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The Power of Change: Part Two

A continuation of my Power of Change series, this time narrowing the focus to deal with equipment design and player created content within that realm.

Game Developer, Staff

August 1, 2011

13 Min Read

Whew.. I wasn't expecting to see the response I got from my first blog, but I admit it was encouraging, and I appreciate any and all who took the time to read it, much less reply. I just wanted to note before I get started that these are my opinions, nothing more, and they are based off the last 25 years of game playing experience and my own attempts and research into game design and the direction that I would like to see games moving towards. 

Dynamic Equipment Design 

In the introduction blog to this series I rather jokingly made reference to rose and violet +90 sword of rat slaying. However, the remark was only partially a joke. Anyone who has spent any time looking around the games today can see how focused on gear, and more specifically stat gear, that games have become.

In the early days of MMOs, I recall playing the beta version of Everquest, when the best gear readily available was made by the players. I remember how grateful I was when I kind soul gave my level five Dark Elf Shadowknight a set of banded plate mail that allowed me to slice through the snakes, wolves, lions, and orcs, like they were made of playdough. I also remember how proud of my first bone bladed claymore I was. However, as much as I enjoyed earning those rare drops, they never once compared with the pride I felt when I personally created my first high level player crafted weapon. On future characters, I would often refuse to sell loot to vendors, instead cleaning out my bags doing trade skills and mastering them a few points at a time. I remember how depressing it was when SOE took over the game and introduced an item into the TUTORIAL that gave +5 to every stat for about 15 minutes worth of playing. 

Like much of my focus on change in game design, the concept of dynamic equipment creation by players is all about creating a personal investment on the part of the player. There has to be a meaningful connection between player and object in order for the player to get the most out of the experience. Not only that, but the rarer the object, the greater the source of pride. I read an article on Gamasutra(regarding selling rare items in microtransactions) that cited a study showing that people feel more attached to something that they feel is the original, and that it becomes a source of pride for them. How can we as game designers use this to our advantage? How can we build connections between players and equipment that are not based solely on statistics?

Several games have tried to address this in various ways:

  • Time Investment(Time=Money)

  • Bragging Rights(A really difficult quest or Boss drop)

  • Rarity

  • Statistical Modifiers(combat multipliers/affects)

  • Some Combination of the above

However, there always reaches a point where everyone who wants one has one, and then it is no longer a novelty and people are off in search of the next best thing. So even though  a connection is made, it is extraordinarily transiant and fleeting. What issues are their with these methods?

  • All items are identical copies, from identical bosses, from identical raids, identical quests, identical accomplishments.

  • Players lose equity in the item as rarity diminishes in terms of both their tangible investment and emotional/mental investment. This also nullifies bragging rights as more players accomplish the same thing you did.

  • Statistical modifiers often get out of control leading to a wildly unbalanced game as players reach the level cap and the highest tiered gear, making all lower level content relatively worthless as a  player experience. This means that the game developers lose financial equity in their game the longer players play.

 What is missing from all of these methods? What can we design into our games to combat the bloat? In a word, personality.

What's in a Name? 

When we start talking about personality and identity, one of the key points is simply the name. When asked, "Who are you?", most of us would without hesitation answer with our name. It is part of our identity. While our name is not truly who we are, it is something that is so integral to our personality that if someone were to call us something other than our name or a nickname that we identified with, we probably would not even realize they were talking to us. 

This sense of identity also applies to items in game. As database schemas have become more complex, is there any valid reason that item names should not be, at least in part, random or semi-random? What does it cost in terms of development? All of the game data for that item is going to be stored in the database or in the game object itself anyway, and the program is not likely to call the object by the name the player reads, so why not let the player have the one and only item named "Fluffy Wabbit Swaying Axe of Metalic Dooooom"... the player will not care that it is the same old battle axe with a measely +5% atk vs. wabbits. It is theirs. It is unique. Its special. All others are just imitators because this ax, my ax, is the only ax called the "Fluffy Wabbit Swaying Axe of Metalic Dooooom."

To stat, or not to stat...
For those that have played games recently, you have most probably noticed the +90 to this, +180 to that type stats on weapons and armor. To my mind, gear like that is trying to balance a bunny on a seasaw by dropping a freight train on the other side. You might create the first bunny astronaut, but you will not make a balanced game. Not only that, as mentioned previously, you introduce what I affectionatly refer to as stat whores, the people who don't care about anything except having the best stats. While this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, it has some definite draw backs.

  • Scalability - A weapon system like this quickly makes killing high end creature content a trivial matter as new expansions are released. A prime example is in EQI where players can solo gods. (Does that mean the players are gods..... some of them seem to think so!)

  • Content Destruction - This type of system quickly makes area, equipment and creature content obsolete as they will not be able to provide enough challenge or reward for the players' time investment. This is a net loss for the developer that requires constant deliver of new content to keep players challenged and interested if there is any plan at all to try and further the profit margins.

  • Player Retention - This type of system either leads to a contived binding system or countless twinked characters running around. One way kills the in world economy, the other kills the content faster than it was designed for, potentially lowering the retention rate and duration from what was targeted as old players get disgusted at seeing 'newbs' burn through the levels so quickly, new players feel bored so they don't stay, players feel like you are cheating by not letting them sell their gear(especially when you are dangling the next shiny right in front of them that they can not afford), or players still do not really understand how to make the most effective use of their characters because all of the carefully structured learning curve you created for them has been bypassed. 

