Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Comedy RTS

I used to save specific game ideas so that I could maintain control over them in case I pursued a career in game design and eventually worked my way up high enough to be able to start projects. But now, I'm thinking I'd rather do as Pixiestyx does: lay out those ideas for anyone to evaluate and work on. So here's a concept I thought of some months ago.

The movie Shrek did a great job taking serious tales and changing the characters into laughable parodies. This game would take laughable characters and place them into serious and violent warfare. The game would revolve around the same sort of humor behind the Black Knight scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail: violent but hilarious.

Take, for example, the Gingerbread Man from Shrek ("Not my gumdrop buttons!"). Gingerbread men like that would be a unit type in my RTS. They'd be a ranged unit that hurls gumdrop buttons. And, like the Black Knight, you can take them apart piece-by-piece. Damage them enough and arms will break off, forcing them into crazed melee charges and head-butting. If you take their hit points down all the way, their heads will break off. If you've played Battle for Middle Earth 2, you know how cave trolls will swing around in elaborate death throws. Take the head off a gingerbread man and his headless, armless body will wander aimless through the battle for a few seconds before toppling forward into the dirt.

That's the sort of lunacy that would saturate the entire game. It would be a depthful RTS, like BfME:2, that requires skill and strategy. But it would make you laugh at the same time.

What are some other unit types that might fit this sort of game?

Keep in mind, they're not going to be all fairy tale stuff, like in the Shrek film. They just have to be silly characters that don't belong in warfare. Try to stay away from IPs that would require a license, like famous cartoon characters (I think I could get away with gingerbread men, as long as I don't make their voices sound like the character in Shrek).

P.S. This is one of those posts that I realized I need to edit for typos after posting, so I had to republish the post. Does that make it show up more than once on anyone RSS feeds? If so, I won't do it again.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Project Offset

I've added Project Offset to my list of games I'm watching.

I was excited about this a year ago... not just the tech engine, but the game idea as well (kind of like a fantasy version of Star Wars: Battlefront -- one of my favorite games of all time).

But now! Oh... now, I would club a baby seal to get into beta testing. Check out the new video over at GameTrailers.

Ding! = extra life

Remember how, in classic arcade games (Galaga, Pac-Man, even Mario Bros.), "levelling up" meant racking up enough points that you win an extra life?

This is an option for MMOs.

Trials of Ascension (which never made it to release, but had some good basic ideas) is the first MMO design I'm aware of to use a life-counter system. Delayed permadeath, you might call it. Characters would be allowed as many as 100 deaths before finally experiencing permadeath (which ToA helped to offset with lasting character impact on the gameworld and character artifacts).

What if the player started out with fewer lives, but could also gain extra lives through racking up points? The player's "score" would take the form of his or her character level, thereby acting like a "high score" ranking table. A high level could be considered a genuine accomplishment to be proud of.

In fact, what if character levels had nothing to do with skills and hp (at least, past a particular level)? What if levels were only about score and extra lives?

Of course, there's a notable difference between MMOs and arcade games that prevents current MMO models from making character levels more like player scores. Some might say levels are already used that way to some degree, but I think most players are more proud of the increased combat power that's associated with new levels than proud of the levels themselves. The troublesome difference between arcade games and MMOs is the player's degree of control over the game encounters.

In a classic arcade game, gameplay is about reaction. Sure, you might be making meaningful choices (like whether to pick up the Splash weapon or Laser in Contra), but you're limited to choosing between things that come to you... not you to them. The player is funneled down a particular path, encountering objects and events that the developer chose for the player to experience at that particular time. The player can only continue pushing forward, overcoming whatever obstacles present themselves, with no expectation of control over where the adventure will lead.

Because MMOs traditionally offer players much greater control over their adventures, the difficulty of levelling up can be determined largely by the player. I could challenge tough enemies, risking death but accruing greater experience-per-kill. Or I could take the easy road, levelling up slowly but safely by killing weaker enemies.

If we wanted levelling to act as a scoring system, we wouldn't want to reward people for tip-toeing their way to the highest scores. A fundamental change would have to be made to the traditional MMO model.

What comes to you
The change is one I would probably make even without this sort of scoring system: take control out of the player's hands.

I would offer some predictable content for a predictable length of playtime. But overall, let players experience adventure as it is in epic stories and all of the great novels they've read. Let them be faced with encounters they didn't choose or expect. Make it more like those classic arcade games in that your (the player's) control is more over what you do with the events thrown your way than over what events you experience.

I love open worlds. It's one of the main features that attracts me to the MMO genre. But being able to journey in any direction and not being bound to one storyline don't mean players must be able to select their game experiences as if from a fast-food menu.

In a less predictable world, players could still choose genres of adventure to suit their moods: urban market, jungle, horror, open sea, mountain trails, etc. They could also be aware of the general range of possible events which might occur in those places, like knowing what creatures inhabit the area. They just wouldn't be able to schedule encounters like they're boxing matches.

Anyway. Obviously, I could go on forever about making MMO worlds dynamic and unpredictable. But the point here is that it would be a necessary step if a developer was to make levels less about skills and power, more about longevity and prestige. I don't think such a system would always be the best way, but it seems like a good option.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Blog tips meme

I think this is the second meme that I've been tagged for. Normally, I hate anything like a chain-letter, but these memes are actually pretty useful. Both times, I've found new blogs to read (as if I keep up with them all already) and found out about another person who reads mine (another whip cracking at my back).

Anyway. So in this one, you add your own bit of blogging advice and star the advice you like. I don't think enough people read my blog for my advice to count for much, but here goes.

