Thursday, May 15, 2008

Randomness - Part 1: PvE

Games have two main environments: PvP (Player vs. Player) and PvE (Player(s) vs. Environment). This article, which I guess will be Part 1, focuses on randomness’s role in Player(s) versus the Environment.

If the environment is static in every iteration of the game, there’s often not much replay value to the game. You learn where the monsters spawn, you learn the puzzles, the secrets, and there’s not much left to the game. Certainly if a game is good, players will simply play through it again, often with self-inflicted restrictions (beating Fallout 2 without the use of weapons, for example), or maybe even on a higher difficulty, but again, “Nightmare” is the same as “Nightmare” both times through, so again, there’s not much replay value left afterwards. There’s not a lot of replay value in Half-Life 2 for me, but then again, this isn’t always important. I enjoyed the game the first time through, I enjoyed Episodes 1 and 2, and I plan on enjoying Episode 3 when it comes out. Multiple play-throughs are not required to make a game excellent, but it’s always nice to be able to experience everything again in a new way.

So, if we are looking for longevity in a PvE game, how do we do it? Well, let’s look at some of the successful computer RPGs of our time, and because I’m a Blizzard fanboy: Diablo II and World of Warcraft.

WoW is special in that the designers are constantly creating new content for the game. They create and implement new raid dungeons, add new items into the game, and expansion packs come out every few years. So far this doesn’t count as randomness, they’re simply adding more into the game to get people to continue playing it. As a business model (with monthly fees and all), this makes tons of sense, and players are obviously happy, so this looks like a win-win. It is. But the one thing that keeps this interesting is that the entire reason players are continuing to conquer these forty-man raid dungeons is for the items, and this is where randomness comes into play. If “Super Paladin Awesomeness Weapon X” drops from one specific monster, every Paladin is going to walk over and slay that monster, have their awesome weapon and be on their way. The same can apply to any piece of gear for any character, and the game simply turns into killing this one monster once, grabbing your piece of equipment, and leaving. However, as item drops are random and the good items only come from the raid bosses, we have a scenario with a lot of longevity. People raid every night hoping for that tier (6?) epic drop. The randomness is what keeps the game exciting, hoping for that glorious secondary color to show up.

One thing to note about the dungeons, however, is that they themselves (as far as I know) aren’t very random. I’m sure the exact locations of the monsters and the exact numbers of each of them are made up on the spot, but everyone knows what they’ll be facing, they know where to go. People farm specific gear to resist fire, or frost, or whatever it is they’ll be facing. The difficulty of the encounter drastically lowers after the first iteration of the instance. “Oh, it’s a bunch of fire damage, we’ll beat it no problem next time.” I read an article by a man who said, “If there’s exactly one best way to invade France, just start the game after the invasion of France.” While this is mostly true, if it’s still fun to invade France, who cares? There’s nothing wrong with a linear progression through the level, nothing wrong with players preparing for a specific encounter, as long as the encounter is fun even when players are fully prepared. This fun may come from hoping for that special item drop, it can come from the slaying of monsters simply being fun, it doesn’t really matter. But both of those reasons should be included if we’re to design a dungeon.

Diablo II is a step down from WoW, I suppose. While the most recent patch included Uber-Tristram, allowing players a new unique Charm, the game has been fairly stagnant since. People build for those specific encounters that provide the best items and much of the game involves solo characters running around killing the same monsters over and over in hopes for glittering prizes. Really, this is not different from WoW. Sure, WoW adds new encounters every few months, WoW requires a team as opposed to one person, and WoW even adds in new items to look for to keep it fresh and new, and to make those who are rich keep playing. But the model is basically the same. Kill the high-level monsters with your superpowered character, hope for sweet loot.

One last game I want to mention is a custom map for Warcraft III called SWAT: Aftermath. This is another PvE game where a team of up to 9 players attempt to beat a literally infinite wave of zombies and other monsters while attempting to complete objectives. Much like Diablo II and WoW, there are multiple classes to play with a large combination of special talents to choose from within each role. The reward for completion of the game is a “rank code” which will make your character slightly more powerful the next time through. The codes carry through difficulties, the hardest of which actually require you to have reached a certain rank before playing them. One of the difficulties has actually never been beaten, for what that’s worth.

