Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 August, 2006

Generations of characters
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:07 PM

Scott Jennings posted a link to someone talking about permadeath, again. Never a popular topic with people given the current “cumulative character” design that dominates game design these days. I mean, who wants to spend hundreds of hours raiding if you’re just going to lose it all when your character dies? After all, raiding is the ultimate form of gameplay that should be heavily rewarded.

Too much sarcasm there? Sorry. Anyway, despite the naysaying, I’ve had a system that I think would fit the bill nicely here. Instead of just offing characters after they “age” so much, have the “death” system tied into a system of character “generations”. That’s been talked about before, but here’s the interesting twist: tie these systems into expansions for the game. Intrigued?

So, what do I mean by a system of character generations? Well, it means that you manage your character’s descendants as part of the game. In most discussions of this type of system, people talk about offspring; this parallels our experiences in the offline world where, as Scott’s wife puts it, “raising children is twinking in RL.” But, the descendant doesn’t necessarily have to be an offspring: the grizzled master passing his knowledge and powerful weapon to a protégé is a common trope in fantasy. But, the idea is that some of your character’s identity passes into the “next generation”.

The specific mechanics here tend to be a bit fuzzy, since no one has done it in a mainstream game. The concept is that some of your hard-earned stuff (equipment, skills, money, etc.) passes to the next character. Most people refer to only part of the stuff passing along: a few bits of equipment, a certain percent of your skills, a part of your cash. Only a part can pass along to the new character because otherwise you’d just be, essentially, cloning the character.

At this point it is probably appropriate to look at what the design goals of this type of system are. The usual goal is to stop people from simply reaching maximum level and then getting bored. Richard Bartle has been a fan of good permadeath design because he knows that a bunch of bored achievers can’t be good. Of course, this is one of those things that is good for them in theory, but they probably won’t like it much when they see their character permanently dead. Most people consider that the hard-core achievers will likely quit rather than have to “work” to regain all they have lost through the character death: this is a “point of exit” that most designers want to avoid as much as possible. In current games, we have implemented the “elder game” which replaces the need for permadeath, but also gives people the impression that “the game doesn’t really start until you get to X level.”

Another reason is so that you don’t get the outrageous level distribution curves you usually see in these games. You know, where you have a ton of people at max level, a handful of people in the last few levels before max, and almost no one else from newbie to the last gauntlet of levels to grind through. As complained about in the article Scott linked to, this results in completely new players feeling alone in the low-level areas since all the high-level people are killing a dragon somewhere. Alternatively, the alts that may be in the low-level areas are so heavily twinked-out that they don’t need to group with some dumb newbie that will just slow them down.

Now, this isn’t totally from left field here. A Tale In the Desert has the world reset on occasion. Originally it was intended to be every 6 months, but the resets have been a bit less common than that. But, starting a new “telling” allows the game to change in significant ways and to allow one segment of the game to come to a graceful end. As far as I understand, ATITD doesn’t allow characters to keep much between each telling of the story, although older characters can keep the old graphical character style as a sign that they were in the previous telling.

My first idea is to expand upon this concept of generations a bit. First, make generations something beyond just a clone or a way to keep people from hitting max level and staying there. Rather, allow the management of a lineage to have serious game impact. For example, perhaps one school of magic that focuses on teleportation and other grand magics requires the character to be part of it from birth. They are, of course, highly selective in who they allow in; not everyone should wield the powers of time and space! Your character, born a common magician, fighter, or whatever, can’t possibly hope to belong to the school because the character is too old. But, what if your current character did a few heroic quests for this mage school? The elders agree that they will take one of your descendants as a student. In game terms: this means you can roll a mage that studied in this school in a future generation. This could also apply to other group memberships, the creation of powerful artifacts over multiple generations, or the ability to participate in certain levels of politics in the game world.