1. Look, read, and learn. ***

2. Be EXCELLENT to each other. * (party on)

3. Don’t let money change ya! *

4. Always reply to your comments. ***

5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. *

6. Don’t give up - persistance is fertile. ***

7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***

8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**

9. Keep writing, no matter what, and the quality will follow. ***

10. Stay out of your comfort zone. Take risks, don’t be afraid to look dumb.***

11. Keep to a schedule. People return to blogs when they know they will find something new.**

12. Don’t be afraid to talk about your personal life once in a while.**

13. Be thorough but brief. Some of us read a lot of blogs, and some of us read them between tasks at work or home.
- http://hallower1980.blogspot.com/

Yeah, I should take my own advice, right? =P

The last meme I let die with me, but I suppose I'll tag Chas, Heather, and Sara. I finally get to return the favor.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The hidden city

One thing I have a lot of fun doing is imaging fantastic landscapes and settings. I described one here once before, an ocean city, but I'm thinking I might try to post those sort of ideas more regularly. Maybe once a week. One of these days, I'll train myself to draw. But for now, I hope I can paint it well enough with words (with the help of some internet pictures).

I've always thought atolls are awesome.

Imagine gazing out across a great lake and seeing, in the middle of the lake, a thick cloud of steam stretching into the clouds. From time to time, you catch a glimpse of something past the steam, high above the water, but you can't really make out what. However, you can see a thin stretch of land, like this, leading out from where you stand, across the lake to what looks like a small grotto similar to this (just the stone architecture). The grotto stands just out of the steam's reach, near the center of the lake.

If you were close enough, you'd notice that the grotto contains two massive doors. Those doors open into a tunnel which leads beneath water, forward a couple hundred paces, and up into the city hidden behind the steam.

Remember the part in LOTR: The Two Towers when the Ents break the dam and release the river onto Isengard? Do you remember how Isengard was surrounded by deep, fiery pits, and how the river flowed into those chasms?

There is a fortified city in the center of the lake. All around it (except for the thin strip of land that the tunnel leads through) is a 50-foot wide chasm which leads down beyond vision, at the depths of which is an active volcanic lava flow. Two rivers feed into the lake. As they do, the lake constantly spills into these chasms, resulting in the massive cloud of steam that rises high into the sky and slowly swirls around the city. The steam hides the city, like a great cloak.

From within the city, one can see tall, dark spires. You can see and hear the steam (like constant thunder) that surrounds the city. The cloud blocks out the sun. So, day and night, the city looks the same, illuminated by a thousand lamps and mirrors. Many structures are also covered by a soft glow, emitted by a type of lichen kept moist by the steam. The buildings seem both beautiful and eerie... a twilight effect caused by the strange combination of white shells, abalone, black volcanic rock and volcanic glass in the city's architecture.

Outside the city, the steam feeds the clouds above, resulting in a nearly constant drizzle of rain all around the lake and surrounding valleys.

I'll stop there, but I imagine a locale like that could inspire a pretty interesting culture that resides there. =)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

MMO gamers ain't a separate audience

MMOs often get talked about like their subscribers don't consider single-player genres against their MMO purchasing decisions. The MMO genre might have a unique appeal to a lot of gamers right now, but that doesn't mean we've all got a mentality of "Ok, this game will satisfy my MMO craving, and this other game will satisfy my single-player craving." Many of us, when browsing at Walmart or Gamestop or wherever else, view both MMOs and single-player experiences in one category, as simply "games". If I find a single-player game that satisfies me, then I probably won't buy the MMO until I'm bored with that game.

MMOs and single-player games are in direct competition with one another. The essential difference in style is just one feature. There has to be much more to convince me the game's worth my money.

Alright, so maybe that's stating the obvious. Let's move on to my second point. These genres are merging.

There are already debates about whether the likes of Diablo 2 and Hellgate: London qualify as MMOs (I don't think they do). Defining an MMO's going to get a lot harder over the next 5 years. Interview after interview tells me that most developers (if not gamers, too) now consider online features a no-brainer for nearly any game. Honestly, I'm not the biggest fan of this trend, but it's happening regardless.

Many developers consider strictly single-player experiences a thing of the past. Sure, they'll still design single-player games, but those games must have a multiplayer mode or two... and the multiplayer is what is intended to keep the gamer playing for months. At the very least, the game must connect to a larger community asynchronously (like in Spore, where players affect each other without actually playing together). Why add replayability through game mechanics when the inclusion of other players can do it for you, right? And the number of players included in these games' multiplayer modes rises every year.

MMOs might be special now, but they won't be for long. A lot more games will fall into the grey area between single-player and MMO in the near future.

Art and intuition

I really will get back to that crafting series eventually! I keep getting distracted. =P

The other day, Daniel Cook wrote an article for Gamasutra that just didn't hit home with me.

It's good that people are trying to understand why some game features are successful and others are not. But mostly, this article reminded me of an old presentation by Will Wright and Brian Eno on generative systems (the video's long, but awesome).

One of the things Eno discusses, as I recall, is an academic project that attempted to quantify musical aesthetics and find a scientific formula for making a "hit" song. Predictably, the project failed miserably.

Game design does involve a lot of methodical, analytical reasoning. But it's also an art, requiring an intuitive understanding of aesthetics and the human soul (or psyche, if you prefer).

It's not that our personalities don't also break down into some sort of logic. I believe they do. But there is so much depth and complexity involved that intuition (selective filtering of data into manageable portions) is absolutely necessary.

There's also something to be said for seeing beyond the matrix. If human beings were intelligent enough, we could see the world's countless relationships between objects in a purely numerical fashion. And there's beauty in the numbers. But there's also beauty beyond the numbers.

I could spout off countless reasons why a particular flower is beautiful... like its symmetry of structures and colors, its meaningful imperfections, the processes that keep it alive and make it grow, its defenses against insects or its means of attracting pollinating animals, etc. But no matter how many persons and generations of people study that same type of flower, no matter how much knowledge and technology we accumulate, there will always be something about that flower that we just can't put a finger on.

It's like trying to compare the intellect with emotions. Certainly, the two overlap to some extent, but they're not one and the same. Nail down one and the other may still dance out of reach.

Part of game design is knowing that calculations alone are insufficient. You've got to listen to the voice inside and watch the gleam in your fellow gamer's eye to get the full picture.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Alone together

In a comment on Brian Green's blog, Michael Chui made a great point:

"Notice that, in EVE, I have never heard someone annoyed at the necessity of joining a corporation. It has a lot of "alone together"; my friends and I gang up, but we generally don't do missions together."

