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Posts Tagged ‘Game Mechanics’

Starcraft II Single player: Protoss Research Tree

August 23, 2010 1 comment

Gathering Protoss and Zerg parts during the single player part of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty gives some pretty interesting choices. Let’s take a look at what the Protoss have to offer:

5 points: Ultra-Capacitators [BEST] / Vanadium plating

Speed and Damage increase versus Health and Armor increase. 5% is not that much, however, it adds up over many units. The more units you have, the better the damage increase relatively gets compared to health and armor which only matter on a single unit with a large health pool like a Thor.

10 points: Orbital Depots / Micro Filtering [BEST]

Supply depots can be build instantly or refineries produce gas faster. With a bit of planning you should never get supply capped and there are several missions where you start with a large supply anyway. On the other hand, getting gas faster on timed missions is a great boon

15 points: Automated Refineries [BEST] / Command Center Reactor

Getting Automated refineries means you no longer need SCV’s on gas, but you still get the same amount of SCV’s to start with. At food cap, you save three food per refinery to use on armies. It also allows you to build refineries without a Command Center nearby. Command Center Reactor on the other hand is just nice at the start of the game to get some SCV’s up quicker, but it becomes mostly worthless quickly.

20 points: Raven / Science Vessel [BEST]

I love the Raven, but the Science Vessel is borderline overpowered. It can repair mechanical units with no cost except energy and that regenerates, which is a great on levels with little resources. Suddenly it is possible field a large air army that needs no repairs or backup. Banshees, normally quite fragile units, become a truly scary force if a few Science Vessels join them.

25 points: Teach Reactor [BEST] / Orbital Strike

Tech Reactor works both like a Tech lab and a Reactor and the double build ability also applies to high-tech buildings. So a Starport with Tech Reactor can build two Banshees at the same time. This gives both versatility and saves up resources that would otherwise be spent on additional buildings. Dropping barracks units anywhere on the field (with sight) by the Orbital Strike is fun, but units still have to build, so to drop a sizeable force anywhere, you will need many barracks and time the building of units. Putting a force in a Medivac is often more useful. Orbital Strike does shine on a single mission near the end though, but Tech Reactor outshines it everywhere else easily.

Starcraft II – My first five lessons

So I jumped into Starcraft II Beta last week. I had seen some video’s and read a bit on the site, but I had no idea how much had changed since Starcraft I and I had not played that for years anyway and never online. It shall be no surprise that I am hanging around in Copper League now, though in the top 8. Since it’s beta I have been experimenting with all three races and their units. That’s not something that’s helping my record on the short time either.

Still, I am having great fun. I have lost games I should have won and won games I should have really lost. The match-making is pretty loose to get fast games with the limited beta population, so everyone is fighting everyone. Personally, I think that losing to a better opponent is much more rewarding in the long run than stomping noobs all day. Only the games that were interrupted through crashes have really frustrated me. One particular game ended in a bitter crash. My opponent and I had been fighting for well over half an hour, which is quite long for SCII 1v1 matches. He was controlling his units better than I, but my Macro was better than his Micro. So I had the whole map under control and my army was ready to push into his single base. Then the computer crashed on my end. Bitter, indeed.

After more than a hundred games,  I feel confident to share some of the lessons I learned

Know the units

I knew the basic units from Starcraft I, but I had no idea what everything was doing. During my first games I often saw new units and I had no idea how to counter them. The best way to get some idea is to start-up a custom game against the AI. Only the dumbest (very easy) setting is available, but that’s fine. Build all units, look at all upgrades and see where the synergies are.

Scouting is not something you do once

Knowledge is power. Units have some pretty hard counters and knowing what your opponent is building, will help you setup the perfect counter force. Of course, trying to prevent your opponent from scouting you is equally important. During the first few minutes of each game it is vital to know if your opponent is trying to rush an attack, tech up or expand early. Sending out your eight or ninth worker to find and map the opponent’s base may cost you some resources, but the knowledge gained is often invaluable. Especially if he is not building enough defense is the moment to try to put pressure on him. Many new players are simply not aggressive enough and let their opponents take control of the map. The Zerg use Overlords and Overseers as well as buried units to scout. Flyers and detectors take or keep them out. Protoss relies on observers, cloaked units built from the robotics bay. Terran has the powerful sensor sweep from the upgraded Command Center, but it costs energy. Building a few specific buildings away from your main facility can definitely put a Terran player on the wrong foot.

