Saturday, September 30, 2006

Release Dates

I have no professional experience in marketing, so I don't have historical statistics to look at concerning the viability of projecting release dates. But it seems a safe bet to say pushing a public release date back is a big no-no. And it's a common enough problem that release dates mean very little to me these days.

Whether or not game publishers were in the habit of marketing internal estimations back in this industry's infancy (I consider these its toddler years), I can't remember. But now I'm jaded, as a game consumer. Now, my inclination is to disbelieve any date until the box is on the shelf. Due to the habits of some, the whole industry has lost credibility with me in this regard.

The consequences of that skepticism?
  • I'm less inclined to preorder games. That money could be lying fruitless is the retailer's till for so long.
  • I'm less inclined to pay attention to the game's marketing as a whole. A dog will salivate over a piece of meat held in front of it for a good length of time. But if you act like you're going to give it the meat, then take it away, offer it, then take it away...then the dog loses interest. People are no different.
  • I'm less inclined to trust the publisher. I know that the publisher knows complications arise and that release projections are uncertain. Offering someone information knowing it may be false is a sure way to lose rapport and undermine your own marketing potential. More importantly, it's unethical.

So why do publishers do it? We're talking about major publishers here, so it's not just oblivious idealism of the inexperienced.

Is it negative marketing? There is such a marketing tactic as intentionally bothering customers. It's usually for reinforcing recognition of a brand name of a common and innocuous product (it's also unethical). Perhaps it's intended to encourage word-of-mouth advertisement, when people are telling their friends how disappointed they are that a game's date got pushed back (again), with the assumption that the publisher will gain more customers than it will lose.

Or perhaps publishers release uncertain dates because their marketing strategy is heavily dependent on a pre-release calendar. Perhaps it's a gamble in which the publisher believes that if it begins its marketing ramp so many weeks before release and that date holds, then the extra impact would be well worth the risk of the date slipping and those negative consequences listed above. This strategy seems to assume that consumers are more likely to purchase a product after it has been withheld from them (and anticipation has been allowed to build) than if the product is already available for purchase. Without having figures to convince me that assumption is justified, it seems that the publisher would lose as many potential customers from the frustration of releasing that anticipation too late.

So I have three questions about publicly advertising internal release estimations:
  • Why do publishers do it?
  • Do the advantages outweigh the negative consequences mentioned above?
  • How do the consequences compare between supposedly solid estimations and ones the publisher underlines as tentative and only "our best guess"?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Shadow Content

Shadow content is content which improves a player's gameplay experience while not in direct contact with the player. This doesn't mean the player can't directly experience this content. It means that the content has a beneficial effect even when not immediately present. A possibility of contact is often required, but not always. Shadow content feeds player hopes, anxieties and expectations.

Too often, game developers seem to underestimate the returns on investing in shadow content. Perhaps this is because the concept has been poorly implemented in past games.

Some considerations in implementation:

  • Awareness. It's easy to create such content and forget the need to relay knowledge of its existence adequately to the player. Depending on the precise content, this may be done mostly through out-of-game advertisement or through in-game lore and mechanisms.
  • Veracity. The player must consider his or her hope, anxiety or expectation to be a reasonable belief. Playing the lotto is only fun to those who trust that their hopes are reasonable.
  • Audience. Is the possible contact with the foreshadowed content a pleasant prospect to all players? The appeal of such content doesn't always need to be universal, but its effectual audience is an important piece of information. The intended audience helps define both the content's nature and how awareness of it may best be achieved.
  • Balance. Contact with the foreshadowed content should not disrupt the greater design. Star Wars: Galaxies failed in this way, in my opinion, when they made jedi slots regularly accessible.

Some examples of shadow content:

A gambler is someone who risks something in hope of an uncertain reward. It's important for the designer to know where and when the stakes should be high or low. Some people prefer big bets, others small ones. Misplacement can alienate audiences.

As Tom Abernathy stressed at the AGC, timing is very important to comedy. Sometimes, comedy works best as a shock, but it can also be springboarded by expectation. Those who are already laughing are generally better able to appreciate a good joke. A designer must exercise some control over experiences that might disrupt a player's feelings of expectation.

Horror games thrive off the belief that the player could encounter danger at any moment. Like with comedy, timing is often very important to creating scares and an unsettling atmosphere.

A handful of employees solely devoted to “playing” NPC creatures, just one or two per server, can have a profound impact on player expectations. I'm referring to unscheduled and unadvertised player experiences.

Imagine you're walking through the woods. You see some wolves off to the side. They're out of hostile range and you've got other fish to fry right now, so you continue on. A few minutes later, you stop and look around to get your bearings. A wolf is standing off in the distance behind you, and it seems to be looking at you. You're curious, but you assume it's just a mob you didn't notice as you passed by. You continue on...but curious, you look back. The wolf is not far off. It's following you! You run to attack it, but it runs off and disappears. A few minutes later, it's there again.

In that scenario, a dev-controlled creature has made a player's game experience extremely unique and interesting. The player has been given an interesting and unique story to tell...and didn't even fight anything. If all players are aware of such sporadic, direct developer involvement in creature behavior, then the gameplay experience of non-participants is augmented by their merely having heard the tale from their fellow player. Of course, some players would make up stories, so there would be debates about which stories are actually true; but that helps to spread awareness (or perception) of the shadow content.

NPCs can be occasionally possessed by developers to create unexpected behavior, within the confines of that NPC's history and personality. Maybe an NPC in town that you see 20 times a day is acting a little weird today. Maggie May, the local librarian, is in the tavern and drunk as a skunk. Odd.

The dev-controller could take control of NPBs (non-player-beings...not necessarily persons) all over the map on that server. Nobody would know where the "smart" NPB would show up next. The controller would keep a record of every being controlled in every area, to spread the love to as many players as possible (that includes players like crafters, who spend all of their time in town). Plus, when feasible, the employee would keep track of which PCs he or she interacted with. In addition to spreading contact with such encounters, giving one player 2 or 3 such experiences would create the illusion that smart NPBs are more common than they truly are. It would also ensure players who have such an experience don't give up hope of experiencing it again.

Shadow content can be immensely effectual. In the first 6 months of Star Wars: Galaxies, everybody knew that the odds of unlocking a jedi slot were astronomical. But most players still couldn't help but hope that he or she would be the one to do it. The desire to play a jedi overshadowed our understanding of the possibility's unlikelihood. It was an addictive feeling, and it was similar to this possessed NPB scenario, because nobody had any clue how to unlock a jedi slot. The reward of that particular shadow content was two-fold: (1) it inspired player imaginations, thereby encouraging a general excitement that raised our spirits and augmented gameplay; (2) it provided a strong goal which contributed significantly to player retention.

Cryptic and the Marvel MMO

I'm looking forward to Cryptic's next project. My interest in City of Heroes was short-lived (2 or 3 months), but that game and its counterpart were a breath of fresh air for the MMO genre. When I first started playing, I made on a thread on the Vanguard forums about what impressed me:

But I definitely have my doubts about Cryptic's ability to design the upcoming Marvel MMO, particularly in regard to storytelling depth. As I said on Schubert's site (, I have to wonder how well Cryptic will move from creating cartoonish characters in a vacuum (CoH) to creating a world faithful to Marvel’s epics.

After York's comment in that thread, I wondered if I'd perhaps just forgotten about Cryptic's devotion to lore, so I glanced over the CoH site again today. Unfortunately, the site seems to justify my memory. The majority of backstories for the villain groups boil down to people after power and fame, usually without an explanation of their attractions to those goals. It seems as if the game's designers started with an idea of a particular superpower and then looked for a way to explain how the power came about, rather than how the personality came about.

If so, that's a significant break in style from the Marvel stories. Now, I've never read a comic book, but I've seen the movies and read many articles comparing the movies with their sources. Marvel authors create superpowers as an extension of personalities, using those powers to tell stories about inner journeys and about relationships.

That's what makes these stories respectable. It's why the Dracula and Frankenstein stories have always been more popular than Wolfman. There were vampire stories before Dracula, but Stoker's tale became the quintessential vampire story when he connected the vampire powers with a depthful and alluring character study. Most werewolf stories have touched on the "Man as beast" theme, but haven't taken the personalities and relationships deep enough; which is why people associate werewolves with whichever werewolf story is best at the time, rather than one enduring character and story.

Take a look at the Marvel characters and you'll see the truly memorable ones are those whose powers derive from personal traits and challenges. For example, the X-Men:

  • Nightcrawler hates himself for his sins, so wishes he could disappear. And he does.
  • Rogue is strongly empathethic, and so she can share in the experiences of others through her power as well.
  • Wolverine has responded to tremendous pain by becoming hard and cold (adamantium skeleton), a character flaw he slowly learns to remedy, and by lashing out (claws).
  • Mystique morphs her identity to whatever will garner affection (remember the scene with Wolverine). In the third film, she's realizes her mistake when she is revealed for who she truly is and is abandoned by those she acted for.
  • Magneto represents dictatorship, the forcing of one's will over others. Magnetism is an attractive force. When he is separated from his family in the Nazi camp, the gate bends as he is trying to force his family's return to him. For the rest of his life, he attempts to acquire harmony by force.
  • Professor Xavier's skill is reading people and events. He has the power to force his will, as Magneto does, but he chooses not to; he represents democracy, the value of self-determination. One of the most dramatic scenes in the X-Men film trilogy is when he seems to be forcing his will onto Jean Grey, by psychologically separating her from The Phoenix. Is he realizing that the right to self-determination is not absolute? or is he merely honoring Jean's choice, as revealed to him long ago or through psychic communication?

