Skill vs Time – A Visual Aid

After reading Isey’s post on How to Lose an MMO Gamer in 10 Ways, and after pondering a bit more my previous post on Wildstar, I decided to draw out what I think is one of the larger hurdles for games to succeed – at least on a “massive” scale.  And that’s player skill.

Good game design is a series of meaningful choices.  I don’t think there’s any debate on that.  Where I think the kink in that comes from is in the ability for a person to have a an actual choice and appreciate the results (i.e. the ability to apply a skill and learn a new one).  I’ll go back in time a bit to vanilla Naxx and Heigan the Unclean.  This is the famous “avoid the fire spouts and you can solo me” boss – a dance really.  This was a massive twist in the traditional RPG space, where you just stood there pressing buttons.  Now you actually had to pay attention to the play space and move.  You couldn’t just absorb the damage.  I do know that many guilds at the time used it as a triage for recruits (combined with Thaddius) and it formed a massive skill wall for it’s day.   You either performed it perfectly, or you died.  That model, tried with a slight twist in BC, got the Ol’ Yeller treatment.  For good reason too, it wasn’t a meaningful choice and other than memorization and “no keyboard turners” there was little skill exploited.  WoW since then (with a blip in Cataclysm that they want to forget) has been more and more accessible at the lower end, with harder content for those who want the option.

To me, player progress is important.  Not only improvement itself but the opportunity for improvement and the evidence of improvement.  Huge spikes in difficulty is bad.  Difficult just to be difficult is bad.  No difficulty is bad.  A gradual increase in difficulty, where your progress is both evident and rewarded is the optimal solution.

On to the visual aid I promised!

skillvstime

What I did here was map the player skill required to complete tasks, assuming a time investment.  The skill portion is relative between games, where EvE is certainly the most challenging.  The remaining themeparks are ranked in difficulty, based on my play.  Over each in particular now.

EvE

Everyone has seen the EvE difficulty curve.  The game is rather simple to start, assuming you stay in high-sec and follow the themepark crumbs.  Try to move off that path, either through null-sec or mastering a trade and boom, welcome to excel online.  If you make the transition, you’re gold.  If you don’t, then you’re dead.  EvE has been able to succeed with a supremely polished game after the transition.

Wildstar

No game starts off harder than Wildstar.  Then you start dungeons and the difficulty starts to climb.  Reach max level and the attunement begins, with a massive climb in difficulty. There’s no help to transition between the stages, the difficult is very binary (you die in 1 shot or you take no damage) and the climb at the end is like no other themepark.

FF14

A game with a very gradual increase in difficulty due to skill unlocks being limited and the presence of force grouping at an early stage to progress on the solo train.  You learn to tank, heal, pull, DPS, stun, craft… everything.  And the change at max level is more along the lines of perfecting skills you’ve already acquired.  It’s a very good experience.

ESO

This one is a little odd, in that challenge as you level has no training and very little feedback but the skill level required is pretty low.  Given that there are actual “bad choices” the game design allows you to have a couple and still succeed.  If you make good decisions, then it’s like cutting Jell-O.  That said, at launch the game had a veteran system at level 50 that was significantly harder than the first portion of the game and accounted for 60% of the content.  Bad choices meant you were going to do.  Good choices gave you a 25% chance to die.  That system was drastically changed after 3 months to a more similar difficulty curve.

WoW

I could have drawn 1 line per expansion here but the power curve line is pretty close to this.  Today’s experience from 1 to 89.9 is a joke.  I leveled a Monk to 90 in a week and only died from falling damage.  Dungeons & LFR can be AFKed by 20% of the group and you’re still going to win.  Normal raids have some challenge but the real difficulty is in the heroic raids.  And not heroic raids because of the mechanics but because of the stats the players have on the content.  Remember that power curve line?  The difference in power between expansion launch and 2 months is nearly 25%.  People were clearing MoP raids in Cataclysm raid gear.

Others

I could have added other games, like LoTRO, STO, DCUO, Rift, Neverwinter and DDO where I’ve done the high level stuff.  They are all pretty similar to WoW, with the final spike happening earlier.  I can’t think of one that plateaus before max level – though TSW might be a candidate as it doesn’t really have a max level, just limited action sets.

Summary

I think the comparison between all the games is important for discussion.  Certainly each has their own variables but of you were to look at where players quit the game, I’d bet dollars to donuts it’s where you see a shift in the curve (assuming they get past a trial phase).  Difficulty is good.  Shifts in difficulty must be moderate.  The benefit of that difficulty increase must be evident.  All of the games listed have made changes since launch to their curves (yes, even EvE) except for Wildstar – but it’s also the youngest.  Here’s hoping they get the hint.

Old is the New

Most things in life happen in cycles. These cycles can be long (ice ages) or short (food cravings). Game patterns have their own ebb and flow. People aren’t clamoring for Pac-Man, though it still sells for nostalgic reasons, but there are some elements that function better with simplicity – for a time.