It’s all about resources

Everything is driven by resources. Get too few and your opponent can overwhelm you. However, only building workers during the first phase of the game will leave you with weak defenses. Every crystal clusters support up to three workers (a fourth will give only a minimal increase in income), but there should be at least two on each cluster, while geysers support three if the distance to the gathering building is minimal. I often built too few workers during my first games and that cost me in the long run. Now I basically never stop with building workers unless everything is really over saturated. In the worst case the extra workers can be moved over to an expansion.

Some units excel at quickly killing workers, but they can be easily countered with scouting. On the other hand, if you see the opportunity to kill a group of workers it is possible to set the opponent back a lot.

Timing expansions is crucial

Building an expansion is expensive for both Terran and Protoss but it will give a serious boost to income if you can pull it off. It is cheaper and necessary for Zerg to get enough larva to spawn from which to build units. The cost of an expansion can be great if it necessary to put many defenses up, but a defensive opponent can be outfought no matter how many defensive structures and units he puts up if you win the economic fight.

Learn the maps

All starting positions have ramps that can be blocked or defended (Terran should always block the ramp asap). An undefended ramp can allow a suicide force to get to your workers. However, air units can simply bypass it as well as the Protoss Colossus that is so large it can step and down ramps (note that it only attacks ground while being big enough to be attack by air-to-air attacks).

Some maps have islands that can only be reached by air. Terran can fly buildings there. Other maps have destructible rocks that can allow sneak attacks right into the back of your base. Some maps have high positions that are perfect to place siege tanks on or launch nukes from. Some allow for safe approaches from air, while a ground assault is more risky. Gold crystals yield more cash than the blue ones, but they are often found in a less defendable position. Scout towers give a wide view of the map. Et cetera, et cetera.

Every map has its own specifics and learning those is crucial for victory.

The dread penalty

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Fear the...Pink...Reaper?!

Death penalties are a pretty controversial topic in the MMO community. One extreme demands that dying in-game should permanently delete the character, the other does not want any penalty at all. I have no set opinion, only that the penalty should make sense with regard to the game environment and that playing badly should never be rewarded.

Current flavors

Let’s take a look at some of the penalties currently implemented in different games:

  • Dying in World of Warcraft results in the character’s spirit being removed from the body and moved to a specified spot on the map where a Spirit Healer awaits. All items carried are also damaged. The player can run as a ghost back to his body and resurrect on the spot. The penalty here is lost time and gold for repairs. The player can also choose to resurrect at the Spirit Healer, but he will then suffer from greatly reduced stats for ten minutes and a great durability loss for all items. There is no penalty at all within battlegrounds and arenas because people have to be able to get up and fight immediately again.
  • Characters in Lord of the Rings Online cannot really die, because it would not fit Tolkien’s world were death is permanent (although some spirits can linger in the world). Instead of health characters have morale and if morale gets depleted, the character retreats to a preset spot on the map with damage to items. They also get a penalty to health and damage output for ten minutes, which grows more severe as the character levels up, the fall of great hero is more severe than that of a grunt. Although it is possible to ‘resurrect’ on the spot every two hours (every hour for lower level characters) this gives the same penalties and is not to be recommended if the character retreated within aggro distance of mobs Like in WoW the penalty is time and money for repairs.
  • Champions Online does not have a dead penalty per se, but rather a reward for staying alive. The longer the character stays alive fighting equal or near level mobs, the more ‘hero’ stars he gets. Every star gives a minor increase in damage up to 6%. Every dead results in the loss of a star and being moved to a preset place on the map. The penalty here is time. There is no penalty at all within the Hero Games because people have to be able to get up and fight immediately again.
  • Warhammer moves a dead character to a preset location and induces a penalty on all stats that grows progressively, so every dead increases the chances of dying again as long as the penalty is on (up to 10 min). The penalty is time. There is no penalty at all within scenarios because people have to be able to get up and fight immediately again.
  • Star Trek Online has no substantial dead penalty, a blown up ship respawns in several seconds. Suicide runs are rewarded because enemies often do not fully reset during the respawn period, making it possible to whittle them down bit by bit, death by death.
  • In Pirates of the Burning Seas ships can be lost a limited number of time before being destroyed permanently. All ship outfitting is lost permanently upon being destroyed. The worth of ships varies so the monetary penalty does as well. Even in PvP a loss means the loss of a ship, which fits the realistic setting well.

