Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 June, 2009

Playing with the mind of a designer
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:22 AM

No, this isn’t an invitation for you to engage in neurosurgery on me. (Although, I’m sure a few people out there would like to know what the hell makes me tick.) What I want to do here is show you what it’s like playing and looking at things through the perspective of a game designer.

Yeah, it involves LotRO. I maybe next time I’ll do a non-LotRO post. Don’t hold your breath.

Hasn’t this been done before?

Richard Bartle gave a designer’s perspective on WoW’s Stranglethorn Vale. I’m not going to pretend this is as deep as what he wrote about, but our two bits of writing are similar. Instead of showing you how an educated designer thinks about the layout of a zone, I’m going to talk about some design lessons gleaned from participating in a game as a player.

I’m excited to hear about your character!

I’ll bet you are. My main character is now a level 47 Champion (for you WoW players out there, it’s comparable to a Fury Warrior). I actually gained the 47th level doing the quest I’m about to mention. The character is moderately well geared in a mix of quest rewards and finely crafted items from my Master level Armourer. My specialization is single-target damage, although I do enjoy doing AoE damage on multiple enemies when I can.

The character has advanced in levels duoing with my better half playing a Captain. For the most part, we’ve not done many group quests, preferring to see if we can duo through most of the content. The exceptions are the later epic quests; there’s no way we could duo our way through those and have found two other cool guys to group with to do the later books.

Now tell me about your amazing adventure!

Is so much sarcasm necessary? We were in Evendim (known to LotRO players as “that zone with the inconvenient fucking lake in the middle of everything”) to see if we could do the last few quests in the area. Someone wanted to do the quest The Tomb of Elendil. This was an instance quest that I figured there was no way we could duo. I told the Hunter looking to do it that our Champion and Captain duo would join if they could find the rest of the group. We went along and finished up a few other deeds while we waited for the group to form.

Now, a bit of detail for this story. This quest was very low level for the two of us; it was level 40 and “green” to us in the color coding, almost ready to turn trivial. The instance quests in LotRO tend to be pretty brutal, and as I complained about in my first LotRO post the quests aren’t labeled very accurately. The quest started really easy with the group slaughtering small groups of normal and “signature” enemies, but the difficulty ramped up when we were tackling multiple Elite monsters at once, and finally had to tackle a Nemesis class enemy.

Forced grouping makes a comeback!

The quest is also near the end of a long series of quests dealing with the forging of Andúril, so it’s one of the more major stories in the setting. The quests start off soloable, but culminate in this quest that requires a group. So, if you want to see the end of the story you have to find people to group with. Now, a lot of the quests are really interesting and carry a lot of the flavor of Middle Earth and show a lot of the work that Turbine poured into this game to enhance the lore needed for the game.

Thankfully, the PUG wasn’t that bad. It was everyone’s first time doing the quest on any character as far as anyone admitted. The Warden tank we recruited was lower level than most of the rest of us (9, then 10, levels below me), and had a little trouble keeping aggro. Thankfully my GF’s Captain was able to step in many times and she did wonderfully despite really being tank spec and not really doing much tanking with groups. The rest of the group was 2 Hunters and a Minstrel.

The good news is that the group stuck with the quest until the end despite some deaths.

Designer’s Perspective: This quest line commits the sin of giving the player one set of expectations then switching to another. The quest line is soloable until you get to this point, then you have to change the way you’re playing the game to continue. This is very frustrating, especially since this is a pretty major storyline in the setting that most people are gong to enjoy seeing. This is a miniature version of the complaints about how WoW’s solo-focused gameplay turns into large group raiding.

The long quest chain requirement also means that a player has to stick with all the quests to get to the point where they might be interested in this particular part. The quest is spread out over multiple locations, so the people who are going to be in a proper position to do this quest are going to be limited to some degree. Honestly, it was pretty lucky I was able to finish this quest at all.

What’s the solution here? Either keep all the quests soloable, or shorten the quest line and make them all group-focused. This keeps it consistent and doesn’t build up certain expectations.

Wait, you got beat up by a Giant Turtle?

The final boss of the instance is a giant turtle named Nornagol. He’s a pretty rough customer who likes to knock you back, summons lots of little turtle spawns, and does a nasty AoE. He also has a buff that makes him highly resistant to most types of weapon damage.

Yeah, the turtle kicked our ass the first time. Even though a few people gave excuses for wanting to leave, they all came back for a second and eventually a third go once we found the instance hadn’t reset.

Designer’s Perspective: One of the things I didn’t like about the encounter was that there was this massive defensive buff on the monster with no obvious way to remove it. After our second wipe, I went to my laptop to find a strategy that didn’t turn out to be all that great. Seems the secret is getting off a Fellowship Maneuver to do massive DoT damage (and reportedly removes that massive defensive buff). Unfortunately, we were without a Burglar, the class that specializes in triggering Fellowship Maneuvers.

