Monday, 9 July 2007

Combinatorial, my dear Watson.


Priest: "There's the Ogre lord, attack in the name of the king! And his foxy daughter!"

Warrior: "Raaaaarghhh!"

Ogre Lord: "Puny fleshpods, me smish you!"

Warrior: <Holds up a finger> "Oh, hang on a second, I'm not sure if this is the right weapon to be fighting ogres with."

Priest: "What?!"

Ogre Lord: "Guards! Hit oomans wit yer hurt makers!"

Warrior: <Rummages through backpack and pulls out an abacus> "No, that's not the right one, that's for orcs." <Rummages some more, littering the floor with abacuses> "Ah ha, here's the ogre one! Right, I just need to calculate my DPS average and then we can perform a reverse linear interpolation based on his percentage health to determine overall hit points!"

Priest: <Surrounded by four angry ogre guards> "Mother."

Warrior: <Takes a swing at the ogre lord> "A hit. A most palpable hit! How are you feeling now? Would you say that you're feeling ninety five percent healthy? Or perhaps it's more like ninety two percent?"

Ogre Lord: "Ow, yoo make my not-left-arm bleed! Raaaagghh!"

Warrior: "Hmmm, right arm is bleeding and he's pretty steaming angry, we'll call that eighty nine percent." <flicks some beads on the abacus> "Good news, I think we can defeat him in another ten rounds of combat!"

Ogre Lord: "Yoo never stop me, I are in der vincey ball!"

Priest: <Dodges another ogre guard attack> "Just kill him already!"

Warrior: "Your crown will be mine in a mere ten hits, and then the king's daughter will be rewarding us tonight in ways that are illegal in four other virtual worlds!"

Ogre Lord: "Actually old chap, I fear you've made a slight miscalculation. You see, I'm actually a mountain ogre, whereas you've been using the spreadsheet, sorry abacus, for standard ogres. We're an entirely different phylum, and quite unique in our general power and ability".

Warrior: "Really?"

Priest: "For the love of all stereotypically, misogynistically portrayed horny king's daughters, stab him and then help me!"

Ogre Lord: "Indubitably my dear boy. Look, here's the correct abacus, just take a quick gander".

Warrior: <whistles in admiration> "Impressive! Says here that you guys can hit for anywhere between one hundred and two hundred hit points!"

Ogre Lord: "Most certainly, but you're using that abacus with the armour bead over to the left which indicates a plate wearer such as your good self. If you move that bead over to the right..."

Warrior: <Flicks a few beads and calculates> "Good grief, it says that even a standard mountain ogre guard can hit a cloth wearer for anywhere up to one thousand hit points in a single shot!"

<Ogre guard hits Priest for nine hundred and ninety nine hit points of damage. Priest dies>

Ogre Lord: "You'll also see that in the notes section there's a calculation which shows that an ogre lord generally has a retinue of two ogre guards."

Warrior: <Looks up from his abacus to see four angry ogre guards surrounding him> "Waiiiit, that's not two guards!"

Ogre Lord: "My dear fellow, it is a fallacy to rely on the exactitude of numbers."

Warrior: "..."

Ogre Lord: "Bash im in der noggin boyz!"


Numbers, numbers, numbers. Can we do without all the numbers? Would it be possible to remove the numbers from the fore of MMORPGs, and would it make for a better game?

In current MMORPGs, everything seems to come down to spreadsheet crunching: this weapon is better because it does 0.2 DPS more in an offhand which has a swing timer that is 1.5 times that of the main hand; this spec is better because it allows an extra 20 mana regen per second whilst achieving a mana efficiency rating of 35% return on investment over a period of ten years at an amortisation schedule of three monthly intervals (terms and conditions apply).

In combat you already have the con system. You have the enemy's health bar. Why do you need to see how much damage you're doing to the exact hit point? Sure, have flashy effects in the game for critical hits and the like, because these are exciting things that should feel powerful and meaningful, but don't show every little numerical detail of how the combat is resolved.

If you break it down to the raw numbers, show the roots that feed the trunk of your game, you remove a large chance for immersion, magic and mystery.

There are a many examples of games where you aren't presented with the raw numbers, yet the games are fun and involving. I was playing Resident Evil 4 on the Nintendo Wii again the other day, and you don't even have enemy health bars in that game. You know what? It actually adds to the tension and enjoyment of combat: have I put enough shots into that guy to take him down? Is he going to get back up? Should I waste some ammo making sure? Do you think he'd mind if I took his jacket? At a basic level of abstraction, if you need to show that the ogre lord is really rather tough you can reflect it in the health bar, make the size of the bars relative such that a warrior facing off against an ogre that has twice as many hit points will see that the ogre's health bar is twice as big as his, he'll get an idea of how much effort it will take to defeat the enemy but it won't be an exact science involving slide rules and logarithmic charts.

The developers will still have the numbers in order to balance things and, you know, be able to create a working computer game, but abstracting these things away from the players seems like a way to make the game more than just Logistical Spreadsheet Combat Simulator IV. A sword which gives +Str and +Stam, could instead simply 'con' green to a warrior, and red to a mage. You could further adapt the 'con' of an item based on what the character currently has equipped. If the sword mentioned earlier gave less benefit to a warrior over his currently equipped sword, it would con orange or red to him, indicating that it wasn't an upgrade. Would the lack of focus on stats ruin it? Is it about making the power of an item tangible, evident to others so that you can show it off or work out exactly how many Pico seconds less it will take to kill a given mob? Could the fact that it's the most powerful weapon you've discovered on your adventures so far be enough?

