Thursday, April 28, 2011

So, what next?

My posts last week about joining a new guild got a bad reaction.  The guild in question removed me from the process based on the posts so it would seem that blogging a little bit too bluntly about being a new recruit is a bad idea.  The trick is that now I need to figure out where my gaming life goes to next.  There are lots of guilds on my server I could join but none are even close to the progression level I am at and I have little interest in working with people at a lower play level than I am used to doing fights I have already beaten.  Basically everyone in my current guild is done with WOW and raiding for now so unless I want to settle for just a social guild I need to leave my server and find a new home someplace else.  But I don't *want* to leave, dammit!  I have all my alts, all my gold, all my old buddies on my current server.  I know the guilds, the people, the heroes and scrubs.  It feels like leaving home for the great wide unknown and I am very much a homebody - I like being with the people I know in the places which which I am familiar.

The other question is whether or not I should be playing WOW at all anymore.  I have done the grinds over and over, raided every boss there ever was and have logged incredible numbers of hours.  Redcape is very much me in so many ways so stopping WOW entirely would be so very strange.  I remember playing Diablo 2 for a very long time in university and eventually giving it up; when I logged in again 6 months later all my accounts were gone and everything I had ever done was vanished into nothing.  It is a special kind of thing to see that something you worked very hard on for a very long time was entirely destroyed while you weren't paying attention and nothing remains of the goal pursued so ardently.  Only the journey is still there in my memory.

The main thing I am looking for is a really competitive gaming experience I think.  There are plenty of MMOs out there where I can find a competitive endgame but I can't see any reason to explore that... if I want a competitive gaming MMO experience I can just go get one right now in WOW.  Many years ago I played an awful lot of Starcraft so I could try to get back into that in a big way as there is certainly a competitive scene there to be involved in.  I could also look into trying Ultimate Frisbee or Dodgeball or some other sport here but I don't know that I would get the really edgy competitive flow that I get from raiding in WOW.  Pushing my mind and reflexes to the absolute limit is incredible and that experience is something I hunger for - now I really need to think about where best to find it.

I find it so bizarre that I am having something similar to a midlife crisis over stopping a particular video game.  I feel a little bit adrift, unsure of what I will do and which way I will go.  I long for the rose tinted version of days long past and for the security of knowing that I can find my friends any time I want right from my desk.  For many years I have tailored the rest of my life around my playing of WOW, made sure that I had 3 evenings a week free to sink deep into another world.  Now for the first time I really seriously consider leaving that world forever and I find that a disturbing thing to contemplate.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Public quests

Tobold talked a little about public quests today.  He is basically thinking about how we can approach having big world events in MMOs that require lots of people to complete but don't have the usual downsides to such things.  The basic issues with public quests (PQ) is that they have a difficulty bar to complete them and that a fixed difficulty bar almost always means either the challenge is trivial or impossible while a variable difficulty bar leads to indifference on the part of the players.

The things we most want to avoid are:

1.  Players being unable to defeat the PQ.

2.  The PQ being trivial.

3.  Players feeling like their contribution to defeating the PQ is meaningless.

4.  Players feeling like it doesn't even matter if they complete the PQ or not. 

If, for example, you have a particular zone be attacked by a group of 20 ogres then we can probably assume that 20 players can defeat the challenge.  The trouble is that if there happen to be 50 players on hand then the ogres get mauled and put up no resistance so the event isn't going to be particularly challenging, interesting or memorable.  If there are 5 players on hand they probably have no hope of victory so the PQ needs to be avoided or ignored instead; neither of those options are much good from anyone's perspective.  Of course you can scale the difficulty based on who is involved so that the encounter is challenging for the group but that is both very challenging to do correctly and likely to make the players not care about it - why would I go help fight the ogres if it only makes them stronger?  If 1 player alone can beat them what is the point in me helping out and won't I get yelled at if I am not a good player and end up being a drag on the team?  If we scale the ogre attackers such that they are more powerful for each player in the zone then presumably it would require a large percentage of the players to work together to defeat the challenge.  Everyone's contribution is still meaningful but in theory the encounter can be beaten no matter how populated the zone is.  This does mean that anyone just idling in the zone who doesn't contribute to doing the PQ is making it harder on everyone else; I don't know that this is actually a problem but it is there.