One of the big benefits of this is that you get some of what permadeath critics fear you lose: there are accomplishments and achievements which stay with the character’s lineage even past death. The player can accumulate a bunch of achievements like this and it gives the opportunity to create a wider variety of characters when it comes time for the next generation to take over. Instead of merely managing a character’s accumulation of stuff, the players can manage the lineage of a whole series of characters.

My second major idea is to tie generations to game expansions. In most discussions of permadeath, the assumption is that your character will grow old or die screaming at the hands of some horrible boss monster. This can be very disruptive, since if you lose your high level character to a dragon your regular dragon slaying group probably doesn’t want to haul around a newbie even if he or she has the same name as their old high-level dragon slaying buddy. So, instead, have characters behave as they do in current games during the time between expansions. They can fight, die, be resurrected, etc. But, when expansions come along, the world advances enough time for all characters to pass away and for the descendants to take over.

Really, expansions are the perfect time to do a generational shift. Expansions are major events, and most games see a very large increase in subscriptions when they come out. Even though characters are permadying, the draw of seeing the expansion is likely enough to keep people interested in the game. Now an extra bullet point is that new players won’t be hopelessly behind all the other characters in the game if they decide to play with the expansion. You can also radically change the game during the expansion without worrying about backwards compatibility. One of the largest issues with expansions is making sure the old characters still work in the new system. This also allows you some freedom in making radical changes to the game. Old characters wouldn’t have had choices foisted upon them, and the changes could be temporary if they turn out to be severely unpopular. The next generation could bring a new system (or bring back and old system) without the intense pain required to adjust existing characters.

There are other benefits here as well. One of the most interesting things in Meridian 59 is the “frenzy”, where players can kill each other in a free-for-all contest that is not saved. After the frenzy, the server is reverted back to the last “normal” saved game. One reason why people enjoy it is because they can test out new things and engage in PvP competitions that feel “real” but that don’t have a lasting impact. The last bit before an expansion could be similar to this, where people could try out risky things knowing there will be no long-term effect. Perhaps some special events could happen during this time, such as an epic attack against the game world that the players must try to repel. Adventurers might die in the effort, and thus have the opportunity to be remembered as a true hero who sacrificed his or her life in the great battle against the nigh impossible enemy. This same effort seems a bit hollow in traditional games where you are just a resurrect spell away from getting another crack at the enemy.

One of the biggest problems here is how the expansion schedule affects new players. If someone joins the game a week before an expansion is due to go live, what can they really do in the game? Perhaps learn the controls and go through the newbie tutorial, but that’s about it. Will this be enough to keep them engaged? Will forcing them to roll a completely new character in a week make them lose some of the connection to the character? Perhaps one alternative is to have it so that new characters can somehow make the transition to a new generation intact. Explain it as either magic or even just a surprisingly identical (even in name!) offspring. But, this breaks one of the benefits listed above: the ability to radically change the mechanics without worrying about character compatibility.

You also potentially have the other problems normally associated with permadeath. What if people see this as a reason to leave the game? This results in less income for the game. On the other hand, it might be nice to give people a graceful way to leave the game for a bit instead of sticking around a game they have burnt out on and only remain to cause headaches for the administrators.

What do you think? Does this system sound interesting? Would it allow some element of permadeath without it sucking quite so badly? Or, is it yet another bad idea some designer latches onto and refuses to let go of? ;)

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  1. New player starting over seems really bad. Unless before the turning of the next age is something really spectacular that even the new player can get into. Otherwise turning the age and the newbie is saying ‘no no no’ and can do nothing about it -ackk!

    Give any character’s whose account was created recently some kind of ‘eternity stone’ that will bring them into the next age with out switching generations.

    Something to stop the ‘newbie drawback’ and the idea seems really solid.

    Now only if one of the super MMO’s lead design roles was chosen democratically you’d get my vote for this idear… in the name of game science!

    Comment by Ketzup — 23 August, 2006 @ 9:35 PM

  2. Intriguing. Just gonna poke around with a stick…

    For example, perhaps one school of magic that focuses on teleportation and other grand magics requires the character to be part of it from birth…The elders agree that they will take one of your descendants as a student.