In MMOs, encouraging players to group together is just one way of encouraging them to feel like part of a community and act as a member of that community. Soloing often does not mean being anti-social. It means fulfilling your communal role while apart from others.

For most of us, when we go to work each day, there's usually at least a little time during which our tasks do not require the direct aid of others; we might even be more efficient in those tasks without others. But we are still working toward a communal goal, even as that goal coincides with personal goals.

Group-play is definitely important. Sharing experiences can heighten those experiences and ingrain them in memory. But there's a difference between encouragement and strong-arming.

Generally speaking, developers should encourage players to group without forcing them to group. I certainly agree that some goals should require group action, but those goals should generally be directed toward benefiting a community more than benefiting individual players. When dozens of players unite to slay the dragon or destroy the Death Star, it should be for the purpose of promoting community interests (possibly including NPCs in that community), rather than securing loot and xp for individual players.

MMO developers should strive to get players to focus on things beside just themselves. With that accomplished, players can then choose when to adventure with the squad or clan and when to adventure "alone together".

In real life also, friendships often begin by necessity or forced togetherness. But they also commonly begin in other ways, such as speaking with your neighbors (people near you) as you're working or playing separately.

I remember, in EQ2, I made friends with other crafters because we'd gravitate toward familiar crafting stations and those stations were near one another. We didn't work together -- we didn't even trade goods or advice most of the time -- we simply conversed about whatever came to mind as we tackled our individual tasks.

Another way people commonly become friends is through admiration or curiosity. If your crafts/inventions greatly impress me, I might try to meet with you to express my admiration and discuss the craft. If you accomplished a feat beyond those of average folks, I might want to find out how you did it. Or I might just be curious where you found a particular item or got a particular title... even if the game was too dynamic for me to expect to be able to acquire the same item or title. In real life, there's no chance of my being able to acquire a Porsche 911 Turbo or a high-end Martin guitar, but that doesn't stop me from approaching owners of those items and carrying on a genuinely friendly chat about them.

And then, of course, there's non-professional networking. I happened to be friends with your friend, so we meet up and become friends ourselves. Note that, in real life, such meetings are often not based on goals of accomplishment. Perhaps I'm meeting you for lunch, and you bring your friend with you because you want us to meet or because the two of you happened to be together at the time. In this case, the three of us are doing something together, but we are not working toward a goal other than to simply relax and talk.

Likewise, in a game, social networking may arise without any quest, loot or other reward involved. For example: if a game actually made visiting another player's character-house worthwhile, friendships might be made at gatherings which are purely social.

In short, grouping needn't be the backbone of a successful MMO.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

We're all censors

One of the reasons I created this blogsite was so I could organize and store my ideas for later reference. It's useful to be able to retrace my thoughts when a familiar discussion arises. So I hope Brent won't mind if I copy a comment of mine about the Shut Up! We're Talking #5 podcast to here.

The word "censorship" often gets used as if any censorship is inherently a bad thing, so it's important to keep in mind that nearly everbody approves of censorship of some kind or in some area.

When I hear people complaining about censorship of any media (games, movies, books, etc.), the thought that I think is usually underlying their words is that sex and violence are subjects that we should be more free to show or discuss. Odds are, those same people would not complain about censorship in the form of preventing a game from making jokes about "fags" or poking fun at people with disabilities. They also might not complain if censorship prevented games that praised Nazi ideology or rebels killing civilians with bus bombs.

So whenever we're talking about censorship, it helps to remember that what we're really talking about is "What should be censored?" and "How should it be censored?". It's not just uptight conservatives and paranoid parents who call for censorship. You're a censor, too.

Incidentally, I usually don't bother to enter censorship discussions about games, because most internet posters would probably include among those "uptight conservatives". Being a Southerner and an orthodox Catholic, I rarely see eye-to-eye with entertainment industry folks on social issues. =P

Monday, July 23, 2007

How the death of E3 helps us gamers

If gaming news was beer, then E3 would be alcohol poisoning.

At least, that's the way it used to be. The anticipation was unbearable, and the hangover lasted forever. It was like getting so drunk that you're still a little tipsy when you wake up the following morning. And every year, E3 got even bigger and flashier.

So it's understandable that this year's expo, despite being pretty forthcoming in how little it would resemble its former self, left everyone feeling confused and cheated... like someone had filled the party cooler with non-alcohoic "beer" and forgot to mention the switch.

What we lost
For now, gamers don't get another orgy of gaming news. Even when E3's big changes were first announced, devs and gamers alike were speculating that another convention might take its place. But if that happens, it will take at least a few years for the replacement to gain enough gamer attention to convince publishers that it's a marketing gold mine that should be catered to in the same way.

That was the industry's big loss: marketing. E3's increasingly massive scope, both in terms of presenters and attendees, was a point of complaint with many, but it was also the heart of its marketing success. The major non-gaming news networks (NBC, CBS, FOX, CNN, ABC, not to mention newspapers) were only doing stories on E3 because it was such a spectacle. They didn't care about gaming. They just recognized that a mass of thousands of people, crammed like sardines into a blaze of bright lights and thumping music, yelling with excitement over games... that's an image that keeps people from changing the channel or turning the page.

Since the game industry recently surpassed both the film industry and the music industry in sales, mainstream media's giving it more attention than it used to. But it will be years before they pay another gaming convention that much attention. So much for all the publishers' talk about "expanding the audience".

What we gained
More games. Seriously.

Don't you hate those dry periods when there are no new, badass games coming out? (2006, I'm thinking of you) Well, a significant factor in keeping new games out of our hands was E3.

When I was at the Austin Game Conference last year (the only industry conference anywhere near me and within my budget), all the developers I spoke to were overjoyed that E3 was effectively dead. E3 was a nightmare for developers, because they'd have to quit working on the game for months just so they could build the best possible alpha or beta demo or trailer. E3 was marketing gold, so developers and publishers were willing to put their games on hiatus rather than miss a piece of the media coverage pie.

