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“What MMOs Can Learn From Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood” or “The Themepark vs. Sandbox Debate Continues”

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Part of an ongoing series; previous entries:

An Iterative Process of Improvement

I recently finished Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I have played every major game in the series and each successive iteration continues to build upon the strengths of the one prior, while (attempting to) eliminate the flaws. As I mentioned before in the mini-review, the biggest improvement is the combat. The first two games required you to passively sit there, waiting for your opponent to strike and then time a counter to kill him instead, and over the course of time that became very frustrating. I especially hated the penultimate battles of Assassin’s Creed II. It took forever to wipe out a group of guards because all you had to go on was counter-kills. Brotherhood changed that up by introducing execution streaks, where once you got a kill, either by counter-killing or aggressively chain-attacking, you could chain that into a series of potentially endless moves that would offensively dispatch your foes around you. There is nothing more satisfying than taking out seven or eight guards in a row without any of them having stood of chance of so much as attacking you, let alone harming you.

I am beginning to go off-topic. My point is that each game was better than it’s predecessor, and Brotherhood was no exception. I was very pleasantly surprised by the improvements and thoroughly enjoyed the game, especially considering this latest installments was designed with a completion obsessive compulsive player in mind. It’s like Christmas came early!

Optional Quest Objectives

One of the cool new things brotherhood introduced was the choice of completing the mission in a very linear manner, the way the game intends, or using your own ingenuity to tackle the problem. If you follow what the game wants you to do exactly, which, at times, can be quite difficult, you get 100% synchronization with the Animus. if you don’t follow the optional objective and play it out the way you felt like it, you got only 50% synchronization.

A few days prior, I made a post in which I gave an example of having variable quest objectives to make the world feel more natural. In short, what if the NPC you interacted with asked you to kill as many mobs as you could to help the town against <insert antagonist faction> invasion. You can kill one, or two, or five or twenty, and you are given quest rewards, experience and currency based on how many mobs you killed. A commenter pointed out that grinding the mobs will likely be the most desirable solution, so most players will gravitate towards the option with the most rewards, and as such quest designer wouldn’t consider such a system. The feasibility of this idea merits another conversation, suffice it to say that quest structure in MMOs (in my humble opinion) needs an overhaul. We have the technology (such as phasing), we have the hardware, and we have the colossal development teams. Yet no one has been able to crack the formula of putting every last player through precisely the same content with little variation.

One thing that Brotherhood does, and does quite well, is the concept of optional 100% synchronization. You are sent on an assassination mission. You can kill your target in a wide variety of ways. You can attack him with brute force, tearing down everything around you to get to him. You can use a ranged weapon. You can methodically wipe out all the guards in the area, till there is no one left but him. You have the freedom of choice. But if you want the “additional reward” of 100% synchronization, you must kill him while blended into the crowd, sitting on a bench, and you must assassinate the target without being detected.

The 50% synchronization scenario is much easier to execute and requires little thinking on the player’s part, but it doesn’t reward you as well. The 100% synchronization takes  planning, time and solid execution, but rewards you much better.

I think this is something MMOs can learn from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Give players the option of completing the quest objectives any way they see fit (the sandbox paradigm), or in the exact manner you intend, which would be tougher and most time-costly (the theme-park paradigm). Purists will of course argue that this inevitably favors the theme-park side of things. But let us not forget that the theme-park oriented solution requires additional planning, time and coordination. I personally feel that this will give more flexibility to the game, in terms of giving players, who already feel that their entire experience is too on-rails, the freedom of choice for solving their quest objectives. The only people who will be forced to follow the 100% synchronization, there-park oriented path will be obsessive compulsive completionists like me, and I am quite OK with that!

Thoughts on the idea?

P.S.

Bonus discussion question: What if the rewards could vary, not necessarily get better or worse, with how you complete the quest objectives?

“What MMOs Can Learn From Borderlands” or “Twice the Hogger”

July 12, 2010 3 comments

Most modern MMOs like to define themselves as virtual worlds. What this implies is that even if the player logged off, the world would continue to exist. Bears would roam the forests, wolves would chase down and kill rabbits, Frenzyheart would fight on against the Oracles, the Purple Gang would patrol the West Side Heights, and so on and so forth. This creates a sense of immersion, a sense of belonging in a living, breathing world teeming with its own life.

hogger

The immersion factor is however shattered when you kill a boar, and another one pops up. It does not dig out of the surrounding mud, or come out of a farm enclosure of some kind. It simply… materializes out of thin air. In no other genre of gaming, be it FPS, RTS or even RPG, do your enemies pop out of thin air and re-populate the area minutes after you cleared the menace. The person who gave you the task of clearing out said enemies is still in the same peril, asking adventurer after adventurer to fix the situation for him.