I think the plan of scaling the PQ difficulty based on the population of players in the zone at the time is a good start.  This way if people can recruit a lot of the zone to help or bring in outside assistance they can defeat the challenge and feel like everything they do matters.  Unless the entire zone decides to go smash the PQ together it should present some reasonable difficulty and getting all players to do the same thing at once is not generally possible.  The real trick is figuring out how hard to make the PQ - do you tune it for 50% of the zone, 80% of the zone or 20% of the zone showing up to help fight?  If you guess too high then players will get the impression that the PQs are generally unbeatable and won't bother at all and if you guess too low then the players will get the impression that PQs are trivial and swarm them.  One way to combat this would be to scale the rewards based on the zone population also; this would mean that people looking for a challenge and a big payoff would be more likely to try to try to do PQs if they were hard and players would be less inclined to join a massive zerg because their rewards would be diluted.

One thing that would drastically improve PQs would be to flatten the character improvement curve.  If a PQ in WOW worked like my idea above then a max level character could just fly around easily defeating every PQ by themselves in seconds even though it might take 20 minutes for an entire zoneful of level 20s.  For the system to make sense it would be important to have the most powerful characters be not as much better than the low level characters.  One other very useful thing to have would be an interface element that allows people who want to group up for the event to do so easily.  WOW doesn't currently have this but other games do; it isn't hard to implement.

A Sky-style PQ:

RNG decides to start a PQ in the Canyon of Terror!
There are 24 characters in the zone so 12 ogres spawn at the ogre cave and an outpost spawns a good distance from them.
A shout goes out across the zone that the ogres have come and will be destroying an outpost soon.
5 minutes later the ogres begin to walk across the zone towards the outpost.
10 minutes later the ogres reach the outpost and start fighting the guards (who are hopelessly outclassed).
5 minutes later the ogres destroy the outpost.

If at any point the ogres are defeated then any players who attacked them can talk to the boss at the outpost and get a reward based on   Number of players in zone / Number of players who contributed.  The outpost is available until the next ogre attack.

The idea is to make the PQ relevant (the outpost has quests, vendors or other uses), challenging but beatable (difficulty scales on number of people around who can participate), and every character can feel like their contribution and abilities mattered.  Note that just spawning more and more enemies for the players to fight eventually leads to problems - better scaling mechanisms like increasing the damage and HP of the ogres would be necessary.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

What a recruit should do

Joining a new group of people is always tricky.  There are many things that people are comfortable putting up with from those they know well that would be considered rude or cruel coming from someone outside the group.  Starting off with a new guild is no exception to this rule:  You have to watch what you say and play it cool until you get settled in and everyone gets used to you.  Of course although I understand this from a intellectual perspective I am am enough of a perfectionist / overconfident fool / elitist to just do whatever it is I was going to do anyway and damn the consequences.  This is at least partly because I figure that I am not going to do anything bad enough to actually cause a reasonable group of people to reject me; thus if what I do does cause them to reject me then I should probably go somewhere else anyhow.  Did I mention the overconfident part?  This is all complicated by the fact that I am switching from a leadership position to a 'lowly peon' position.  That is actually completely fine by me since I am quite happy to avoid the hassles and headaches of having to decide who is in and who is out and being responsible for planning but it is a big change in style.  Just show up, play well, log off sounds pretty good after years of responsibility.

I got to thinking about what exactly I found bothersome in recruits when I was in charge of things and what I found useful.  I liked people that pointed out things that might be problems and I liked people that offered to do things to make things easier.  The things I really didn't like were people insisting that it was necessary to change the plan to whatever they thought it should be or refusing to follow orders.  Note that following orders but being whiny and annoying about it is the same damn thing as refusing to follow orders.  :)  Differentiating between a suggestion or comment about how things might be better and an insistence on changing the plan can be tricky, particularly between people who don't know each other very well yet.  Last night we had an exchange that really shows how these sorts of things can get messed up even with the best intentions on all sides:

Me:  Warrior2 is taking about double the damage of Warrior1 and I am having to heal him a lot.  (Which wasn't my assignment, but needed doing.)

NewGuildie:  Well, Warrior2 is tanking two of the big drakes and Warrior1 is tanking 1 big drake and 10 little ones.

Me:  Given that their damage intake should be nearly identical since 10 little drakes do almost exactly the same damage as 1 big drake.

NewGuildie:  Well, that might be true for other tanks but not for block tanks like warriors.

Me:  Block reduces damage by a % and therefore it cannot explain any of the discrepancy.

NewGuildie:  Our strategy works fine and we aren't going to change it.