In order to make a truly faithful Marvel MMO, it seems that Cryptic must recognize and adhere to this type of storytelling. If they concentrate on the superpowers first, then it might as well be just another City of Heroes.


On a different note, Marvel stories are full of people being thrown through walls, characters smashing things, and stuff like that. =)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

PvP: Why is it always the same?

If an MMOG advertises player-vs-player gameplay, I don't have to wonder what type of PvP they mean. It's dueling. It might be between two players or two factions, for money or for roleplay value, but its basically combat with the opponent's physical defeat as the goal.


Don't get me wrong, I think that kind of PvP combat can potentially be a ton of fun. Though it's been a while since I looked that way, I was big fan of the original concept for Trials of Ascension. I also enjoyed eliminating Rebel scum for a while in Star Wars: Galaxies.

But why haven't MMO developers pushed on into other forms of PvP? The "versus" in PvP denotes competition, but not a particular form of competition. Competition can be violent or non-violent. It can occur in real-time or by delay.

The following is an example from this old Vanguard post of mine (

Guild leaders could arrange the game and invite all guildies who want to play. Members of the competing guilds meet at their guild halls and the guild-leaders invite them to play (/flaginvite); this way, only the guild members who are interested in the temporary PvP are involved. When all members involved are ready and inside their guild hall (if they leave before the start, then they must go back in to be re-invited), the leaders both click start on a pop-up window; it counts down 5 seconds and the fun begins.

Flags appear at whatever point in the guildhalls the leaders specified. Some players might stay behind, but most rush out the door and charge towards their opponents' guildhall to capture the flag. It's PvP, but there are no death penalties other than corpse recovery (which isn't really a penalty, since the game occurs in town). Nobody can be invited into the game once it starts; so if you die, you're out until the game's over. A player who has grabbed a flag is unable to cast or fight. The game will probably (hopefully) end most of the time with very few players left in the competition. Winning rewards the victorious guild with bragging rights and a score kept inside a book in the town library (along with the name of the player who returned the flag), and possibly other fame rewards.

There's a lot of freedom in how that particular game may be played. If the guildhalls are at opposite ends of town, then you might have 5 players of GuildA rushing down mainstreet, while the other 17 or so, who are out to capture the flag, are approaching their enemy through sidestreets and alleys. GuildB might have all 30 offensive players going down mainstreet....crushing GuildA's 5, but failing to keep the other 17 from their flag (emphasizing speed over defense as a strategy). On the other hand, the guildhalls might be right across the street from each other, ensuring utter mayhem every time.

Nobody would be able to attack the players in the game other than other players in the same CTF game. And, like I said, there would be no death penalties. I'm sure some players might be a little sore when they're the 1st person to die, but I think most people would be having tons of fun.

The main concern is player levels. I'm not sure how difficult it would be for a few level 20 players to kill the level 40 player who is guarding the enemy flag (it would depend on the game).

Maybe all players, for the duration of the game, would have their level and stats evened out to the same numbers. Also, the only weapon players can use is a wooden club that magically appears in the hands of all participating players. Then they are all equal and can club each other to death. The guild leaders might even agree on a specific weapon type per match, ala FPS PvP like in Goldeneye or Halo.

Or it might be a lot more fun just to leave all participants exactly how they were before the fight. If one guild has a level 60 player and the other's highest member is level 45, they could just work it out between themselves. And the numbers may even out somewhat once the game's been out a while anyway.

There are, of course, many other possible avenues of PvP in MMOs.

Jousting for a fantasy game. Something like Tron's version of jai lai for a sci-fi game.

Chess or checkers as a way for players to actually enjoy their gameworld homes.

Players could have in-game competitions for best homes or best "paintings" (see that Vanguard post for an explanation).

I seem to remember people telling me alternate PvP systems such as these existed in older MMOs like Ultima Online or Anarchy Online. If so, I applaud those games' developers. But the majority of Western MMOs seem to have followed the example of games like Everquest, which strangely avoided avenues of competition that are not as susceptible to griefing and other common problems of duel-type PvP.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


As usual, I've rambled at length, so just skip to the last section ("Future Games") for the gist of it all.

My first obsession in life was dinosaurs. When I was five, I was already spouting off names like diplodocus, ramphorincus, compsagnathus and deinonychus. My parents bought me books and posters, watched TV specials with me, took me to museums and explained what they could (my dad was a geologist, so he wasn't completely in the dark).

And they bought me dinosaur toys. Not every kid my age had dinosaur toys, but we were all fascinated to some degree by tales and pictures of these "real monsters".

The difference between an animal and a monster, incidentally, is only mystery. Countless creatures we call animals today were commonly referred to as monsters until TV and other media took away their mysteriousness (giant squid and whales, for example). This may seem like fruitless philosophizing, but it's a psychological truth that developers should consider when creating beasts and NPCs for their games.

Dinowarz (, on the NES, is the first game I remember playing involving dinosaurs. It may have been the first "mech" game, placing the player in the role of a man controlling a robotic T-rex. Your dinosaur-mech fought with bullets, lasers and grenades. Really, it wasn't heavy on dinosaurs (and that was only half the gameplay, as you can see from those screenshots), but the player did have to face other mechs fashioned after Cretaceous dinosaurs. I liked the game.

Primal Rage ( of the SNES is the next one I remember; "Street Fighter with monsters". Honestly, I can't remember whether I liked it or not, which means probably the latter. The label "dinosaur" applies here even less than in the last game.

Turok 64 is probably the only dinosaur game most gamers are at least passingly familiar with. Once again, dinosaurs are mixed into a sci-fi setting. This time, though, we've got real dinosaurs (though not the main enemies). As I recall, this game came out shortly after the first Jurassic Park film, thereby taking advantage of a spike in dinosaurs' popular interest (particularly in velociraptors). The game was so popular that Acclaim made it into a trilogy; each focusing on humanoid enemies and sci-fi weapons, but also acknowledging the raptors as a favorite being in the gameworld.

These are the only 3 other games with dinosaurs (loosely labelled) that I can recall playing extensively. Xbox has a game called Dinosaur Hunting (, which I've never played, and Xbox 360 has King Kong ( ...I played the PC demo (beautiful graphics, if nothing else). I never owned a Playstation or PS2, so maybe there's something I missed there. There have been a few games involving dinosaurs for the PC over the years, but I don't recall any attracting much attention in the industry.

So anyway, what's the point?

Well, the topic of dinosaur games rose to mind when I was playing this free casual PC game by ( One of the creatures reminded me of trilobites (, the most commonly recognizable animal of the fascinating time from the Cambrian through the Devonian in which sea-life was still the big show.

A blog on Koster's site ( convinced me that I'm not the only one who can be absorbed by such simple gameplay, well-presented.

The combination of those two realizations makes me wonder how easily kids and adults alike could be captured by a dinosaur game that places the player in the role of a realistic dinosaur.

Player actions in Flow consist only of chasing prey and evading predators. That's it. The only goals are to make your creature grow, to unlock new creatures and to explore (discover new creatures). The presentation contributes greatly to this game's appeal, but I'm mainly interested in learning from its structure. The heart of the game is suspense (will I escape? will I catch it? what's that lurking just out of sight? etc).

Now, picture yourself controlling a dinosaur in 3rd-person (or 1st-person?) view, chasing and fleeing from other dinosaurs. Imagine your dinosaur growing with each meal...gaining strenth, endurance and speed. Finally, as an adult dinosaur, you can save that particular beast to your character-select screen and attempt survival as a new species; or continue exploring the wild landscapes to see how well your creature matches up with other species.

It could be a top-down world, ala Flow (for simplicity), or an extravagant (but developmentally expensive) 3-D world, like an MMO. Either way, there is considerable appeal to a wide market, and any number of the following features could be applied to the basic concept:

  • Educational. A 3-D world with realistic (according to current paleontological theory) animal models, behaviors (diet, animation, vocalization, etc), habitats, etc. All you have to do is label the creatures, add a brief description (that the player can easily skip past) at its selection screen, and parents and teachers will love you. You might even be able to market the game to entire school districts.
  • Difficulty Selection. For the young child or most casual gamer, the gameplay never has to move beyond simple movement commands, and the movement of all creatures other than the player's avatar can be slowed or their A.I. diminished. As A.I. is concerned, not only are there opportunities like that of raptors as pack hunters, but there are behaviors of many other kinds, like triceratops presumably circling around their young to protect them (like elephants and bison have been known to do). The latter features can be scaled for two or more further difficulty settings. Growing creatures can gain access to special abilities (like a tail swing for an anklyosaur, a leap for a velociraptor, or headbutt for a pachycephalosaurus). A greater difficulty setting might also add hunger and starvation; a medium difficulty might cause the player's creature to lose strength or speed after a long period without food; a high difficulty might make that loss constant, similar to Dead Rising's diminishing health mode.
  • Land or Sea or Sky. The game can focus on as few or as many environments as desired, and the developer can choose to make them zones or seamless.
  • Any Time. The game might be limited to only dinosaurs, only Cretaceous dinosaurs, or it might span all of prehistory (from simple aquatic creatures to mammals of the last great ice age).
  • Character Customization. Paleontologists usually have only vague knowledge, if any, of these creatures' aesthetic appearances. That could be reflected through customization options of color, skin type (fur, bare, feathers, scales, etc) and patterns/camouflage.
  • Multi-player. There might be ways to create a system similar to the trading card system Spore is said to currently have. Cooperative gameplay is a possibility. The game might even be made into an MMO, with players hunting and fleeing each other, with a chat window (toggleable) in one corner. If there were not uniform limits to adult creatures, players might even compete by trying to become the most powerful, most elusive or otherwise "best" creature.
  • Fantasy. And the alternative to realism, of course, is fantasy. All of this could be used as merely a foundation for a much more expansive game. Personally, I'd be interested in creating both realistic and fantastic versions, but the realistic version could achieve much more impressive marketing appeal (for being educational).
  • Player-created Content. At least a small bit of fantasy opens the door to allowing players to create and share their own virtual worlds, designing habitats and populating them preferentially. The trading card idea also ties into this.
Oh, and one last thought. If someone began such a game this year, they could release it alongside the release of the Jurassic Park 4 film (I think the script is finished, or almost, and they're looking for a director now). That's free and significant publicity. Considering Spielberg has demonstrated interest in our industry, you might even be able to work out a cooperative marketing deal (he'll advertise the game, perhaps even on the next DVD and/or DVD-set, and the game will advertise the movies).