I like public quests. I really like RIFT’s take on them, what with the instant grouping, chat channels and length. I like GW2s versions for the variety but take issue with the lack of social. Wow has the Timeless isles now which is just a bunch of random bosses every other minute. Cut the BS, gimme the loot. EQ didn’t bother with much of that. Every quest was a group quest and it took a zone to make it work.

I float between the models, depending on mood. There are advantages to each and time is a rather serious factor. EQ takes forever to get going but is much more rewarding. GW2 has oodles of choice but everything is a 1 night stand. Wow, well I don’t rightly know right now. They’ve never done something so organic and it really feels out of place.

It’s good that so many MMOS are around giving the playerbase some choice and developers some baseline. People don’t go back to play BF2 but people go back to play UO. The systems might not have been perfect but new games since then haven’t really moved the bar up – just sideways.

Free to Play Foibles

Since Rift is going F2P in June, quite a few people have voiced some concerns over the business model and the long term ramifications.  I think Wilhelm has the most sober approach to it all.  There are quite a few items I would like to discuss here that I think many people have either overlooked or simply not really thought much about.

A subscription game has a relatively assured income model.  You have X players you get X money.  As long as the playerbase is happy, you’re going to bring in money.  This part I don’t really get about RIFT since the quality has always been there but without Hartman at the helm, we all pretty much figured this was going to happen.  WoW makes about $50 million a month and can amortize/invest into future content development.  The thing about themeparks is that the developers determine the content and the players consume it.  Given WoW’s development cycle, you’re paying about $60-$100 per patch and then another $60 per expansion pack.  Take any other themepark F2P game and you can pay much, much less for content – sometimes nothing.  Sandboxes do not have this problem (hence UO still be subscription) and PvP games are pretty close to this.  This is rather clear if you take a step back from the actual game.

Where people tend to trip up a bit is two-fold.  First, a company needs to make money and people have to spend money.  I know, simple.  The thing about making money is that you have to consistently make it.  If you’re selling unlocks for an account, things that last forever, then after a while, people won’t be buying them if they’ve been there for a long time.  You need new players to buy that sort of stuff.  In order to make cash, you need to sell consumables.  In a level-based, gear-based system, what is consumable?  New content is one, but the price tag to develop it is high and you’re not sure to get the money back.  Character customizations work but again, unless you’re overwriting what was there before, you’re not going to have long term success.  Devs have yet to figure out this problem, instead they all rely on lockboxes, which is more or less gambling.

This is where it gets tricky.  As a general rule, people are stupid.  A person is smart, certainly.  Groups of people, in small enough quantities can show smarts – hence guilds.  Large groups, as is evident in any political circle, are as dumb as bricks – if not simply lemmings.  Neverwinter’s spam of who is successfully unlocking mounts in their gambling boxes invariably makes other people think “I can win too”.  Even the lottery is a tax on the stupid as you have a better chance to be hit by lightning twice before winning the lottery once.  People still buy dozens of tickets a week.

So you end up in the situation where developers have yet to find a consumable item that doesn’t make players feel like they are getting gouged (which is why we pay subscriptions right?) and resort to the lowest common denominator.  Which the public happily provides.

A third point that I need to bring up is the comparison to F2P in the Asian market.  The majority of those games are P2W, clearly.  And the majority only stay on the market for 12-18 months.  This is the polar opposite of the western F2P market.  For some reason I can’t yet figure out, our side of the ocean wants free games for years and years and years.  If you’re too cheap to pay 10$ a month for a F2P game, you shouldn’t complain that they are offering items to people who will.  If you’re unable to find things to buy at that price point, which I personally find issue with, then there’s simply a problem with the financial model of the game (*cough* SWTOR *cough*).

While I might think that RIFT could have continued for another 10 years with a subscription model, apparently they were getting enough feedback that F2P games were eating into their profits.  WoW is no different I’m sure.  Someone will have to make the tough decision of either guaranteed income and to weather the F2P storm while the market evolves or to jump into a pool of cannibalistic fish who will do everything to destroy their competition.

Is Free to Play here to stay?  Yes.  Is the current market deployment sustainable? No.  Did the exact same thing happen to subscriptions over the past 5 years?  Hell yes.

Dance the Dance

After having played the recent Batman series, I have found a new love for the combat dance.  In my younger days, I played a lot of arcade fighters and usually held my own.  There was just one local guy who could really whoop me and I learned the combat dance from him.  The dance is a series of timed moves that work symbiotically with each other, in what can only be perceived as “what I was trying to do in the first place”.  In older games, this was called (and might still be) juggling.  Today, there’s a rhythm to most games that involve combat so that when you watch an elite player, they don’t so much memorize the buttons as they memorize the pattern of the buttons.

As there is a difference in complexity between the Waltz and the Tango, so true is it in combat games.  If memory serves, Paladins in WoW have had a longstanding tradition of horrible dances.  The 2-4-6 combo was a series of 3 attacks that you cycled continuously on end.  Hunters are the same.  Most SWTOR classes also suffer this simplistic formula and Rift often suffers from the 3 button macro effect. Some games, like StarCraft for example, have very complex combat patterns and require not only dexterity to accomplish it in short time frames but also the ability to adapt on the fly.