Me:  Okay.

I could just feel the irritation swirling around this conversation.  Obviously people (including me) don't like the new guy walking in and telling them their strategy is wrong.  When I made my first comment I checked my intuition against the facts and found them to agree so I knew I was right and I also knew that what I was observing should not be if everything was going according to plan.  I wasn't suggesting that the plan was bad though I can see how it could be taken that way; I was suggesting that something must be awry though I still don't know what it might have been.  It could have been Warrior2 not hitting his cooldowns, it could have been positioning issues, aggro issues, or just really, really outrageous RNG.  The only thing I was watching was the movement of health bars... Big Bird and the Polkaroo could have joined the battle and I wouldn't have noticed until the fight was over.  There is much wisdom in backing down from confrontations that cannot have a positive outcome and yet I find that although I can easily and happily back down on "We aren't going to do it your way" I don't back down from "You don't know what you are talking about" when in fact I do.

I wrote before that you can only really find out whether a company is worth doing business with by finding out how they handle it when they really screw up and I think the same principle applies here:  You don't really know if people are of any use until you see them in a situation where the pressure is on.  Imagine you join a new group of people and all you do is be completely silent and make sure to maximize your performance.  Clearly you aren't going to be rejected but you really aren't going to have any idea whether or not this group suits you.  The only way to know a set of people well includes seeing how they act when things are difficult or confrontational.  Of course there are real limits - showing up and deliberately provoking confrontation or picking fights are going to get you rejected and having no regard for other people's feelings isn't a good thing.  I will submit that being involved and unafraid of confrontation while complying with orders is the best way to achieve the dual goals of convincing the group you can fit in and figuring out if you actually do.

The other critical question of whether or not it is a good idea to link your blog to your new guild and then blog about stuff that happens during your initiate period is one I will leave to the philosophers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

All the spoils go to me.

Yesterday I wrote about the guild I am joining and their loot system.  I was concerned about their loot system's tendency to create drama and a couple of commenters agreed with me that they don't like ambiguity and the possibility of doing something wrong without knowing it.  I think most people really like the idea of not being able to be wrong and just having things work.  I wasn't particularly concerned about getting loot because their recruiting advertisement talked about how they were just blowing up all the Holy Paladin loot they got because they desperately need a Holy Paladin... so the fact that I am a Holy Paladin would suggest that I am going to be rolling around naked on a giant pile of shiny new loot.  Their rules, though, say that recruits have absolutely zero priority on loot so in theory I could end up getting absolutely nothing.  In practice we beat 4 bosses on the first night and I got handed 5 epics, two of which were for my off spec!  I now have the entirely reasonable expectation that I will receive at least 1 drop from every boss we kill as all my experience suggests that this is how initiate periods in 25 man guilds go.  The shocking thing about this is that they beat exactly the same bosses that my old guild beat but the RNG favoured me like it never has before.

I was also curious whether the 25 man encounters would actually work out to be easier than the 10 man encounters.  So far I think some of the 25 man fights are definitely easier and some seem to be pretty much on par.

Magmaw in particularly was utterly impossible on 10 man when it launched and got several rounds of nerfs before it was beatable.  My healers were awesome players when we beat it in 10s and they were absolutely tapped - we had no wiggle room at all.  Magmaw on 25s was just tuned a little bit looser - the damage was much easier to deal with in comparison at least partly due to having many more cooldowns available I think, but partly just the raw numbers.

Omnotron was a little easier in 25s due to having more slows and more interrupts available but either way we did normal mode so the tuning isn't exactly tight.

Chimaeron seemed similar.  The tank healing was *way* easier in 25s because you have to heal the same amount of damage but you have 7 people instead of 3.  The raid healing is tougher because establishing assignments for healing 5 targets is much harder than 2.  I think overall Chim is much easier on normal mode in 25s just because p2 takes so much longer due to having more people involved.  On heroic mode I think it probably isn't that different as long as you have a Discipline Priest in your 10 man raid.

Maloriak felt like it was probably harder in some ways, easier in others.  The tank healing felt much harder because the tank was taking swings for 2/3 of his HP during green phase and had to go from 10% to full in 3 seconds on black phase.  The group healing was probably fairly comparable but the iceblock healing was easy as hell.