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Lesser of Two Weevils

If you've seen Captain & Commander, I love that scene.

Anyway, looking at Nuclear War some more, I realize that it shares something with some of my other favorite games, including Diablo 2, Star Wars: Battlefront and Neverwinter Nights.

All of these games present the player with situations in which there is no obviously right answer. They force the player to choose between two evils or two goods...both tactically and strategically.

Diablo 2
  • Strategically, the player has to choose between character customizations, through skills, attributes and items. I doubt many players are ever completely certain they have spent their skill points and attribute points in the best way (for reasons beyond the mere desire for optimum power). The item system of that game is legendary, constantly forcing players to switch out gear, because the dynamics prevent objectively optimum gear sets.
  • Tactically, players have to decide which mobs of a group to attack first or last, when to fight and when to run, when to use health or mana potions without wasting them, which skills to use, etc.

Neverwinter Nights
  • Strategically, players choose between subjectively valuable skills and attributes, like in Diablo 2. They also must question which NPC henchmen best augments their character or would be needed for a particular mission.
  • Tactically, the player makes the same decisions as in Diablo 2.

Star Wars: Battlefront
  • Strategically, the player decides what order to attack enemy planets, what planetary bonus to choose for that battle, and perhaps (if they're familiar with the battleground) what class they will start out with.
  • Tactically, players choose a class and spawn location upon each life, which enemies to focus on, which spawn point to capture or defend, which weapons/skills to use, etc.

Nuclear War
The difference between strategy and tactics blurs in this game, because it's turn-based, so here I'll define strategy as the player's multi-nation (overall game) plan and tactics as the decisions in reaction to specific nations.
  • Strategically, the player starts out with a general plan based on the combination of personality types and populations of his/her opponents. The player probably has a playstyle preference as well (propogandist, stockpiler, etc), which the player decides early on to stick to or consider fluid. The strategy must repeatedly be amended in response to the shifting diplomacy, populations and destructive fortunes of opponents.
  • Tactically, players estimate the opponent's next move and supplies, in addition to the opponent's likely response to particular player actions. Honestly, this game involves more luck than tactics, but the player is having to make constant estimations and reactive actions.

Anyway, the benefits that grow out this sort of variation are replayability and experiences relatively unique to individual players.

Replayability is a powerful selling point. One of the factors contributing to Oblivion's success was its ability to advertise hundreds of hours of comparison to it's 12-20 hour competitors (limited game longevity, by the way, is what eventually convinced me, and perhaps others, to not buy Dark Messiah).

As I stated in a comment to my last blog, I don't buy games anymore that I think will last me less than a month. As long as there are games out there offering months of gameplay, I'm sure many others are considering the same thing in their purchasing decisions.

Experiences that are at least relatively unique to individual players is a factor that seems usually ignored by developers, yet it has such a significant effect. Human beings like to share knowledge. We enjoy both relaying and receiving information unfamiliar to us (assuming it's within one's realm of interests) more than talking about or seeing things we're already familiar with.

The first time a "10-ton" weight randomly fell out of the sky and crushed one of my cities into oblivion in Nuclear War, I'm sure that tale excited both me and my story's audience more than a story about my 100-megaton missile turning out to be a dud (much more common).

This was an ultimate failure of Everquest and many other games, which handicapped player uniqueness through optimum class-related gear and through encouragement of uniform gameplay styles (players of the same class play alike, players levelled by way of the same zones and monsters, etc).

In my opinion, these two criteria, replayability and experiences unique to individual players, should be present in nearly every game.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Nuclear War

Usually, when I think of an old movie or video game that I really loved back in the day, I give it another go and find that the appeal just isn't there anymore. Sometimes I wonder "what the hell was I thinking!". Most, though, I can acknowledge as good for their age but antiquated now.

Nuclear War, however, is one of those rare few that hasn't lost any of its shine...and that's pretty impressive considering it's a DOS game. It's even more impressive because it's a more complex game that Pac-Man or Frogger (I think that makes its staying power more remarkable, not less). You can download the original DOS version for free here:

Anyway, it makes me wonder: What makes a game withstand time and innovations this way?

I've decided to attempt applying Nuclear War's basic formula to a new design and expanding from there, so I've already broken down the game into its core elements. Perhaps looking at these will help with the question above. In no particular order:

  • 4 oppenents per game; 5 cities per isle-nation; turn-based
  • semi-random initial city populations
  • goal: annihilate all opponents
  • 10 opponents; 5 personality types (propogandist, stockpiler, deceiver, madman, and...umm...something else) which affect the opponent's reception of player actions, as well as determining his/her playstyle
  • possible actions: build, propoganda, prepare weapon, fire weapon, prepare defenses
  • 6 city sizes, 4 weapon sizes; propoganda can match half the maximum weapon efficiency
  • diplomacy icons with 5 degrees (hate, dislike, neutral, like, love); diplomacy web (allies may like your enemies)
  • backfires (propoganda backfire, missile duds, wasted missile/propoganda on empty cities)
  • random phenomena (stampede, earthquake, alien city abduction, alien or stork population bonus)
  • taunts
  • humor (including satire of historical leaders)
  • sometimes, nobody wins

So, again, is there any formula or general principles that explain why this DOS game is still fun 17 years (!) after its release? Or do games with such long lifespans just get it right each in their own unique way?

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Rewarding Good and Rewarding Evil

Chas York started an interesting discussion on his site ( about why players might choose to roleplay good versus roleplaying evil. I think playing an evil character is often about the game’s design rewarding evil more than good.

In the original Neverwinter Nights campaign, I slaughtered every civilian in the starting town before ever beginning the real adventure. I did so because it provided me with a lot of extra loot and xp (I even levelled up before leaving town...before my first mission outside the introduction). I tend to act similarly in many games, though not all.

The assumption of many game designers is that the reward of roleplaying good is simply the roleplay value of being a good character. That seems a just reward for many gamers, but not for all.

For myself, I guess there’s too much moral disconnect between reality and the game fantasy.

Being good in reality is about love…a desire to be with/together, as closely as possible, other persons or Persons (God). If the game’s NPCs are too flat or distant for me to care for (to “love”, so to speak), then the reward of their well-being or praises and congeniality toward me is hollow and ultimately worthless. If togetherness is the extent of my reward in such a game, then I will roleplay an evil character, because that is rewarded more substantially.

So a goal of designers should be to make NPCs loveable, as much as possible. Or, if that’s not possible, reward good roleplaying with more than just verbal appreciation.

How do we make NPCs loveable? That's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Looking back at my NWN experience, Lady Aribeth had some character depth and explanation, but I still didn't connect with her enough to consider her praises and well-being a significant reward. I think part of that was the distant 3rd-person view I usually played in. Another factor was the dialogue and voice-acting, which was somewhat melodramatic (the style typical of fantasy games). And yet another factor was that the game's introduction act had not sufficiently encouraged me to perceive Neverwinter as a place of personal value. I'm sure there were many other factors involved as well.

As general guidelines:
  • The settings/environments must have emotive or mythological (truth) value to the player.
  • The player must be provided with enough time and quality interaction with NPCs before being expected to associate personally with the NPC. Implying to the player that "you should care because this NPC is important to the story" is not enough.
  • Sanctions for the player's behavior must be continual, rather than momentary, for the player to critique his or her own actions on moral grounds. Bitterness, ostracism, avoidance and other such social sanctions have some longevity. If an NPC say "Oh my! I can't believe you did that!" and then interacts with me exactly as before my offense, then that's not much encouragement to regret my offense.

What else should be added to this list?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Situational Commands in MMOs

A situational combat command system, like the one in Dead Rising, could be a good way of making environments more meaningful and creating situational tactical opportunities for MMO players. These systems can increase a game's replay value immensely.

Dead Rising has a system in which the same button combination (X and A) initiates a different command based on where the character is relative to the NPC you're attacking. If you're behind the enemy, in front of the enemy, or beside the enemy, you perform different attack moves even though you're pressing the same buttons on your controller.

Perhaps something exactly like that is too much for your average MMO because, requiring a lot of information to passed between the server and client, it would be unforgiving to bad connections and latency. But the general principle could be applied to the character's environment without much difficulty.

