Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

12 January, 2012

A Game of Roles
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:07 AM
(This post has been viewed 4270 times.)

For my day job, I installed EverQuest 2 to test out the new player dungeon maker system to see if Storybricks could, uh, "borrow" any inspiration from the system for our own editor. Along the way, i got sucked back into the game a bit. I'm not quite fully immersed back into the game, but after playing so much I feel like I should justify that effort by trying to draw some sort of game design analysis from it. So, read on for some of my thoughts.

What I've been doing in Norrath

As I posted before, I was pretty into EQ2 for a while. This time around, I wasn't that into the game, but it's slowly sunk its claws into me. What's funny is that it's not the new content that's sucked me in, it's the old content.

My old character was a level 68 Kerra Necromancer. Back when I last played him, level 70 was the cap and I was in a raiding type guild with some friends. I had even done some group quests to get flagged for some raids. But, right as I was approaching max level things fell apart. My friends had hit a lull and some of us went over to LotRO for a bit. The EQ2 guild floundered and eventually went dormant. As I logged on recently, other guild members had not logged in for over a year.

Anyway, my first order of business was to learn more about the Dungeon Maker system. I played a dungeon using the pre-made NPC the game supplies for you. Completing a dungeon gives you a currency (Dungeon Marks) and experience points on your actual character. Well, I had logged on during a double xp event, and had a ton of rested experience. This meant that in short order my character leapt from 68 to 70. I spent some time digging through the options and powers of my character to try to remember what was going on all those years ago, and how the system had changed.

I figured if I wanted to do new content, I'd need to do things like clear space in my inventory and in my quest log. So, I figured I'd do some of those old quests.

Necromancer, Interrupted

The first thing I found funny was the dates on quests. EQ2 will record the date you acquired a quest. All the quests in my log had been acquired in 2006. Sitting there, waiting for me to continue them sometime. The world had not really moved on since that person asked me to go investigate a lost party in that dungeon.

The second thing I found funny was the effort I had poured into the character. I had a lot of powerful (master level) spell upgrades, as I had spent money to acquire them in anticipation of raiding. Now I'm going to be replacing some of these spells in short order. The new maximum level is 90, so I've got a lot of upgrades to go. All that effort was ultimately not important, although I probably feel a bit extra powerful now.

Zen and the art of cleaning out a quest log

After I remembered the basics of how my character worked, I figured I'd go slum in a low-level zone and try to clear out some quests ranked in the 20s or 30s. Maybe I don't remember clearly, maybe it's easier since I had a high level character and the boredom to go back, or maybe it had been changed; I noticed some of the drops seemed a LOT more common than before.

One neat feature that EQ2 has is that monsters that are too low level for you won't attack you. In fact, a lot will even play a "cowering" type animation if you draw near. This makes it easier to go attack specific enemies that you need to kill to complete quests. So, it was easy for me to go in and do some surgical strikes to kill enemies I needed. I got a bit more xp, too, as I cleared out some of those quests. I found it kinda relaxing to just go clear out quests. Soon I had a few dozen slots open, and even picked up some new quests in the zones closer to my level.

Blah, blah, blah... what about the Dungeon Maker?

So, what did I think about the Dungeon Maker? Well, I wasn't blown away. But, I do keep in mind the fact that this is a very late addition to the game. I'm sure it took a lot of effort and creativity to make this work. But, to be honest, there are a lot of flaws.

The first problem is that you use the set monsters to run the dungeons. There is an interesting element where you can "collect" new fighters (in addition to collecting new monster types to place in your dungeon) while fighting monsters. These new monsters seem a lot more powerful, though, and able to handle a lot more abuse than the standard characters can. At least, that's my perception and one that's been shared by others. However, using a pre-generated character always feels less meaningful than using your own character.

The second problem is that the options are really limited for the types of dungeons you can make. you can buy/earn a lot of different layouts, monsters, and items to place in your dungeons, but ultimately your dungeon is all about a character or group of characters going through and slaughtering enemies. You can't set quests, interactive NPCs, or anything else; the monsters are literally only there to be xp and loot piñatas. It's be nice to have some options to do something more than just having enemies beat on each other. Some ways to have simple quests, or have a way to interact with some of the NPCs would add a whole other level for making dungeons. And a whole other level of debugging and code headaches, I'm sure.

Finally, the big problem with this kind of setup is that people are quick to exploit or grief. Dungeons are set up either as easy ways to grind currency (many of the popular dungeons I saw has titles like "easy 30 mark grind!"), or on the other hand are vicious death traps intended to frustrate players. While some people like Stargrace over at MMOQuests.com might enjoy challenge and unpredictability, not everyone shares this positive attitude.