I really mean it when I say they'd stop working on the actual game for "months". That's the exact word that came out of the mouth of many of the developers I spoke to at the AGC or read an interview of online.

MMOs of a size comparable to WoW or EQ2 have traditionally taken over 3 years to develop. That means they would show off their game at more than one E3, each time having to produce a new marketing presentation. And games of every genre felt compelled to show something at E3.

So take E3 out of the mix and that means less pressured marketing timetables, hence more streamlined (shorter) production cycles. Games take less time to build, so we, the gamers, see more of them.

As much as I missed that mountainous clump of fresh gaming info this year, I'm hoping that it will be a long time before anything replaces E3.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Climbing as a puzzle

The other day, Brent asked, "Why are we stuck to the ground all the time?" He was complaining about MMOs that don't let the player jump.

When I read the comment, I didn't think much of it. The ability to jump doesn't seem to make much difference in games that don't involve aiming or dodging in combat. City of Heroes provides slightly more meaning to jumping, allowing the player to take shortcuts to catch fleeing enemies... and maybe even to leap out of reach of melee enemies (though the time-consuming attacks mean the enemy will probably have time to reach you and hit you).

But this morning, something happened to change my mind.

I was playing Oblivion on my 360, finally tackling the main quest line. I've had the game for many months, but I've been doing most of the side quests first. Anyway, I was in the daedra realm trying to close an Oblivion gate and couldn't find the way up to the tower. I had circled my way around the mountain, but the path didn't lead all the way to the tower at the mountain's peak.

Had I thought to look at my map (idiot!), I would have seen that there was a door I passed by and didn't notice. The door leads into a cave path which leads up through the mountain and eventually exits to a higher mountain path, the path that leads to the tower.

But I didn't look at my map. Instead, I thought of my character's advanced skill in acrobatics (he can jump high and far) and decided I'd find a way up the mountain without a path. I scouted a bit for the best climbing route, then started leaping and crawling from rock to rock. More than once, I cursed myself as an idiot, knowing that the devs at Bethesda didn't design the mountain for climbing and there must be another way. But I'm a stubborn bastard, so I kept on for about 20-30 minutes.

I made it! I climbed the side of the mountain up to the new road (where I noticed the door that told me I could have simply gone through the cave path).

So then I remembered Brent's complaint, and I realized that this could be made into a regular avenue of gameplay.

It's basically puzzle-solving. Yesterday, Alex pointed out a cool game called Orbox, or Prachka (the real name's Russian). The player succeeds by finding the particular series of movements which is the only way of getting from Point A to Point B. Mountain-climbing could work the same way.

The developer designs the mountain so that the surfaces flat enough for the player to stand on or grip are arranged in a particular order. Only (ideally) by following the arranged series of points can the player make it to the top of the mountain. The player might find the correct path just through trial and error, but scouting for a path first and planning ahead are rewarded (perhaps just by saving time).

Obviously, each climbing location would be different. Most might be mountains, but there could also be colossal statues, fortifications, and other objects to climb.

If the game includes falling damage or places enemies/traps at the base of the climbing location, then some climbs might be more forgiving than others. One may provide a lot of leeway for error, while another leaves the player nothing but an endless chasm below to catch his fall.

There could be traps or creatures which encourage the player to hurry. Perhaps, if you linger too long in a particular spot, the humanoid beings nearby will start hurling stones at you... possibly knocking you off your ground or grip. Or there might be small avalanches of rocks that the player must time his leap between.

Or there might even be completely random events which the player has little or no control over. While climbing an enemy fortress, there might be a constant barrage of arrows from a battle raging below. The arrows aren't aimed, but the player might occasionally be struck. Another example is a swarm of gnats, or birds upset by someone encroaching on their nesting ground, that buzz around the player's head and impede his ability to see the next griphold or flat ground he needs to progress up the mountain.

There might be character skills associated with climbing. In City of Heroes, there's a skill to improve jumping height and distance. Oblivion has an acrobatics skills with five basic tiers.

Rewards could vary. There might be treasure at the top. There might be an NPC with a quest, knowledge, or skill training. There might be an enemy, perhaps epic or quest-related. And maybe the player isn't made aware of the reward before he starts the climb.

The bigger challenge
Combining this sort of puzzle design with quality artwork in a way that makes the climb location more part of an RPG experience than an arcade game -- that would be a challenge. But the feature is certainly feasible and would please a lot of gamers.

The bigger question is how to incorporate climbing into overall gameplay. Should climbing puzzles ever be required of a player, or is it just optional fun? Should leaping and grasping skills be included so that one player can be a better climber than another, apart from strategy?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Turtle classes

Intriguing title, no? =)

For those of you who don't play many RTS games, there's a playstyle called turtling. Like a turtle, the player hides in his shell (plays defense) until finally summoning the energy to bite your finger (hit the enemy with the massive army he's been building). Basically, it means holding off the enemy long enough so you can crush them with overwhelming force.

I'm a turtle player. Honestly, it's not the most effective strategy, but it works well enough against computer AI.

But where it really shines is as a support strategy when allied with another player. My brother, my cousin and I play Battle for Middle Earth 2 cooperatively. Usually, we play with just two of us in the war mode, but we sometimes play skirmishes with all three of us, too.

RPG turtle power
I've already seen two examples in MMOs. In EQ2, a berserker inflicts more damage as he takes damage (or something like that; it's been a while). In WoW, a warrior gains bonus damage the longer he fights continuously. It looks like Tabula Rasa will employ a similar mechanic for all classes.

In what other interesting ways might this sort of playstyle be applied to RPG classes (or in general)?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Designing for yourself

Sorry for the lack of warning on my hiatus. I took off to visit some family in Alabama and didn't think to mention it until I was already there and occupied.

A week before I left, I went on another trip... to my sister's psychiatrist. I have a sister with bipolar disorder. That and all sorts of other stuff (including schizophrenia) runs in the family. This time, I went for me. I've had a number of rather severe difficulties throughout my life. I finally decided that, since I've only gotten better to an extent on my own, I'd go to a shrink and see if a professional could offer any help I didn't already have access to (I already know a good bit of psychology, so there's not a lot I'm not already familiar with in some way).

