Update on the Next Step

[I meant to post this the day after my last post, but I got distracted and had to go to conferences in San Francisco. Back now!]

The Next Step

I’ve had nagging doubts because the MMO isn’t where I want it to be. It doesn’t feel quite “there.” You know the secret sauce that would take it from being a wacky EQ1-era game into its own unique thing? There’s not enough of that sauce.

If I was making this game the normal way you make games, what I would focus on now is combat innovation. I’ve got pretty typical classic MMO combat at the moment. But read this quote from Gabe of Penny Arcade, about the game Tera:

In the end I’m actually excited to play more. I think between the combat and the art I could probably play Tera long enough to max out a character. Would I stick around much after that? Probably not.

He loves the game for the combat. But it doesn’t matter: he won’t be sticking around. Innovative combat makes a great game, but it does not, on its own, make a world where people will happily live for 1000+ hours of their lives.

Obviously my combat needs to ultimately be better than average, but my designer-instinct is to iterate combat until I get it way better, focusing only on that. I have to fight that instinct right now.

Gorgon’s combat will be fun and somewhat unique with the systems I have: the vulnerabilities, the wacky powers, and a really hectic sense of group combat. I certainly won’t allow combat to be a boring slog. But I already know that it’s going to be traditional MMO combat underneath: there will be ability bars, and when you press the buttons the monsters will die. Gabe is never going to say he’s excited by how fun the combat is in my game. (Nor about the art…)

But I didn’t set out to rock the world with my brilliant new combat system. I need to deliver more on my promise of world complexity instead. I have this powerful MMO engine designed specifically to make crazy off-the-wall skill systems rapidly, and I keep forgetting. It’s the features I don’t have that always seem more important.

Pigs and Deer and Rapid Skill Implementation

Friday night reminded me of what the engine (and the ecosystem of skills and content I’m building) can do. A tester in pre-alpha decided to drink a potion of permanent pigification, testing what happens if you are cursed to forever be a pig. He complained that there are no pig skills, and the only attack pigs have go on the Auxiliary Bar, where the bonus skills go. That meant being a pig left half your bar slots empty. So I made a new Pig skill to go on the bar.

Being a pig is a curse — one of the most disruptive things that can happen to a person, actually — and not a gameplay choice I particularly want to encourage. (Though I’m sure some people will enjoy the uniqueness and challenge.) The combat abilities of a pig are pretty shoddy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have some fun things going for them. Pigs can sniff out mushrooms (their abilities actually cause extra mushrooms to appear next to them — which anyone can then harvest). Pigs can also eat raw mushrooms to get health back, so they don’t need to cook or to buy health kits. And they have some handy get-out-of-danger skills like Piggy Dash. So yes, they suck at combat, but they have some interesting flavor skills — and since the anti-piggification cure is made from rare mushrooms, their mushroom-finding powers will help them cure themselves.

It took under an hour to bang out a set of pig abilities — and that time included adding some minor tech that I needed. Then I did another new skill for deer (being turned into a deer is the other “test curse” in the pre-alpha).

As it turns out, deer are actually pretty good off-tanks: they can stun with Antler Bash, and their Doe Eyes abilities make sentient creatures do less physical damage to them — they’re too cute to stab. (And hey, if you’re groaning about how cheesy Doe Eyes is, please feel free to offer better deer-related powers! I couldn’t think of too many amazing things a deer can do…)

However, when they aren’t using their powers optimally, deer are pretty fragile.They gain less health per level than, say, Werewolves do, and they don’t have any good quick-healing tricks, so they have to use their damage-reduction abilities (like Doe Eyes) very strategically to avoid taking big hits. Yes, it’s possible to be a good off-tank as a deer, but it will be very stressful and I wouldn’t recommend it as a career choice. Unless, of course, you’ve somehow found your way to being cursed as a deer and there’s no choice about it.

Again, that took maybe an hour in total. It’s not a big part of the game: most players will never experience it. But the design of the game (and engine) is to support tons of these quirky little ways to play — and hundreds of things to experience.

