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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Monday, December 30, 2013

CANNIBALISM AND DRAGON POOP

"Which came first, the magic item or the enchanter?"

If you don't play any computer games, this piece probably won't have anything in it at all for you except confusion and perhaps a chance to giggle at me.
I've been playing computer games since the late 70s, starting with my friend's TRS-80, and most of them have been fantasy-oriented.  I enjoy fantasy games because my soul seems to have an affinity with the fantastic and magical.  I can remember the wonder and longing I felt when my oldest brother David first told me about The Hobbit when I was very young.
There's an aspect to these games that is very weird and annoying to me, though, and its in enchanting.  In the MMOG EverQuest, there was a class called "Enchanter" which my brother Joel chose to play based on its description. It was said to be a class which could create magical effects and enchant weapons and armor for great power.
It was lying.  They could do no such thing, in fact nobody could make anything of any power.  There were crafts in the game that let you make things, but they were weak and incredibly difficult to attempt.  The parts were rare, some of them were very expensive to buy, and you tended to fail as you tried to make things, which destroyed the parts and sometimes the very equipment you used to create them.
The Enchanter in EQ was an enormous disappointment, and, being Verant/Sony, pointing that out made them not responsive but angry and contemptuous.  You could get banned from their customer forum for noting problems with the game.
So the magic items you could find apparently fell from the sky, like dragon poop, and nobody, anywhere, could make them.  Literally, none of the crafting abilities in the game made anything that anyone in the world used, they were all unique items, not things any store carried or anyone had in their house.
But at least the crafting system in the game made a sort of sense.
In World of Warcraft, the MMOG successor to EverQuest, it got even more silly.  There is an enchanting skill in WoW, not a character class.  Anyone could be an enchanter.  The problem is, there was a very limited, restricted list of enchanting possibilities, for only a handful of items, and few of any real use.
And to top it off, in the weirdest system ever, you destroyed magic items to make new ones.  The only way to enchant items is to get special materials to use for the process, which can only be obtained by disenchanting existing magical items.
So where did all those magic items come from in the first place?  If you have to destroy existing ones to enchant new ones where did the first magic items come from?  Dragon poop again?  They don't even pretend there was some long-lost race of people who could do this once but the ability is lost, they just shrug and wink.
And why can I enchant a shirt but not a hat?  The answer always comes down to shortcuts and illogical barriers to control game balance.  Its easier to control the power level of characters in a game if you keep them from doing certain things and heavily restrict how they can do it.
The Elder Scrolls series was a huge exception to this.  In the second Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, they added enchanting, which followed the same basic principle.  You paid a price and chose from a long list of effects tailored to your desires and got an item.  You could create powerful effects with amazing flexibility.  In fact, flexibility of spells and design was a hallmark of the Elder Scrolls series.  You made what you wanted.
However, in Morrowind, this had changed.  They introduced the concept of the "soul stone" which was used to magically store the soul or life energy of a foe you defeated.  That was then used to enchant items with, and would dictate how good the item was.  Your skill at enchanting affected how efficiently you used the items (such as how many charges a weapon would have with that enchanted effect).  These soul stones were also used to re-charge items.  Further, you could only enchant an item with a spell you knew, which could be difficult to find.
Then Oblivion came out, and enchanting changed again.  Instead of having a huge, open-ended set of possibilities, Enchanting became more limited.  You could only enchant items at specific, limited places rather than wherever you were, and the choices were more limited.
And with Skyrim, the latest in the series, enchanting became even more limited.  And cannibalism rose its ugly head.  Now, instead of enchanting items with any spell you knew, you could only enchant items with effects you learned from destroying.. you guessed it... existing magical items.  Once more we come back to dragon poop.
You have to destroy an item to learn a magical effect which you can then use to enchant another.  And your enchanting skill affects how powerful the enchantment effect is, further limiting its utility.  And since you need to have a certain power level to even get items to disenchant, you can't spend talent points building up your enchanting skill, but you need the enchanting skill to make the items to survive picking up items and... well you get the idea.
And to make matters worse, it appears that this system is being carried over into the Elder Scrolls Online MMOG.  And it appears, based on initial information, that the choices of enchanting are even more limited.  The reason?  Player vs Player, or PVP. This is what always comes to kick you in the teeth in terms of creativity and flexibility in online games, the player vs player combat.
In the single player Elder Scrolls games, Enchanting was a very potent way of increasing your character’s power, though perhaps to an unreasonable extent. In a single player game such imbalance is forgivable, but in an MMO it needs to be eliminated to keep combat fair between players.
Some people - a very few people - love this kind of thing and game designers seem fixated on PVP.  It dominates their design choices, balancing efforts, and often changes are made to the game as a whole to address only PVP.
Almost every MMOG out there has PVP and most have special dedicated servers that are especially focused on PVP.  Those servers are always the least populated.  But game designers all seem to be hardcore PVP guys and so they are very keen on making that work well even at the expense of the rest of the game.
I get that you want to make all aspects of the game fun, so PVP has to be addressed, but it should never impact the rest of the game in any remotest sense.  And that's a basic rule that the designers never, ever seem to understand - or are too lazy to attempt.
Further, the designers are making access to soul stones even more limited.  Now instead of being items you can find around the world, they are specifically limited to special loot and quest rewards.  And from what they say on the official site, it appears that ESO will also be using the "destroy items to get materials to enchant with" method.
Its just ridiculous and illogical, as if they're less concerned about making sense than they are design.  Can't both things be attended to?  Can't design and balance make sense, too?
Balance can be tricky, I understand that.  In the first game Elder Scrolls: Arena you could make any spell you could think of based on some simple fundamental concepts (damage with an element, protect yourself, etc).  I built an unstoppable doom spell based on their system because they had a pretty simple flaw.
You see, in Elder Scrolls: Arena, spells had a mana cost and difficulty based on the effect of the magic.  The cost was based on the initial effect, but if it had a lingering effect, that was quite cheap.  So I was able to build a spell which did 1 point of damage at first then a huge amount every time increment after for very cheap and it would obliterate enemies in short order.  This was a loophole in their design which Daggerfall closed.
I get that you cannot let players easily build their super sword to mow through enemies or the game is not only dull but falls out of whack: Joe Blow is 10 times more powerful than Jane Blow at the same level.
But the concept of "challenge" and "balance" that game designers use is different than what you or I might think of.  FOr example, here's what the ESO designers think about blacksmithing as a crafting ability:
In many MMOs, crafted equipment is often either greatly inferior to gear from dungeons and PvP or so costly to create that it is not worth the effort. To counter this issue, gear created through Smithing needs to be appropriately priced. Materials used in the creation of a crafted tier need to be obtained through completing content that gives equipment of equal or slightly lesser value.
They're right in one sense.  In EverQuest, the results of smithing both sucked and were immensely difficult to attempt.  But requiring people to go through challenges which drop stuff as good as what you can make is ridiculous.  Why would I ever make something if it requires me to go places which drop things as good as what I can make?  Why not just use what drops instead?  I get that you can possibly buy this stuff in some player trading auction house but it is a concern.
And why doesn't expense, time, and difficult of obtaining materials translate into an equivalent to danger?  What I mean is this: going through a dungeon or a hazardous area to obtain crafting materials is one way of creating challenge.  But so is making the effort take time, requiring expensive parts, and requiring searching for those parts. These should be worked out to be equal challenges.
After all, people in the world are making items regularly, but they don't go delving into monster-packed dungeons to do so.  How on earth does that stuff get made?  Further, if you have to go delving into a horrible place that can kill you to make items... then spend money and time to make them... that means the challenge to crafting is greater than just finding an item.  And since they're talking about making recipes harder to find, that adds another level of challenge to crafting.
So crafted items ought to be more excellent than discovered ones, not equal.  They should be the equivalent of the finest stuff you can find, not the average or minor stuff.  However, they do have the right idea in ESO; apparently they have decided you'll be able to make nearly everything that is in the game.
Collecting ingredients and actually making items for crafting should take as long as it takes to find an item on average, including metagaming time like gathering a group and traveling to the location.  And when it comes to time, Star Wars: The Old Republic has a brilliant idea in which your companions are the ones who actually do the crafting.  You send them out to find and make stuff, and that means you can be adventuring while crafting.  It takes 3 hours of real time to make that item, but that's time you don't have to personally spend.
Its just really strange to me that designers keep going back to this well of cannibalism to make items.  It makes no sense at all and seems like an idiotic short cut rather than a well-considered system.  And since I have this particular platform to yell about it on, I decided to use it to get it off my chest.