Numbers allow people to min/max which is a form of enjoyment to some, but they also allow people to discriminate against those who don't min/max. Removing the numbers could be used as an attempt to remove a level of elitism from these games, when such elitism is so unwarranted.

Pen and paper games use dice rolls to simulate whether lady luck is smiling on the character, and stats are used to represent a characters abilities, because that is the way that seems to work best when you have to perform combat calculations yourself. But now we have these computers, and they can do all these complicated calculations of hit rolls and bonuses and skill point adjustments for us, so we should be able to sit back and enjoy a good game; except that the tradition of PnP was brought over wholesale, without perhaps considering the nature of the medium that they're being brought to, and thus computer based RPGs are heavily reliant on presenting the player with numbers when they could be put to better use in obfuscating the numbers and presenting us with a game that does all the hard work of calculating if another +1 to Charisma is really going to make the pot-belly dwarf barbarian succeed in seducing The Countess Snootington.

For the curious the answer is no, the seduction still failed. It might have been something to do with the fact that he was twiddling his nipple piercing whilst attempting the seduction. Hey, it works in the local tavern, how was I to know that it was considered bad form at the royal court?

3 comments:

Shalkis said...

As much as hiding data might help immersion, secret calculations in games with multi-million audiences tend to stay secret for a very limited amount of time. Take the threat mechanic on World of Warcraft as an example. Blizzard did not tell players that healing causes half as much threat as damage, or that ranged classes can overshoot the tank's threat by 30% without pulling aggro. They figured out all that by themselves.

Personally, I consider hidden formulas to be a form of security through obscurity. If there really is a balance issue, it is discovered and thus corrected much faster when the formulas are known by all. 100 000 players can try out scenarios and discover the flaws much faster than 100 developers.

However.. one could make an addon (similar to FlagRSP), which would obscure levels, hitpoints, damage and other statistics for extra immersion. This solution would leave the choice to the individual player instead of trying to make a one-size-fits-all system.

Melmoth said...

Blizzard did not tell players that healing causes half as much threat as damage, or that ranged classes can overshoot the tank's threat by 30% without pulling aggro. They figured out all that by themselves.

But why did they feel compelled to figure it out? Why is there this need to know precisely what effect you're going to have such that you can then write an AddOn that flashes a warning at you to tell you that you're about to gain aggro, for example. These AddOns are more often than not added so that players can exceed the intended performance of their characters, and the game developer then has to spend time investigating them, seeing if they're game breaking and then removing them if they are. It's 'cheating within the rules', if you like, players find ways to improve their character that are outside of the game's original framework.

I guess when I say remove the numbers, what I'm really getting at is that we need to remove the desire to concentrate on the underlying mechanics of the game to the nth degree rather than just playing the game for what it is, not to spite people who like to explore the mechanics and not to turn games into a nanny state, but because turning MMOs into places where a player is rejected because they took a certain power or developed their character's abilities in a certain way, and they have been 'proven' to be inefficient or broken.

Personally, I consider hidden formulas to be a form of security through obscurity. If there really is a balance issue, it is discovered and thus corrected much faster when the formulas are known by all. 100 000 players can try out scenarios and discover the flaws much faster than 100 developers.

But in actual fact what those one hundred thousand players are actually trying to do is find a flaw that they can turn to their advantage. Any notion of altruistic debugging through 'many eyes' is a fallacy, there are exceptions that prove the rule, but in general the first and foremost reason is to gain an advantage, be it over the game or over other players within the game.

However.. one could make an addon (similar to FlagRSP), which would obscure levels, hit points, damage and other statistics for extra immersion. This solution would leave the choice to the individual player instead of trying to make a one-size-fits-all system.

I agree entirely that a 'one size fits all' solution is non-trivial, but I don't believe it would be impossible. Certain players will always want to gain an advantage, will always want to know exactly how to extract the absolute maximum performance possible from their character, the trick is to turn this behaviour around and make it so that these players want to know the world they're playing in - through exploration and adventure - and to make hacking the game (and I use hacking in the proper sense there, not as in cracking) less socially acceptable or even required.

City of Heroes tried this, they had little to no numbers to start with, but these days it's nothing but spreadsheets and DPS calculations. Is the game really better for all the effort that has had to go into making sure that power X does 15 DPS rather than 13.5 DPS?

And the solution doesn't necessarily have to be through obscurity, it could be that a game's mechanics could be made too complex to calculate via a spreadsheet, or too unpredictable. Take knock-back powers in City of Heroes, for example. When you hit a mob, a knock-back effect will occur and the enemy will fly through the air and bounce off of walls and objects and land somewhere, but it would be very difficult to precisely quantify that power's ability to knock-back.

Maybe obfuscation was the wrong suggestion; perhaps randomness would have been a better way of expressing things. Make things more unpredictable, make it so that you can't learn an encounter then generate a spreadsheet and an AddOn, and then basically zombie-walk your way through that encounter forevermore because it's 'done'.

heather said...

I'm... I'm...

I'm so stuck on your example that I just can't move on to the actual discussion. My brain is spinning its wheels on the image of a warrior with abacus calculating damage during combat with an ogre lord. Bravo! Very amusingly evocative.