For example, if a druid is casting his lightning spell in a forest of pine trees, he might see an addtional effect to his spell. In real life, if lightning strikes a pine tree, the sap often crystallizes and rockets out around the tree like bullets. That could be made to happen in the game: lightning strikes the tree, causing a small explosion and doing damage to all nearby characters. Perhaps the druid would have to be wary of using this spell in such a forest, lest he damages his allies, as well as foes.

Another example might be a warrior performing a particular weapon swing while fighting amidst a field of ant mounds. By targeting one of the mounds near the enemy, he would knock ants onto the foe, resulting in a damage-over-time attack.

Or a healer might use the mist off a nearby waterfall for a special area-of-effect heal spell. A mage might use the same mist to add a buff to his summoned water elemental.

All of this could be done with minimal stress on the server, because the player is merely targeting an environmental object like they would normally target an enemy. The objects could be programmed to always be active but only respond to particular skills/spells, which only particular classes would have access to. Thereby different classes would have special opportunities to shine in particular environments, and players would be rewarded for being knowledgable and perceptive enough to use those environmental opportunities. There are other ways to allow players to target such objects as well, like the "Ctrl" key function in Command & Conquer.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Since the issue relates to my last blog, I figured I'd accompany that one with these excerpts from a Vanguard forum thread in which I responded to Brad McQuaid's agreement with a comment by Raph Koster on instancing. Their thoughts may be found in this thread: For the sake of brevity, I'm going to copy only my own remarks from that thread, but the full thread's definitely worth checking out.

The most interesting aspect of instancing is how closely it fits into the original RPG experience of most MMORPG gamers around my age or older: Dungeons & Dragons.

I never played a MUD, but I think D&D started them off, and is still the point to which most fantasy MMOs are referenced. In D&D, the game revolves around a small group of players taking on a realistically large and dynamic world. Therefore, instancing that focuses on creating content for small groups of players is the most similar to that original experience after which most early generation MMORPGs were designed.

It's important to recognize that a person can enjoy an MMORPG like no other type of game without having to directly interact with a single other player. The other players create a dynamic world in a way single-player games have yet to do. The gameworld is also larger than that of any single player game to date. If each player in an MMORPG played the game like a single-player game and never interacted with other players, the game experience would still be greatly different than single-player games.

In fact, I have grouped and soloed, each for significant lengths of time, in every MMO I've played, and I usually prefer soloing (I even soloed mostly in the original EQ). How many gamers may approach these games in a similar way, I have no way of knowing; but it is a viable avenue of intended gameplay for potential MMOs.

I agree with Brad that such a game would be a different kind of game than EQ. The MMOG genre is splitting into sub-genres. A heavily instanced game and a game that uses no instancing are both MMOGs, but they are different kinds, and will eventually be given different titles.

But the point is the basic genre of MMOs is not inherently focused on encouraging interaction between players. If you want to coin the new term for MMOs that do encourage such interaction, feel free.

Does instancing always conflict with player interaction? No. Koster and McQuaid made reasonable cases against pocket zones and exclusive instancing, but not against all instancing.

The problem here is in the definition. Sigil once described instancing as "private virtual spaces", but that's what I would call pocket zones. If pocket zones have been the only use of instancing in MMORPGs to date, that doesn't prevent us from recognizing them as a subset of a broader phenomenon. Instancing has, afterall, been used in other ways in other genres.

I define instancing as an event in which the activation of a trigger causes the game to create temporary content.

Now let's divide that into subsets.

Environmental instances are instances that players cannot directly interact with.
Examples: When you reach the entrance to a general's tent, the guards on either side pull back the tent flaps to let you in (your presence triggered them to do so). Or while a group moves slowly down a dark, silent dungeon corridor, a raven bursts out of the darkness, cawing loudly, and rushes quickly over the heads of the adventurers (it does not attack them and cannot be attacked; it was triggered by their presence and acts as a tension-builder). Or a crystal ball begins to glow whenever a player approaches it. This form of instancing certainly does not discourage interaction between players.

Instanced encounters are instances that encourage players to interact directly with them.
The examples in my "Fear and Wonder" blog do not remove the players from the gameworld which they share with other players. A water elemental which lets players [x] and [y] walk by its pool before jumping out to attack player [z] is not removed from the common gameworld. Players [x] and [y] can turn around in surprise and aid player [z]. In the statue encounter scenario suggested in that blog, there is nothing preventing one group from helping another, and there is nothing necessarily limiting group size, player levels or anything else.

Pocket enounters are the subset of instanced encounters which everyone seems to believe is the very definition of instancing. Pocket encounters are when a player/group is removed, in part or in entirety, from the gameworld of other players/groups.
Examples: A player is warped to another plane of existence. Or one group can watch another's combat, but cannot enter into the fight.

Instancing can be implemented to many degrees in a variety of ways, not all of which are exclusive. Brad's initial reaction to this post was to call such methods "micro-instancing". I think that's a fair label, but it benefits MMO designers in general to develop a more thorough and precise nomenclature (for reasons like those offered in my "Quest Design" blog series).

Fear and Wonder

I've been pretty busy with school this week, so here's an old post of mine from the Vanguard forums. I'm a huge fan of Diablo 2 (single-player only...believe it or not, I played it for years offline) and can't wait for Hellgate: London. This blog is largely about applying some of the successful elements of Diablo 2 to MMO design.

A great way to add fear and wonder is controlled-probability spawning. All over the gameworld, create triggers that spawn mobs in fixed places and cause the environment to come alive, giving each of these spawns a probability of being triggered by player actions (the spawns are not automatic, but also not random). There might even be qualifiers to the trigger, like requiring so many players to be within the trigger zone.

For examples of what I'm talking about :

1) A player is walking around a temple garden area. There's a pool to the side of the walkway. Usually, players walk right on by the pool and nothing happens. But this time, as the player approaches, a water elemental rises up from the pool and attacks.

2) A group of players is exploring the interior of a temple. There are giant statues everywhere in the halls. The statues are very different from each other...some dog-like creatures, some men, some drakes and so forth. Each of the statues has a small chance of being activated as the group walks by (only a group of 4 players in the same trigger zone could activate the trigger). One group might get through it all without any statue coming alive. Another group might have to fight the dog-like statue and get through the rest of the temple unharmed. Another group might be attacked by the dog statue, then the man statue, then the drake statue...just getting unlucky/lucky with every trigger. If they made the mistake of running past the dog statue after it came alive, instead of holding their ground or taking a few steps back, then they might have to deal with the dog statue and the neighboring statue at the same time.

Help players to experience the same content differently and to have their own unique experiences that not everyone has shared. They should know they're not experiencing the same adventure as everyone else, that theirs is unique. Replayability is something MMOGs sorely lack these days.

Spawns like the water elemental, which had no visible trace until it was triggered, could take characters completely by surprise and players would soon be wondering what other surprises lay in store for them.

In the case of the statues, if some of the statues had no chance of coming alive, then it adds expectation in the player's mind. Every time they see a statue, they'll wonder "Is it just a normal statue? Or is it going to attack?". And the odds can change over time. One month, the dog statue may never come alive. So everyone will ignore it and just watch the other statues. But the next month, the odds are changed, and the dog statue is usually the first to attack. Some areas might have statues all over the place, but none of the statues ever least for the first few months. The developer can change spawn probabilities as often or rarely as desired.

Expectation is an important element of gameplay. If players know exactly what to expect, they'll work the system, exploit and quickly become bored.

If players can never be sure what they'll run into when they go to Borruk Dun, even though they've been there a thousand times, then there's a whole lot of replayability there. Advanced players won't feel completely confident in the knowledge they've gained, though they'll still know much more than the newbie (they are rewarded for knowledge). And new players wouldn't feel belittled by the "uber" players. They could look forward to unique experiences that would earn them a space in the tavern gossip once in a while.

Diablo2 had mob heroes. Sometimes, you'd go to the place where you're used to seeing harmless imps....and there they are again. But this time, they've got a stronger imp with them who may give you a run for your money.

Surprises. I hope to see lots and lots of surprises in future MMOs. And if the surprises, the wonder and the fear of the unknown dies off, then so will my enjoyment of the game. When I played EQ, it was my first MMO and I didn't even know forums existed. So I accepted it as a finished product, just like any console game. These days, a lot of players keep playing an MMO because they do follow the forums and they hope (often groundlessly) that the game will improve, or something new will be added, and they'll enjoy the game again. I quit EQ at level 45 or so because I knew exactly what to expect. There was no mystery anymore. Sure, there were mobs I hadn't seen, but I knew almost precisely how my game experiences would play out. Fighter tanks, cleric heals, wizard nukes; here's how you kill the monster, here's where and when it spawns; etc.

That's lukewarm gameplay. I was able to enjoy Diablo 2 longer than any other PC game ever because it was able to provide me relatively fresh and unexpected experiences over and over and over again, and because my gameplay experience was remarkably unique (including among my own characters).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Interpretable NPCs

Is it possible to give players various degrees of control over the personalities and choices of NPCs?

That question was sparked by my comment in the last blog about novel readers typically having some room for interpretative preference. For example, I just read Frankenstein for a college literature course, and there was debate about the personal nature of Frankenstein's creature. Often, the ability of readers to reasonably interpret a character or action in different ways represents a failure on the author's part. Sometimes, authors want their readers to have great freedom, yes, but all authors should be in the tightest possible control of their story's interpretive possibilities.

Likewise with games. The designer should design their characters and events either so they may be perceived in only one way or so they may be perceived within a controlled range of possibilities.

But that should be old and obvious theory. The bigger question is how might we provide players more interpretative control over NPCs and events? and (the true Frankensteinian question) should we? How might such a system benefit the gameplay?