Sure enough, the psychiatrist confirmed my self-diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS), among other things (mostly related). AS is a high-functioning form of autism. The doctor's confirmation prompted me to buy a book on the disorder, which I've been reading up on over the past week. Mostly, AS means I experience emotions in a qualitatively different way than most people and that the social aspects of language have to be intellectually studied and maintained, rather than intuitively learned and accessed. There are many other components -- some peculiar, like a hypersensitivity in one or more of my senses (touch, for certain, but possibly others) -- but the gist is that I experience the world very differently than most people and will always be more of an observer, rather than participant, in society.

Like I said, I had already figured most of this out on my own. Because of my awareness of being extraordinarily unique, I've often worried about the challenges this creates for me as a game designer (if only an armchair designer). Are my aesthetic and practical preferences too unique to assume that there is much cross-over with popular preferences? How do my desires relate to those of others?

Brad McQuaid recently caught a lot of grief over his management of the Sigil team and production of Vanguard. A common criticism was that he stubbornly enforced his own "Vision" of the game without regard for the opinions of others.

While I certainly agree that a good designer must be open to the opinions of others and be critical of his own ideas, it's a mistake to always approach game design as a democratic process.

Most of the great musical and literary masterpieces of history were created by lone composers and writers. Many of those master works were accomplished without any peer input whatsoever. Others were fully created, then only honed into a more refined work through peer review. Artists can perform great deeds on their own, and regularly do. Even in the modern industry of popular music, the hit songs of many bands are written by a lone songwriter.

Please note that this isn't to say collaboration doesn't often have tremendous value. As a songwriter who has participated in bands before, I know how collaborating with another inventor can change one's own style for the better and often result in a wonderful mix of strengths.

The point is that game design is not different in this way. If Beethoven could write parts for dozens of instruments to be combined into a single symphony, a game designer can single-handedly design the many mechanics which combine to form a video game. Like the writer's editor, help in honing the original work can be invaluable. But that part of the process is analytical more than creative. It's alright, and even the most successful route, for one man or woman to be alone in creative control (note that control is different than input).

Is it more than possible than a single person's creative vision can appeal to a massive audience? Of course. We see it all the time.

In my own personal experience, I've noticed that the works of mine (music, fiction, poetry, etc.) that are most popular are works I created for myself -- I am the audience. I created something meant to please myself, and it ended up pleasing lots of people.

And if I'm the freak that psychiatrist and everybody else thinks I am, then odds are you can design for yourself, too. ;)

Forget about demographics. Design for yourself.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


I just watched the trailer for Lost Odyssey. It occurred to me how well the central concept plays to empathy... the immortal hero having to face the mortality of his peers and homeland. I don't know how Sakaguchi-san is tying that in, but it could make for some uniquely powerful drama gameplay and not just powerful cinematics.

Imagine a single-player game in which you, the protagonist cannot be physically harmed (meaning not just that you don't experience permadeath, but that you don't fall at all) and, consequently, the goal of gameplay is save and preserve the NPCs, monuments, factions, and other personally relevant objects in the game.

Imagine a dynamic threat system in which the things and character you love can be under attack simultaneously in different areas; and you, the player, must decide which to save as the other falls. Each play through the game could result in a different set of preserved objects and ideals. In a way, it would be kind of like the movie Groundhog Day.

The trick would be figuring out how to allow the player to lose so much but still feel like a winner in the end (though not without still feeling pangs of loss).

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.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Crafting reboot: Part 1

I've tried crafting in every MMO I've played, but I've never found one I really enjoyed. There have been elements in various games that seemed to be aimed in the right direction, like customization in SWG, but ultimately they all fell flat.

In trying to come up with a better system, it seems best to begin with goals, rather than mechanics. So here are my goals (which would change somewhat, depending on the particular game):

  • Creativity: Players aren't merely following set instructions. They are able to discover and combine elements in fresh ways; discoveries involve logic, rather than just trial-and-error.
  • Customization: Crafts can be personal. They reflect personal ownership, influence, circumstances, and/or experiences.
  • Activity: Crafting requires thoughtful action; not simply following instructions or reacting mindlessly in a sort of whack-a-mole mini-game.
  • Utility: Ideally, crafted goods should offer something besides convenience. Control through customization is a good example (i.e., "I could fight through the dungeons to loot a better sword than what I have, but I'd rather commision a sword with that looks and plays exactly as I want").
  • Dynamic Trade: Prices and resource availability will vary with changes in the marketplace and supply dynamics. Markets are regional, with some areas offering items that are cheaper and/or different than those elsewhere.

Now for specific mechanics to reach those goals.

Diablo 2 did something like this with its gems and sockets.

The player could choose whether to upgrade a weapon with fire, lightning, cold, or poison damage -- each balanced with weaknesses and strengths -- by adding a particular type of gemstone. Fire damage is capped low, but the minimum is high, (ex: 3-4 pts) for predictability. Shock damage is capped higher, but has less predictability (1-6 pts). Poison damage isn't instant, but can accrue to massive totals when combined.

Also, each gem would offer different benefits depending on how it was used. A ruby adds fire damage to weapons, but it aids accuracy when placed in a helm, and fire resistance when placed in a shield.

I would love to see an expansive system like this in an MMO. Each type of ore, mineral, plant, animal part, fluid, gas, magic scroll/item/spell, or other component offers a particular property when crafted into an item -- the property dependent on the class of item. Instead of "To craft [x], you'll need gold", you can choose whether gold or another metal better suits your goals for the particular item. If CustomerA wants to enchant his scimitar, silver might offer the highest likelihood of success or the strongest enchantment capacity. If CustomerB wants his scimitar to smash through anything, including locked chests (ala Neverwinter Nights) and golems, you might craft the blade from diamond (with difficulty, perhaps).

The more expansive and diverse the palette of potential components, the more creative, personal, and dynamic items and trade become.