It’s a pity to see Borderlands, which is not an MMO, come up with a viable and intelligent solution to the persistent respawn problem, without succumbing to the same old lazy formula. Last year I started “The Borderlands Chronicles”, a series of posts that recounts my adventures as Bronte the Hunter in Borderlands, providing narrative, critique and commendations along the way. You can find Part I here.

b1-7

The skags spawn out of that cave on the right, NOT thin air.

The later section of this inaugural post covers my fight with some skags, the game’s version of demonic dog-like starter creatures. They too respawn over time. The difference is that they charge out of small caves built into the game world. You cannot enter these caves yourself, they are a little too small. But the overall effect undeniably feeds immersion.

You spot a skag, you snipe it from 50 feet out. Immediately two more skags come snarling, charging out of the adjacent caves. And even if you kill every skag in the area, the respawn process will involve more skags eventually walking out of the caves, instead of magically appearing out of thin air.

The system makes sense. It is intuitive, it allows for the beasts to be persistent in the world without breaking the tenuous thread it has with the implied realism. Why can’t we have that in WoW? Or for that matter, any other MMO that uses the same respawn system? Why must we clear boar after boar in McLure Vineyards, only to have them appear by sheer force of will, out of thin air? Why must we wipe out all the worgens plaguing the town of Darkshire in Duskwood, only to watch them completely bypass the laws of nature and reproduction and re-populate their recently ravaged camp with judicious speed?

More importantly: anyone got a better idea?

“What MMOs Can Learn From Red Dead Redemption” or “Emotionally Penalized”

June 30, 2010 9 comments

Preface

I have been playing red Dead Redemption lately. The statistics tell me I have finished “18.6%” of the game. Note that this number isn’t necessarily a reflection of the main storyline. It is a figure designed for completionists like me, that will obsessively fuss over the smaller tasks and side-games to ensure they get that precious, oh so precious, 100% completion statistic!

Thought: Why do we never see random world encounters in MMOs?

Spinks has a post up today that spoke about activities your character engages in between organized group activity sessions. One of the bullet points listed was as follows:

“The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • …”

This got me thinking: why is it that in MMOs, you go to specific locations to accomplish specific objectives only? Whether its a world boss, or a quest, or a daily, or a dungeon, you take the shortest path to the location, completely ignoring anything and everything else between point A and point B. What is the fun in a persistent online world if everything can be found on WoWHead or (the now-defunct) Thottbot, before you even attempt to do it, where everything is explicitly and exactly laid out? Why is it that no MMO (that I know of) has randomly generated world events for players to participate in? For if that were the case, maybe more players would actively engage in world exploration and wandering, beyond questing for the first time.

Red Dead Random

Red Dead redemption has a fantastic storyline and stellar voice-acting. But beyond the central narrative, as is the case with most Rockstar Games, you can take on a wide range of missions and side-activities either for monetary gain or social stature (fame or infamy). Some of these activities have to be sought out, such as “kill 5 Coyotes before they harm you”. But there are several missions that pop out of the blue as you are horseback riding your way through the countryside. You are at complete liberty to accept the mission (no prompt or anything, you can just choose to participate in the action), ignore it altogether, or shoot the mission starter in the face if that is what pleases you.

Let us take an example of some missions I have come across in Red Dead Redemption and juxtapose them against counterparts quests in an MMO, specifically WoW.

The Kidnapping – Red Dead Redemption

I am riding on my horse down the dirt-path carved into the terrain by frequent travelers. I am minding my own business, on my way to meet a new contact who goes by the name of Irish. I am contemplating if I should just fast-travel to the location; in retrospect, I am glad I didn’t exercise that option. You’ll see why in just a second. Suddenly, I hear someone in the distance say:

“Please sir, would you help me? They’ve taken my wife!”

I pause, wondering if this was a mission marker that I missed on my map. The rider who has sought my help turns up as a blue circle on my mini-map. As I contemplate my response to this stranger’s query, he simply takes off in one direction, eager to get to his wife. As the blue circle grows distant, I get a message on my screen suggesting I follow the rider. I think a second longer and decide to follow the poor guy, and see what this random encounter has in store for me.

The man rides at top speed down bushy knolls and grass highlands for a little bit, and then he stops short of a posse of hooligans. His wife sits atop a horse, with a noose around her neck. Before I can even so much as gauge the situation, a firefight breaks out. I take out my trusty Winchester Repeater, and over the next few seconds, gun down the three perpetrators.