Something I commonly hear from audiences of movies which have been adapted from novels is, "[such-and-such] didn't look at all like I pictured it". Generally, in this regard, game designers are limited in the same ways as film directors; it's a visual story, so we can't avoid defining the audience's visual experience.

But that's only generally true. Hitchcock, Spielberg and other great directors have commonly hidden characters (human or non) from the audience until the last possible window, or even indefinitely. Sometimes the audience is offered skewed or momentary glimpses, like in Jaws or Predator. Other times, the figure is hidden until the end, like in Alien.

Similar effects have been used in games that are very linear and view-limited (Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness), but the practice should be seized by open RPGs and MMOs as well. Players can be given only shadows and voices (yes, it's ok to force your player to listen to the game, and not just watch it). Camouflage is possible with current technology.

Usually, the best method of this, in my opinion, is footprints. Make a character or event's existence known only through hints at a presence where now there is only an absence.

How about giving players impact over A.I.? I've seen faction score's affect an NPC's behavior toward the player. I've seen dialogue do the same. I haven't seen an NPC change some part of its lasting personality or lifestyle based on player actions.

It doesn't have to be big to make a meaningful impression on the player. It might be as simple as the NPC's weapon or clothing preference.

Ex: The player saves a boy's mother from some thugs, after which he cheers the player excitedly as a personal hero. The player chooses to offer the boy his helmet. The boy jumps with glee, accepts the helmet and may be seen evermore wearing his hero's helmet.

Ex: The player succeeds in a one-shot attempt to convince an NPC that the player's faction (or even favorite in-game sports team; jousting?) is the coolest. The NPC can then-after be seen wearing some cloth or bearing some flag with the emblem of that faction. If this is a multiplayer game, like an MMO, players of opposing factions would later have their own one-shot attempts at converting the NPC away from the first player's faction and toward their own. Any real-world sports fan knows that just seeing the emblem of your team or an opponent can draw a loud "rock!" or "boo!". Speaking of which, Roll Tide! ;)

The tougher challenge (infinitely moreso, it seems, for an MMO or other multiplayer game) is giving players some impact over the story-related decisions of NPCs and accounting for even a small number of ripple effects. It's cool if I can convince an NPC to alter his or her behavior. It's cooler if altering that character's actions draws the attention of other NPCs and affects their decisions. And it's cooler still if I can change an NPC's personality (pattern of behavior...for this purpose), affecting future actions of that character.

Reversibility is a common problem here. Players often have the ability to reverse the affect they've had on an NPC, like earning back faction they lost just as easily as they earned the faction the first time. This is a point in which many gamers desire realism. Some NPCs should be quickly recoverable, some slowly recoverable, and some not recoverable at all.

Games as Propaganda

Koster posted an interesting blog the other day called "Games as propoganda, games as statement" ( I'd like to add two further thoughts to that conversation:

First, while my own preference is usually for universal accessibility of stories (verbal or non), I believe it's foolish to fear making one's design lean noticeably toward a particular conclusion (propoganda). Designers often consider niche appeal only in terms of "I'm closing the door on these potential parties", but we should also consider the increased degree of appeal among those potential parties already included.

In other words, a universal story might attract both my interest and the interest of my antagonist, but not enough for either of us to purchase it (0 sales); while a story biased to my liking might have a stronger attraction for me (1 sale). So a niche story may occasionally have as much marketing advantage, ultimately, as a univeral one (a roughly equal number of people purchase the product).

Second, other media do involve some level of interaction comparable to games: the audience empathizes with the protagonists (and sometimes even the antagonists), often subconsciously bending the characters to its own interpretive preferences. For that and other reasons, even stories which are thematically antagonistic to the audience can sometimes win them over.

For one example, Bram Stoker's "Dracula" appeals not only to audiences who relish in gothic decadence, but also to those who perceive the character as a truly detestable being rightfully conquered. The novel's many assaults on Dracula's character and his ultimate defeat do not prevent many readers from imagining Dracula the hero and loving the story; and the plethora of perverse imagery does not prevent many readers from appreciating the novel's didactic value.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Better Controls for RTS Games

I don't play as many RTS games as I used to. I've got Age of Empires: III and love it, and was impressed by Battle for Middle Earth II, but my interest in RTS has waned after C&C: Red Alert...and I'm honestly not sure why. So maybe the following thought is out of ignorance, but it applies to the games I know.

RTS controls are in dire need of innovation.

Positioning an army exactly how you want them in these games is like trying to parallel park with two flat tires. First I have to ensure my army is coming at the target spot from precisely the right angle, and then I have to be sure to click on exactly the right spot...not too far ahead or behind. A failure to position the army right where I want it means a gap in the valley or other zone I was attempting to block, or some other strategic fault.

Why can't I use the WASD keys to maneuver my army precisely, as if it was an FPS character controlled in 3rd-person view? Why can't I use the Numpad keys to quickly and easily instruct my armies to maintain a particular formation including mid-march, and not just when they reach the target formation? Wouldn't it be great to change their formation in reaction to a moment's circumstance with just the tap of a single key, instead of having to rush through a series of scroll options (like in BfME 2)? I seem to remember Sacrifice doing this to some success.

And wouldn't it be nice to have the option of preset strategic commands of a script beyond a single action?

Imagine having one hotkey for "fall back to the valley" and another for "fall back to the fort"...these points being selected by the player through waypoints.

Imagine being able to direct each type of military unit (archers, pikemen, cavalry, etc) to focus its attacks on a particular unit type of the enemy's (ex: "my archers, aim for their cavalry first"). This could be selected before battles and would remain active until otherwise chosen, like character stances in some RPGs and fighting games. There could also be items or hotkeys to allow players to affect unit-enemy preferences on-the-fly.

This could also be applied in the other direction. The player might direct particular units to retreat only if they encounter a particular enemy unit.

Imagine if the player could issue orders that remain latent until conditions, chosen by the player, activate that command. Ex: "If > 40% casualties, fall back to the valley." That command could even be compounded with "If > 70% casualties, fall back to the fort"; compounded meaning that both commands were issued before the battle, but are merely activated separately (and automatically, in response to those conditions).

It would be great if I could rank my units as hierarchal lines of defense. As games are now, in order to have my pikemen stay and guard the retreat of my archers, I must have the two types of units separately selected and accomplish the retreat manually. But what if I had preselected my pikemen as the first line of defense and the archers as the second line? So when I order the retreat, the pikemen automatically know to stay and fight until the archers are a safe distance away.

Controls like this, especially, would make RTS games ultimately more easy to manage. Of course, all of these simplifying controls require a learning curve, so it's debatable how much this lowers the initial learning curve. But certainly, more casual gamers could be allowed a fair gameplay experience without use of many of these features, while veterans and hardcore gamers could explore an extensive range of strategic possibilities and command prowess.

One of my favorite movies is Patton. I highly recommend that and other old WWII films to anyone interested in RTS design, because they help expose the many limitations of current RTS games and the avenues of potential growth.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Uneven Co-op

Hopefully, I can spit this out quick enough that I'll get some sleep tonight. =P

Mark Terrano proposed an awesome concept at the AGC last week. He suggested developers (I think he was actually focusing on writers, since it was the writers conference) can design games for spectators, in addition to the players. A lot of us would love to have a spouse, child, or another relative or friend there by our side as we're playing a game and have them able to be caught up in our own enthusiasm.

Well, this blog isn't exactly about that. =P It's about the vast middle ground of possibilities between spectatorship and cooperative gameplay as it has been traditionally known.

Most, if not all, single-player games with a co-op feature that I've played have made the co-player(s) character equal in power and complexity to the first player's character. It doesn't have to be that way. How many people do you know who you'd love to game with, but they tell you they can't handle that the same experience? Instead, the friend or relative says something like "oh, that's nice" (translation: "sorry, I don't get it") and walks away.

They miss the days of the original Nintendo and old arcades with their simple A button, B button and joystick. Or maybe they're people like my dad, who has no video game experience at all aside from Space Invaders, Pacman, solitaire and chess. These people haven't spent a lot of time developing eye-hand coordination, as it applies to a controller and screen. Some of these people move a mouse with such care that I think they're half expecting it to slip from under their grip at any moment ("ok, there's the Start steps..").

Why not create cooperative gameplay that allows secondary players a simpler game experience?

It doesn't have to be to the exclusion of equal secondary-player roles, of course. A game could allow the secondary player(s) to choose between a variety of possible support roles, ranging from the very demanding to the more spectatorial.

Really, the biggest challenge, I think, is not so much coming up with the roles for the secondary players to fill as much as it is coming up with a satisfactory incorporation of the support player's actions into the screen and UI (so that player's involvement doesn't mean they need half of the screen). Not only does a split screen irritate many gamers because of loss of visibility, but it can also hinder immersion in the game world (which has just been made more arcade). So the trick is to include the second player onto the main player's screen in a non-intrusive way.

How can that be done? Well, here's one way: What you see in that screenshot from The Darkness is beings other than the player on the screen and in support of the player. Now, the primary player controls those monsters, but what if he could release control to a support player? The support player (SP) could not move his creature off the primary's screen (though the game would have to allow for the continued existence of the creature...within a very limited range... should the main player turn abruptly, until they could be rejoined by one or the other's character movement).