So far I can definitely say that 25s are the easier route.  Having more cooldowns available and having more favourable raw numbers makes a lot of things much simpler.  Of course, we haven't tackled heroic Al'alkir yet and I hear he makes 25 man raids cry.  We will see.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dividing the spoils

It is a common problem for people in a fantasy gaming world to encounter:  Once the evil dragon is finally dead, how do we divvy up the loot?  Even the classic Dungeons and Dragons 2nd ed. players handbook talks about how the party could or should divide up the magical items and treasure that are found once a monster is defeated.  There are many systems of course and some are better than others.  The D&D 2nd solutions range from everybody getting loot totally randomly (which is fair, but idiotic since a fighter with a magic wand and a mage with a suit of Chain Mail + 1 is not particularly good for beating the *next* dragon) to everyone just being reasonable about things and giving loot to the people who can use it best.  There is much discussion about making sure everyone gets something and balancing need against equality.

This question is an important one in WOW.  When a boss finally dies you have to figure out who gets the stuff.  The most common methods are Loot Council, Dragon Kill Points (DKP) and rolling.  Loot Council has the benefit that the officers of a guild can make sure that loot goes to people who have better attendance, greater need or are deserving in some other way.  It has the problem that the council can also make sure the guild leader's significant other gets more loot than anybody else even though they are terrible and rarely show up.  This is obviously not the only way favourtism appears but it certainly is very common.  The greater problem is that even if the leaders are being quite fair there is a constant perception of bias from outside their circle.  DKP has the advantages of being transparent and equitable but it requires large amounts of outside work and leads to point hoarding, collusion and badly allocated items.

When my guild decided on our loot system a few years ago we wanted something very fast to use with minimal overhead and absolutely zero decisions to make.  Nobody wanted the headache of trying to figure out what was most fair and the inevitable ill will that results from making the decision rightly or wrongly.  When a piece of loot is being allocated everyone interested in it rolls.  The person who is highest on the following list gets the item and if there is a tie the highest roll takes it.

1. Raiders for Main 
2. Raider-Initiates/Members for Main 
3. Raiders for Main, same ilvl 
4. Raider-Initiates/Members for Main, same ilvl 
5. Raiders for Off 
6. Raider-Initiates/Members for Off 
7. Raiders for Off, same ilvl 
8. Raider-Initiates/Members for Off, same ilvl 

That is it.  No decisions, no overhead.  There are a few caveats in that hunters get 'super mainspec' access to range weapons and 'not quite mainspec' access to melee weapons and items with hit or spirit can only be rolled as mainspec by the appropriate classes/specs.  Also the guild leader would get to award a legendary item if that ever came up... which it did not.

I have played with DKP, Loot Council and the rolling method above and I can say for a certainty that this system is by far the best.  There is no guilt or confusion about when you are allowed to roll, no hidden penalties for rolling at the wrong time and no significant way to game the system in a fashion that is bad for the group.  One advantage I particularly like is that it is extremely fast to award loot compared to how things worked with other systems.

Unfortunately my guild is done with raiding, which is certainly another post in and of itself.  This means that to continue to raid I have to find some other group of folks and learn to deal with all their quirks and peculiarities including a loot system that isn't all it could be.  The group I found has a pretty reasonable system... but I am spoiled now; I have become a loot system snob.  Now I must qualify this with the note that they don't run a pure Loot Council nor DKP but rather a rolling system that has a ton of unwritten social rules.  You don't ask for too much loot, you don't ask for loot someone else really wants, you don't ask for loot that is a bigger upgrade for someone else than yourself.  Trouble with all these caveats is that they just invite drama and delay.  Before I know if I should ask for something I have to check the other bidders to figure out how much loot they have gotten lately and compare that to my own acquisition.  I also need to figure out how much of an upgrade it is for the various people involved and whether or not anybody is waiting on this particular drop.  All of this leads to delay while everybody involved does all the calculation and inevitably hard feelings will emerge when somebody comes to a different conclusion than somebody else.  The group I am joining have a long track record of being successful and lacking in drama so I suspect nothing bad will happen but once you have worked with the best it is hard to accept anything less.

We had some very telling experiences with our system when new recruits joined up.  In particular a recent warlock recruit was asking about the status of the set piece shoulders.
Me:  I keep hoping we will run out of mainspec people to give them to so I can get a set for my tanking spec.

Recruit:  Well, obviously I will pass the shoulders to you.

Me:  The hell you will.  You will roll like everybody else and the system will award it to the correct person which is you in this case.  I don't expect you to pass up mainspec gear just because I am the guild leader and you need to pander to my desires - that kind of crap is for other guilds.

