Choice, game design, and MMOs

Once more into the breach, my friends…

In my last post I talked about Rift and groups and solo play. An interesting theme seemed to arise from some of the comments, and one that I found curious.

Today I want to talk about player choice and game design. I’m going to keep using Rift as an example but this could equally well apply to certain other games.

At the risk of over-simplifying things enormously, when you log into an MMO you have some broad decisions to make: the first is what style of gameplay you’re about to undertake. Are you going to putter around & craft? Just logging in to visit friends? Are you planning to solo? Are you planning to Group and go after content that way? For the purpose of this post I’m looking, once again, at Solo vs Group.

Say you’ve decided to Group. Now you’re going to pick a role. Do you want to be the Healer? A Tank? DPS? Buffing/support?

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you want to be a Group Healer. So here’s your character; a blank slate. Since you want to be a Healer, you pick Souls & Skills (in another game this could be Talent trees or whatever) that are heavy in healing capabilities. If you want to be a Healer and you take a bunch of skills that are focused on Taunting, you’d be a pretty poor Healer, right?

Can we all agree so far? Healers should take skills that help them heal. If a Healer takes skills that emphasize taunting over healing, you’re probably not going to be a great healer. Does this illustrate an example of bad game design? Does anyone think that?

Now let’s back up the decision tree a bit. Back up to the Solo vs Group decision. Here’s where my opinion seems to diverge with some others. When I decide I’m going to Solo I use a build that emphasizes that play style. I don’t take a bunch of group buffs: I won’t be in a group! I will look at self heals, or self shields, or perhaps a pet. I will probably set up a hotbar full of various consumable items that will help me to either survive or reduce down time between fights. Conversely if I’m going to Group I’m going to skip the self heals and instead take, maybe, a group-based stat buff or an AOE taunt or something else that works best in groups.

When I suggested that this was the best way to play Rift solo (specifically I said that if you’re going to solo a lot, some kind of self heal or pet will make life easier), some people suggested back that if playing Solo required using certain (Solo friendly) skills, it was an example of bad game design.

I don’t understand the difference: Healers need to take healing skills, Tanks need to take tanking skills. Everyone seems to agree on this and no one seems bothered by it. But when Soloers need to take solo skills, suddenly its bad game design?

It is essential to keep in mind that the only permanent decision you make in Rift is your archetype. That you’re stuck with, but within it, you can have several (at least 3 and maybe 4) Roles and each Role can use any 3 of your 8 souls, and each Role can have its own distribution of skill points and skills. You can switch Roles anytime except in mid-battle. And if a Role isn’t working out, fr a few virtual coins spent at a trainer you can reset it and build it anew as something else. So if you’re playing Solo and someone throws you a Group invite, you tap on Hotkey and now your Grouping Role is active.

To me this is the opposite of bad game design. I find it to be kind of awesome in fact. But it *seems* not everyone agrees.

13 thoughts on “Choice, game design, and MMOs

  1. Simple answer:

    It’s “bad game design” if it’s not the way you think other people should play the game.

    *ahem*

    Tongue out of cheek, even if there’s a sliver of truth there, I’m with you on this one. If a game allows soloing, it should allow soloing builds. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that added layer of choice and customization is a Good Thing in my book. The game that only supports one playstyle gets old fast.

  2. Yeah I don’t get that either. You can still whatever you want but to be efficient your going to need skills suited to the task your going to perform. For solo its a bit more flexible because their always going to a few more ways to build a solo build then a tank/heal/pure DPS/support depending on your play style. So saying solo skills is bad game design is a bit silly unless their is a misunderstanding that they think you need this this and this or you can’t solo.

    Since we’re talking Rift. You may be a run and gun ranger, you may be an assassin with a pet, you may be a might cleric with a giant hammer and that is the beauty of Rift. That choice of what you what you want to be even if you filling a particular role outside of grouping/raid/solo.

    I suppose the next article someone is going to have to touch on is the possibility of a new elitism. If I like to play a DPS cleric will I have to carry around a healer build even if they not what I like to play/good at. Can I be a DPS only warrior without the tanking build sitting in the napsack. All for the good of a group or guild and so on.

  3. Specific to Rift, the fact that you can swap souls “on the fly” makes it a very strong game for many types of play. If you have a 3 soul combo that allows you to withstand damage, heal yourself and a DO damage, then you’re in a very sweet spot. However, if you’ve got someone to watch your back (heal) and do the damage (DPS), then you need to generate the threat and stand up in a fight. You pick the best too for the job, which is the opposite to other games: you are but ONE tool designed to fit into a set. If you don’t have the other parts to that set, you’re at a disadvantage, but you can really do a bang up job if you ARE a part of that set. In a way, the soul system seems MADE to allow for both effective solo AND effective grouping, without ironing out the mobs (a la WoW) to fit a playstyle.

    I’m not targeting anyone specific when I say this, but I believe that a lot of people who MAY think in the way that you describe are the ones who spend a lot of time learning a lot about a little…meaning one MMO at a time, down to the molecular level. People who’s first and only MMO is WoW see EVERYTHING through WoW-colored glasses. The more games you visit — and I mean REALLY visit: sit down, play in earnest, and not nitpick the shit out of it for what it doesn’t do that your primary game does — the more you can appreciate the way OTHER games do it. At some point, with an open mind, one can realize that not EVERYTHING needs to be done in the exact same way, nor IS it simply because it’s damn close to the way Game X does it. You learn to appreciate nuances the more you experience different ways of doing things.

