Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Luck in RPGs and MMOs

I'll get back to crafting later this week. For now, I want to continue a discussion from Heather's site about how we can relax the necessity of power balancing and open the field to a wider variety of skills and characters.

In a typical MMORPG, skills are confined mostly to the realm of power (more specifically, to some sort of hit-point system, ala D&D) because of linear progression and a disqualification of luck or chance. Skills with less than optimum damage/healing/etc are discouraged because progression, in the form of new skills and opportunities, is possible only through brute-force combat. There's strong pressure to take on the toughest enemies, because that's what gets you the best loot and best xp.

In other types of games, luck and chance acceptably play a much greater role. Boardgames which use dice are great examples. In Monopoly, a hugely successful game, the player's progress relies more on uncontrollable factors (your dice rolls, others' dice rolls, order of rolls, and card draws) than on player decisions. Tetris is another example of a wildly popular game with tremendous emphasis on chance.

So why is chance so often eschewed in RPGs?

I think it goes back to the genre's D&D roots. In the tabletop roleplaying game, the set system, the game's fixed mechanics, are mostly linear. Dice rolls decide your character's stats (a merciful DM may let you reroll one or two) and are continually used in "saving throws", but skill progression generally occurs according to xp gained from killing monsters. D&D includes a great deal more chance and lateral gameplay than that, but that element is introduced through the Dungeon Master... the human, creative storyteller. Human imagination rounds out what would otherwise be a more linear game.

If you never played D&D, I doubt I could adequately describe how vital the DM is to any D&D adventure. The game will succeed or fail depending on how good the DM is.

As RPGs evolved from the tabletop setting to text adventures to video games, the balance tables were increasingly emphasized as the DM's dynamic and rounding role was left behind. RPGs gradually became more about increasing power than about dynamic and unpredictable adventures. They became more about fulfilling a predetermined skillset and gearset than about shaping one's character into something unique and personal.

It doesn't have to be this way. The limitless imagination of a human narrator and designer (the DM) can't be replaced, but we can adjust the fundamental elements of the game to counteract that loss to some degree.

One way is to award skills and other forms of progression by ways other than combat and combat-related quests, ways involving factors beyond the player's control (chance/luck). The player might attain a new skill by happening across a particular NPC ("happening across" anything is only possible when NPCs are more dynamic than stationary quest-dispensers), by looting a scroll, by equipping an item (which must be equipped for the skill to be maintained), by researching in a library and deciphering old texts, by quest, by alchemical accident, by perceiving an NPC perform the skill and learning, by being bitten or stung by a particular creature, by being near a magical source (skills limited to particular environments could really refresh adventures), by winning contests... and on and on.

The skill system might mimick D&D spellcasters in that you can only know so many, but the ones you know can be swapped out periodically for new ones. The player's number of skill slots might grow as the player progresses. Rather than strict grouping of skills, perhaps attunement to one skill makes another less effective while making others more effective. Perhaps one skill may even alter the type of effect of another.

An alternate reward system, as I've discussed before, is essential. Rather than award xp and loot for every encounter, reward some with loot, some with money, some with faction, some with reknown, some with access, some with skills, some with knowledge, some with titles, etc (or with combinations). Some upward growth in power is good, but that doesn't have to be the emphasis. In SWG, players didn't become exponentially more powerful as they progressed through the game, or even gain many more hit-points. It worked. Most of a player's growth was in faction and ownership.

Allow for different player roles to compliment one another without having to experience the same content. Even solo players can benefit player societies if you enable them (as I like to point out, what great epic tale doesn't include a compelling loner?). Players can work together on quests without even meeting each other, by completing different parts of communal projects. If players are allowed to have unique experiences, ones that other players can't track down on a fansite and repeat step-for-step, then players can excite each other with intriguing tales and enticing screenshots. If one player can possess an item, skill, or title that sheer work will not award to another, then there is a stronger sense of individuality and personal pride.

I can't help but feel that the RPG genre in general is stuck in a rut. It's not that there are not admirable systems already in place, but there is much more potential for diversity than most developers seem willing to believe. Yes, current games are designed the way they are for a reason, but that doesn't mean there aren't other viable ways.


  1. I think part of the reason chance is so devalued in current MMORPGs is that many players just don't like it. Take as an example the "discovery" system whereby highly-skilled alchemists in World of Warcraft had an extremely small chance of discovering new recipes as they crafted their wares. As anyone who understands the least bit about probabilities knows, a 1-in-1000 chance of something happening does not mean that if you do something 1000 times, that thing will happen once. It just means that on average it'll happen 1 in 1000 times. In reality it could happen on your tenth try or your ten thousandth.

    Yet people would look at the odds, go out, collect enough mats to do a thing 1000 times, and then become absolutely irate when they didn't get the result they wanted. To them, a 1-in-1000 chance meant that they were guaranteed to have the thing happen once in 1000 tries.

    I think most people like to feel that they can accomplish their MMORPG goals through either skill or simple hard stick-to-it-iveness work, and so they prefer for luck to have little, if any, effect. Luck ends up translating into, at most, "if I run this dungeon 20 times, the item I want should drop at least once." It becomes about calculating---and taking advantage of---the odds.

    I'm not sure how one would go about making luck a more acceptable thing in these games. I guess it is a pretty odd thing that luck is so widely accepted in board games, but not MMOs. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you have a character whose skill and ability you're emotionally invested in.

    I think it would be great to see folks try some wildly different things in this area, but it would take some real experimentation to find something that didn't turn off the odds-calculating crowd.

  2. I think the barrier is more culture than anything else. Because nearly every MMO has been designed with this similarity, players who move from one MMO to the next carry expectations of how MMOs in general operate.

    The WoW scenario you mention played out the way it did because the players involved were trained to think that games like WoW allow you to grind your way to any goal. I bet many of those same players enjoyed Diablo 2's randomized loot system.

    Smart advertising would help alter expecations of players before they enter the game. But probably the only thing that will allow MMOs and other RPGs to become more dynamic and uncontrolled is if a handful of games break the mold. Ten years ago, who would have believed FPS games could be more than just action?

  3. Agreed; advertising your game appropriately is a big part of making sure folks like it. Sometimes I think marketing folks don't realize that their job isn't just selling a thing---it's managing the expectations for that thing. If you end up selling something that isn't what you've made people think it is, then they won't be happy, they'll blame the thing you've sold them, and they'll tell their friends and the public that your product sucks.

    My favorite example of this is the movie "The Fifth Element." It was a really fun wacked-out movie. But the problem was, all the ads were elegant and mysterious, leading folks to expect something entirely different. When they didn't get it, they automatically decided that what they really got was trash, without even really looking at it on its own merits.

    Which is the long way of saying that I think you're entirely right; if you manage the expectations of your game correctly, you should be able to try some pretty off-the-wall stuff without having it rejected out of hand.


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