I tried my hand at making a dungeon. Using the limited tools available, I made a quest about some gnolls raiding an orc compound. Players start out fighting gnolls facing inward (away from the players), but eventually run into orcs expecting an invasion. As far as I can tell, however, nobody has cared to play my dungeon besides me. :( I even changed the title to try to allure others with its soloability and easy exit option.

Playing a role

I've also been thinking more about my character in the game. As I said, my main is a Necromancer: controller of the undead and disease. In EQ2, you have to be "evil" to be a Necromancer. Back when I played, that meant you had to be in Freeport. For those who never played EQ2, Freeport is a dire place full of dirt and oppression. The Overlord rules with an iron hand and any dissent is crushed. On the other end of the spectrum you have Qeynos, which as a friend quipped, "You expect to look up and see a crayon-drawn smiley face on the sun over Qeynos." These aren't interesting portraits of good vs. evil, these are caricatures of good and evil based on cheezy fantasy tropes. If I hadn't been required to be "evil" to play a necromancer, I would probably not have chosen to live in Freeport. Even now there are other options for evil characters to live in other cities, but laziness keeps me where I am.

What's annoying is when the game doesn't recognize the role that you play. For example, one quest I was doing had the NPC warn me that there are a lot of undead to deal with, and asked me if I was afraid of undead. I'm a necromancer, shapeshifted into Lich form, riding a nightmare steed, with a summoned skeletal sorcerer following me; think I'm afraid of undead?

Another quest had me working with an NPC who got "promoted" to be one of the guards called "Wraithguards" in Freeport. Unfortunately, his conversion was... imperfect. The quest had me find a way to fix him (by removing his memories of humanity, to make him perfectly converted) or destroy him (using an ancient magic found by a cult). In the end I could choose to kill him or save him. As a necromancer, I chose to save him as, to paraphrase The Princess Bride, "I would sooner destroy a stained glass window" than destroy an undead marvel like that. But, what was the result? Nothing that I could tell. There was no new wraithguard wandering through town. The only thing I got was told off by the head of the Wraithguards to never speak to him again; my dialog option was "Because I know how to destroy you now?" (A followup quest does seem to have the wraithguard want to take you out of the picture.) What's even funnier is a later conversation with an NPC has that NPC revealing that the wraithguard might be... undead! "Oh," my character responds, "the people would never tolerate that!" Again, as I sit astride my nightmare steed in lich form, with an undead associate floating by my side. Surely, nobody would tolerate the undead in Freeport!

Yet another quest had me talking to a guard. He gets belligerent and attacks me, so I quickly dispatch him; but oh noes! This is a grave crime I must hide! Hello, this is Freeport! Murder happens on a regular basis here. A later quest had me breaking someone out of a prison. No problem, of course, I had an invisibility spell! No such luck, the guards noticed me easily through the spell. So, here's my necromancer having to slink around and avoid fights when my first option is usually to throw bolts of disease and corruption at my enemies. Suddenly murder was taboo in the capital of evil. (As a developer, I do feel sorry for the quest writer. I can just imagine how proud he or she felt being able to put a stealth mechanic into the game by hacking other game systems. Doesn't stop the quest from being super annoying, though, and completely aggravating when it won't let me use my class powers properly.)

The problem here is that if I want to play a role, the game won't allow me to do so. Maybe I'm a curious student of the dark arts, shunned by polite society and having to take refuge in a city that questions the morality of experimenting with the forces of death less. Maybe I relish my role as manipulator of the forces of death. Ultimately, however, I'm forced to solve quests the way the designer intended and am limited in options and dialog with few meaningful choices besides doing a quest (and getting a reward) or not doing it (and thus not getting that reward). Being a paper RPGer, I know the importance of role-playing. Sadly, EQ2 (and really, most MMOs) don't allow you to create a meaningful role.

At the risk of me writing checks that the Storybricks team has to make good on, this is one of the more exciting aspects of Storybricks for me. The ability to not only give the player more options on how to tackle a story, but to also allow the person to define their own role and adjust the world to fit, is a tremendously cool concept.

A pleasant way to pass the time

As I said, for all these complaints I still willingly spent a fair amount of time playing EQ2. So, it's not all bad.

What do you think? Is there hope for player-made dungeons in a game like EQ2? Can a game do more to support real role-playing?