Back to the MMO world though, and the thought process behind generation and consumption in terms of combat.  Abilities are limited by 3 main things – time, resources and condition.  The first one is usually just a cooldown, preventing you from continuously spamming your most effective abilities.  The second can be a bit more complex.  Perhaps your character has a single energy pool, where abilities need a certain amount in order to activate.  More complex characters have a dual pool, where you need resources from two separate pools to do something – like Rogues, Energy and Combo Points.  The third type is where a set condition is required in order to activate an ability.  Say they need to be poisoned, or you need to be at a certain distance.  All this combines into a complexity ladder for a given character and in turn, the popularity of that character.

Look at WoW and the seemingly immense proliferation of Mages and Hunters.  Both have a single resource, little restrictions in terms of timed abilities and very limited conditional factors.  Both are all over the place.  Then look at Warlocks and Rogues.  They are extremely dependent on time (due to Damage over Time effects), multiple resources and plenty of conditional factors.  And that’s just DPS.  For tanks, with changes in Pandaria to an active mitigation – where you need to press buttons rather than stack stats – this means that the combat dance becomes ever more complex.  There are your buttons for attacking, your buttons for defending and your buttons for “oh my god”, all of which use the same complex resource management system of the base class.  Tanks not only have to understand  dance with a dozen more steps, they also need to pay more attention to the music to even be able to dance without falling down.

There’s certainly a balance to be had between a simple dance and a complex one.  In all honesty, I think all classes should have a basic, smooth dance that allows for a player to add complexities when needed.  Rift does the former but not much of the latter.  WoW doesn’t really do transition between the dances all that well – either it’s dumb easy or carpal tunnel syndrome complex.  I think concept of easy to play, difficult to master should be the baseline.  If the game metrics are showing that people are having a really hard time with a class structure, maybe it’s just time for a complete re-write.

Balance for the Sake of Balance

Wildstar is on my map for future MMO.  It seems more focused on the action/adventure portion than the “mash 1-2-3” of current games.  I also like the art style, and if you’re going to spend dozens of hours staring at a screen, might as well like what you see too.

There’s only a bit of stuff on the site so far but one of the more interesting links is on balance.  Sure, you get the typical crud about trying to and actually achieving balance but some of the more interesting comments are:

Gazimoff: Glass cannons that are all glass and no cannon. If I’m playing a spellcaster, give me a Yamoto Cannon, not a Pea Shooter.
sirchatters: When the developers give up unique classes and just make everything fair/even. I prefer a few paths be bad than all the same.
qn2Quid: I get annoyed when special abilities are removed to create class balance, classes should be different and feel unique
jleithart: When I don’t understand why things are nerfed. patch notes should give an explanation for the reason I’m nerfed.
jkkennedytv: many players confuse 1v1 for game balance. Biggest frustration is for devs having to filter misinformation.
Gazimoff: Also: Buff Spellslingers.

This is why prefer Rift’s class balance efforts to WoW’s.  Rift knows that some builds are simply horribad and some are great.  It doesn’t focus on the details of the builds but more on the feeling of the builds.  WoW has all specs having to be withing 5% of each other, which is simply impossible to do when trying to balance raids, dungeons, single player, duels, arena and battlegrounds.  A mage should be a glass cannon.  Most games today make them a ranged tank.  Games either need to accept that balance isn’t possible at a high level or build their systems to ignore the need for balance (lower difficulty).

Wildstar is doing a few things right.

  1. The focus is on PvE first and PvP will fall in later.  Focus.
  2. Balance on fun skill vs number skills. This is a major problem I have with ToR.
  3. Due to the telegraphing mechanics of the game, CC really ins’t a factor.  AE attacks put markers on the ground, dodge them.  Active combat!
  4. Skills work on everyone.  In most games, (TOR especially) a bunch of skills don’t work on bosses for balance reasons.  They will work with diminishing returns but they will work from the start.

Size Matters

Rift Giant

Just don’t tell anyone! (zing!).

Rift has this thing where it plays with scale, more so now in the expansion.  There are two portions to this statement.  First is in the zone layout, where there are simply no real dead spots.  You aren’t so much running from place to place as you are running through things to get to other things.  Whereas most themeparks have you running on an empty path ( or flying there), Rift forces you to run through piles of enemies (or nearbouts) to get to the next hub.  This makes the world feel larger because it takes longer to get somewhere.

The second portion of the scale issue is in enemy variety.  I’ve fought dragons and bone golems to wolves and small birds.  There is a diversity in all enemies, which is a good thing in a game that so focuses on a realistic setting.  Compare to WoW or TOR, where everything has a bright cartoon feel and is easily distinguishable, Rift needs some method to have things stand out.  The original game did this with enemy diversity but not so much size.  Storm Legion has you taking on massive enemies  just often enough to make you feel powerful but not so often than the little guys seem inconsequential to your power.

It’s an interesting balance.