But imagine the SP's creature attacking one NPC while the primary player (PP) fires his gun at another. Or imagine the SP guiding his creature into that far corner of the screenshot, checking to see if any enemies are hiding back there, while the PP watches and waits expectantly (meaning there's tension, so it's not just waiting). If there are enemies, the SP is probably screaming and trying to maneuver his frail creature the hell out of there while the PP hurries to his aid.

This is definitely not the sort of feature that lends itself well to every game, but it might be a viable avenue to inviting new people into games.

Also, in regards to adversary roles (the secondary player against the primary).

They tried it in Perfect Dark and it sucked, but it sucked mainly because the co-op players were sitting side-by-side in front of a shared console and shared screen. One could see what the other was doing. Moved into an online confrontation, pseudo-PvE scenarios could be truly successful.
The only game I've played with anything like this was Neverwinter Nights with its DM function. A DM is more powerful than most possible co-op roles would be though and not, I think, really representative of the possibilities.

Don't let a concept's poor implementation fool you into believing the concept is bad. That's another good bit of advice I heard at the AGC. Adversary "co-op" was a good idea, but the medium and context must be appropriate.

Adversary, pseudo-PvE roles also lend themselves to the involvement of less skilled and more casual players. As a starting point, think of the ability to play as a raptor in Turok 2 (i think it was the second one, anyway).

One last thought... I once read that an Asian country (Indonesia?) had Starcraft tournaments on national television. What makes this viable there?

If that's possible, perhaps it's possible to create a spectator feature to internet-connected games (not necessarily games with online gameplay modes), using advertisements surrounding the spectator screen to generate revenue. The spectator might be a pure spectator, with no control over what he or she is seeing, or might have some level of camera control and other switching off the UI in his or her version of the player's screen, or adding statistical counters and such to the screen corner.

I think this was tried before with an Xbox 360 racing game. But, if memory serves, the player had to invite specific people to be spectators or upload a video that wasn't real-time. What I'm talking about is real-time video available to anyone on the internet. Assuming there's no security risks involved (which I might be ignorant of), the spectator wouldn't even have to be a member of a gaming community. It would be something like a YouTube Live for games. It might turn out to be good advertising to non-gamers; and even if it doesn't sell people on the game, you're still making the advertisement revenue. The only feature that would require user permission is allowing the spectator to contact and comment on the player's game in a chat box.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Quest Design in MMORPGs: Part Three

This last part of the series is just going to be a collection of miscellaneous other stuff that relates to "quest" design.

Experience points don't have to be a reward for every player action. Seriously. I'll explain toward the end how I'm not just being idealistic.

You can offer tasks for faction, jobs for money, quests for treasure and fame, and duties for the possibility of the player keeping his head on his shoulders. The possibilities are endless, really.

The introduction of player-impact into MMOGs offers a new reward type: player-impact. Allow the player to shape the gameworld in some meaningful way. Providing and enhancing ways in which players can celebrate and proclaim these impacts (such as titles, ceremonies, newspapers, tavern talk, minstrels, etc) will go a long way in making them an acceptable substitution for other rewards.

Most would probably agree that the Diablo 2 loot system is too random for your typical MMORPG, but the basic concept of loot tables is a good one; a roll of the dice determines which of a collection of possible items is dropped (with some items having better odds than others). Note that this system can be manipulated to be as random or as limited as the designer desires (there might 50 possible items or there might be only 3 ). In that game, this reward system was applied to mob corpses only, while the mission system had specific rewards. But that doesn't always need to be the case. Sometimes the player should know exactly what the stakes are, but certainly not always.

Also, something I loved in EQ2 was that some quests offered a choice of rewards to the player. Upon quest completion, a reward window would pop up with 3 or 4 items and the player would choose the one he or she wanted. So if your character prefers 2-handed skullcrushers (like mine did), then you can choose one of those instead of some girly rapier. =P

Timed missions are usually more compelling when the timing feels natural and not like someone's waiting on you with a stop-watch.

For example: In EQ2, there was one quest in which an NPC told me to come back that night. She would talk to me, but would not advance the mission until nightfall. Imagine yourself racing against the coming dawn (if you're a vampire) or against the setting sun (because the nastiest creatures hunt at night). In those cases, enormous tension can build by the player's awareness of a timer infinitely more imposing and compelling than a ticking clock. Other times, players might have to do something "before [Name] gets back" or before that NPC leaves for a journey, etc.

Timing can also be used to provide opportunities for non-combat PvP. Two or more players could race to get something done before the others, or possibly even race their mounts. Contests, in other words.

Sometimes, when missions or challenges must be timed by something more similar to a stop-watch scenario, then it may be beneficial to make the timer's presence in the UI more interesting. The timer could be like a sundial icon with shadow measurement, or a candle slowly burning down to nothing, or a moon changing from a new moon to a full moon.

The basic idea is that often, while accepting a mission, the player has the option of making the quest more or less difficult, depending on what the player is in the mood for at the time (though the minimum difficulty must be significant to prevent players from spoiling their own fun).

I never played Fable, but a video I watched once suggested that the game accomplishes player control over mission difficulty through a boasting system. Here's the example provided in the video:

The player discusses taking on a mission to escort some traders safely to their destination. That's the basic mission and cannot be altered. But the player can boast that they can accomplish a number of things. Boasts for this particular mission include fighting bare-handed, fighting without armor, or taking no damage. If you succeed in your boast (wager), then you receive a little extra money. If you fail, I think you just don't get that extra money, but your reputation might suffer as well.

Here are two modifications I would make to that boast system:

Honor: Make it so that a person who fails to meet their boast will be laughed at by the mission-NPC (or perhaps sympathized with by kinder NPCs).

Hazy level requirements: Allow players to receive a some reward from a mission below his or her level by succeeding in a difficult boast. For example: While a level 5 player would receive 50 gold for killing a level 5 mission mob, a level 8 player might receive 75 gold for killing that same level 5 mission mob bare-handed.....or a level 9 player might receive 90 gold for killing the mission mob without armor. Of course, the level 5 player could try to kill the mob without armor for the same 90 gold, but he would likely fail.

This system has 2 big benefits:
1) It increases the level range of players who can perform that quest, have fun doing so and be rewarded sufficiently for their actions. (more bang for your buck)
2) It gives players more control over the difficulty of their own playing experience (sandbox). Players who live for a challenge can take advantage of this system the whole way through the game. And gamers who prefer an easy, relaxed game experience can just perform the quests the simplest way.

There can be complications, of course. Obviously, a character of a class that specializes in boxing shouldn't receive a better reward for fighting bare-handed or without armor, since he usually fights that way anyway. So boasts (extra mission options) should probably be limited to ones which all classes can perform.

Groups could be able to boast as well, which would require all members of the group to adhere to what was boasted.

Possible boasts:
Timed: Perform quest within a time limit.
Examples: Kill the mob in under 1 minute, starting upon the 1st attack. Spy on the mayor and report back with the needed intel in 20 minutes. Deliver message in under 15 minutes (by not getting entangled in the mobs in your way).
Limited Actions: Perform quest with [x] number of actions.
Examples: Kill the mob in 10 moves or less.
Limited Resources: Perform the quest with limited resources.
Examples: Kill the mob without using any skills over level 5. Craft a Grand Dagger with no more than 7lbs of ore (whereas the 5lb Grand Dagger usually requires 10lbs of ore, so the smith must be more precise when hammering impurities out of the metal).

There is potential for fun in missions that go terribly awry or leave out important info, and get the player into trouble. One thing that's lacking in most missions these days is surprise.

Non-malign Misinformation: An NPC knows he won't get any help unless he fudges the facts a little bit (leaves out that a troll is guarding the heirloom the NPC "forgot after a picnic"). Or an NPC might send you to a dangerous area under the pretense that you are to collect something, but you find out afterward that it was a scouting mission..."Sorry about that, mate! I needed to know how many there were, and you might not have gone had I told you."

Ignorance: The player is sent to another NPC to retrieve a borrowed item, but that NPC says he lent it to another NPC...and that NPC lent it to another NPC, and so on. What seemed like a simple chore turns out to be a headache (but with plenty of humor and a better material or xp reward than originally anticipated).

Malign Manipulation: There's also the possibility of NPCs using you. You might unwittingly be aiding in a crime. The item you are sent for might actually belong to another NPC, and you're stealing what you thought you were just returning to the original owner (tricked into hurting your faction a bit?).

Those damnable spoiler sites would be a problem, of course. Even if you didn't ever look at them, all it would take is to tell your group "Well, I'm headed to finish my Dougan's Ale quest" and someone might pipe up (thinking that they're being helpful) and tell you "Don't even bother with that quest. The NPC is don't get any decent loot." I can remember players asking people to quit shouting spoilers on public channels, but it didn't stop them.

Ok, so why not offer experience points for every player action? If levelling up is the only path to fun in your game, then you've got a problem. A "grind" is what happens when the player is so obsessed with reaching a goal that they are unable to appreciate the journey; or wandering about, even. There are several ways to help avoid this problem.

Reward tables take player focus off leveling, to some degree. In Diablo 2, the player is often not focused on leveling because he's trying to complete his set of armor (set items were a stroke of genius) or hoping to stumble onto a "named" item. More interesting is when the player has found a truly badass weapon and actually doesn't want to level right away so that he can enjoy the weapon's awesome power before that power is relatively diminished by moving onto stronger foes.

Faction can also take focus off leveling entirely. In Star Wars: Galaxies, I often ignored my character's skill progression for extended periods while I stomped out infestations of Rebel scum. That game had the significant advantage of the Star Wars movie saga, but enthusiasm for faction conflicts and service can be encouraged to a similar degree without a famous IP.

