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.


ashalar said...

"So, if we are looking for longevity in a PvE game, how do we do it?"

I don't really think there's inherently much longevity in a PvE game, besides just continually increasing the enviroment. I mean the PvE of WoW is pretty much the same concept of every traditional RPG (Jade Empire, Final fantasy etc). You eventually get tired of AI.

Obviously you labelled this part I because you intend to talk about PvP, but I think PvP is the main way to keep a game interesting. Players themselves produce the most interesting replay value in competition and require very little on the part of the developer(after the game is finished), besides making things balanced.

It can be fun to fight NPCs with complicated AI, and even multiple times, but eventually people are going to figure out a way to manipulate the situation insofar as the most complicated AI will become easy to defeat.

btw, I got confused about your quote about France

nathan said...

I like where you're going with this but like ashalar mentions the randomness model isn't unique to blizzard games. Its intresting to ponder WOWs success vs. other games in the genre. "The hope of that glittery tier x item" is a feature of all the MMORPG games but where WOW differs is in the methodology and specifically the frequency of possitive reinforcement that its players recieve. I consider this to be one of the main drivers that has propelled WOW to dominate the market. Quests, leveling time, items drops, "active discovery" ..everything happens at a faster pace compared to EQ etc.. This is a simplification and there are of course other factors seperate from the PvP realm that contribute to the games success

Anonymous said...

::longevity in a PvE game

Games like GTA seem to manage this with no multi-player aspect to them. The complexity of the model (game) is sufficient that a player enjoys messing around with different parts of it.

To simplify it, think of other, RL games that people play. Such as solitaire, it's only fun while it's still a challenge, while you're learning tricks to enable you to win. Or kids playing with toys, once a kid has achieved a certain level of mastery with a toy, like Lego or play-dough, then the interaction is no longer stimulating. The term "easy to learn, hard to master" comes to mind when I think of games and activities which hold peoples attention for a long periods of time. If a game was sufficiently complex, people might remain interested their entire lives to increasing their abilities in it (like a martial art or other hobby for some people).

Markus said...

Hi Phreak!

Nice article, I think you nailed most of the fun-factors of the PvE in the games you described.

I don't know if you really want crits on your stuff, but as I understand it you ultimately want a job in the game industry, so I would recommend you to talk about non-blizzard games once in a while. The industry is full of Blizzard fanatics and they don't really stand out or impress much.

Another thing that crossed my mind is that you didn't mention the reason(s) for people to hunt these items in various rpg's. Maybe you will cover that in the next part of this article. It's an interesting subject to say the least, it would be interesting to hear your opinion on it.

Trivia: The core game play of both WoW and Diablo 2 is basically a rip off of the old Dungeons & Dragons RPG's. It's weird when you think about it; pen & paper-rpg's has evolved far from the basics of Dungeons & Dragons (as well as other game genres), but most MMORPG's haven't. Why is that? :)

Out of curiousness; What kind of position are you looking for in the industry? Game Designer? Writer?

Keep up the good work! I'm impressed by your work since most people in gaming says they can analyze games and game design, and says they could do a better job than most, but they never do. You're doing it, and you're doing it well :)

qoou said...

Hi Phreak,
hope u still read this after u artilcle was written a while ago.
I think that in almost all games there really exists nothing like "PvE". Raiding everyday the same contet seems like assembly-line work to me, and in my opinion noone does such a work 4 free.
So what reward do these millions of players await? Suerly not to proof that they are better then AI, but that they are better then all the other ones playing the same game. So the only diffrence between wc3 and wow is the definition of "playing better" and not the diffrence between "pve" and "pvp" ( even if there is some pvp contet in wow i would say that it is basically a pve game, if u dont consider that for me there is no real "pve").In my opinion in wc3this means that u really spend alot of time practicing and mb once a day u become really good. In wow on the other hands u only need to spend alot of time to become good, there is no real practicing, no matter how skilled u play WoW u will always loose to someone spending twice the time farming his imba items.

Said all this i want to apologize for my bad english and i hope i can hear u thoughts about my opinion.

P.S: i really like ur blog and the stuff u do @ going