Man, that felt good.  That careful pussyfooting around trying to figure out how to not offend people by asking for what you want is a regular and terrible aspect of joining new groups.  I am damn glad that my guild spent more time yelling at recruits to roll for gear and stop being scared than for anything else.  Creating an atmosphere where the focus is on playing the game instead of trying to avoid hurting people's feelings is important.

Friday, April 15, 2011

4th Ed. Good and Bad

In building my new RPG I am essentially taking a huge chunk of D&D 4th Edition and throwing it out.  However, there is an awful lot of that system that I actually quite like and really don't want to change.  Well, technically I might want to change it but I don't want to change it enough to warrant rewriting an entire chapter.  The parts of 4th that I like the least are the parts that most brutally violate this rule:

A balanced game is one that has a large variety of ways to play well while retaining a much greater number of ways to play badly.

You may remember this statement from my attempts at defining game balance last week.  It doesn't work as a definition for game balance but it does work as a really useful guideline for building a fun, deep game.  The most outrageous example I could come up with is the choices Wizards have for their stats.  I will list here what each stat does if you increase the stat by 2:

Strength:  +1 Fortitude Defence.
Constitution:  Minor class bonus, +2 HP, +1 Fortitude Defence.

Dexterity:  -
Intelligence:  +1 to hit, +1 to damage, +1 to Armor Class, +1 to Reflex Defence.

Wisdom:  Minor class bonus.  +1 Will Defence.
Charisma:   +1 Will Defence.

Note that the 3 best single effects in this list are *all* Int bonuses.  Int also gets the fourth best bonus, but it is a tie.  Also note that all those +1 to X Defence notes are exclusive from one another so bumping up your Charisma, for example, does *nothing* if you have a higher Wisdom.

If you look at how much of a benefit you gain from each of these bonuses you can roughly conclude that Int makes you do 20% more damage and take 7% less damage.  It also happens to boost nearly all of your best, most useful skills.  The best other stat in comparison is Constitution, which makes you take 2% less damage and get 2 HP.  So Int can reasonably be modeled as at least 5 times as good as the next best stat and quite possibly 10 times as good.  What this means is anyone who doesn't start with the maximum possible Int score is *awful*. So we start with the maximum possible Int score.  Then we have a choice of increasing other stats... and increasing Dex does nothing, Str is strictly inferior to Constitution and Charisma is strictly inferior to Wisdom.  So every Wizard who thinks being good is significant has the following stat layout:

Str: 8
Con:  13

Dex: 10
Int:  20

Wis:  13
Cha: 10

Any variation from this layout is simply making your character bad.  Now I don't mind that you can make a bad character.  You could make a Wizard and give him 18 Str and you would be unfathomably terrible.  No problem!  The problem is that there is no other way to make a good Wizard.  Why is it that every Wizard can be easily slotted into the categories of "Has the stat array above" and "seriously inferior"?  What I really want is a number of different ways to play well!  There can certainly be some layout that experts think is probably the best but if there aren't a number of other layouts that are known to be better in some reasonable circumstances then I think the design is a failure.  My solution to the Wizard stat layout problem is to redefine what many stats do.

Str:  -
Con:  Substantially affects HP total.  +1 Armor Class.

Dex:  -
Intelligence:  +1 to hit.

Wisdom:  Bonus to Healing Surges. (All heals on you are more effective.)   +1 Fort, Ref and Will Defence.
Cha:  +1 to damage.

Note that just like in the base game above all stats do provide skill bonuses but these bonuses are very minor in power compared to the bonuses I actually list.  So, the Wizard in SkyRPG has 4 stats that matter.  Int and Cha affect damage dealing capability and Con and Wis affect damage mitigation, healing and HP.  I did a rough combat simulation of a duel between two Wizards where one maximized Int/Cha and one maximized Con/Wis and they ended up quite close to even.  That obviously isn't the only relevant test but it tells me I am in the right ballpark.  The main thing I was going for is that you can build a bad character but there are a lot of different layouts for building a character that is good.  If you have a wonderful party that keeps the monsters away from you at all times you are probably better off maximizing Int/Cha and blowing up the enemies.  If you end up getting attacked a lot (kill the Wizard is a very traditional plan in RPGs...) then having lots of Con/Wis will serve you very well since you will be alive to cast your spells.

