.  What is your favorite feature from an MMO you no longer play?

Hmm, that’s a tough one.  I think CoH had three things that it did incredibly well, all of which deserve mention.  First, the costume customization was simply amazing… it was entirely cosmetic and there were such a wide range of options that I spent a lot of time and money (in character) tweaking costumes.  Great fun.  Second, the travel in that game was a great deal of fun in and of itself… whether superspeeding, flying, jumping, or teleporting, I enjoyed just moving around, which is unusual.  Third, the new Mission Architect system sounds amazing… I haven’t used it myself since I stopped playing some time ago but it’s definitely intriguing.

9.  Is there an MMO that you would play if it was free?  Which and why?

Hrm.  If it were free I might play LotRO again, since there’s a new expansion and thus content I haven’t seen.  I’m mostly interested to see the next batch of MMOs though – SW:tOR, Star Trek, Champions Online, DCU Online, etc.

10.  How do you measure the success of a character in an MMO (total kills, titles accumulated, wealth, rare items collected, level reached, etc.)?

I think it depends a bit on the game.  Sometimes my measurement of success is basically social (how many people know/like the character), and sometimes it’s more achievement oriented (what level, mostly).  I don’t much care about items and wealth honestly.

Requiescat in Pace, Dave Arneson

The man who created RPGs ran out of hit points yesterday, and the world is a little colder and smaller as a result.  At least Gary Gygax isn’t LFG in Valhalla anymore. 😦

Wow, that was really secret…

This is the first I’ve heard of a new MMO in development called The Secret World.  I must say I’m intrigued by what I’ve seen.  I definitely like the idea that the focus is on the game, not the end-game.  I’m also interested to see how well it works out, having every area available to all characters (no level-gated content means people can play with their friends).  Skill-based progression instead of level-based is something I’m eager to explore.  A good cosmetic appearance system that’s unrelated to character and equipment stats is quite welcome as well.

Also, the video was pretty damned cool.

Just cause I can:

Off the rails

I’ve been playing Marvel Ultimate Alliance a fair amount of late and quite enjoying it.  This is in keeping with my recent trend of playing games that are nowhere near new, but new to me nonetheless.

One thing that’s bothered me is that the game remains very linear.  I understand the necessity of linearity in the chosen design; most areas don’t have any respawn and once you’ve passed through, there’s nothing to return for.  But wait, there is… there are collectable action figures that are needed to unlock Daredevil and Black Panther as characters.  My completionist side wants to get all the action figures so I can try out playing with those two, but once I leave an area, there’s no going back by and large.  Moreover, in some areas there’s no returning after completing even sub-areas – the bit that bothers me the most here is that the sub-areas that are locked immediately DO have respawn.  So there’s “content” for me to experience there, and the areas could reasonably remain accessible, but they’re locked immediately upon completion of the local quest.  The reason, as best I can see, is to force the player to play the whole game again from the start.

Now, it’s a fun game, and there are a lot of characters to choose from.  You form a team of four characters, and the AI is generally surprisingly excellent – the three characters you don’t control act intelligently by and large, and only rarely feel like they’re the blithering idiots I’m accustomed to henchmen being.  I’m interested in playing the game again on Hard mode (which is unlocked after completing it once) so would likely play again anyhow – and given the diversity of characters available, I suspect it’ll feel different next time through as well.  So I just don’t see a good reason to limit access to this content.

I wanna stick my arms outside the ride, and it hasn’t come to a full and complete stop.  Sigh.

An essential step towards… what?

I just read an interesting press release about a new piece of legislation calling for the creation of a National Cybersecurity Advisor.

So… will this help prevent gold sellers and game account hacking?  Will it stop 419 scams and viagra spam?  No?  How does it help ME then, I ask you?

All joking aside, it seems like this is an essential step towards protecting us in the Brave New World.  I can’t help worrying though that it’ll be a step towards Big Brother.  Or maybe Skynet, or Operation Dark Storm Cloud.  OK, I grant those latter two aren’t terribly likely. 😀

Road Rage

I just read an interesting post on GamePolitics that suggests that driving games lead to greater aggression than shooting games.  I think that’s an interesting bit of data.  I can offer several explanations why this might be true:

1) Driving games closely mirror real-life activities and thus one might expect more transference between game and reality.  People would thus get tense if they fear crashing in a game, since in real life crashing can be deadly serious.  Shooting games don’t mirror the life experiences of most players, veterans and SWAT members excluded; I imagine such games are more stressful to those players than to the general public.

2) “Losing” a shooter means reloading from the last save point; generally players proceed for moderate to long periods without having to reload.  “Losing” in a race has a great association of failure, and often requires repeating the race.  Obviously, when you do repeat a race, you repeat it from the start, not from a save point.

3) Violence is often the result of stress, while driving is a source of stress – plain and simple.  Violent outbursts vent frustration… though it’s been argued fairly successfully that catharsis doesn’t work in this regard; in real life, violent outbursts don’t lead to calmer patients.  Still, indulging in simulated violence can be relaxing as a virtual outlet for stress.  Driving, especially competitively, is a fun but potentially very frustrating experience – whether real or simulated.  

I like driving games, but they do make my pulse race more than blasting zombies.  I think the above contribute to that experience.


Being a meme in 3 acts.


The NPC stands

Aloof, eternally still,

Strong yet inactive.


A PC walks up,

Seeking adventure, guidance…

Told to kill ten rats.


O powerful one,

If this is so important,

Kill the rats yourself.

The Cat in the Mask