I have not played Darkfall or EVE, but from what I have read it is possible there to lose items (getting looted by an opponent in Darkfall, getting your ship blown up in EVE), while a character can also be killed. The player has than to get a clone active, which could be considered a save file. So it is possible in these games to lose very little or very much. Other games, like Aion, give an experience debt: the player must gain an extra amount of XP to get to the next level. This is a time penalty.

There is only one real currency in MMO’s and that’s time. Everything the players has gained has come from an investment in time. However, gold and equipment are not gained equally fast by all players, which makes converting such items to time difficult to generalize.

Making sense

Although it seems rather strange that a hero is able to escape a encampment filled with orcs in LOTRO, it is possible to imagine him/her desperately making a break for it. While the near loss of life weighs heavily for a few moments (the debuff period) the hero eventually recovers. It is easier in a World like Warcraft where magic is everywhere. Getting an entire star ship blown up and reappearing a few minutes later makes no sense at all, unless every STO captain has their own personal Q aboard.

It is easier to suspend disbelief in a fantasy environment than in SF, but that does not mean that SF should not try to make sense.

Severity

Games are entertainment first and foremost, but what is a game without challenge? Challenge means that the possiblity of failure. Failure is only real if it is felt. Failure teaches people to better play the game. Without penalties there will be more bad players, it’s as simple as that. People should know what they get into before they start, they should know what they can lose. Just like they agree to the EULA when they start up the game for the first time, they agree to the risks as well. So as long as players are able to know what their risk is, I am fine with any dead penalty that is severe enough to show the player that he made a mistake, e.g. basically nowhere is safe in EVE, while a setback in WoW will not cost more than about twenty minutes maximum (10 minutes Spirit Healer debuff and 10 minutes to do daily quests to get repair gold).

Summarizing

  1. Dead penalties are vital in teaching how to play the game.
  2. While the only quantity that really can be lost, this can be a great deal.
  3. Players should know their risks before starting to play.

Forced Grouping

January 10, 2010 Leave a comment

MMO’s are per definition social affairs. We actually pay a price for being able to play with our people: the world becomes static and whatever we do, it will not change. In single player RPG’s like Dragon Age when we kill a dragon, it says dead and the town is saved, but it will be back every week in an MMO and the town it threatened will never be free. Blizzard solved this partly by introducing phasing content: it hides or shows certain aspects of the world depending on where you are in a quest chain, for example: building a fort starts by securing the area, then help gathering materials and then the fort is ready. However, this limits the social mechanic because people cannot see each other in the phased zone if they are in another part of the story.

Grouping is social, so social is grouping?

Social interaction can happen on several levels:

Presence: while playing you see other characters active that are not NPC’s and as such are not predictable. This makes the area less static and helps convince you that you are really in a living world.

Communication: talking to others about the world, but also about real life. However, there’s also a negative side in the form of spam.

Cooperation: playing together, trading to mutual benefit, PvP, Roleplaying

Competition: having other real people in the world is not always beneficial, there’s the risk of kill stealing, ganking, killing quest givers etc. On the other hand, fighting against real people in PvP adds a level of unpredictability and learning ability that no artificial intelligence can mimic so far.

Thus social does not mean grouping.

Flavors of grouping

I never played Everquest, but people who did told me that you could not get anywhere without a group. My first MMO was World of Warcraft and I could do most things on my own. However, the best items required playing together with others to conquer the 5man and 40man dungeons. And that made sense, because the scale of the dungeons showed that no single person would be able to fight through the armies and giant monsters that awaited there. Super heroes too a have long history of teaming up to defeat powerful foes. My characters that did not group could get adequate gear for the content they did and PvP provided its own rewards.

Playing in a group demands different skills and poses a different challenge to playing solo. If an MMO wants to have grouping at end game there should also be grouping while leveling, because otherwise the endgame will be filled with people who have no idea how to behave. The many complaints about pick-up groups in World of Warcraft are caused exactly by the fact that one can go to maximum level without ever grouping. A game should teach people to group by making it worth their while to group. WoW’s Dungeon Finder has done exactly that. The epic quest line in LOTRO does require grouping while leveling and this is fine because it is just one quest line, but everyone wants to do it, because it is truly epic.

