15 August, 2009
I tend to mention Meridian 59 mostly in passing on here. But, in the current installment of the Interesting Mechanics series, I want to point out one of the better mechanics in M59: the mana nodes. This fits into a larger design pattern I like to call exploration-based rewards.
Rewarding exploration is a bit tricky, since if you give it a reward it suddenly becomes fodder for the Achievers instead of a nice benefit for Explorers. But, I think the mana nodes are a nice Explorer-focued system even if others might argue otherwise.
Meridian 59 has no levels. It's primarily skill-based where if you want to improve at something you use it. Each spell is treated as a separate skill. So, if you want to get better at the spell Create Weapon to get a chance to create better weapons, you need to go create a bunch of weapons. These types of systems tend to feel really grindy, though.
Gaining Hit Points is a bit more like typical level-based gameplay. You kill monsters that aren't too weak and you increase your chance to get an improvement. The system works more or less like experience, with a random chance to improve instead of needing to earn a set amount of points to advance.
The really interesting system, though, is mana. New characters start with a small bit of mana, able to cast simple spells, but you'll quickly want to get more mana to keep casting. Mana is a vital resource in PvP, where casting spells is an important part of the game.
In order to improve your mana pool, you have to go bind with mana nodes. Mana nodes are scattered through the land. Some are in the open and require you to find a path to get to them. Others are hidden, often deviously so, and only a dedicated explorer (or someone with a friend who knows the trick) will find them. Almost every mana node you to figure out the correct path to take to the node, so each one is like a mini puzzle.
One of the more notorious nodes is Under the shadow of the Sentinel. The node is hidden in a cave behind an illusionary wall. To find it, you have to climb up a very narrow ledge in an area with pretty tough monsters. Once you get to the top of the ledge, you have to make a blind leap and fall just right to get into the cave. Luckily, M59 doesn't inflict falling damage on players, so missing the cave isn't a true tragedy for your character... unless poisonous spiders are waiting for you below.
Other mana nodes are more involved and involve multiple people. For example, the node guarded by the fey require players to kill the fairies of opposite alignment. Once all the fairies are killed, the node appears in the center. If an enemy fey appears, then the node will disappear.
Another node was added in response to an oversight by the developers. The developers added a wall that had to be dispelled using a special spell to get to the new expansion area. Unfortunately, those reagents were only available in the expansion area. So, they created a little event to let people get the reagents from special monsters, but the event also allowed the players to find a special node. That event was later put in as a repeatable event in the game.
The reason why the nodes worked so well is because the first nodes were pretty obvious for players. The node in the Badlands is out in the open and easily visible. But, you can't just take a direct route to the node, you have to figure out how to get around it. The area is crawling with enemies, so figuring out the path to take can be tricky. Some other nodes just require running in and grabbing it, while others are very hidden as the Sentinel node is.
No other game quite offered the same explicit rewards for exploring. In EQ1, exploring was its own reward for finding a great xp camping site that wasn't crowded. WoW introduced a bit of token exploration experience when players filled out locations on a map. LotRO is perhaps the most complex game, where finding a series of markers in an area is a deed that will give you a reward such as a virtue. None of these systems, however, really had the elegance of M59's node systems, where it really gave you an obvious goal to pursue.
Personally, I'd like to see more games do something like this. Instead of running in a straight line between quest hubs and only going off the beaten path to see something pretty, it would be nice to have a game where you see something eye-catching that draws you over. M59's mana nodes are very distincitve, so a player who sees one they had not seen before will be drawn to it. A bit of gameplay reward for people willing to figure out a puzzle is also nice.