It certainly isn't all bad in 4th.  The design for what stats do is completely pants on head idiotic and the balance between the various class abilities is sad indeed.  That said, the combat chapter with all kinds of information about getting knocked down, falling, moving, line of sight rules, types of effects and other things is really great and requires virtually no alteration.  I think given how much of 4th I like I probably won't try to build an entire new system but rather just rip out the chunks that really suck and replace them with things that are good.  The only question is whether I will end up stopping once I have the really offensive stuff removed or whether I will continue to find more and more small changes that absolutely *must* be made.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Critical hit ... Terminated

This past week I have started a new project.  I have a board game pretty much finished and polished so the next step is obviously a roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons, only better of course!  I dub it SkyRPG because I am terribly creative and good at naming things.  A number of years ago myself and a bunch of my friends built a RPG together (though Sthenno went crazy and did 10 times as much work as anyone else) because we were really dissatisfied with the 3rd Edition D&D system.  We had a wonderful system cooked up and were getting it nearly finished when out came 4th Edition D&D (hereafter known just as 4th) and we looked at all the great stuff they had done and basically shelved our project.  We played 4th a bit and after giving it a run we discovered that the shine wore off pretty quickly and a lot of the great new ideas they had actually worked out to be mediocre or downright bad.  4th has been out for years now and I have not, up to this point, worked up the gumption to go for it and start again building my own game but now is the time.

The most fun part about building an RPG is coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas for spells and abilities.  I love thinking of some new crazy thing a spell could do and then working out how to make it so that the numbers actually balance out.  The hard part is coming up with basic mechanics that don't end up creating more problems down the road.  For example, in 3rd a critical hit worked by multiplying the damage dealt of a weapon swing by 2, 3 or 4.  This was *not* a good idea!  Orcs were creatures appropriate for level 1 groups and the weapons they used did 1d12 + 3 with a critical of x3.  It was entirely possible for a level 1 character with 5 hit points to be attacked by an 'appropriate monster' and be hit for 36!  It got even worse as you levelled up a bit and were expected to fight dozens of orcs at a time since you could still easily eat a 36 damage attack and might only have 12 hit points to work with.  Critical hits might be fun for the players when they get to annihilate a boss in one round but it isn't much fun when the GM has to fudge rolls to keep the party from blowing up before they get an action.  4th changed crits substantially such that you just do maximum damage instead of multiplying your damage by a large amount.  Of course this means that on some attacks critting isn't a big deal at all and on some others it is quite important but either way I never much liked the fact that when I got a crit the damage total was always exactly the same.

My solution was to add damage on to the attack when a crit occurs.  SkyRPG uses a system including the concept of Basic Damage which is used by various attacks and spells.  Basic Damage roughly looks like:

Weapon Dice + Stat Modifier + misc. bonuses = Basic Damage.

Example of a Guardian wielding a Longsword, having a Might modifier of 2 and a magic weapon that adds 1d4 damage.

1d8 + 2 + 1d4 = Basic Damage.

This Guardian might use the ability Brutal Smash that knocks down the opponent and does 2 * Basic Damage.  So this character would roll their attack and if it hit the opponent would be knocked down and take

(1d8 + 2 + 1d4) * 2

Critical hits operate by adding 1d8 damage to the character's Basic Damage on a crit.  This means that crits scale with the power of the ability being used because more powerful abilities multiply Basic Damage.  It also means that I have a pretty good handle on exactly how good a crit is and can easily tune it to be better or worse which is nice to have when I haven't written all the abilities yet.  The ability above would do the following damage on a crit:

(1d8 + 2 + 1d4 + 1d8) * 2

It is a tricky balance to strike between letting players and monsters have truly hideous abilities that are fun and overpowered and trying to keep the campaign from coming to screeching halt due to unforeseen player death. The band that was going to save the world from OverDark Lord Omnapupa died to 4 orcs they randomly met while walking to the next town ... I guess evil wins after all.

If you want a link to what I have done so far here it is.  Note that it is still *very* early and lots of definitions and basic things aren't there yet.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Balance: Third times the charm. Right?

I suspect many people who read my blog don't follow the comments when those comments go on at great length and over several days so I want to summarize a bit what came of the last balance post I made on tuesday.  lebkc came up with a definition for a balanced game that read like thus:

"equally successful for all players under perfect play"?

I think I would rewrite it slightly to be like thus:

"A balanced choice is one where any of the options will produce a similar average result in terms of performance when chosen by a player that otherwise plays perfectly."

