Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Story Choices That Constrain the Future

This post contains spoilers for Imperial Taris in The Old Republic.

I like Thana Vesh. She's a Sith introduced in the Imperial Taris storyline, the apprentice to Darth Gravus. I find her very funny. She's like this angry Sith kitten, fluffing up her fur and pretending to be a great cat. She's terribly proud, terribly arrogant, and has a habit of getting in over her head.

She would have been an outstanding recurring character. Every couple of planets, she could pop up, engage in a battle of insults with your character, and then stride off.

However, that will never happen. At the end of Imperial Taris, the player is given the choice of killing Thana or letting her live. Because she dies in many storylines, she effectively cannot appear in future planets, even if she lives in others. At most she can send an email, or some other easy method which is easy to implement. In a lot of ways, it sort of ruins the choice of keeping Thana alive.

Essentially, it's too much work to add Thana in only some of the stories. It's much easier to introduce a new character that works for everyone.

Because budgets are limited, every time a game offers a choice, the future is constrained by the most restrictive option. This is especially true for life-or-death choices. If one choice leads to character dying, that character is effectively gone from the story, even for the players who choose to let that character live.

This isn't always true, of course, but it requires double the work to reuse a character that may have died. Thus it is something that will be used sparingly, if at all. I believe some of the class storylines reuse characters that were spared death.

I think storyline-based games would be better off to avoid such extreme choices, especially for notable characters. Offering players the option of killing important NPCs seems like it is empowering players, but only ends up constraining the future. It's not really much of choice to spare someone if they never appear again. They may as well have died.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Punishing Bad Behavior out of Game

James 315 has an interesting article up on The Mittani. It's about the history of bannings in Eve Online. The upshot of the article is that player bad behavior has started on out-of-game voice comms, and CCP has started handing out bans for such behavior. However, unlike inside the regular game, CCP has no real power to truly determine what happens on out-of-game channels. James 315's argument is:

CCP's decision to police a realm where they have no ability to monitor, log, or control was a mistake. GM decisions for EVE-related matters already grapple with inconsistency and confusion. CCP's preference for secret, undefined rules, coupled with an apparently growing reliance on permabans instead of lesser punishments, can only lead to bad outcomes for everyone.
There is a lot of sense in this argument.

Personally, I find this aspect of the Eve community confounding. To me, voice comms are something to be used with allies and teammates. I would never jump on an enemy's voice server. I don't see any case where that ends well.

Part of the issue here is that there is a concept in Eve called "birthday ransoms". A pirate offers to let a victim go if they go onto the voice server and sing Happy Birthday or another song. These ransoms are generally regarded as innocuous and a "fun" part of the game.

James 315's general argument about the arbitrariness of banning based on out-of-game behavior is sound. However, there's no denying that a lot of negative behavior has migrated to those out-of-game channels. I think CCP is wise to attempt to put a stop to it.

I would suggest a different approach, though. The point of making recordings of voice comms, and publishing them is humiliation. It might be small humiliations, such as the birthday ransoms. Or it could be larger ones, as when a spy publishes voice comms of an enemy alliance.

I think Eve would be better off with a blanket ban on such recordings. Something like: publishing recordings of voice comms, where post-recording permission has not been obtained from all parties, is a bannable offense. This eliminates all such recordings, and makes it much easier for CCP. Instead of having to determine whether a recording is true harassment or is "fun" doesn't matter. All that matters is permission, and that is easier to determine.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Using the Base Currency for Features

As all the comments on the last post pointed out, capping the base currency will destroy the player economy. Or at the very least, force the economy to shift to something more liquid, like cloth or barter.

So then, is it better for MMOs to avoid using the base currency for features?

I think the TOR experience this past year is instructive. When TOR introduced Galactic Starfighter, it also introduced two new currencies: Fleet Requisition and Ship Requisition. You earn Requisition by doing Starfighter activities. To upgrade your ship or get new ships you spend that Requisition (or Cartel Coins, because F2P).

In contrast, when TOR introduced Strongholds, the price of a Guild Capital Ship was set at 50 million credits.

There were no complaints about pricing for Galactic Starfighter. There were tons of complaints about the price of guild ships. Would TOR have been better off introducing a new Housing Currency, and having all the costs of housing use that currency instead of the base currency?

Perhaps it would be best to avoid setting expensive prices, and just leaving the base currency for the player economy and "small" stuff. That makes all items sold by NPCs to have "affordable" prices. All features would use their own unique currency, with separate rules and caps on acquisition.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A Cap on the Base Currency

Continuing our discussion on base currency, what would happen if the developers instituted a cap on earnings in the base currency?

All the other currencies generally have caps, and that helps keep the population together in terms of what is affordable. What would be the effect of extending this cap to the base currency of gold/gil/credits?

For the cap to work, it would have to restrict income purely. You would only be able to earn, say 1000 gold per week, no matter how much you spend.

The immediate effect I can see is that the market become a lot less liquid. Buying 500g worth of raw materials, and crafting finished materials worth 600g is only 100g of profit. But it would count as 600g towards the cap. If it doesn't, if spending money increases the amount of cap room, then a player could use an item as a store of value, and effectively evade the cap.