Five heroes banded together to take down Shadow Destroyer...and I'm still the one getting hit.

On the other hand, public quests in Warhammer and in Champions Online allow a kind of non-communicative grouping: everyone in the quest area contributes to the quest objectives. The quest gets progressively more difficult and that should, in theory, let people cooperate to finish the objectives. I like the idea of public quests, but I have not noticed much coordination and communication between players most of the time. Still, I think that public quests will be the way forward, especially if more storytelling is added to them to really draw players in.

Team vs Team PvP. Playing together in a team against other players is basically the same as grouping for a dungeon.

Roleplaying is also a form of grouping. Developers cannot control where RP happens, although they can facilitate by providing locations without opponents where people can RP undisturbed.

In conclusion

Social interaction does not require grouping, but grouping allows for encounters on a larger scale and demands different skills from players. While players should not be frustrated in their progression, they will have to accept that not everything is soloable as long as they can get gear appropriate to their level of play. Playing in a team is not a skill that everyone has naturally and thus the developers have to encourage, teach and reward grouping.

Categories: General MMORPG Tags: ,

LOTRO Skirmishes for Champions, please!

January 3, 2010 1 comment

Fully scalable

Skirmishes are a new kind of instance that were added to Lord of the Rings Online as part of the Siege of Mirkwood Expansion. These are scalable event-driven instances that can be played solo or in a group. A short introduction quest has to be done at level 30 and from there on the instances can be accessed from anywhere in the world through a special panel. Skirmishes are like PvE battlegrounds from WoW and Warhammer Online in which locations (marked with banners) have to be conquered, freed or defended e.g. Siege of Gondamon is a survival style attack on the fortress city of Gondamon in which the player has to assist the defenders at the gates, while another Skirmish deals with freeing the hobbit town of Tuckborough from invading bandits and goblins. At level 65 more than ten Skirmishes are available to the player. Besides fun, these are also a great source of experience. My previously mentioned slow leveling in LOTRO has received a boost that has greatly increased my interest in playing the game for longer stretches at a time.

Not every class is able to solo well so every player has access to a special kind of pet called Soldier that is only available during Skirmishes. This Soldier can be customized to fit a role (tank, healer, melee dps, ranged dps, crowd control) and given special abilities as well as a custom look. All these options can be changed like traits for a modest fee. Characters in CO can be more all-round because of the open skill system, but something like a sidekick or NPC partner would fit the super hero setting.

Not all options are available from the start. Some are gated by level and others have to be bought with specials tokens called Skirmish marks that are gained by playing (more are gained by performing better). CO could use a mechanic with gradual rewards instead of grinding hundreds of mobs for only a cosmetic effect. People hate grinding but they do it all the time in MMO’s because the grinding is wrapped into something interesting and because there is a reward at the end. LOTRO Skirmishes have both: good content while gaining tokens for future rewards.

Fully customizable

Why Skirmishes would fit in Champions Online

There are several reasons why Skirmishes would fit better in CO than more lairs:

Flavor

Super heroes are often reactive. They respond to a crises. Even a proactive team like The Authority waited (most of the time) for trouble to start before they got involved. Because superheroes often react to crises solo or in a small team, the instanced Skirmishes would fit the setting as well. And, frankly, stopping a giant monster on your own feels a lot more heroic than doing it with the other 99 people in the main world zone.

Replayable Group/Solo content

There is too little group content in CO, but, to be honest, there is also to little solo content. Scalable content fills both holes and people are not dependant on others if they really want to run a certain scenario. The Nemesis instances already scale so the technology seems to be in place. By getting a token system in place, the content is replayable.

Reuse of assets

The LOTRO Skirmishes use familiar locations like Weathertop. These places already exist in the normal world, so no/limited new artwork had to be created. If CO does something similar and cuts out, for example, a part of Millenium City, then the development time can be reduced.

They are already in the game, kind of

The crisis zones in Millenium City, The Desert and Canada are pretty close to being Skirmishes, but Stronghold Prison is the closest with its scripted assault through the levels of the prison.

All hail the Tank Mage

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment

It's a mage! It's a tank! It's a TANK MAGE!