Thing is, lebkc's argument doesn't work for game balance on a whole game level at all but I think it works great for a single choice.  I don't know which way he intended it.  It isn't doing anything particularly innovative there but it certainly sums up the idea that if a set of choices all have similar performance results when played perfectly they are all balanced against one another.  However, I was talking about defining what makes a game balanced or not rather than what makes a choice balanced or not.  I don't think I was particularly clear on that point which is probably why the discussion has been so vigorous and we have been so much talking past each other.

Any choice within a game can be put into the set of choices that is balanced (as per definition above) or unbalanced.  The trick to defining a balanced game in my mind is to figure out how we derive overall game balance from looking at the individual choices.  Clearly all games of any complexity have many choices that are widely unbalanced but this does not prevent us from thinking of the game as unbalanced at all.  In chess you can spend every move moving a knight in and out of his starting position - this is not balanced as a strategy against "play well" but it doesn't make chess unbalanced. In WOW you can refuse to put on gear and this is not balanced against putting on gear but yet that isn't going to change our minds about whether or not we call the entire game balanced.  It is clear that there are some specific choices that will trigger us to think that a game is imbalanced but that the size of balanced/unbalanced sets is not the trigger and I can't see any other clearly identifiable pattern.

As such I don't think we can derive a definition for a balanced game that can be arrived at without looking at the preferences and beliefs of the players.  Clearly humans have tendencies and we can make good educated guesses about what they will think and reasonably call things balanced or not based on those guesses and I don't think there is any other way to resolve whether a game is, as a whole, balanced or not.  Individual choices can be mathed and played out to arrive at a defensible, logical conclusion as to their balance or lack thereof.  I don't think a whole game can be approached in this fashion.

Ramping up the challenge

Raiding in Cataclysm has been pretty well done for my guild.  We beat the first encounter with 9 people in levelling greens and blues and it was a challenge to do so.  We continued to beat normal modes with regularity and then eventually moved on to hardmodes - now at 4 of 13.  It looks like we are on pace to defeat most, though not necessarily all, hardmodes by the time the next major content patch arrives.  This is a pretty good pace to set and I think for semi hardcore guilds like mine Blizzard did a good job providing content.  We never hit any brick walls along the way, though admittedly that was due to Blizzard nerfing some overtuned encounters such that they would have appropriate difficulty level.  The raids were not perfect when shipped but they did get shuffled into shape just fine for our timeline.  The trouble as I see it is with guilds who aren't so good.

Those weaker raiders were very much used to raiding as it was at the end of WotLK.  There were many zones that could be horrendously outgeared so people just looking for a raid for fun could go to Naxxramas, Ulduar, Sartharion, Coliseum or Malygos.  By the end the 30% buff made even ICC completely trivial and many pugs were doing very well and any guild that wanted to had much of the zone down.  This is a pretty easy, forgiving environment for a new or unskilled raider.  It was easy to find groups, bosses died without any necessity for really good play or serious preparation and if you couldn't beat the next boss in ICC there was always something to do that felt vaguely productive.  This is not true in Cataclysm for two reasons:  First, there is only one easy boss.  Almost all of Naxxramas was completely trivial and was beating cleared by PUGs within weeks and this was not at all true in Cataclysm.  The second issue is that there are no zones that players can easily outgear and smash just for fun.  No matter when a weak guild started out in Wrath there were things to do since it shipped with many trivial bosses - in Cataclysm if you can't beat Magmaw or Halfus you just die to them for hours on end until you quit.

Of course the old zones are still there but the ostensible reason for visiting them is gone.  The gear in them is irrelevant and they don't provide points so there is no reward for going there.  Even though the benefits of running Coliseum in the end days of Wrath were pretty weak people still felt like they were achieving something that forwarded their goal of raiding.  There is no plausible deniability any more - Wrath raids are out, to be progressing you need to be killing new content and there isn't much unless you have a reasonable skill level.  I think that Blizzard really needed to have something else for new players to do and my theory is that they need an instance with easy bosses that drops worse loot than the current raids.  A 4 boss instance with ilvl 353 epic loot would fit the bill nicely - it would allow new guilds to practice on fights that are easy and have a feeling of accomplishment and progression while they wiped to Magmaw or Halfus.  Hell, the new instance doesn't have to be new at all, even a Molten Core update would work.  The mechanics there are not complicated, if the monsters were updated to 85 it could be a fine 10 boss easy instance for new people to bash through.