Such a system also allows room for expansions in crafting gameplay. The developer might patch new components into the game from time to time.

Components can vary in basic effect, strength, availability, region, and in a number of other ways. An imp's tongue might offer stronger fire damage than phoenix feather, which in turn is stronger than a particular pepper. But the imp's tongue might be hard to acquire. Phoenixes might be common, but appear in unpredictable locations. If travel is not instaneous (but is also adventurous -- the key to slow but fun travel systems), then component availability and prices might be segmented largely by region.

Note that I listed some crafting components that aren't found in fantasy MMOs yet (to my knowledge), like gases and liquids. By expanding the set of component classes, balancing does become more complex, but the overall system can be made far more interesting and replayable.

Activity and utility are the harder goals to satisfy. For brevity's sake (and so I can think about it), I'll try to tackle those aspects in another blog.

Monday, July 09, 2007

5-minute previews

I was visiting with family over the weekend, celebrating an uncle's birthday and meeting with cousins I rarely get to see. Nobody in my extended family is much of a gamer anymore. And the ones who stopped gaming are outnumbered by those who never gamed. Of course, whenever I happen to have a game at hand that I think has even a small chance of attracting one of these luddites, I jump at the chance.

To sell people on a product when they're only looking at it to be polite, the presentation must be captivating in the first five minutes.

Unfortunately, that's rarely possible as games are today. Odds are, the place you left the game saved or the gameplay with which you must begin the presentation is not the most captivating scene. You need at least 10 minutes just to get to the scene that will make your friend or family drool.

So it's a small thing to keep in mind when designing a game. The easiest way is to include a trailer for the game with the game. So when you want to show the game off to someone -- so they'll play with you, go buy the game, or just understand how anyone could be interested in video games -- you can show the person quickly before that small window of opportunity closes.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Cross-platform games; PC vs 360

A repost of my response to Ryan's blog:

PC vs 360
I own a decent PC and a 360. If a game comes out for both, I generally buy the 360 version (for $10 more) because (1) a console usually more reliable than a computer, with no software interruptions, viruses, etc., and (2) I don’t have to worry about upgrading my graphics hardware. I’ll buy the PC version if (1) the game is better suited to complex controls and/or mouse targeting, or (2) it’s a game I can play online with friends or family who only own a PC.

If Two Worlds has decent multiplayer, I’ll probably sacrifice better graphics for the chance to adventure with my brother online.

As for cross-platform gameplay, I think it makes sense mainly (perhaps only) for asynchronous multiplayer. Spore, for example, would be a good cross-platform game, because the players are only indirectly interacting.

But for most games, particularly action games, the problem seems to be less about fairness than about muddy gameplay. Each control scheme has powerful strengths. To make most games cross-platform, it seems necessary to settle on a middle ground than doesn’t take full advantage of either control-hardware's strengths. Such games aren't doomed by being cross-platform… they’re just made into a lesser experience.

That said, I think Microsoft is probably trying to use the idea of cross-platform gaming to convince PC players to buy controllers; and, to a lesser extent, convince 360 gamers to buy those keyboard attachments for instant messaging. The whole concept may be little more than marketing slight-of-hand.

Toolsets for players

Tobold brought up an interesting discussion about allowing players to craft small, instanced adventures. Then Cameron offered his own thoughts on the subject, referring to some Ryzom feature I'm not familiar with. Well, here's my take.

I would do it much the same as Bioware did it with Neverwinter Nights and their Aurora toolset.

Allow players to to create adventures with complete freedom, but make players host those mini-games on their own servers... capable of handling only a limited number of players, obviously. If the modules are mostly small pocket zones (I prefer that term to "instances"; do a search for my old blog on that subject), then players can host the games for free, like they do with many single-player games. Interested players would download the modules off of various fansites.

Naturally, players would voice their opinions about the modules. Player communities would gradually weed out the poor modules and praise the good ones. Like with Bioware and NWN modules, the MMO developer could simply wait for fansites to point out the real gems, and then incorporate those adventures onto the MMO server.

The developer could choose to charge for the incorporated content "expansions", but the developer's already being paid in a way. By expanding the game, as well as creating publicity about old content, free player-created expansions would both attract new subscribers and help retain old ones.

So now for the catch.

If the player-created content is originally oriented for play off the MMO's official servers, then players must have a program to create stand-in avatars. The player can't use his or her character from the official server, because that would allow exploiting (like levelling up a player and finding epic loot in the mini-games, then importing those advances into the real game). No exporting/importing could be allowed between the official servers and the player-created content.

But that's really not such a big deal, in the long run. A character editor program could be created fairly easily. And if Battle.net was able to prevent the use of edited characters on their servers for Diablo 2, then an MMO developer/publisher could, too (though perhaps Battle.net had less success than I think). Players wouldn't like not being able to use their official characters for the mini-games, but they would certainly accept it if it meant more and interesting gameplay out-of-game and in.

No doubt, some content creators would come up with some interesting peripheral uses through the toolset. Someone might create a WoW sports game, for example. If it proved popular, the developer could reward the creator and make into a new IP. I'm sure there are many inappropriate possibilities as well (like MMO porn). But if Bioware didn't have much trouble with inappropriate NWN modules, I doubt an MMO developer would have to worry about it much more (though that's not denying that there may be important differences).

In short, player-crafted adventures seem feasible and promising. Unless there's something I missed (not unlikely, I'm sure), I hope toolsets like this are in common practices five years from now.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Massively Catan -- RvR

I downloaded Catan onto my Xbox 360 a couple days ago, a virtual version of the board game.

I love it. In fact, I think I've become a little obsessed with it. I'm sure that's partly because the A.I. players have been wiping the floor with me. On Hard and Medium difficulty against 3 players, I think I've won maybe 3 or 4 games out of dozens. It's as much luck as skill, so I don't feel too bad about it... but I confess that sometimes I get that old feeling from my childhood that the A.I. is somehow "cheating" or conspiring against me. It's possible the game is designed to tip the "luck" portion into the A.I.'s favor when you get close to winning (I'm usually ahead before I lose), but for now I'm chalking that feeling up to paranoia.