The way randomness works in this game is actually fairly significant. Most of the map itself, its terrain features and the location of the “Bomb shelters” (required for completing one of the three objectives) are stagnant. However, the location of the Power Plants (another objective), various shops, and the spawning points of the monsters and bosses are all random. This uncertainty adds a lot to the replay value of the game. It forces players into a mindset of preparedness. While we know exactly what minions Baal will spawn, we don’t know when the next Blue Dog, Super Garg, or STNT is going to come around the corner. And if they come one right after another while Mind Slay is on cooldown, well, we’re in a world of hurt. Ultimately this all puts a premium on scouting and map awareness (and thankfully there are abilities for that), and simply keeps the action fresh.

I like that every time you fight the computer something different will happen. It makes it more interesting. I can guarantee you the guys with all purples on their characters don’t really want to fight through BRD again.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


For this article, the majority of the specific examples will come from Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.

In my mind, decision-making encompasses two fundamental points to gameplay: Macromanagement and general army movements. As a brief definition, macromanagement (henceforth, "macro") is the player's ability to spend his resources. The difficulties here are "on what" and "when." Do we make Grunts, Headhunters, Kodo Beasts, an expansion, tech to Fortress, stack gold at 50 food? None of these are the right answer all the time. As economies get larger this question expands itself. We can make a lot of things all at once, and we're probably going to want more than just one type of unit. The second point of difficulty, choice, skill differentiation, whatever you want to call it, is the usage of a player's army. Now, don't confuse this with micromanagement, there's no decision made in whether to micro well or not. However, where and when to attack, what to creep, where to position oneself on the map, these are all decision to be made. Much like the first point with macro, we are making these decisions with limited knowledge.

Unless the game is created in such a way (or through the usage of cheats), we don't always know what our opponent is up to. We usually don't know his exact army composition, we aren't always 100% sure if he's trying to expand, tech, upgrade, rush, etc. What's the difference between a Human player tower rushing you and a Human player expanding? His army's headed to you and not to a gold mine. That's it. No matter how much you scout, your opponent has those two options open with the same opening. Every time. Now, defeating each of those strategies requires different tactics. Clearly you cannot truly build to counter just one of those choices if your opponent can simply change his strategy on a whim, while for the Human player, attempting to fast expand and attempting to tech quickly are mutually exclusive builds in many situations.

So we've established that we make decisions with limited knowledge, but let's try to break down what this means for us as players or designers. First, however, I am going to break down the four main categories that macro decisions fall into:
  1. Unit Production: Pretty straight-forward. Obviously what to produce is still in question, but producing units gives the player the ability to attack, defend, or creep (in some games). These can be to support other units, counter a specific set of units an opponent has, or just be a generally useful unit. A point to players: Think about why you're making this specific unit. What is it countering? What is it adding to your army? Will your opponent easily counter it? Has he already countered it as part of his army? A point to game designers: Make sure players have more than one option for defeating a certain unit. Otherwise undefeatable two-unit combinations may exist: "Unit A" and the counter to whatever counters "Unit A."
  2. Tech: Teching has one purpose and one purpose only: It unlocks other units. Want to stay at a Great Hall all game? Well then you're stuck with Grunts and Headhunters. Want Gryphons? Get a Castle. Sometimes this may overlap with other categories (i.e. Blacksmith allows Riflemen but also allows upgrades).
  3. Expanding: Another fairly straightforward point, expanding allows a player more resources to spend on any of the other three categories. This is one of the riskier options as generally expansions cost a great deal of resources. This is probably the hardest point for designers to perfect: a) Expansions may be the best option always, in which case there's no decision-making behind expanding, it's simply a fact of the game. b) Expansions are almost impossible to put up, though in this case, if the rewards are great, players may build strategies around securing expansions, which furthers the longevity of a game.
  4. Upgrades: Researching an upgrade improves current and future units. There are many ways in which this takes shape: Siege Mode to allow (surprise!) Siege Mode for StarCraft's Siege Tank, Orcish Unit Armor to improve the longevity of nearly every unit in the Orc army, Animal War Training to make Knights, Dragonhawks, and Gryphons more durable. Some may be "one-shot" upgrades, such as Siege Mode or War Training, some may have various levels as with the Armor upgrade. Ultimately, upgrades are an investment in your troops. Barring a few cases, your army will generally perform better with one more Bear than it will with one more level of Strength of the Wild. But since upgrades will affect every unit built, they can be a strong choice in the long run. Players must weigh the improved efficiency for a certain group of units against their need for more immediate improvements in army strength. A player must also be wary of those units becoming obsolete, so as not to waste resources.
Mechanics (such as Warcraft's upkeep system) may affect how strong these options are: Few players transition flawlessly from 50 food (no upkeep) to the 60-70 food range (low upkeep: 70% income) without first waiting for a sizable bank of gold. Undead in particular is known for staying sub-50 until their gold mines near depletion, suddenly surging towards three-digit food counts. Because of "upkeep abuse," amassing upgrades and possibly expanding while waiting at 50 food proves to be a valid strategy. However, unit production is more effective now, so players who stack gold for only a short time can overrun overzealous bankers. In matchups like Night Elf mirror, one of the key components is to see which player breaks 50 food and pushes first and whether his opponent can efficiently repel the attack.