People need that sense (whether or not it is actually true) that they are making real, noticeable progress towards their goals.  Wiping over and over to the first boss does not accomplish that.  It isn't going to change things for my guild and guilds like it aside from perhaps a bigger recruiting pool but it would make the raiding game much more accessible and enjoyable to a big chunk of the WOW population.  Whether Blizzard thinks it is worth the development time to produce such raids is another question entirely.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Defining Balance again

Last week I tried to define game balance.  I came up with something that seems like a useful idea on how to make a game fun and I think would be positively correlated with people calling a game balanced... but it wasn't a good definition of game balance.  The comments were very interesting and I had another talk with people this weekend on the topic to try to nail it down a little better.  We started off talking about what sorts of games we would call imbalanced and going from there.  Note that although balance and fun are linked I am not talking here about what makes a game fun but rather focusing on balance itself.

Ziggyny, who is the best Vegas Showdown player I know, says that he thinks it is an unbalanced game.  He thinks this because the best strategy is to try to build the Theatre but that strategy requires the Theatre to come out.  Most of the time it does but if it does not then the Theatre strategy simply loses and if it does the Theatre strategy simply wins... assuming people don't buy it from you for spite, which they sometimes do.  All this is assuming good play and knowledge from all players.  I would agree that a game where you play for a long time making many complex decisions that seem relevant at the time but which will be randomly determined to be relevant or not near the end of the game is unbalanced.

WOW is a particularly balanced game.  When I say this I wonder what exactly it would take to make me think it was imbalanced and I think the primary thing that would make me think that is if the classes were not all balanced against one another in effectiveness.  If the individual specs were not comparable in effectiveness I would note that as a lack of balance but much less so than classes.  I don't think that particular styles like Melee Hunter or Naked Paladin need to be any good at all for balance to be achieved.

Settlers is a balanced game.  Although there is a fair bit of luck involved (which you can limit substantially by using a deck instead of dice) it is definitely clear that better players win the vast majority of the time, weaker players have a chance to win and the sorts of things that you would think would make you win the game do in fact make you win the game.  Being a canny trader, using intimidation/stalling/lying to get people to do what you want, placing settlements/cities carefully, making good decisions on when to crush resources, when to keep a big hand or dump your cards and who to hit with the robber baron all have a substantial impact on the game along with the aforementioned luck.

We also talked about if War is a balanced game.  The conclusion we came to was that War was not a game at all since there were no player decisions of any kind and the result was decided purely by a complicated coin flip. Rock Paper Scissors seems like it will never be called imbalanced, it will often be called balanced and you might well call it 'too trivial to be balanced or not'.  Either way it definitely does not trigger the 'this is unbalanced' feeling.

Puerto Rico is a mostly balanced game.  When my group of friends plays we tend to bid for various seats since seats with corn have a starting advantage.  The advantage is small in a group where people accurately recognize and attack the leader but nonetheless it is there.  The feature that after a totally randomized start some players possessed a noticeable advantage was something we all felt was unbalanced.  Clearly the game is a lot of fun without bidding for seats but there was a clear consensus that bidding for seats to achieve a more equitable start position made it feel more balanced to expert players.

So what is the common element in these things?  Randomness is not considered unbalanced or balanced consistently, dependency on skill is not the determining factor and number of optimal ways to play does not seem to be the answer either.  The common element I find is that a game is considered unbalanced if the primary driving factors behind performance and success are not what the players intuitively feel they should be.  In Settlers people seem to feel that all the decisions made in the game should be impactful but luck should change the course of the game and occasionally have an overwhelming effect.  People also feel that poker is balanced due to that same combination of skill and luck - the result matches their intuition.  I think this also explains WOW nicely since it is a game where huge amounts of time are invested into a character so people tend to object to any choice they cannot reverse being too significant a factor in determining their power.

This isn't a definition I am in love with.  I don't like the ephemeral 'what players intuitively feel they should be.' part of it and I wish there was something more concrete, more measurable I could use instead.  Clearly we can measure specific things like "Do Ret Paladins do as much damage as Elemental Shaman?" somewhat reasonably but I don't think we can actually determine anything about whether or not a game is balanced until we ask people what they think should determine how successful and/or powerful they become while playing it.  So here you have my brand spanking new definition:

A game is balanced if the primary driving factors behind performance and success are what the players intuitively feel they should be.

Now we can see if this one holds up better than the last!