One of my main cricitisms of that game is that players were only really encouraged to become enthusiastic about the two main factions, to the exclusion of many secondary factions. That's a very limited range of causes for player characters (and those causes were the primary interest of a significant portion of SWG's playerbase). Provide players with minor factions to align themselves with, and that content development will be sufficiently rewarded. Small faction causes are often more personal.

Factions encourage community identification. Player-created factions (guilds) also do this, but NPC-bound factions are more stable than player-created factions. Guilds change, fall apart, and often involve more melodrama than drama.

Fame (social appreciation) is an excellent avenue of reward that can distract completely from leveling. City of Heroes dabbled in this, but left it very peripheral. Fame can be developed for every level of gameplay, using tavern talk, monuments, newspapers and libraries (in-game event records) and impressions upon the gameworld (like an NPC who was once depressed is happy and productive again...for more than just a few minutes), among others.

Fame can also be developed as an ultimate goal (like it often is in reality). For example, let's look at dragons. In your typical game, players will band together to slay the mighty beast for awesome loot; only a handful of the group gets something, so they return to kill the same beast hours or days later to spread the wealth around. But what if player "armies" were amassed for reasons more similar to reality? The more participants who are involved in a conflict, the less the explicit goal is about individuals. What if players slayed the titanic monster, knowing they would receive no loot or xp whatsoever, in order to free an NPC or player town from danger and oppression? The effect could be visible and lasting, but also recounted in NPCs memory/memorials for the duration of the game's lifespan.

I mentioned "The Sleeper" of Everquest once before. I wasn't playing EQ when that beast was around, but its tale is told years after it was killed (a singular spawn) of the more attractive tales for non-EQ players considering the EQ game experience. When EQ players talk about it, they don't even mention loot or xp rewards. They talk about the challenge and the fame of creature and its slayers. While the optimal degree of focus on singular spawns like that is debatable, that basic type of experience should not be as exceptional as it is. Regular expectation of such events by players would be a huge boon to player attraction and retention.

I'm sure there are other possibilities for lateral gameplay, but this blog has gotten long, so I'm going to stop.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Quest Design in MMORPGs: Part Two

Alright, so I've covered why MMORPG developers need a new nomenclature and suggested a replacement possibility (which was meant as a starting point, by the way, and not as a complete list). Now, let's look at a different way to categorize them. And keep the previous blog in mind, because a common nomenclature for these would help us ultimately in the design process as well.

The categories in Part One are primarily about why the player might be attracted to particular story-related opportunities. I'll now try to categorize how a player might realize those opportunities. Some of these categorizations are admittedly arbitrary.

I'll briefly critique a few structures for their viability (fun factor) at the end.

1) Delivery. Deliver/retrieve [x].

2) Seek and destroy. Kill [x] number of [y].

3) Boss. Kill boss mob [x]. This mob might be accompanied by other mobs.

4) Tiered combat progression. Kill [x] to get to [y], kill [y] to get to [z], etc. This is slightly different than simply compounding #2 onto itself and saying kill so many [x], then kill so many [y]; the difference is the escalating difficulty within the same mission.

5) Spy. Scout/spy [x] and report.

6) Forced Acquisition. Steal/acquire [x]. The player might or might not kill something, but this differs from a Delivery mission in that opposition is involved. The player might face opposition while transporting an object or information as well. It can work both ways.

7) Demolition. Destroy non-living target.

8) Puzzle. An intellectual challenge. Get [x] working again, help NPCs figure something out, etc.

9) Research. Research [x] and return with the answer. In real life, people make careers as researchers, largely because it's an art. In a game, this could take any number of forms, from questioning NPCs for viewpoints, to reading books in a virtual library, to deciphering runes and hieroglyphs. There really is a significant number of players who enjoy this sort of thing for its own sake, and they'd enjoy it even more if they could achieve in-game fame or recognition for their research or affect gameworld events.

10) Resources. Survey/harvest [x].

11) Crafting. Craft [x].

12) Entertainer. Entertain [x]. Like entertainer performances in SW:G, only it could be designed so all players could be silly and make fools of themselves for fun.

13) Unit Support. The player is asked to support an NPC combat unit (one or more NPCs) in performing a scripted action, like evicting someone or ridding the East castle corridor of a rodent infestation. Any number of bonus/penalty systems could be designed for these missions (ex: the player's reward increases if all NPCs in the unit survive).

14) Apprenticeship. The player assists an NPC master of their class in performing a class-specific duty. A high priest might be swamped with plague victims and would like the newb cleric to take care of the lesser ills in the hospital tent, for example. This could probably be applied beyond classes (especially in a class-less game).

15) Michief/Misinformation. The player spreads misinformation or otherwise causes disruption.

16) Labyrinth. A puzzle that requires feats of action, in addition to feats of intellect.

Those are just examples of basic structures. They can all be complicated, combined and applied to many different scenarios. Here are some examples of that:

1) Direct Path. There is only one way to complete the mission. This represents the vast majority of missions in MMORPGs thus far.

2) Multi-Path.
For example, the player is ordered to acquire something. He can acquire it by sneaking in the shadows, by killing everyone, by distraction, by limited kills, by bribery, by deception, etc.

3) Redirect. Mid-mission, the situation changes and the player must decide whether to complete his orders, blatantly abandon his orders, only pretend to complete the orders, etc. Think Deus Ex, where the player doesn't know who is on his side and must choose between NPC factions.

4) Competition. Someone beats the player to the objective. The player must now adapt to complete the quest. For example, say you are asked to acquire something. While you are waiting for the NPCs to let down their guard, you see a thief (NPC?) take it. You must now follow the thief and take it from that character instead. Oblivion's Thieves Guild initiation quest was like this.

5) Success by Degree. For example: An NPC tells you his son was stolen. He spits and curses the kidnapper as he asks you to retrieve his son. You find his son in a cage and set him free. But the kidnapper is in the room next door. If you kill the kidnapper, maybe your employer will pay you extra for bringing the man to justice. Both positive and negative sanctions are possible.

6) Group Venture. The player meets other players with identical orders at a rally point. When x amount of players have reached the rally point, the group (only players with that mission) fulfills the orders. Players could be grouped in many other (and probably better) ways. This category could be further subdivided into:
a) All players in the group share a similiar purpose.
b) Players choose or are assigned to different roles (ex: the tank handles the mobs while the thief picks the lock and grabs what they came for).

7) Instanced Offer. Ex: The player or group is approached by a mysterious stranger, who offers player(s) a very difficult, but very lucrative job. If they refuse, the stranger sneaks away and disappears. If they take the mission and complete it (a one shot opportunity in [x] amount of time), the stranger rewards them and disappears. These quests are sporadic, not easy to find and offer very nice loot/monetary rewards. Players would rarely encounter these and always through luck (semi-random spawn locations at odd times). The timer would be long and exists so players don't accept the quest, never complete it, and a mysterious NPC who seems to ignore everybody isn't standing there forever. The NPC might simply wait there, ignoring all but the participating party until the timer is up or the mission is done. Or the NPC might only appear in that spot when participating party is within eyesight. This quest category would be more of a bonus than a regular mission type.

Sometimes, the most interesting things in a game are the things you only have a shot at seeing; or things you saw once and will likely never see again.


Scouting opportunities have traditionally been directed toward specific targets. It is possible, however, to allow open and on-the-fly spying. On-the-fly scouting is when the player happens to be in the right place at the right time (what Part One called an "impulse" opportunity). These needn't be related to heavily scripted events. For example: if the player is connected to a policing faction, he might run across the location of a pirate or smuggler hideout and report that finding for a reward. Open scouting is when the player has a concrete objective but must find his own clues to reach that objective. The player might be told that so-and-so is looking for [x], and the player can either rely on luck (treat the mission as peripheral) or investigate, by asking around (both players and NPCs) or following non-dialogue clues (like the symbols in the movie End of Days).

Also in regards to scouting, it's very easy to make these quests not fun. Oblivion's mission in which you have to follow different Skingrad citizens to satisfy the paranoid looney is a good example. The story was interesting, but the actual spying was tedious and uneventful. EQ2 had a similar mission at the Crossroads in the Commonlands (the cat-lady who heard ghosts). It was one of the most memorable missions I've encountered, but following that single NPC for even that relatively short distance was tedious. In that particular case, I think the main problem was that the NPC moved at a slower pace than the player, leaving the player waiting on the NPC to hurry up. Any mission involving following an NPC must have tension or something else to keep the player's attention off the mechanics and onto the gameworld.

Diablo 2 was onto something with their semi-random mob hero spawns. I particularly loved how the little imps seemed to be spouting off nonsense ("Rakanishu!") until I met that nonsense and he kicked my arse. Mob heroes are a good example of how the concept of boss mobs can be mixed up and applied to non-linear gameplay.

I may edit this later and add other reflections on how these structures can be applied and how they're poorly applied. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts though.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Quest Design in MMORPGs: Part One

This blog is primarily a transfer of my thoughts from a few Vanguard threads. In it, I plan to do two things: 1) critique the general state of quest design in MMOGs up to this point, and 2) propose my own tentative models and concepts.

The labelling of many things as "quests" in modern MMORPGs is inappropriate. Though some games might use the term merely to create a sense of familiarity, I think it is typically a marketing ploy to make the simple and redundant sound grandiose and compelling. In a game that truly wants its players to RP in a virtual world, the word should be treated with the proper sublimation.