--


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17 Comments »

  1. I have not played EQ2, but i'm reading a lot about the game these days and am intrigued by some of the features. i've heard that player housing is exceptional and i'm also curious about the player-created dungeons, the ability to collect fighters and monsters especially. i think minecraft and STO have proven that there is interest in player-generated content.

    Comment by Nobody — 12 January, 2012 @ 7:30 AM

  2. Speaking only to the 'recognition of character role' comments you had, I will say that this is one thing I've been enjoying in Star Wars: The Old Republic. It certainly doesn't remember all of your actions, nor is it really possible for you to change the world in any meaningful way (which makes all the story a bit less engrossing), but the dialogs do generally seem to reflect your role and class fairly well. I've had many NPCs hide from me, salute me, bow to me and say various things that make me think, 'oh yeah, I AM an evil Sith Lord, gotta remember that!' It's a small thing, but does go a long way towards building the sense of a world.

    Comment by Joe — 12 January, 2012 @ 7:38 AM

  3. Brian, you've acheived a Vulcan mind-meld with me, it seems. I have the same itch. I want to play Skyrim with other people, maybe a small group, but even Skyrim has its limitations. I want to kill something and not have it walking around 5 minutes later. I want sneak, or mez, or fear, or whatever, to work unless there is an in-game reason for it to not work.

    I'm not sure the phrase "player-generated content" really conveys the sense of what I want in this sort of game, though.

    One big problem that I see with doing this sort of thing (players have permanent influence on the world) is the decided lack of any social contract within the context of the game. I wonder if going smaller, making games meant to be played by smaller groups, wouldn't be more interesting.

    And so a PVP game has decided advantages. If someone's being a dick, you can gather a bunch of folks and go gank them. But it won't be permanent, so we're kind of back to square one.

    Comment by Toldain — 12 January, 2012 @ 10:21 AM

  4. Star Trek Online and the upcoming Neverwinter game by Cryptic have the "Foundry". They apparently didn't get frustrated by the exploitation of their user-created content tools in City of Heroes and well here we go:

    The most popular missions are Broken Console 1-3. They even have a story. An angry mad Klingon Woman, a greedy Ferengi and your Orion girlfriend want you to solve the most difficult mission ever: click a console!
    For completing three user made scenarios you get 1440 Dilithium.

    Everyone who knows does this and similar missions every day. So far they mission hasn't been removed for ages. Maybe because new ones that work similarly pop up regularly.

    As they tend to break the Foundry missions over and over it's not much fun to create and fix them over and over. There are some OUTSTANDING missions but finding them except the most popular 10 is almost impossible. Mostly you get something like "Romulan Grind" or extra longish missions with more text than an entire novel.

    So well, while I really like that they give players the freedom to create and add to the world their missions get mostly ignored, forgotten or they are just crap and nobody cares. There are gems in the crap, but I really wish the system would promote good content better. No matter how well done the mission is, nobody knows how it is! There is a reviewer system but guess what, the 1-click-missions solve so quickly that they get autoscored with a 3 of 5 by click accident and rank fairly high, having the most ratings of all missions.

    Maybe this is something to keep in mind for Storybricks: Players must be able to find content and to check if its good easily. Finding good content in STO is limited to obscure forum threads rating various missions. But word of mouth makes "Broken Console" easily the most popular mission. :P

    Comment by Longasc — 12 January, 2012 @ 10:27 AM

  5. Went to the storybricks website. I'm a developer. From the site, I have no idea what storybricks really does, why I might want to use it, and even if I can use it, let alone how I might use it. You've been doing trade shows, are those two paragraphs all you tell people about it?

    Comment by Robert Basler — 12 January, 2012 @ 11:22 AM

  6. I'm playing almost nothing but EQ2 at the moment. I didn't mean to. I've been playing since beta, after all and while I am pretty much never "done" with an MMO I did think I might have chewed the flavor out of this one. Apparently not. I got re-hooked when the original F2P server started in 2010 and only six months of Rift has really interrupted EQ2 since. Rift's faded and I'm back in EQ2, which I believe is the best it's ever been.

    The Age Of Discovery expansion has been an absolute revelation. I see it as a catalyst expansion that makes all the existing aspects of the game shine with a new luster. Your points on the dungeon maker are well made, but it is what it is and I like it. I did the whole "script your own game" thing with Neverwinter Nights. It was fascinating and I learned a lot, but I completely understand why SoE didn't want to go down that route. I know I never want to go there again - I lost most of a summer last time.