As players, we have to make decisions on what to make and when to make it all the time. 90% of the time, these choices are sort of pre-determined. With the advent of replays and the distribution of common strategies, most players know "make a bunch of Gargoyles against Elf" and "make mass Druids of the Talon against Orc." The answer to "when" is usually "all the time." If you have 135 gold, make a Talon. Sometimes this is interrupted as players purchase Scrolls of Healing, but the macro plan for the game is pretty straightforward. However, even a matchup as "simple" as mass Talons has its complexities. How many Archers does one make at tier 1? How many Wisps? How many Wisps do we replace after building our Ancients of Wind? What heroes to we make? When do we start tier 3? When do we get Adept training? When do we pause for Heal Scrolls? If you're a Night Elf player and you answer is "I dunno" you've got some work to do.

Even without set strategies, or in games where there are set strategies but many possible openings, we have to scout - often. Certainly, effective play requires a "fluency" with the game. You have to know what can come out of Beastiary before you can hope to counter it. Truly top-level players can see small differences: less Peasants than should be expected, another Farm, maybe the lack of an Arcane Tower, and smell "Fast expansion" and make a beeline across the map for a creepjack. All of this comes with experience. Also, as you may have noticed from this paragraph, macro and army movements are intertwined. The counter to seeing less Peasants is "let's go creepjack." Your opponent made the macro decision to expand, you made the army movement decision to find him. Your macro will likely be different as well, maybe fast air to deal with a land-locked opponent, maybe fast tier 3 to secure expansions with (teching for the Tiny Great Hall).

So what's the point of this article then? Two things, I suppose: A word to developers and a word to players; we'll begin with the latter.

Players: If you're trying to learn a game, or a matchup, or a strategy, or a counter-strategy, there's more to look for than you may think. Look through the player's eyes. What is he making? How does this change among other games of this specific matchup? What caused these changes: What did or didn't he see? What about army movements, when does he creep, attack, heal, creepjack, etc? Every change is effected (verb form, look it up (thanks xkcd)) by either a movement or macro choice by his opponent. Every pro player is simply a dictionary of stimulus-counter combined with good micromanagement abilities.

Devs: Obviously we don't need creeps to keep the games interesting (StarCraft, CnC3, etc all work well), but in order to keep games interesting, it's nice to have a sprawling game of rock-paper-scissors to play. It doesn't have to be just with unit counters, but expansions, attack timing (killing tier 2 buildings before they complete is a big part of Warcraft 3. It's non-existant in CnC3)... I guess one thing I noticed, if we are to compare WC3 to SC, StarCraft's army movements are all about the economy. Attacks and defenses are about stopping, delaying, and damaging expansions/economies. Warcraft's are about not only that (albeit much less frequently), but hero levelling, item gains, and the prevention of those acquisitions. I suppose that makes the army movements in Warcraft more complex with more factors that weigh in. Ultimately, when you make a game, it absolutely must have a sort of give-and-take, both with units and their counters, but with overall decision-making, how and where use the army you've built.

As with the previous article, I've recorded a podcast for your further enrichment. All podcasts can be found here.

Monday, May 5, 2008


I've decided one way to help expand my horizons is to play as many games as possible. I suppose that's not much of an illogical conclusion, but whatever. Recently, I started playing the open beta for a game called WorldShift. It's a very interesting title, it combines typical RTS fare - harvest resources, create an army, use the abilities, win the game - with a touch of MMORPG basics. The game has its equivalent of raids: players team up to defeat computer controled armies, and eventually giant boss creatures.

Successful progress in the "PvE" portion of the game nets the player items or "cards" and "xenoshards." The cards come in a variety of strengths, and just like WoW, everyone wants purples. Initially, these cards are given specific slots for specific purposes - this slot upgrades your main hero, each of these 4 slots are for each of your 4 officers, here's some slots for your regular units. However, the high-level cards may affect more than that sepcific unit; you can gain armor, damage, and hit point bonuses to certain units from other areas. This gives us a pretty large degree of customization, we can sort of choose our strategies early on: We can make Brutes much more powerful, or maybe we want more mana regeneration for spellcasting. I really like the amount of pregame preparation that's available in this game. I think it's a bit unfortunate that the "PvP" element of this game requires the initial "grinding" for items, but I think that's what the intention was for the game anyway.

