Architectural Service Design

Now that’s a heading that should make people’s heads hurt.

I’m in the middle of a rather large service design project now and it’s making me think long and hard about similarities in games.  There are 4 main phases; design, migration, steady state and close out.  I am chest-deep in the first one and I talk about this a lot on the blog.  The other three, let’s get a bit more meat on.

Migration is the period between nothing and operational state.  This is paperwork stage, signing agreements and whatnot.  It’s when you buy your ticket to the ride.  Steady State is the day to day activities.  Close Out is when the service is about to be shut down.  There’s a lot of this one lately.  In simple terms, from a design perspective you need to figure out how to minimize impact to users during migration and ensure that steady state meets expectations, otherwise close out happens.  In practice this is more complex since expectations are all over the map for steady state.

If I take a console game as an example (BioShock Infinite or Ni No Kuni), the process of migration is simple enough.  Buy the disk, put it in, patch (maybe) and play.  There are no extra bells and whistles, you’re in.  MMOs you can’t really buy the games anymore, you’re downloading them.  There’s the signup, payment methods (PayPal should be an option everywhere), patching and then you get into the game.  That game part is also a problem since character creation, for many games, is done poorly.  Customization options are often lackluster and irrelevant after a few levels.  Class/race selection usually have a dramatic impact on gameplay but without the context for players to understand.  Someone starting an MMO cold is going to be confused and likely alone.  I went back to SWTOR recently and it took about 4 hours of reading forums and websites to have an idea what was going on.  Barrier of entry is a problem.

Steady state is also a fun one.  Again, the console example has you play a contained experience which is cohesive.  I mean that the game from start to end is logical, systematic and if you play the game you should be able to follow track for all content.  Batman doesn’t suddenly turn into a FPS game half way through. MMOs again have trouble here.  For some reason, many try to make 3 games in one.  First, is the leveling experience.  Heavy on story, exposition, relative balance.  Very lackluster on world integration.  You consume, move on and never really look back or understand your relation to the rest of the world.  Second is the “end game” aspect, where you’ve reached the end of the levelling experience and now have a list of a dozen things you can do.  Hunt knick knacks, get bigger numbers on your equipment, beat big bad guys.  This is, sadly, skinner box material.  Third is PvP.  This is usually a bolt on mechanic, with parallel gameplay and rewards.

 These 3 components are rarely integrated.  Leveling is often-time the only part people want to play since the disconnect at max level is just a wall of grind.  There’s no real progress except for numbers.  I mentioned in the last post that WoW leveling is a face roll of challenge, and then you reach the max level stuff and realize you actually need to use some of those skills you got 50 levels ago. SWTOR is somewhat interesting in that you need to use ALL skills to do leveling content.  PvP, other than a handful of games, has no bearing on PvE.  Since UO took the knife to the problem, no game has really put effort to figure out this problem.  Heck, FireFall has pretty much thrown in the towel even though it was pitched as PvP only.

Games today have a significant challenge to come out of the gate.  First, there are few people entering MMOs cold and they have expectations.  If your game’s Migration phase is different than existing models, it need to be ultra smooth and intuitive or you’re going to lose people.  If you want people to stay around after the leveling portion of the game is done, make sure it is tightly integrated with other systems.  GW2 is a good example where leveling content is also seen as end-game content.  If you want PvP in the game, make the social aspects obvious and integrated.  Have it affect the PvE world and vice versa.   Change zone “availability” based on PvP results and make those zones relevant.

I love the challenge of architectural service design.  I think it’s one of the most complex and overlooked parts of development.  If done well, and expectations are clearly understood, then meeting those same expectations is in the realm of possible.

Challenge is Fun

I’ve been back in SWTOR for a bit, trying out the new content.  Well, new since I left 2 months after launch.  The context for the extra 5 levels (cap of 55 now) is interesting.

See, most themepark expansions add quests in zones to get you to the max level.  WoW gives you so many quests and linear content that you only ever need to complete half of it to reach the cap.  The rest is just wasted.  RIFT had an interesting tactic where there was just enough content, if you took on the grinding quests at the same time.  The amount of time SPENT leveling is also very inconsistent.  Either they rush you to the end or it takes forever.  I personally prefer a more or less linear path in the levels past the tutorial.  GW2 tried this and it worked.  Well for others, not so much myself.

The thing about GW2 is that there is little to no character progress.  From level 4 to level 50, you have essentially the same skills and press the same buttons.  If the process wasn’t linear, I think I would have gone crazy.  The content you go through is always challenging, since it’s nearly always scaled to your level.  I personally have a massive dislike for the challenge in GW2 due to game mechanics (hard to actually see who’s attacking and threat range is massive).  I do like that death is common enough to be a threat.  I just don’t like the reasons that I’m dying.  Like it’s out of my control.  So that game is on the backburner for a while.

SWTOR is different.  Death happens a lot, not so much as GW2 but if you’re pushing the game, you’re going to die.  The new content – Makeb and Oricon – both have exceptionally challenging battles.  The Imprisoned One has a regenerative heal and a fair chunk of skills you need to interrupt.  At level (53) I could not take him down, using every skill I had.  I wasn’t super geared, but more than adequate for the normal content.   The last guy on Makeb, no spoilers, killed me a dozen times before I figured the “dance” of the fight.  It was thrilling to finish it.  Now 55, on Oricon there is a guy called Commander Zoaron.  He is easily the most difficult fight I have seen in the game.  There are 2 skills that must be interrupted, 1 that you need to move out of range, another you need to break out of.  Each hit is like a bus.  10 tried in, multiple strategies, no luck.  Back at the fleet now, filling in some gear spots for another attempt.  Finally down, but just so.

Finally dead.

Finally dead.

WoW, as contrast, I think my Monk died twice from 1-90 in combat, and that was poor planning on my part.  Zero challenge anywhere, rarely a need to use anything more than 2-3 skills.  A druid I started is just stomping through everything.  It’s like I’m a god from the start til the end.  How does anyone understand how the game plays at max level going through this?

In SWTOR’s case, I feel like the challenge is specific to an encounter.  Figure out the puzzle, feel great, move on.  In GW2, I feel like the entire game is this weird structure of puzzle/punishment.  There’s no real way to solve it since it’s so generic.  I really love challenge, especially one that you feel you can overcome and look back upon.  It makes the game a heck of a lot more rewarding.

Determination vs Deterrence

Back in the UO and EQ days, you needed to be determined to succeed. Death was extremely painful. You could lose hours of progress or even your entire house! Death was seen as a deterrent for many types of gameplay other than the one prescribed by the developers.

Flash forward to early Wow and the worst part of death was a 20 minute corpse run through STV. Nowdays, any game that puts you more than 20secs away from your corpse is considered hardcore.

GW2 is my current flavor and it treats death lightly. It really isn’t a deterrent in terms of penalty or time. What it does do is kill you all the time for little valid reason.

See, I like to get better. In the majority of games, I tend to float above average. I get meta gaming and theorycrafting. Heck, I write guides for games. GW2 is different.

You can die all the time due to level scaling. You can die to poor spawns, you can die to guys behind rocks, you can die because of aggro radii being inconsistent, you can die because of sparkles that don’t correspond to an attack but do to damage.

My elementalist cannot get better. He has the best gear, all his skills, all the passive traits that I think are of value and enough knowledge of the class to understand skill synergy. But I die a lot. I’d say 1 in 10 fights puts me in rally mode and half of those I die. Most of the time it’s me being victim of poor spawning in an empty zone. And it gets worse the higher in level I get.

It gives the impression than I’m getting weaker as I grow, which is not a fun feeling to have.