    Doesn’t this really just boil down to EQ’s “hell level” concept, except that it applies over a whole range of levels? I.e., if you want to play a teleporter mage, you first have to get to level 20, do some epic quests, and then roll a new character (teleporter mage) who you then need to get to level 20 just to be at the point where your previous character was. So essentially you are gaining 1/2 xp to level 20 for the privilege of playing a teleporter mage. Roleplaying-wise, it’s an interesting system. Mechanically I think players would see it as an artificial grind.

    My second major idea is to tie generations to game expansions…when expansions come along, the world advances enough time for all characters to pass away and for the descendants to take over…One of the biggest problems here is how the expansion schedule affects new players. If someone joins the game a week before an expansion is due to go live, what can they really do in the game?

    This struck me immediately as a big problem. By resetting the world, do you risk losing low time and high time players? One solution might be to give new players one-time “grace levels” that they can apply to a new character after the wipe. For instance, a new account created with a week to go before the wipe gets up to 5 grace levels, provided he gets up to level 5. After the server reset, his first new character gets (for example) double xp up to level 5. Or some other mechanic that allows newly created accounts credit for playing so close to the reset. As I see it, this would only apply to new accounts, not new characters.

    I’m actually a little surprised that the big games haven’t experimented with server resets. I’d love to see what kind of interest there would be in games like DAoC, EQ, CoH/CoV, and WoW to have even a single dedicated server that resets every 6 months.

    Comment by Amber — 23 August, 2006 @ 10:26 PM

  3. Amber wrote:
    Doesn’t this really just boil down to EQ’s “hell level” concept…

    Eh, I guess the unwritten assumption here is that the resets/expansions would be relatively quick, like every 6 months or so. This means that you’d have to have a very fast advancement path, probably even faster than WoW’s. Or, you could flatten the power curve significantly so that people don’t feel like they have to slog through yet another character; of course, I’m eager to do this in most games anyway.

    I guess the way I’m thinking of it is more like a game where you create a bunch of alts. Instead of each alt existing independently (and inappropriately twinked by your main character), the game system supports the feature that your next alt benefits from the work of your previous character. I’m sure there’s someone out there that will still feel like it’s a horrible grind, but some people are beyond even my help. :)

    I’m actually a little surprised that the big games haven’t experimented with server resets.

    The only larger game I know that has done anything like this is Shadowbane. The problem is that if you don’t carry something over from one life cycle to the next, it begins to feel meaningless. The reset really does become a opportunity for people that have become even a little frustrated with your game to give up and move along.

    Nobody really considers ideas like this because they are scared silly that people will leave in droves. It does require some clever design to get people to stick around. This is why I think tying it to expansions is a good idea. The desire to leave is counteracted by the desire to see the new stuff. Most people that leave were probably going to leave when the expansion comes out, anyway.

    Personally, the WoW expansion doesn’t excite me very much. But, my circle of friends keep talking about it, so I’m sure they’ll get sucked back into the game even though they got throughly bored with it before. It’s the desire to see the new shiny that outweighs your past experiences and even the need to spend money on the stupid thing.

    Some more thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 August, 2006 @ 12:26 AM

  4. The idea of using expansions is good… but an even better idea, I think, would be to more closely model EQ/EQ2 but actually integrate the accounts. Design a game, like the original EQ, maybe release a content expansion or two. Then design a second game, like EQ2, that takes place in the same world but 50-100 years later. Make both games use the same login process so that an account can only play one at a time, charge only one monthly fee. The stronger your EQ1 character is, the more options you have when creating your character in EQ2. The character creator in EQ2 would allow you to choose which EQ1 character is your ancestor, and then allow you to pick a few items to “pass on”. If your character in EQ1 completed certain quests, certain nuanced classes will be available to you from the start. These nuanced classes will also be available to non-legacy characters, but only after they do quests in EQ2 to open them. So your legacy character may start out as a battle mage, and someone else’s non-legacy character might have to play 10 levels as a regular mage before being able to open the battle mage school for himself. You could even allow guilds created in EQ1 to be passed down to characters in EQ2.