Now I want to stress that this game is really very interesting in its genre-meshing and original ideas. I've never seen an MMO-RTS tried before, and while the players and their armies don't interact unless they're engaged in a "Deathmatch" (1v1, 2v2, 3v3, etc battle) or "Location" match (the equivalent of a raid or instance), I am in love with the continuity of it all. I like being able to say "Hey, I did really well this game, and I have something to show for it." Cards can be gained in the single player missions, raid-like Location games, and the PvP element as well, all of which have their own ways of letting a player excel and extra bonuses.

However, I can't really see this game maintaing any sort of longevity. As far as an RTS goes, it's very, very light. While there are many possibilities pregame with Cards, once you get into the game itself, it's not a very robust game. There are three relatively distinct races. Each of the races has a main Hero-type unit. He spawns at the start, can be revived if he dies, and has a number of abilities that can be buffed with the aforementioned Cards. In addition to the Hero a player has up to four Officers. You spawn with two of them (of your choosing), and can revive/train up to a total of four. There are four kinds of officers with abilities ranging from healing, stuns, direct damage, and buffs. So far this game looks promising, right? We haven't even gotten to the real units. Unfortunately, there are four real units to be produced. Every race has small light damaging melee units, weak ranged troops, and two larger units which generally fill the roles "DPS" or "Tanking."

I talked before about economy management, and I will soon write a few articles about decision making, expansions, teching, upgrades, and the like - "Macro" choices, if you will. Unfortunately the macromanagement choices in this game are simply "what to make" and "how much." We are presented with the choice of making officers, units, or defensive upgrades for our numerous expansions, but that's about it. The maps are generated randomly, but it seems there are about 7 resource sites to take control of between the players (as far as 1v1 goes), and there is no cost whatsoever for claiming them. They are guarded by neutral monsters which must be killed, but considering you don't even have to construct workers to build, let alone man the expansion, I don't think it's a very risky strategy to expand quickly and often.

It seems the game is intended to be paced very quickly. Resources are easy to obtain and both players should be able to constantly produce units throughout. However the game starts to stagnate when we realize that not only are some units close to useless (Dimensional Chain + Nether Nova = instant death to half of the units a player is capable of producing), but we don't even have that many unit choices to begin with. The game seems to revolve mostly around the usage of the hero and officers as the players are also presented with a 30-unit food cap. While the officers and hero aren't subject to this cap, it limits a player to an army ranging between 30 "tier 1" units, and 5 of their big fourth unit. Confronted with the fact that almost every ability in the game is Area of Effect, we're left with a pretty narrow selection for unit production.

The last point I want to address about this game is longevity. While I hope to write more about longevity of a game in general in a later article, I'll address my concerns with this game here. In a player-vs-player environment, a game should always be changing because one can't faithfully predict their opponent's next move. Additional points like metagame and the evolution of strategies always keeps the game exciting - provided there are enough tools to allow exciting new strategies and metagames. With such a harsh limit on unit production and no real decision making aside from "to attack or "not to attack," I can't help but think the game will come to nothing more than 1. Who has the best items, and 2. Who micros the best.

The PvE aspect to the game can be in the same way that Diablo II is still alive and kicking. A variety of difficult encounters that each require their own strategy exist. Players can choose a variety of army compositions just as a player may choose his own skills and equipment. However, I can't help but feel that down the road, it'll be much less exciting. Once everyone figures out the strategies to use - Kill the eggs to the scorpion doesn't heal himself. Leave the other two bosses alive so you get better loot - there's nothing exciting left in the game. After the thrill of "Hey cool I found this sweet item" passes, there's not much left to the game. The encounters are scripted, and in any non-random PvE battle, there will be a "best" way to do something and the game will get old. This would be fine if it just led up to an exciting PvP part of the game, but sadly I don't think that's the case here. It may be fun in the same sense that single player RPGs are fun, but it's rare to see repeat-completions of a single player game unless the player injects his own rules into it.

So there you have it, maybe this reads more like a review than a critique, but I feel like I tried to stay to a theme of "what works, what doesn't." And I love quoting "every" other "word" I "write."

Edit: I've also recorded and uploaded a Podcast for your further enrichment, should you plan on listening. This link will bring you to a folder that holds this and all future recordings when they're uploaded.