Anyway. I've been wondering whether features of Catan could be adapted to MMORPGs, and I have a few ideas. Basically, this is how one might complicate Realm-vs-Realm gameplay through a combination of goals and boons.

Players join NPCs factions (ala SWG) to compete over regional control of resources. For example, one mountainous area might be a source for ore. Your faction must gain control of that whole area before you can harvest ore from those mines (possibly just one mine).

Two ore regions might be next to each other, or they might be on opposite sides of the map. Some lands might have some resources but not others (like Freeport missing wool, while Qeynos misses ore), so invading enemy territory is sometimes necessary to supply yourself and sometimes mainly to cut off your enemy's supplies.

There are more than just 2 or 3 realms, and realms can form trade alliances. That, and a small NPC supply of every resource in each region (subject to inflation when not supplies are not matched by player harvests), ensure that no faction is every completely bereft of any resource.

The design would be complicated, but it it might be possible to tie alliances with momentary needs. Rather than faction A and faction B always being allied in trade of everything, each realm's needs will change month to month. One month, you need wool and lumber, so you trade with factions B and C. The next month, you have a surplus of wool and need ore, so you shift your trade alliances to those who have ore or need wool.

It would be best if these changes in need were not totally artificial, if they were tied somehow to viewable dynamics or changes in realm actions and strategies. In Catan, you need bricks and lumber to build a road, but you need grain and ore to build a city. You will need to build both roads and cities, but odds are you can only do one at a time. Your needs change as your focus changes; sometimes in progression of your overall strategy and sometimes in response to your opponent's actions. A similar system would be possible in an MMO.

In Catan, you can spend resources to buy a card. The card will be chosen at random from five possibilities, some more common than others. The cards are Soldier, Bounty, Monopoly, Road Buider, and Victory Point. It's probably possible to work all of them into an MMO, but it probably makes more sense to mimick only a couple.

The Soldier card
This one's the most common in Catan, and it serves two functions: (1) it prevents surrounding villages or cities from producing resources; (2) it seizes one resource card from an opponent.

In an MMO, a realm could spend resources to hire NPC guards for a resource area, limited to some number.

Realms might also have opportunities to steal resources from other realms (as opposed to conquering and capturing an opponent's territory). Each player bears the mark of his or her realm, so everyone's aware of which faction you belong to. Every player may reference some part of his user interface to be reminded of where realm alliances currently stand. Afterall, your realm might shift trade alliances while you're offline. To guard a resource area though, you need only keep an eye out for anyone not of your realm, because even allied realms cannot generally be allowed to harvest from your area (you never know when your ally might get greedy and take more than its share).

Anyway, one realm might send a raiding party into another's resource area. In this case, the "raiding party" label genuinely applies. The party's goal is to take the realm's guards by surprise, defeat them, grab some resources and high-tail it out of there before the guards' alarm brings in more opponent players than you can handle.

Though there is adventuring far from resource areas, much of the game's PvE content is situated near resources to enable just this sort of harvest-guard-raid-conquer gameplay.

The Bounty card
In Catan, this one grants the player two free resources of his or her choice from the bank.

In an MMO, there might be resource drops from boss mobs or other PvE encounters. They don't supply enough of any resource to undercut the Realm-vs-Realm gameplay, but enough to act as a bonus. Such drops may be determined by semi-random loot tables, so a particular PvE encounter might offer ore one time and only weapons and armor the next.

There are probably a number of interesting ways to mimick the Bounty card.

In Catan, each player spends resources to build roads, villages, and cities. A village gathers one resource card per roll (play the game and you'll understand) from the adjoining resource area. A city provides two resource cards per area (improved harvesting). Roads are built to lead between the villages and cities, with each road being exclusive to the player who owns it. You can't build along another player's road.

In the MMO concept, a realm must build on a resource area to harvest from it (or harvest in good quantities, at least). To harvest wool, you'll need shearing houses. To harvest ore, you'll need mines. The realm spends resources to build/purchase these buildings. In addition, guardhouses and other buildings may be built in the harvest area. When a particular combination of buildings are placed in the resource area, it moves from being an Outpost to a Colony. A Colony produces resources at a better rate (perhaps even better quality).

The catch is that competing realms may attack your Outpost or Colony and destroy the buildings (this system would require a lot of balancing, obviously). This is what makes holding a resource area and getting the most out of it difficult.

The MMO might even incorporate Catan's roads feature (though I have doubts about this feature's feasibility).

One possibility is that every realm builds the same type of road, allowing every realm to use the same roads. This way, a realm might attack and attempt to destroy a particular stretch of road because that stretch helps only the opponents.

Another possibility (more similar to the boardgame) is that each realm would transport resources differently, resulting in different kinds of roads... one realm's not useable by another realm. One race might carve a series of streams, which then act as waterways for small boats. Another might use raised stone roads, ala the Roman Empire, for carts pulled by hooved animals. A third realm might use animals with soft feet (like lions) and consequently build softer paths. A fourth might employ a magical hover system (imagine mine carts gliding over rail-tracks like boats).

Careful though
In Catan, it's common for other players (realms) to refuse trade offers because you stole from them or your are too far ahead. In the MMO, too many raids on the same realm or controlling too many resource areas can result in lost opportunities or alliances against your realm.

Anyway, all of this is just off the top of my head, so I'm sure there are a number of problems in the design. But I can't help but think something roughly similar to this could be a ton of fun.

Monday, July 02, 2007


Damianov raised an interesting idea in a comment to my last article:

"Taking advantage of vengeance: how about a death penalty which can be largely recaptured/recovered by achieving revenge?"

You fight an orc. The orc kills you. There's no corpse for you to leave behind (no corpse-runs), but the orc takes some symbol of you or your faction/guild and displays it proudly. Everybody knows... he beat you.

Public humiliation.

Perhaps the orc stole the faction badge that once decorated your shoulder or hung over your breastplate. Now it decorates his armor; a joke at your expense.