Then I realize I was too slow. They have already killed the husband, who lays crumpled next to his dead horse. I look over at the wife. The shooting has scared off the horse atop which she sat, and she is hanging from the tree branch. I panic. I run over to her increasingly limp body, but even as I am closing the distance I get a message on-screen that says matter-of-factly: “The victim has died.”

I am utterly devastated. Had I been a few seconds faster, both in the decision to follow the man and in the shootout, I could have saved their lives. I know they are digital beings in an artificial world, but the sense of loss is still palpable.

I came across this encounter a second and then a third time. The second time I ignored it altogether, because it was late and I just wanted to finish one last story mission before calling it a night. The third time I immediately followed the man, this time to a different location, with the kidnappers using a cart as cover, and the wife already hanging. I managed to save the husband, but the wife perished. The husband collapsed at the hanging, limp body of his wife and wailed.

A few things to remember:

  • The mission was completely optional
  • If you chose to take on the quest, you simply followed the husband, there was no mission log to keep track of the mission, and no prompt saying that you were now on this mission. In fact, you could abandon course at any point and just go your way if you so chose.
  • There were multiple outcomes: you could save both husband and wife; you could save just the wife; you could save just the husband
  • In any of the scenarios above, you weren’t penalized for failing (unless you take into account being emotionally penalized); if you failed, that family was dead, you were responsible for it, and there was nothing you could do to change that

The Kidnapping – World of Warcraft

Here is how WoW handles the same quest. There is a quest giver that is always found in the same exact location. In order to take on the kidnapping quest, you have to go to the quest-giver, you won’t come across the quest-giver at random. The quest is formally accepted, and shows up in your quest log. You are now officially tasked with the rescue of the fair damsel. The husband quest-giver does not accompany you, he does not lead the charge to get his beloved wife back. He just stands there, expressionless, leaving the responsibility to you.

In fact, you are not the only person he sends to save his wife, he sends along anyone and everyone who approaches him.

You go to the location where the wife is being held. The location is static and never changes. You could repeat the quest with 10 other characters, the same wife will always be in peril and be found in the same exact location. Why does she always get kidnapped? Why do the kidnappers never learn and change locations?

There may be the possibility of you failing the quest in case the wife dies. If that happens, you can simply abandon the quest, go back to the quest-giver, and he will give you the same quest as if nothing ever happened to her. You can go back to the mission location, and there she is, magically resurrected from the dead!

If you succeed, you either escort the wife to the husband, or she runs away, apparently to reunite with her husband. You never see her again. Even when you go back to the quest-giver, she is nowhere to be seen or found. And the husband continues to stand there, never moving, almost as if he is expecting the next kidnapping to happen any second, yet he does nothing to stop it.

The Juxtaposition

Let us construct a table.

Red Dead Redemption World of Warcraft
Mission is optional Mission is optional
There is no mission in your mission log There is a quest in your quest log
The mission-starter is randomly generated The quest-giver is always found in a static location and the location never changes
The objective’s location is randomly generated The objective’s location is static and the location never changes
Tactical situation varies (cart being used as cover; more vs . less kidnappers) Tactical situation remains the same
Failure has consequences; the family dies permanently; there are emotional consequences though Failure has zero consequence, you simply hit the reset button
You can partially succeed or partially fail You can only succeed or fail
Whether you fail or succeed, it is highly unlikely you will come across the same couple again in the same situation If you succeed, you will find the same quest-giver in the same place, offering the same quest, with the same damsel in distress in the same location

The question then becomes: why can’t more MMO developers introduce more open-world gaming to their titles? Why must everything be static, pre-determined, fated to occur in the same exact manner for all eternity (or at least till Deathwing comes along and fucks things up for everyone!)

There is an inherent fallacy in MMOs. As a powerful champion in the world, you are supposed to be able to create a meaningful and lasting impact, saving the world time and again from endless threats and predicaments. Yet your actions seem to have zero impact on the physical world.

  • That village you saved by killing the 10 wolves nearby is still under threat from said wolves.
  • That Deathlord you vanquished still taunts denizens from the depths of his dungeon.
  • Even the wife you rescued is never reunited with her husband because she is suddenly and inexplicably kidnapped again by the same group of miscreants you just dispatched.

It is ironic that MMOs are designed to give the player a feeling of power and control over the world, yet the world utterly fails to show any signs of a positive (or negative for that matter) impact by the player. Every threat remains. Every wolf still howls at the gates. Every damsel is in perpetual distress.

I long for the day when they craft an MMO experience that mimics the random world encounters of Red Dead Redemption. Till then, I suppose John Marston will continue to handle the discrepancy.

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