So that’s what I’m working on: more skills and niches. Lots of ‘em. How many? I’m not sure, because I won’t know when it feels right until it’s there. I am essentially prototyping in the aggregate. Pre-alpha players have seen new skills such as Art History and Combat Psychology trickle in; expect many more in the coming updates.

This MMO design has many hard problems, like bad first impressions: if I don’t lay it all out in front of you to start, how will you know that there’s stuff to find under the surface? I’ll have to find ways to hint at it, to lead you to some of these niches so you can get the idea of how to find more.

Adding Inter-Player Complexity

I also want to focus more on the elements that help you interact with the world. Some of those are old hat, but now forgotten: vendors that keep the inventory you sell them and will resell it to someone else; the ability to drop items on the ground if you want to; crafted items that can be given names and inscribed with legends. These ideas are nothing huge, just a ton of tricky details.

Most MMOs skip this stuff because they don’t care about a virtual world — they want to streamline their game experience instead. But these mechanics aren’t just tools for group cohesion (giving players ways to interact), they’re also the grist for game world complexity.

Think about it this way: if you want to have a hundred niche ways to play the game, but the game is just a streamlined monster-killing experience, those hundred niches are going to be pretty similar. How different can they really be? You might get eight good distinct combat experiences. That leaves 92 niches to fill.

The game world needs enough complexity for me to riff on. And if I’m going to add complexity, I’d prefer if it increased player interactions when possible. (Inscribing messages on weapons is a great example. What happens if you inscribe a Word of Power? I don’t know… but presumably something cool…)

Focusing on the Game’s Goals

When I think about what is unique in this game, it’s that the game is supposed to get more engaging over time, becoming more complex and interesting the deeper you go down the rabbit holes and the more player-interaction tools become available. Project Gorgon is a game where players are rewarded for asking “what happens if I try this idea?”

I think that’s a valuable and exciting MMO experience, even if the combat is iterative and the art is blah. So I just need to keep my goals in mind and not get freaked out every time I notice that it’s not like other games. It will be its own good game, and soon: I just have to keep going.

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9 Responses to Update on the Next Step

  1. Rauxis says:

    The one thing that personally draws me most, are your Werewolves – so how about Were-cats?

    Rauxis, chosen of CAT

  2. Kiryn says:

    Well, it wasn’t so much “decided to use a pig potion to test out the pig system” as “accidentally used a pig potion when trying to rearrange my inventory, and figured I might as well test it as long as I’m stuck that way.”

    I kinda liked being a pig-werewolf, except for the utter inability to interact with NPCs in either of my animal forms =P The werewolf quest was really tricky as a pig though. I think I died a good dozen times, picking them off one at a time.

    Sorry I haven’t been on to test as much as I was, there’s been crazy overtime at work lately and I’m not even getting home until after midnight >_<

    Looking forward to checking out all the new tidbits though! That's what I like best about this game. Tons of games have interesting combat. None of them have crazy-niche skills like this.

  3. Sungazer says:

    “It will be its own good game” – keep that in the fore-front of thought!

    The one thing I would like to point out about item inscription… while its an awesome feature, not having any way to erase/re-inscribe the items inscription is incredibly annoying.

  4. Mike Grem says:

    @Sungazer: a cool idea might be to make it to where you can’t erase the inscription, but you could add to it. That way you can’t just erase a maker’s mark, but you could certainly muck with it!

  5. Mike Grem says:

    @Eric — re: Deer abilities: Deer have powerful hind legs, right? They’re always prancing about. Maybe a back-kick that has a small bit of knockback. Or maybe a “trample underhoof” ability? You could use it and charge in a straight line, and whatever’s caught in it is minorly stunned/takes some damage/is knocked prone.

    Or, I dunno, a “deer in the headlights” ability, where if you’re standing in bright light (or the enemy uses a bright attack), you become statue-esque and get a respectable amount of damage reduction for a short time. Or if that’s too weird, just an inherent resistance to “bright” attacks?