    I've done a couple of posts on my blog about the Dungeon Maker ( http://bhagpuss.blogspot.com/2011/12/new-year-new-dungeon-eq2.html being the main one if you're interested) and I could easily do a couple more. It's disappointing how many token farms there are (although I admit to enjoying running through a nice fast token farm last thing before bed) but there are lots of much more interesting ones around. Someone should compile a directory of the best ones. Not going to me, though. I'll be too busy playing through them!

    Comment by bhagpuss — 12 January, 2012 @ 11:40 AM

  7. Part of the problem is the iron-clad relationship between missions and rewards. The "experience points for every kill and every quest" model discourages players from roleplay by encouraging them to focus on xp and do everything possible to acquire it.

    MMOs typically emphasize quantifiable progression: leveling, linear gear progression, zone progression, etc. Experience points > the experience itself. Progression must take a backseat to exploration and individual moments, and/or rewards must have subjective value, for roleplay to flourish.

    When a player's lich knight turns an NPC into a zombie, that experience can be its own reward. It would be even more interesting if another player, a paladin or cleric, could then release that zombie's spirit. Rivalry is fun, and should not always involve scripted quest NPCs as intermediaries.

    Comment by Aaron Miller — 12 January, 2012 @ 12:34 PM

  8. Ironically, I've found that the "on rails" dialog actually gives my EQ2 character a bit more personality. Usually, my character personalities are very generic neutral good because that's all the game's story demands that I come up with. In EQ2, Lyriana has literally killed an NPC for one quest and waited for the respawn so she could turn in an un-related task to her victim (who inconsiderately attacked her on sight due to the matter of her being on a mission to kill that NPC). As a result, I have developed what by my standards is an unusually fleshed out personality and world view for her to explain how her actions make sense - she's a sarcastic True Neutral who believes so strongly in fate that if the situation arises where she needs to kill 10 rats for someone she is there to kill, that's how it was meant to play out.

    Of course, you might argue that I'm creating this story in spite of, not because of, the default dialog. EQ2's also blessed/cursed with an unusually large number of races and classes that makes it probably un-realistic to go so far as to have a separate dialog tree for every quest in which a necromancer encounters the undead. The producer on a normal MMO normally won't allow that level of time investment, unless having the content be that customized is specifically the game's selling point. I could definitely see this as a niche that favors the Storybrick.

    Comment by Green Armadillo — 12 January, 2012 @ 4:01 PM

  9. Robert Basler wrote:
    From the site, I have no idea what storybricks really does, why I might want to use it, and even if I can use it, let alone how I might use it.

    We're working on a new website currently. We're just now starting to ramp up coverage for our tool. To be honest, until recently the exact nature of the tool as in flux as we got feedback from people we talked to. But, we'll have a better description up soon, and a month or so you'll be able to get your hands on our early tool release directly.

    bhagpuss wrote:
    Not going to me, though. I'll be too busy playing through them!

    Well, that would make you the perfect person to write about them! I haven't checked, but are the dungeons global between servers, or is the dungeon I made only available on my own server? I'll check out your post, too.

    Aaron Miller wrote:
    Part of the problem is the iron-clad relationship between missions and rewards.

    Good point. We've had a lot of discussions internally about rewards. Should a story be its own reward? Should players give rewards? No easy answers, unfortunately.

    Interesting discussion, though. Thanks, all, and keep it up! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 January, 2012 @ 6:26 PM

  10. Here is something I wrote years ago about quests in MMOs. In the "New Nomenclature" section, I categorize missions by their goals and rewards. Maybe it will give y'all ideas for Storybricks.

    Basically, I don't think there should be any one relationship between missions and rewards. It should vary. Some experiences should be their own reward. Some should reward money, others items or faction standing... or a combination. But xp systems are more congruent with arcade gameplay than with roleplay and dynamic experiences.

    Comment by Aaron Miller — 12 January, 2012 @ 9:28 PM

  11. The "button pushing" mission example from STO illustrates one of the reasons my preference is for what is generally referred to as "usage-based" and/or "skill-based" advancement: designs that reward each activity separately, Obsidian and Skyrim being examples. Ye olde XP and level are too generic to be effective once you go beyond a mere combat sim, IMO. (Not that there aren't challenges in implementing the alternatives as well.)