    The key here is, the original game continues to run as is, with its own updates and minor content changes (things that can even chain into content additions for the second game as well). Some people may choose to play game 2 over game 1, some may choose to stay in game 1 and never move on, and still others may choose to play both games. Then in a couple years, you open game 3, that exists another 100 years down the timeline…

    Comment by Jason — 24 August, 2006 @ 4:24 AM

  5. Generations…

    Psychochild posts some ideas for generational gameplay so I thought I would take a sidestep and throw some of my own thoughts here. The premise: Can you have permadeath and ancestry and inheritance all together?
    Looking at it, the generations of char…

    Trackback by JpokiBlog — 24 August, 2006 @ 5:37 AM

  6. It is a good idea and it needs exploring. If only to overcome the end game ennui, like you mentioned, as well the over-Achiever snake pit Bartle warns of (cf. EVE). I think there’s two things to work out: 1) the actual permadeath mechanic and 2) the next generation mechanic. I’ll leave others to discuss #1, but Jeff Freeman had a good approach with #2 by having a similar “estate” or generational “legacy” like you described. I like the idea of enforcing permadeath for any player, presuming a reasonable unlocking/alerting mechanic, but I wouldn’t force a new avatar per expansion. Unless your whole game is time based and semi-historic. But yeah, permadeath + legacies I think would help solve a lot of things.

    Comment by Tide — 24 August, 2006 @ 9:17 AM

  7. Grimewell wrote:
    If you force people to move to the next generation and expansion, how many people do you alienate?

    That issue has come and gone, and the fact is people will buy expansions. When UO and later EQ started pimping expansions, I thought it was going to fragment the playerbase. After all, Meridian 59 had expansions but they were freely downloadable, so you didn’t have to buy anything. Yet, UO and EQ showed that people are not only willing, but even eager to buy expansions. There was no fragmenting of the playerbase. I think that some people bought the expansion and then their friends bought the expansions as well just to be able to go see the nifty new stuff out there; it seems reasonable to assume a similar mechanic would work in this case.

    Further, people don’t even bat an eyelash when it comes to the price of these things. People say that the $10.95 monthly subscription rate is “almost as much” as the $14.95 for the newer games (I blame the education system for making people that bad at math), but they don’t even care when you explain that the newer game includes an additional $50-60 for the initial box, then $30-40 for expansions on a regular basis. There’s a reason why the venerable EQ1 will soon have 12 expansions. It’s incredibly profitable for them.

    So, given all this, I don’t think this will fragment the playerbase as badly as you might think.

    Bringing that to the less personalized and more manufactured computer gaming experience is a bitch. One I hope ya’ll keep thinking on and get figured out mind you.

    Well, I think the future of huge, monolithic MMO games is not going to last. You will always have the larger games like WoW, just like large chain stores like Sears, Montgomery Wards, and K-Mart will always survive. Er, wait, I meant Wal-Mart. Anyway, I think that the future will likely have a few large players and lots of smaller, niche games. Keep in mind that in this future, a game that performs as well as UO did will likely be considered “niche”. Anyway, this idea is more likely to work for a niche game instead of for the mass-market aspiring megagames. So, there’s hope yet for the initial version. :)

    Tide wrote:
    …Jeff Freeman had a good approach with #2 by having a similar “estate” or generational “legacy” like you described.