However, I disagree with the common perception that true quests are defined merely by their complexity. Here's Merriam-Webster's definition (undoubtedly just one of many possibilities):

"a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey"

The key words in that definition are "chivalrous" and "adventurous". In order to be chivalrous, an act must be both atypical and noble. In order to be an adventurous, an act (or series of actions) must be atypical and difficult (dangerous?).

So a quest is defined by at least these 3 attributes:
1) atypical
2) difficult
3) noble

An epic quest would be grander in all respects.

By atypical, I don't mean that quests in an MMORPG need to be rare. But they do need to be abnormal or they will otherwise lose their adventurous nature. If everyone and their mother was a rock climber, rock climibing wouldn't seem like much of an adventure to me anymore. Games aren't immune to that phenomenon. Epics, being an exagerration of a quest in all ways, do need to be rare. Those should be the stories that circulate in player tales for months, or even years (like The Sleeper of Everquest).

Abnormal and rare mean more than simply that a particular player will oddly or rarely experience that quest. The player's experience must not be an exact replica of every other player of that race, class, skillset, etc. The reason for this has been made clear in previous games. How heroic does climbing the mountain, slaying the dragon and looting the Grand Sword of Uberness feel if you know that someone will do the same thing you did and receive the same "grand" sword 5 minutes later....and then another player, and another, and so on? [and yes, I use the word "uberness" with maximum disdain] How cool is it meeting a famous NPC when, as Lee Sheldon put it bluntly at the AGC, that NPC is basically a PEZ-dispenser and you're standing in line for his quest.

The hard truth is that the community in these games, the "MM" in "MMORPG", is a double-edged sword. You can't play up the importance of the community and expect players not to care if their characters are not unique and valuable among that community.

Though adventure is hard to define in its modern context, I was once told that it came from the Medieval French "aventure", which literally meant "what comes to you". Adventure, in the Romantic sense, is something the adventurer did not plan on or foresee fully. Likewise, a quest should involve surprise and searching (to which end spoiler sites are an obvious stumbling block).

I also mentioned nobility, but I'll save that one until a later blog. It deserves its own discussion.

So if "quests" are to be something other than every opportunity offered by an NPC to a player, let's separate out other types of opportunities. Be sure to continue on for the explanation of why these divisions are absolutely necessary if MMORPGs are to improve this aspect of gameplay.

A task is an act which a person has been assigned or commanded to perform. The word originated from the Latin word for "tax", hence the typically negative connotation. Gamewise, this is something the player must do to save his/her own skin or to serve a superior, perhaps for only a faction reward. The player usually knows generally what they're getting into.

An assignment is a task subdivision, defined as one of a series of actions to complete a greater objective. This might involve multiple players acting in differing roles in one experience; like if the wizard maintained an enchantment and the warrior distracted the guards while the thief opened a chest and stole its contents. Or it might involve the actions of players being related only in their outcome and not in their means. The players receive and perform tasks separately, without the ability to know who's doing something related to them, and receive their reward (or the best reward) only if all other players involved succeed in their tasks. Want to strengthen the community aspect of your game? There you go. To curb griefing, of course, an NPC would only accept failure from a particular player so many times (the griefer would have to be an exceptionally selfish arse anyway...cause he wouldn't know who he was griefing, but such bastards do exist).

A duty is an obligation to a superior and usually not limited to a single act. Unlike a task, a duty is something that is regularly expected and not in accordance with an impulsive command/request. So while bribing a new competing gang might be a thief's guild task, making sure a bribe gets to a particular NPC once a week would be a duty. To prevent redudancy, a duty could be as general as "kill a criminal", "steal 50 gold (from anyone)" or "bring back 5 furs" per time period...thus allowing the player to choose the specific nature of the action. Some developers cringe at the idea of forcing a player to do anything; but I'm a firm believer that players often spoil their own fun, so players need to be strongly encouraged to mix up their gameplay to some degree.

A job, like a task, is something which bears little mystery (the player has a general idea of what they will encounter) and is an action performed with a reward clearly in mind. The player should usually know generally what the reward will be before he/she accepts the job.

A favor, like a job, is performed with a reward clearly in mind (though the precise nature of that reward might be unknown), but the reward is a service, rather than material. Service rewards include offering a job or quest, puting in a good word with someone (faction), and allowing access to new territory or NPCs, among others.

An impulse is an act which did not originate with a command or request from an NPC. These are opportunities for rewards or service, but no reward is guaranteed (the reward might be only that you did what was right...or wrong ). An example would be if you happened to notice an NPC being robbed and stepped in to affect the situation. Though you have had no previous interaction with either the victim or the robber, stepping into the situation might alter the outcome and possibly merit a reward. The reward might be a ring if, you helped the victim, or an opportunity to aid in future crime, if you helped the robber.

A reconcilation is when a player must do something to escape danger, debt, banishment or disfavor. If a guild member (NPC guild/faction) failed to perform his weekly duty, he might have to perform a task to be restored to his guild membership or guild position. If a player has to earn faction to enter a castle, doesn't it make sense that he should be barred from entering if he angers that faction enough? (players hate contradictions, I assure you) This would help him get back into the castle. For debt, perhaps certain merchants would refuse service (because they know the guy you owe and won't pay) or a bounty will be placed on your head until you pay up. A player might also have to reconcile himself just for being a member of a race, class or faction, if that group angered or wronged an NPC long ago. Feuds are fun.

Words and names are not always cosmetic. Why do we call one car a Viper and another a Chevelle? We would know what each car is without naming them, right? Are we merely adding "fluff" to make a compelling illusion? No. We are naming them so that we may recognize and discuss them without having them in front of us to point to.

All of the terms I suggested are subsets of what have been called "quests" in past MMOGs, yes. But the scarcity of further descriptive terms in most MMOGs is evidence of how little effort typically goes into quest design (I realize tech limitations have come into play as well).

A fundamental lesson in linguistics is that a language adapts to the culture's (or industry/company's) needs and values. When we refer to a Chevelle or Viper with the generic term "cars", it's because the details that distinguish those vehicles from one another are not situationally necessary. But "Chevelle" and "Viper" are not words that are only useful to the auto-mechanics and manufacturers. Buyers and users find the details implied in those words useful to know as well.

Likewise, to refer to all missions merely as "quests" is to assign minimal value to those details. If developers believe those details merit discussion and manipulation, then they will naturally assign names to the variants. And if those variants were significantly distinguishable from one another, then those names would prove useful to players as well...because players would seek out and discuss the variants they prefer, just as the car buyers seek out and discuss the cars they prefer.

I highlight "significantly", because that is the subtlety that I believe many overlook in their consideration of previous MMORPGs. In EQ, there were quests, class quests and epic quests. Note that there is no distinction between search-and-destroy quests and delivery quests. That is because the essences of the two were so similar that the details ultimately did not matter (or such was the presumption of the game's design). In SWG, there was a distinction made between seek-and-destroy missions and delivery missions; and another distinction between faction missions and money-reward missions.

It is notable that MMORPG veterans, when discussing these games in general (rather than a specific game), rarely use terms more descriptive than the simple "quests". This should set off alarm bells!

Let's look at it another way. Is there really a need to label different kinds of "quests"?

Well, is there a need to label the guns in Halo? Names can help define how players understand and approach content. If a game labels all mission types as "quests", players will tend to approach all types with similar expectations.

There are certainly times when the developer would want the player to not realize what he or she is getting into, to let the player's excitement and anticipation build slowly as they learn the true nature of their situation. But there are also times when the devs want the player to be brimming with excitement from the get-go, perhaps by the NPC asking you specifically to accept a "quest".

If there's any sort of quest journal, wouldn't it make sense to categorize missions based on scenario, difficulty and rewards? If I've got a "duty" to bribe an NPC by tomorrow or I'll lose faction with my NPC guild, wouldn't it help to have a reminder of the mission's importance, rather than to have the duty mixed in with every other mission (those without a time limit)?

There are times for names to be prevalent and times for them to be "metagame information". To keep the terminology completely on the developer side would be an adverse limitation on gameplay. I agree that the terminology should not usually be staring players in the face, like a big red arrow above an NPC's head, as if to scream "QUEST HERE!!!". That would certainly detract from the game's flavor (assuming it's trying to be an RPG, and not arcade-style). When EQ2 added big red arrows like that to denote a player's current target (toggleable, I'm sure), I wanted to strangle somebody. But there are ways in which player exposure to terminology adds flavor.

All of this must be considered in relation to what could be in MMORPGs, instead of how it's been done before. What's unimmersive about an NPC saying "I have a job for you"? It might tell you that there is a material reward (possibly merchant faction too) and, perhaps, no experience reward. If some stuff gave only xp, some gave only loot, some gave only faction, then would it be watering down gameplay to make that information available to the player before he or she accepts that mission? No. By nature, a true "quest" does involve mystery, but a job or duty does not. What if an NPC directed you to another NPC because "he might have a job for you"? Does it not help to know that it is a job and not a quest?

Lastly, there's no need to hold onto mystery 100% of the time, of course, but mystery can be useful. Games that leave room for the player's imagination to roam can entertain long after the content has been explored and passed. It's like a virtual world (the player's imagination) inside a virtual world (the game). A kid could dream of bionic warriors without having anything in his hands, but a set of Transformers goes a long way in feeding that dream.

"Wait a minute... 'Part One'? You mean to tell me I read all this crap and you're STILL not done?!"

There's quite a bit more actually. I'll try to get Part Two posted sometime tomorrow.