    A quick list of reward categories:
    Wealth - cash or income stream, readily spendable
    Equipment - portable and potentially storable, weapons/tools/clothing/misc - may be temporary (loaned) or "permanent"
    Ownership - covers larger constructs, such as steeds, vehicles, houses - may be temporary (rented) or "permanant"
    Reputation - attitude/opinion of general populations/groups - by species/creed/nationality
    Relationship - attitude of specific "known" individuals - patron/mentor/friend/rival/enemy (can include steeds/pets)
    Recognition - a public award or honor, possibly with specific benefits attached (a feudal title, a university chair, guild/board membership, college degree (earned or honorary), etc)
    Skill - increased general ability/chance of success with a specific field of activity
    Technique - capability to perform a "special" maneuver/tactic/spell, not generally available to others (even of greater general skill) without being learned/unlocked
    Knowledge - learns a fact/secret/clue not generally known to others (location of a treasure, creature's lair, hidden passsage, secret identity), may have a physical component (map) or not
    Karma - general improvement (or degradation) of "luck", includes "buffs"
    Restoration - healing or mitigation of previously applied injury/curse/disease/drain

    My own feeling is that it could be helpful in brainstorming new possibilities...

    Comment by DamianoV — 13 January, 2012 @ 5:39 AM

  12. Actually, that story about the wraithguard got a bit worse. I went to one of the locations that quest took place in (a newbie area, collecting low-level materials to work up some crafting) when I saw the wraithguard I supposedly saved there, complaining like he was before I finished the quest. So, not only was the world not change, the world was so not changed that he wasn't even helped yet!

    Aaron Miller wrote:
    In the "New Nomenclature" section, I categorize missions by their goals and rewards. Maybe it will give y'all ideas for Storybricks.

    Yeah, I remember reading that. Right now we're focusing on stories rather than anything deeper like quests or even tasks. Get the basic tools down first.

    DamianoV wrote:
    A quick list of reward categories:

    I think the main problem is once you offer rewards, people will try to get the rewards with the minimum amount of effort possible. Longasc's example of the "push the button" quest is basically one player-developer assisting other players to get their reward with minimum effort. Players might get frustrated with obstacles, but its the obstacles that provide the fun. Give a player all they want, and they become bored. But, I do like the idea of giving more than just some form of item or currency for completing a story in the game. To me, it's a question of if the players cann be untrained to expect some shiny trinket for every action they perform in an MMO or not.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 January, 2012 @ 6:56 PM

  13. A bit of creative writing

    [...] on here for those that appreciate that sort of thing. This first piece I wrote in EverQuest2. As I wrote last post, my main character is a Necromancer. After thinking so much about roles, I started thinking about [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 15 January, 2012 @ 7:50 PM

  14. Psychochild wrote:

    "I think the main problem is once you offer rewards, people will try to get the rewards with the minimum amount of effort possible. Longasc's example of the "push the button" quest is basically one player-developer assisting other players to get their reward with minimum effort. Players might get frustrated with obstacles, but its the obstacles that provide the fun. Give a player all they want, and they become bored. But, I do like the idea of giving more than just some form of item or currency for completing a story in the game. To me, it's a question of if the players cann be untrained to expect some shiny trinket for every action they perform in an MMO or not."

    I often wonder whether a MMO that offers xp for simply being logged into the game would encourage more roleplay and other social interaction. (With the disclaimer that you'd probably want a fairly quick DC for lack of action and detection of botting.)I don't know that it could be the only xp reward, but perhaps it might mitigate some of the rush through content that I see and mostly shake my head at.

    Comment by Djinn — 16 January, 2012 @ 11:46 AM

  15. Djinn wrote:
    I often wonder whether a MMO that offers xp for simply being logged into the game would encourage more roleplay and other social interaction.

    Hmm. I would tend to doubt it. As you mention, botters would potentially be a big issue. In Meridian 59 we took a hard line against botters because we didn't want people walking into a location and not being able to interact with anyone since they were just botting.

    On the other hand, you have EVE online which gives it's form of xp over time whether you're logged in or not. Given the stories that come out of that game, it does seem to encourage people away from gaining power through character ability and more on power through wealth and control. But, if you remove too many game-like aspects to put the focus on roleplaying, then you might just alienate the people who want to play.

    Interesting thought, though.

    Comment by Psychochild — 16 January, 2012 @ 12:39 PM

  16. Psychochild wrote: "But, if you remove too many game-like aspects to put the focus on roleplaying, then you might just alienate the people who want to play."

    Sure, it couldn't be the ONLY reward, but there's probably some balance between constant-growth and event-growth that would result in only those who really liked end-game rushing through content. I also think all of the rewards mentioned by DamianoV will eventually be incorporated. Such a game would be complex and fully rounded - offering something for everyone.

    Comment by Djinn — 16 January, 2012 @ 9:49 PM

  17. Being a game decorator

    [...] I wrote before, I went back to EverQuest 2 with the intention of trying out the new Dungeon Maker system. I [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 6 March, 2012 @ 12:27 PM

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