  • Economy - This type of system has a negative impact on the player economy(assuming you do not use the binding system) as more players reaching the end game flood the market with high end gear thus reducing the marketability of your low and mid-game content. 

These are not problems that designers are unaware of. In fact, several games have tried, with varying degrees of success, to deal with these issues. EQ introduced the idea of equipment that gains experience(I don't think they originated the idea, but it is one of the first graphical MMO examples that comes to mind.) The problem they encountered is that they introduced it to late into the development, after the overall game balance had already been irrevocably skewed, and they introduced as a high-end game function which did nothing to eliminate the fact that nearly all of their low-to-mid-game content was not worth playing because of existing balance issues. They also had the weapons bind to players, which to my way of thinking is another no-no and a sign of a inherent balance issue.

One of the best examples I have seen came from the PSP game Phantom Brave. While the other mechanics in the games system may have been lacking, the way they handled item and character progression was innovative and refreshing. Not only could you level up items to unlock their hidden potential(creating a vested interest of time in the item), you could also combine items to create items that possessed some, or most, of the attributes of the consumed piece of equipment, but then you no longer had that piece available to use. This was good in that it forced a player to make strategic choices, created a since of loss when your favorite piece of equipment was broken(however temporarily), and made the player think twice before dumping something at the vendor, while providing an back up drain to remove excess items. Not only that, but the level of the item alone wasn't enough to make it useful. Each character had a skill set that determined how effective they were at using particular types of items, the amount of mana they had available to use the skills the items allowed, and there were normally trade offs involving speed as well. Player characters were also able to merge with items to increase their stats and/or gain new innate abilities and elemental attributes.

While this type of  system is certainly not appropriate for every game, I think there is a lot that can be learned by studying it and seeing what root elements can be applied. So, without further ado, here are a list few elements regarding stat items that I feel could be better addressed:

**Yes, I am aware that numerous games have done some of these. I still feel that could be more thoroughly addressed in upcoming games.**

  • Stat Dynamics - I think a break from static weapon statistics is in order in general, and, unless your theme allows for items to become stronger as they are used, should reflect a characters ability to use the item effectively. This can take the form of inherrent item properties that open up as the item/player is upgraded, the discovery of unknown abilities, merging item properties, or imbuing a item with new properties/abilities. 

  • Allow the weapon to have base statistics, but link any additional upgrades directly to the player. If the player wields that specific item, the player gets those specific bonuses, if another player wields the item, they do not. This removes the need for binding the equipment altogether.

  • Provide multiple ways to discard stat items, and give adequate rewards to the player for doing so. There is nothing worse than selling what used to be a near priceless artifact for a minute fraction of what the value was. Depreciation is NOT a fun mechanic. This applies regardless of whether you are using a binding system or not. There should be more than one way to get rid of your old stat gear. Rip it apart for components, merge it, upgrade it, sacrifice it to the gods, give it to the city armory, donate to the local polo club, something. 

  • Items that give base stat enhancements should be RARE. That way they retain their value. Higher damage/defence, longer range, faster reload times, fine. Those are just weapon specs but the +90 Sword of Rat Slaying should be used on the rat that designed it.

  • Weapon categories should MATTER!! Given that a staff, a sword, a hammer, a gun, a wand, a dagger, and a grenade all have the same base damage, the simple virtue of their being a different TYPE of weapon should make a significant impact not just on how they are used, but one who they are used against. Somehow stabbing the zombie with the dagger or clubbing it with the staff instead of splattering its head all over the wall with a shotgun just seems like I am asking to be lunch.

  • Conversely, armor categories should MATTER as well. A kevlar vest won't protect you from a bashing weapon(don't believe me, go get hit in the chest with a sledge hammer while wearing one....that crap hurts) because they are designed to stop high velocity piercing weapons. 

Just to name a few..

Player Creation 

Player created content can be a scary thing. I'm almost certain that anyone who has ever played a game where players could create content could tell at least one horror story. However, freedom of expression is becoming a major drawing point for games. Players want to be able to feel that they have contributed in some small part to making their game world, and they want their character to be unique in their game world(quite possibly because it is so dang difficult to be unique in the real world). This also has the added benefit of bringing another group of players into your game.

I am not suggesting that a lot of resources be dedicated to creating fancy gimicks for the players, but rather, let the other kids play with your toys. Many game developers will create editors to work with their game engine during the development of the game. So allow the players limited access to your editors and let them get to work. Heck, build a truncated version of your editors into the game itself as part of the crafting engine. Let the player have some control over basics like the shape, color, and design elements of the kit that they are crafting. (I will talk about crafting items in another post as it is deserving of its own topic.) Give the players a connection to their creations. Give them another way to say, "This is my item. There is no other item like it. It is special because I made it special. This item represents a part of me." I think you will find that many players will forgo better spec'd items in favor of unique items, particularly if they are created by the players themselves. This is especially true when considering loss aversion. 

In the end, a game is not just a game, it's a relationship. This is particularly true when you are designing a game with the intent that a player will spend anywhere between 30 hours to 6 months playing your game. The more meaningful connections you can create, the more likely you are to keep the player coming back.  Create a game that the players can make their own, and you have created a game that will grow and thrive long after you remove your hand from it and let it walk on its own.

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