Or perhaps he hangs it on a spear, like a banner. You might be able to steal it while he's not looking, but the action takes time.

Perhaps his trophy is kept in a nearby bag or chest. Any other player who digs through that chest will see your emblem, along with every other victim's. The emblem will remain there, a sign of your defeat, until you recover it or weeks pass and the orc throws it away.

Take it back. End your public humiliation, and avenge your death! =)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Defeat is penalty enough

Over at Eyes Like Ours, Ryan raises the old question of death penalties in MMOs. Here are my thoughts on that.

"I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed." --General George C. Patton

You gotta love ol' George. For most people, any defeat, any failure to accomplish a goal that is desired (and not merely required) is quickly followed by a natural sense of shame. The degree of shame varies considerably from person to person, but it's nearly universal where the goal is personally relevant (again, actually desired by the individual).

Not only has the player lost face (in his own eyes, if not in the eyes of others), but he's also lost time. He just wasted the time spent in combat, and probably some time getting back to where he was when he died (assuming he was sent back to some place of safety; I'm not talking about a corpse-run).

And then there's consumables. No, they're not present in every game, but they are common. If you spent a health potion in battle and died anyway, then that potion was wasted. The same goes for purchased buffs, as I recall were common in EQ1.

If the player is pursuing something they really want to do, there's already at least one penalty (shame), if not more. The player's desire is the key: he or she must want to win, not just feel compelled to win by some demand the player feels has been imposed upon him. Hence, developers should focus on ensuring that players are playing, as opposed to grinding. Further penalties are typically just a cop-out, strong-arming the player to care about a gameplay system that is not sufficiently engaging.

The players should care as much about individual battles as they care about becoming more powerful or any other long-term goal. When players perceive their momentary experiences as mere barriers to progression, that's when additional penalties become necessary to instill fear of defeat.

What's wrong with the possibility of a player who keeps throwing himself at the same powerful enemy, only to die and die again, possibly winning in the end just by luck? In single-player games, that's allowed regularly. What makes an MMO setting different? The player has surely not gained some advantage over other players by acting so.

In fact, lack of additional penalties... like temporary debuffs, corpse-runs, xp loss or debt... seems to encourage a number of beneficial gameplay behaviors.

Redemption: The shame of defeat is not a fun feeling. Many players are interested in a challenge, yes, but defeat only equals fun when that defeat can be redeemed through victory. There must be hope of regaining one's honor, in a sense. Lost battles can be swallowed only if they don't cost you the war. Harsh penalties can wear away at hope (particularly xp loss/debt), even if just by pushing the chance for redemption beyond the immediate future.

Revenge: Let's face it, it can be an extremely fun feeling in a game. Personal vendettas are discouraged by harsh penalties.

Personally, I hate systems that allow players to weigh challenges with a high degree of accuracy, but some awareness is good. When people raise the debate over difficulty in MMOs, I'm almost tempted to laugh, because most of these games are already so conducive to the player choosing his or her own preferred degree of challenge (though it requires breaking from the maximist culture that has overtaken MMO communities, and social pressures are not always easy to shrug). Using EQ as an example: If you want a tough fight, try a yellow-con. If a yellow-con's too easy, for whatever reason, just step up to the red-con. If you want an easy fight, try a blue-con. Degrees of challenge are painted for players with sickening precision in most MMOs.

Hence, some players have already been playing at a very different level of difficulty than others. I like to pick fights I can barely win, while I watch many others pick battles they're certain to win. Those different styles have coexisted in MMOs for a decade without any great problem. The players who choose a high difficulty level are often rewarded with higher-value items, because they took on NPCs of a higher stat level.

However, I won't go so far as to say there's no logical grounds for this debate at all. Gamers quite often spoil their own fun, and one way they can do that is by failing to challenge themselves at all.

The catch is that the same gamer may be attracted to different degrees of difficulty from one play-session to the next. There are times when I want a tense encounter to drive adrenalin through my veins, and there are times when I want to calmly use my acquired skills and weapons to walk over my enemies like cockroaches.

Contrary to the article's title, I'm really not suggesting that those "natural" penalties are enough for every situation. However, I am saying that making additional penalties regular, applied to all or most encounters equally, is just not sensible. Additional penalties should be applied sometimes and sometimes not. The penalties might even be divided by category of encounter.

The most interesting additional penalties seem to be the ones most MMO designers have been loath to apply; but perhaps that's mainly because they've been thinking in terms of universal application, instead of one type of penalty here and another type there.

In a Battle for Middle Earth 2 war campaign (War of the Ring mode), losing just one battle can mean losing troops, losing critical Power Points (which the player uses to purchase useful, timer-based skills) or any one of a variety of other bonuses, allowing the opponent to upgrade units and/or heroes, and losing an easily defensible position (perhaps even allowing the enemy access to a completely defenseless territory)... all in addition to the shame of defeat. That's quite a smack in the ass! But a typical loss is more forgiving.

Likewise, it would be alright for an MMO player to be punished much more harshly in one battle than in another. A "boss" NPC might be capable of breaking a weapon, causing a temporary injury (a debuff that's lasts "x" amount of gametime after player resurrection), or even setting a bounty of revenge on players it defeats (some of its minions try to hunt you down). Losing to a particular enemy might cause the player to lose face with the faction that put him up to the fight (sometimes there's animosity for failed saviors).

One situation that might require a different take on death penalties is raiding. If a player or group can't get back to a fight before the opponent fully regenerates (which a game can make automatic at the moment of player/group defeat), then additional penalties aren't definitely necessary. But when the encounter involves an NPC fought by a large militia of players, and the first players to die can rejoin the fight before the last players are defeated, then that's a problem.

Of course, one obvious solution is level design: place the encounter far from resurrection sites, so it's impossible for players to rejoin the fight quickly enough. But the developer might desire to have an epic encounter like this close to civilization. Even then, something like the injury-debuff penalty I suggested earlier would suffice.

It's been a long time since I've engaged in a conversation on this topic. So if there's something obvious I'm missing, please point it out.