So, this quest not only requires a group, but requires specific group composition for to make the quest go smoothly. It was frustrating that I had to drop out of the flow of the game to look up a strategy. I’m not against difficult encounters, but it would have been nice to have some hint about how to deal with the encounter from in-game information. As it was presented, it was just a brutal encounter at the end of one of the longer instances I’ve been in.

My role in the encounter was a bit limited. With two Hunters, I wasn’t needed to AoE down the adds, and with the massive defensive buff on the main guy my common damage weapons weren’t doing much. For most of the encounter I was throwing in a few attacks to whittle off a few points while using my Clobber ability to interrupt the boss’s painful AoE after it massacred us the first time.

The Thrill of Victory after the Agony of Defeat?

As I said, the group fell twice to the mad turtle before we finally conquered it. The first defeat was a bit disheartening because a few of us were sure the instance would be reset with our wipe, so a few started offering up excuses about why they wanted to leave. Thankfully everyone pulled together when we found the instance had not reset and that we could run to the end to encounter the boss again. Twice I used a token to counteract the dread we got from dying.

Our first attempt was pretty pathetic because we had no idea what was going to happen. We just leaped in and tried to murder the turtle without much of a plan. The second time we were more focused and made some progress, but it was still just too much for us and we only got the turtle down to about half life before our healer died and the rest of us followed.

When we finally brought down the monster turtle the final time, everyone felt elated. Everyone sent a chat message to the effect of, “YES!” or “OMG we did it!” when it fell.

Designer’s Perspective: The boss was tough and it was nice to defeat it, but the defeats we suffered beforehand made the victory that much sweeter. We felt that fist-pumping moment of victory that Nicole Lazzaro calls “fiero”, an emotion I hadn’t really felt in LotRO before that point. Would it have been as sweet if we had succeeded the first time like we have for a lot of the other content? Probably not.

The trick here is that in order to feel that rewarding feeling of accomplishment, failure must be real. After dying the second time without getting the boss close to death, it felt like perhaps the encounter was going to be just too hard for our assembled group. It was a real possibility that we just weren’t going to be able to do it. So, the victory at the end was a testament to our ability to pull through the adversity. But, it’s equally possible that we could have continued to meet failure until people got tired and started leaving, dooming the group to complete failure and disappointment. I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have wanted to try the quest again since it was nearly trivial to me.

So, which is the better option here? Should the player be given a real possibility of failure (and perhaps even taste it a few times) to make victory that much sweeter? Or should players be protected from real failure in to prevent overwhelming frustration but taking away that strong sense of victory over adversity?

That was a glimpse into a demented mind!

So, there’s some of my thoughts about one encounter in LotRO. I won’t claim to have all the answers, or even that my thoughts are particularly deep. But, I know some of you like to see a glimpse of what goes on behind the curtain. Let me know what you think.

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  1. Regarding your adventures in the Tomb of Elendil in Loch Modan (SCNR), my non-designers comment: The questline turned from solo/duo to group suddenly. What would a human DM do? He could tell you get some more people (hehe), or he could SCALE DOWN the dungeon to your small group size, maybe even appropriate to your level.

    The whole dungeon is instanced anyways, isn’t it? Loot would be better for larger groups, and it would be a different experience. But you could go on, and the dungeon could also react to your party composition and add some semi-random elements. This “scale to party” model could also be used to some extent in encounters where missing a certain class can cause enormous problems, like the giant turtle encounter you mentioned.

    The drawback would be that everyone who completed the dungeon had a somewhat different experience, but would it really hurt veterans talking about the good old times where they killed that turtle so much?

    I second the idea of “fiero”. Victory is shallow if I know I played rather bad, others too, and the turtle still went down. This just does not give anyone a feeling of victory, and I fear this is what plagues some of the “do it in odd ways for an achievement” encounters in WoW nowadays, as they also somehow fail to give me a true feeling of achievement. One achievement in Gun’Drak was that to allow the “Wild Eck” spit on me. Which took some time and well… what a “victory”.

    Guild Wars gives players a normal and a hard mode version, just like WoW with heroic and normal. The problem is that these modes often turn into “easy” to allow everyone pass and hard becomes normal.

    Hard has to stay what it means, hard. The same for heroic. For more “fiero”! :)
    I wonder how this combines with my “scale to party” idea.

    Comment by Longasc — 23 June, 2009 @ 5:53 AM

  2. Briefly put, victory at the third attempt seems like a design ideal to me, for pretty much the reasons you outline. It delivers the satisfaction of a properly earned victory, and most people are more than willing to try about three times.

    That there was no in-game hint for how to deal with the enemy seems pretty bad, though.