The game devs might have to eliminate a lot of gold sinks. Take repairs. Wiping a few dozen times is okay because the repair cost is negligible. But with a hard cap on gold, wiping and repairs become a large source of friction. The best solution might be to eliminate item damage altogether. Consumables like potions and flasks would be another issue.

But with a cap, the gap between experienced player and new player is much lower. A few thousand instead of potentially millions. Caps work well with all the other currencies. Surely it would be beneficial on the base currency as well.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Latest in Anti-Bot Techniques

Archeage has a pretty cool anti-bot program. There's an ability you can use to report a bot. This ability costs 25 Labor. Trion checks the report and squashes the bot. If it is a bot, you get 50 Labor back, for a net profit of 25 Labor.

Since Labor is scarce for F2P players, this has encouraged a number of them to take up bot hunting as a sport for fun and profit.

This is clever because it utilizes humans for the computationally difficult task of differentiating bots from regular players. This is a task that humans are quite good at, and are especially good at continuing to identify bots as their behavior changes. Botting, as Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, is something that "I know it when I see it".

It's also quite meta, in that it makes a mini-game out of removing bots, which is highly appropriate in a game.

Well done, Trion. Let's just hope that this doesn't go to the next stage:

Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats—and then people were suddenly queuing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”
- Terry Pratchett, Soul Music

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day One Pricing for the Base Currency

Pretty much all MMOs have a base currency: gold, credits, gil, etc. This is the currency that the most transactions use, as well as the currency used between players. It's also the currency which is the most constant from the beginning to end. Here's something I've been wondering about base currency lately:

If the game offers something purchasable for base currency in an update, must it be affordable on Day One?

Both FFXIV and TOR offered player housing for what seemed to be exorbitant amounts of base currency. There were a lot of complaints that the prices were not affordable. But I did not think they were completely out of reach. It might have taken a few weeks, but I think everyone could earn the necessary amounts.

However, there seems to be an expectation that if something is offered for gold or credits, you should be able to buy it as soon as it comes out. This is in stark contrast to the other currencies. If an item costs 5000 Valor, no one bats an eye that it will take you a few weeks to earn enough Valor to purchase the item. But have the item cost 500,000 gold, and players will howl.

Not to mention that these items with exorbitant prices sell. In FFXIV, many of the servers have sold out of the limited personal housing supply. That strongly implies that the prices were not high enough.

Why do players treat the base currency so differently than the other currencies?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Queue System Design

Archeage Queue Issues

The major news from the Archeage launch are the queues. The queues are very long at the moment, especially for F2P people. I have not been able to play my first character for several days as the queues are always upwards of a thousand players. I made a second character, an archer, on a newer server. Since the server seems to be primarily made up of F2P people, the queue times for me as a patron are negligible.

Still, it's interesting to see how Archeage's game design has interacted with the queues. There is one significant design element which is making the queues much worse than they should be. For all non-combat activities in Archeage, there is one primary resource: Labor. All crafting and gathering activities cost Labor, which regenerates over time. Labor is shared across the entire account, not per character.

However, for F2P accounts, Labor only regenerates when you are online! So that provides extra incentive for people to stay online. Not only do they avoid the queues, but they get the resource needed to play the game. So naturally Archeage is now full of people AFKing and making macros to avoid being kicked off. This, of course, makes the wait time for the people in the queue longer.

In some ways, Archeage would be better off right now if this design had been reversed: if F2P people only regenerated Labor when they were offline. That would give people incentive to log off, and let new people onto the server.

The problem here is that the queues are temporary, for the launch rush. For general play, when the population is at a steady state, it's better that the F2P players have an incentive to stay online to provide content for the paying players.

Finally, because Archeage is an open world where players can obtain property, Trion cannot use the "normal" method of opening up extra servers or extra instances and then merging them together. Merging claimed property would be a nightmare.

My Queue System

Here's my design for a queue system for a game:
  1. A queue to enter the game always exists, and players always go through the queue when first connecting to a server. Of course, if the server is not full, going through the queue is pretty much instantaneous.
  2. When a player reaches the front of the queue, the game assigns the player a "window" of X hours, and lets them log into the game proper. If you reach the front of the queue at 6pm, your window might be from 6pm to 8pm.
  3. If you disconnect and reconnect anytime during your window, you bypass the queue and automatically enter the server.
  4. When your window closes:
    1. If there are people waiting in the queue, you are logged off the server and re-enter the queue at the end.
    2. If there are no people in the queue, you are issued a new window of X hours and can continue playing. You are not logged off in this case.
  5. If the server goes down for Y minutes, all current windows are extended for Y minutes.
I think this is a reasonably fair queue system. It guarantees that you get to play for X hours once you sit through the queue. You can log off for a few minutes, and then log back on. But after you've played for a bit, you have to log off and let someone else play. It's like taking turns on the playground.

Because everyone has a window at all times, even those who logged in when there were no people in the queue, people start getting logged off naturally once a queue forms.

The major issue with this system that I can see is that the number of people who are currently logged into the server is now different from the number of people who could be logged into the server. For example, if you play for an hour, then log off and go to sleep, the system doesn't know that you are not coming back. It has to make the assumption that you could come back. Thus you have to be careful when determining how many active windows you can have, and the length of a window. But those are variables which can be tuned.