The concept of the Tank Mage is as old as Ultima Online. For those not familiar with the term, check this article on gamasutra (it’s an interesting article about hybrids in which the Tank Mage is explained on the first page). Basically, the Tank Mage has the survivability of a tank and the power of a mage. What a surprise. If the mage has healing spells as well, the Tank Mage is a holy trinity all by itself. Designers try to avoid Tank Mages for PvE because it makes other players redundant and for PvP because it is by definition more powerful than any other concept.

Tank Mages in an MMO with classes are bad. They can solo more than anyone else and if they have to group they can stick well under the intended group size. It’s even worse in a PvP game. The constantly  shifting of class balance can suddenly allow one class to become a Tank Mage and dominate, while the other classes can do nothing about it. Therefore, Tank Mages should be avoided by the designers to keep their game healthy.

Tank Mages in an MMO without classes are unavoidable. If players have completely free choice then they will gravitate to playing the sturdiest character with the best damage output. The question is if this is a bad thing. In terms of PvP balance it seems no problem: if everyone is overpowered, then no one is. However, this is only true if damage output and survivability are balanced. Let’s use Champions Online as the example. While Mindful Reinforcement (ranks 2,3) was bugged, people had incredible survivability, but not enough damage output to defeat each other, which led to very long or infinite battles. On the other hand the current situation sees very high damage as done by STC (for rants about that, check the forums, in short: it removes 55% of someone’s health in 10 seconds while ignoring all mitigation) and (de)buff stacking with force cascade and power armor which leads to oneshots. In the first situation the Tank Mages can kill anyone but other Tank Mages, while in the second everyone can be killed, it just depends on who gets the first shot off. Neither situation is desirable.

PvE balance is just as difficult. Can the designers assume everyone is a Tank Mage? Probably not, which means some teams will struggle while others will breeze through the content purely based on power selection without any regard to individual skill in playing. Also, if everyone can do everything then the roles (tank, healer, damage) players can take up are gone as well. Nothing makes a WoW dungeon fresher than going through it in another role. The lack of roles will actually cause burnout sooner.

The worst situation that can occur is if it is very difficult to make a Tank Mage; only one or two builds qualify as one. Because all information about builds is open, many people will jump on the flavor-of-the-month turning the beautiful open choice system in practice in a one class game. This has already happened in CO to some extent: powerful PvP builds have scared many people away in tier4, while forcing everyone to pick up STC in lower tiers or die.

Since an open skill system cannot avoid the Tank Mage, it should be relatively easy to build one and there should be many viable paths. This will lead to a spread in skills and choices that will make the overall game easier to balance, while individual players keep a sense of power and versatility (especially while soloing). Also, because of the many paths to the Tank Mage, there will be some role diversification anyone, e.g. some will have more tank than mage and vice versa.

So, while the Tank Mage is something that should be avoided in class-based MMO’s, it is a concept that classless MMO’s will have to build around to provide a fun and equally challenging game to everyone.

What Champions should not learn from Dragon Age

November 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Dragon Age: Origins was not on my must-have list for this year. I thought I had enough of single player fantasy RPG’s. A few days ago I just bought it on impulse and it’s eaten all my gaming time since then. I can recommend it to anyone who’s even remotely interested. It has many interesting features and many things that Champions could learn from without doubt. However, I am going to take a look from the other side and list some great features from Dragon Age that CO should nevertheless not strive to implement.

Long Cut scenes

I enjoy the cut scenes and long dialogs in DAO, but I would not want to seem them used as much in any MMO. The amount of repetitive content is just too much. I know my old WoW guildies would get annoyed at the startup of some events during raiding. So while seeing a scene a few times is fine, I would not want to see it every day.

Split second decisions

The party gets ambused pretty often in DOA which calls for some split second decisions. This is fine because its possible to pause the combat and assign tasks to individual party members. There’s no such option in an MMO, because everything happens in realtime. So while fights should be challenging, there should be time for all party members to react.

Friendly fire

The lack of friendly fire in my first MMO confused me at first. I mean, there’s a big fire and my allies can used walk through it unharmed? Then it dawned on me that people would horribly exploit friendly fire to grief others. So while it’s realistic and a serious tactical decision in DAO when and where to apply AOE, it just would not work in CO.

Control

Mages in DOA can crowd control whole groups or lock down individual monsters for quite some time. The large amount of enemies in DOA makes that necessary, but CO is more about fighting single opponents (villains or other players) and one person being able to lock down many others would be a bad thing especially in PvP. Unfortunately, this already happens to some extent with smoke bombs et cetera.