    Actually, I posted a bit about this idea in the comments of Jeff’s now defunct old blog. It’s something I thought about years ago when I was at 3DO. Figured making a full blog post about it would be interesting given the link over at Scott’s site. As is true with most ideas, they aren’t made in a vacuum. Sometimes this stuff is the logical continuation of previous design ideas and it’s not surprising that multiple people think of similar ideas independently. Yet another reason why patents on gameplay are a bad idea, IMNSHO.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 August, 2006 @ 5:29 PM

  8. Well, as we are back to this old topic I want to first say that any design has to be closely tied to the game lore and overall game mechanics and design. Second, I want to say that there should be a character retirement system in place before any other kind of permadeath or generational system.

    A character retirement system allows players to give up their character in return for something the players find of value. Some of the options could be:
    1. Be immortalize as some of the few who went on an game-effecting epic, hell-level, quest
    2. Voluntarily go through a totem ritual to transform the character into a tree guardian that protects the town
    3. Invest part of the character into a relic to be pass to the next generation and then permanently retire the character

    As seen in the 3rd example, a generational system could be incorporated. Moreover, a generational system that is tied to expansions could be nicely designed to “make sense” and enhance “immersion”. It’s definitely better that the 1st example, as the 1st example is a cummulative deadend while the generational system is evergreen, goes on and on.

    One concept that quickly came to mind was the old D&D Elfblade series of novels. What I remember of the books and concept was that the elfbalde not only pass from generation to generation, but also chooses the wielder. So a game could be designed with the expectation that players will play many alts and try many different character configruation/classes and incorporate a generational system that allow the player to invest a trait of a retired character into a generational item which will be in possession of the newly created alt.


    Comment by magicback (frank) — 24 August, 2006 @ 8:31 PM

  9. I like where Frank is coming from here. I don’t know that the immortalize quest needs to be game-effecting. Just a quest that not everyone at max level could complete when they first hit the cap (if it’s a game with a cap). Your team of five defeat the Elder Dragon and buy everyone one more day of life. After than you can reincarnate with a unnamed boost. (Faster Travel is the first thing that leaps to mind. Something out of combat but very useful. It could even improve if you do it again. The son gets a 25% out of combat movement speed boost, the grandson 50%, and so on, capping maybe around a 1000% increase just because some people need a cap.) Maybe the dead character can come back as a ghost, help people on missions just as an advisor; No fighting, no looting.

    My other thought is that I’m unlikely to accept permadeath if it can be caused by the server crashing.

    Comment by Rik — 25 August, 2006 @ 2:30 AM

  10. Having meaningful systems in the game to *remember* previous characters is probably as important as being able to offer a generational mechanic.

    I agree. This is a blog post, not a design document. Part of what makes the generations neat is that you can refer to previous characters in the game in the next generation. Perhaps even ask people to give a name for a descendant that becomes an NPC. Lots of great things that you can do to make people feel that their character has meaningful impact on the world.

    This is perhaps the greatest strength of the system: You can have the world change in large and meaningful ways during the transition between expansions. You can avoid a static world where players kill the Goblin King repeatedly just to watch him come back again and again. Not having to worry about character “backwards compatibility” helps this goal.

    More thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 August, 2006 @ 3:45 PM

  11. Weekend Design Challenge: An online RPG innovation

    [...] One concept I’d love to see in an online RPG is the concept of generations of characters. This is something that would have to be designed for specifically; you couldn’t just slap this [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 12 August, 2007 @ 11:30 PM

  12. “It does require some clever design to get people to stick around. This is why I think tying it to expansions is a good idea. The desire to leave is counteracted by the desire to see the new stuff. Most people that leave were probably going to leave when the expansion comes out, anyway.”

    You are right on the mark. But i got only one suggestion,

    Don’t you feel that the WHOLE world dying after every expansion feels a little blunt and mechanic? maybe you could make it more like the Standart rotation in Magic the Gathering:

    Original Game

    Expansion 1

    Expansion 2

    then when Expansion 3 comes out, all characters created during the original games die.

    Then when Expansion 4 comes out, all characters created during expansion 1 die.

    That way if someone starts a new character during the last few days before “cycle rotation” he/she do not get so shafted.