    Forced grouping: generally speaking I like the idea, in that it makes the later stages feel more epic, for lack of a better word. In practice, it seems astonishingly hard to find players willing to group for discovering story elements and not loot, so I don’t think such forced groupings work terribly well.

    Comment by unwesen — 23 June, 2009 @ 6:20 AM

  3. A player doesn’t need to fail all the time, or even frequently, but it needs to happen often enough that victory has real meaning.

    To look at a completely different game, Free Realms: I started playing and after the first couple of days I was absolutely bored. Sure, some of the mini-games were fun to play, but overall I didn’t like it because I never lost. Ever. Every single instance or game ended with a giant “You win!!” at the end. I started to care about the game the first time I did a brawler instance and actually failed. Until that point I honestly didn’t believe I could fail, the game was too easy. Now, I’m still playing, and I still win most of the time, but every now and then, at least once every couple game sessions, I’ll fail at something because I either jumped into a fight too high level or took on a “find” quest without knowing the area at all or something similar, something that tells me I can fail and the game isn’t entirely a cakewalk and that I do have to actually try if I want to win.

    Comment by Jason — 23 June, 2009 @ 8:21 AM

  4. I do remember that questline, and the frustrations people had with putting groups together for the last section. Now, my memory is a bit different because I was playing a burglar at the time. It was one of the less played classes, it wasn’t particularly weak but there were stronger classes who performed similar functions.

    So it was a revelation to me to have people on LFG specifically asking for a burglar. Just for one, I felt popular and wanted. And then of course they bitched the whole time the group was together about how they had to have a burglar (and you’re right of course, they didn’t need one at all, but it had become the de facto way to do that last section).

    I sometimes wonder if I’d still be playing LOTRO if I’d picked a different class. But the reason I never switched is because the burglar was fun to play. I never really felt it was my fault that Turbine made other classes more powerful or in demand.

    Comment by Spinks — 24 June, 2009 @ 12:46 AM

  5. I’m honestly surprised that you were surprised at a solo-quest chain turning into a group quest at the end. Isn’t that the way pretty much every single quest chain works in the game?

    Although granted I was sick of it the first time it happened at level 9 or so, the hint of surprise that it happened at level 47 seems odd to me: This should be expected behavior by then.

    Comment by Trevel — 24 June, 2009 @ 7:45 AM

  6. Spinks wrote:
    So it was a revelation to me to have people on LFG specifically asking for a burglar.

    Yeah, Burglars are interesting. They have a very powerful ability, starting Fellowship Maneuvers, but they seem to be gimped in other areas. I’ve heard there is a lot of changes in the high end making Burgs less desirable in a raid. I feel for them, being a Druid player in WoW since near launch.

    Trevel wrote:
    I’m honestly surprised that you were surprised[...].

    I wasn’t surprised. You’re right, this has happened in other quest chains before. But, this happened on this specific event and I felt the desire to make a note of it.

    Comment by Psychochild — 24 June, 2009 @ 1:35 PM

  7. “So, which is the better option here? Should the player be given a real possibility of failure (and perhaps even taste it a few times) to make victory that much sweeter? Or should players be protected from real failure in to prevent overwhelming frustration but taking away that strong sense of victory over adversity?”

    Both! Well to be more specific players should fail but not in the way current MMOs do it. I have a serious complaint about the current PvE landscape in that it’s designed to be impossible the first time through. It’s like a murder mystery where there’s no clues about who the murderer is for the reader. There’s rarely, if ever, good clues that this boss will enrage timer after 3 minutes, that he’ll leech life of all of your party unless you are poisoned or have a massive defense buff unless DoTed.

    To me what the MMO ‘puzzles’ of bosses comes down to is taking the nature of a timed puzzle where if you don’t do it right the first time you have to reload and combining it with difficult puzzles with no hints of their solution. There’s a reason why the timed puzzles in a puzzle game are less difficult solutions (besides being timed).

    If you took the ‘puzzle’ of fights in MMOs and put them into a puzzle game this is what they’d be like to me:
    You wander down a hallway for 15 minutes then open a door into a small room where there’s a piece of cheese, a toothpick, a floor grate, three levers on the wall and a locked door. Once you enter the room the door closes and the ceiling begins to lower on you. If you don’t get out of the room before the ceiling falls you have to start over. The solution to the problem is to pull the first level then use the cheese with a toothpick on the grate to lure a rat out that has a key attached to his tail.

    I think players should generally fail but every fight should be setup in such a way that smart, talented, quick reacting players with good teamwork should be able to actually have a shot at winning. I just don’t think they’re like that today. Like most MMO mechanics your chance at being the boss is tied more to time than skill.

    Comment by Logo — 25 June, 2009 @ 11:16 AM

  8. MMO irritants

    [...] getting that group quest after a long series of solo quests still irritates me [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 20 July, 2009 @ 2:33 AM

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