    MMOs are more then the sum of their mechanics. I generally blame the stats-mongering for training people that attention to minute details is more important then stepping back and evaluating the game as a whole. When you’re deep in the shit, even a rose smells like…well…you know.

  4. This reminds me more of any other game to date of how one could customize their character in Anarchy Online. I LOVED that mechanic of being able to spend points in ways that would keep my Fixer from being the exact cookie-cutter of other Fixers. Was mine the Best Build Ever!!1!![TM]? Not at all. Others could blow my DPS out of the water, or be far more effective at crowd control. But they were folks that spent a lot of time in 0% suppression zones, or in group instances, or doing things I don’t do. What I do is spend a lot of time alone, roaming zones, exploring the far-flung reaches and little nooks and crannies, playing my “story” along the way. So my build suited my play style and I quite happily survived most places I’d go. Or die fun and hilarious deaths when I went places I wasn’t ready to go.

    If I knew I was going to be doing something on a guild outing or some situation that would require I use “group friendly” skills (meaning, not piss everyone else off and play my role as designed for group play), then I’d have to swap out all my implants, change my armor to one with different stats, then be good to go. I like how games lately are allowing mechanics for this kind of play — WoW with the two armor/skill tree paper dolls and it sounds like Rift has a similar idea. To my mind, this is the best of both worlds so I can be both conformist and non-conformist in my play. And I like how Rift sounds more like AO skill buying then WoW talent point tree buying, but I haven’t had a chance to play yet, so that’s just my speculative theory.

    Bottom line being I’m firmly on the side of people should be able to buy “solo” v. “group” talents/skills/abilities the same way one would consider DPS/heal/tank/crowd control/etc. abilities to suit both play style and role in a given situation.

  5. @Tramell: Good point, re: the new elitism. Pete did touch on that in a previous post, and it’s probably something we should have seen coming. People include/exclude based on their choice of gear in other games, so there’s no reason not to think that people won’t do it here with a person’s soul choice : /

  6. Great article. I don’t see why it’s “bad game design”.

    For comparison: I primarily play a priest in WoW, and I have a shadow (DPS) build and a holy (Healing) build. Most of the time while leveling I solo, so I play in the shadow spec. Now, COULD I solo & level in the healing (group) build? Sure, but it’d be way slower and not as fun. It’d be silly to do so & a bit sadistic.

    Likewise… playing Rift solo doesn’t really require solo-friendly skills… you could do it in most any build I would think. But if you want to level at a decent rate and not spend a ton of cash at the soul healer, you’d probably want to build your character with soloing in mind.

    Solo-friendly skills aren’t required… but they are practical.

  7. Yay, someone who *gets* it. And frankly, I can’t understand how or why someone would get the idea that picking ‘selfish’ (as in targeting/affecting *just* yourself, rather than others in a group) abilities on a soloist is ‘bad game design’. Frankly, I’d say the *opposite* is true, for most games…

    Basic thing is that in most games it’s an ‘either-or’ thing–you can build a soloist who’s not very good in a group because they’re centered around things that benefit themselves rather than others, or you can build a group-oriented character that sucks at soloing both because they’re focused around abilities that benefit a group (that are generally weaker on an individual basis due to being AoE or multi-target) as well as more specalized due to ‘handing off’ aspects to others in the group (causing them to have problems when they *don’t* have someone in that other role backing them up), or you can try to make a build that does both solo and grouping and end up mediocre at best at either task. I don’t think I’ve seen too many games that are doing like this and letting you have separate builds on the same character–FF11 has it sorta in the job-changing system, and CO has a half-a**ed multiple-build system that doesn’t work too well because you don’t get enough ‘spare’ powers to do more than one of the tasks/roles anyway unless you have a *very* tight and narrow build (of course you could just retcon whenever you want to switch, but that gets *expensive* very quickly, and is annoying).

  8. [quote]When I suggested that this was the best way to play Rift solo (specifically I said that if you’re going to solo a lot, some kind of self heal or pet will make life easier), some people suggested back that if playing Solo required using certain (Solo friendly) skills, it was an example of bad game design. [/quote]

    Serious question, who are these people?

    Why would anyone think that giving players the ability to grow their characters in a fashion that allows them to optimize playing the game the way they want to play it, bad design?

    I don’t think I have heard people complain about that before.

    Maybe, I guess, in extreme examples I can understand that statement. Let’s say a game is built from the ground up to be a Group based PvP game, but it also squeezed in character growth choices that focus on solo pve content.

    That ‘could’ be considered bad design since you are now providing players that want to solo pve the tools to go down that path, when that path does not really exist. This will frustrate those players, and they will complain, to all who will listen, that the game is broken.

    Though your post seems to have some connection to RIFT, and that is a game that seems to have several valid activity paths (at least at low-mid level); solo questing, solo invasion fighting, group pvp, group dungeons, group invasion hunting, raid stuff, and more. And they provide players the several options to grow their character in a fashion that best suits their play style. Then they go a step further and allow players to have have several different loadout for their character, which they can use to in whatever fashion they want.

    The growth options appear to match the activity paths, and that sounds like a solid, fun (balancing nightmare *wink*) design to me.

    Wait, I just reread the section I quoted and I can see where people could complain. You used the word BEST, never tell gamers that your way is the best way, even if you’re right.

  9. “People include/exclude based on their choice of gear in other games, so there’s no reason not to think that people won’t do it here with a person’s soul choice : /”

    Already been done in Guild Wars in my experience. Joining an AB group? Ping your build please…. Sometimes with good reason imo, but I don’t think anyone should be excluded personally because of it. Maybe advisded, but never excluded 😉

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