    You could even borrow the concept of cycle from this game, and tie the next 3 expansions thematically. (this is not exactly the system Magic the Gathering uses, but I think it would feel natural to the players, i know i do, because i’ve played for over 10 years, tell me if that aint brand loyalty :-p)

    Comment by Felipe Budinich — 10 February, 2008 @ 7:29 PM

  13. Filipe Budinich wrote:
    Don’t you feel that the WHOLE world dying after every expansion feels a little blunt and mechanic?

    Wow, talk about resurrecting an old thread. :)

    One goal of resetting the world is so that you don’t have to worry about “upsetting” the game world as much. This gives more freedom to the developers to put more story into the game. Keeping around old characters means you limit yourself in what you can change.

    Also, resetting the world gives new players a chance to participate in a beginning of the world. People that come into a game late have a hard time really getting a footing because other people have already worn the paths completely. Also, if you have the typical power curve in your game, the bulk of people are clustered at the top end and there’s not many people willing to put up with a newbie at the low end when they’re running through the content for the nth time.

    That said, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have an expansion not jump the timeline forward. In some contexts, your proposal might make sense. The biggest problem I see is that some people might resent the fact that their characters have to pass on while others are still playing. But, makes for interesting food for thought. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 February, 2008 @ 11:49 PM

  14. I can revive zombie posts, because it’s my content! :)

    That’s something I’ve thought about, allowing people to stay in a specific time frame. The big problem you have with that is then maintaining all the different servers. I guess if you did microtransactions and allowed people to purchase access, that might be profitable.

    One advantage of not looking back is that you can scrub the game mechanics pretty easily. Instead of keeping something broken or having to keep changing class roles in a live game, you can change how things work during the massive update and not worry about affecting existing characters. The CS issues that might arise from dealing with different eras (“No, sorry, druids can only shapeshift during ages two and five, and aren’t available during ages three and six…”) could also drive up costs. Plus you have a very literal segregation of the playerbase, so you’d have to have a very large game to support that.

    But, it does fulfill what you talked about in your post about resets. I think it is a good way to put resets in context.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 February, 2009 @ 7:06 PM

  15. yes! generations are a fantastic idea. i have dreamed about this in an MMO, i have told my friends about this, i have proposed something like this in Activision’s Project Top Secret, but i think you have cut it short!

    integrating it with expansions, while it might help Achievers swallow the pill, removes it from being a core mechanic. since expansions typically contain a great deal of unknown content, planning for the expansion is undermined. the punch of generations as a gameplay mechanism is the significance of mortality (sacrifice, fear, accident, desperation) and the fulfillment of raising children (passing on learning, wealth, values) and also watching the time pass. i believe that such a radical and freaking awesome gameplay design should be a significant part of the experience, if not central. this can be done using expansions, but they would need to follow a different progression (read: more frequent).

    anyway, i just wanted to share a few ideas i’ve had for this sort of thing. this would tie in with eliminating levels in an MMO. this also could offer a new pricing scheme: pay for a life.

    1. different races have different lifetimes.
    2. marriage and the associated politics of marrying well (marrying children to friends’ children).
    3. establishing a household (it’d be nice to see player owned real estate).
    4. playing as family members and/or keeping loyalty of family and/or betrayal.
    5. player stats linked to familial connections (possible feuds with the bloodlines of particular enemies).
    6. one can be born into a family of an already existing player (maybe your friend’s family).
    7. births and deaths can provided boosts.
    8. activating, or triggering permadeath could be featured with certain methods of dying providing unique bonuses to future generations.
    9. expansions could still be used similar to what’s discussed above.
    10. inclusion of the weakness and frailty of childhood and old age! (MMOs worlds have felt weird to me without these).

    so this setup does run the risk of turning it into a sort of feudal lord and household building game, in which case the individual death of a character isn’t that big of a deal. anyway, this would introduce a host of design decisions that would be fun and interesting to make.

    Comment by Max Clark — 24 December, 2009 @ 6:23 AM

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