    Or if we’re going waaay off-kilter, there’s an ability I remember a monster having in Final Fantasy Tactics called “Please Eat~”, where they’d turn into a health item. Maybe… uh, maybe a deer could just produce venison and die in the process… it’d give a new kind of death XP, at least…

  6. Chris says:

    Have you considered replicating deer mating rituals* by allowing deer characters to ‘duel’ other deer characters by butting antlers?

    It could offer a stacking buff to something if you feel it important to incentivise it?

    You could offer a tracking ability for other deer characters called ‘deerstalker’?**

    * not like that!
    ** terrible! Sorry!

  7. Bill says:

    In addition to the great but forgotten features of classic games you mentioned (eg: vendors keeping the items you sell them and offering them for resale) could I commend EQ1′s system where players can give items to monsters, which are then used (if appropriate) or become available to whoever kills them?

    Just remembering lots of good times running around newbie zones with an invisibility spell on, adding phat loot to skeletons as part of an event.

    B

  8. Plus one to Bill’s suggestion. The ability to plant items onto other characters seems like the root for many emergent/explorative gameplay scenarios, … as well as a potential component for many underhanded skills.

    Deer skills that come to mind, Forward Bound (a charge ability uneffected by aoe or environmental slow effects), Prance (a defensive ability that lowers attack but increases dodge – Doe Eyes?), Antler Lock (a threat increasing stun), Survival Instinct (a passive that forces the Deer to begin to flee, increases speed, turns stamina to health and lowers damage received).

    Are signups on hold?

  9. Reading into Gabe’s quote, it’s something that I believe most vocal minority MMO gamers are very familiar with (and obviously more besides). In the past progression in an MMO was not the core of the attractive gameplay, you’d play because of a gameworld and because the feelings it evoked were alluring, you’d play to be great and for a chance to achieve the euphoric feeling of greatness and among other things because there was a community of like minded people you wished to be apart of (back in the grass root days). Progression was the icing on the cake, it was the reason to try harder and gave you the ability to achieve more, but it was the hook and not the bait.

    Games like Tera, probably every MMO I can think of, attempt to widen it’s target audience to the extreme, employing generics, dumbing down … and instantly every recent MMO I can think of has lost its flavoured community of like minded individuals. Because the games concentrate so primarily on the progression, … and how you progress, ie. the combat, their worlds become nothing more than a faciliator to combat and progression and another in a long production line of other MMOs doing the exact same thing with meager attempts at true innovation and none of the classic underpinnings. Everybody sees the hook.

    A lot of people seem to be dealing with this rather well, they make very attractive hooks – looking at future MMOs like Wildfire and Firefall, they’ve extremely well put together games made by very clever people. But they have little acknowledgement for where MMOs came from, and even seem blind to the origin of games in general – it’s sad to see Producers, Designers and Developers that are passionate but have trouble seeing beyond genre definitions and have trouble remembering back beyond Modern Warfare.

    MUDs, Virtual Worlds, MMOs were born of a desire to have greater exploration of previously unreachable worlds. It was a matter of the expansion of worlds and gameplay opportunities, simplified were necessary to meet the technological limitations of the decade. Today we see a gameplay simplified to meet one or two carved out genre specific niches, where a slight difference from the norm is seen as a ground breaking selling point (until gamers get their hands on it and realise they’re only playing a slightly different game, it had a shinier hook). Despite the technology available worlds have become more containers for content, than fostering the feeling of near limitless possibilities a world enjoyed by multiple people once did (to coin a modern term, you might call it the Minecraft factor).

    It’s easy to see that board games were the precursor to many computer games. In the same way that it should be easy to see that board games were oft a way of simplifying facets of reality into easily managable systems. They did this because they were limited, by technology, by feasibility. As we developed as people, so did our games, they became more complex, with modern computers we ported our games into the digital age and offered comparatively highly complex interactive worlds. With MMOs we brought thousands of others into our worlds and technology and feasibility expanded greaterly … and then we started cookie cutter-ing games into different shapes, in the same way that board games dumbed down concepts and entity relationships from reality into a more managable format – rather than using what is available to us to create impressive realities that can be experienced from within which our games begin.

    In my opinion.