4 Comments:

Blogger pdwalker said...

warning: stream of consciousness from mobile device

Have you ever tried to balance an economy in a persistent world? I have and we've spent years discussing different ways and means of attempting the only very, very difficult.

The problem with crafting is it becomes an almost infinite source of incoming wealth. Even if you make recipes that use rare, hard to get ingredients, teams will form like a production line and soon everyone will have those items in any number they desire. Make crafting 100% success and it'll only happen faster. Make a chance of failure depending on skill level and people will specialize to reduce their chance of failure to where it no longer matters and you have different people working different assembly lines.

End result? Massive in game inflation where gold becomes valueless. (quick aside: one year, one group of DMs ran in in game auction as part of a story line - after a couple of weeks buildup, the player base in total, through farming and mostly crafting generated over a 100 million in gold - on a low volume server where most of the player base was considered fabulously rich if they had more than 20 thousand gold - it was one hell of an effort amongst the players, and a real eye opener to the world administrators)

If the designers allow any item to be created, then every item can and will be created and those items will eventually flood the server.

extremely rare items won't stay that way.

So designers may decide to make crafting suck. People who want to role play will stick with the crappy crafting system and make the rubbish that no one wants outside of role play reasons.

It's a hard, hard problem that I don't think there is an easy solution for. Persistent worlds have to constantly spawn in new stuff (infinite wealth production). Players farm them, or farm them and turn them into more valuable stuff (more infinite wealth).

The only way designers have to deal with this problem is to take out as much wealth as they bring in. Hence the rules on using magic items (destroy = wealth removal) to create magic items.

Other systems use "wear and tear" to remove wealth, but players hate that because "What do you mean

Find a way to balance an economy, and you've removed any excuse on why a crafting system has to suck

please note that these observations only apply to MMORPGs, not single player games where infinite wealth generation never really has time to become a problem before the end of the campaign.

5:36 AM, January 13, 2014  
Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

The continuous, infinite flow of money into a MMOG is a problem in a lot of ways, but the truth is there are a lot of other ways to pull money out of a game. Taxes, fees, expenses such as food, costs for exchanging money (not every single gold coin should be the same mint and origin, those elven coins or the ones from 1000 years ago in those ruins may not be accepted in every city, etc). Its a question of being creative, but the easy way is to just put in money and time sinks.

Something else about the nature of a MMOG helps: what was once the hot item suddenly becomes unwanted and old by leveling up, so people don't make as many.

7:53 AM, January 13, 2014  
Blogger pdwalker said...

but the truth is there are a lot of other ways to pull money out of a game

In spite of all the ways no one has yet come up with a workable way of doing it that doesn't annoy the players to the point they leave, or creates more problems than it solves.

Is it in impossible problem? Maybe not, but my group has been implementing and testing different ways for 10 years now, and we are still not there.

It's a perfect example of the difference between theory and practice.

No, we've not yet given up.

12:40 AM, January 14, 2014  
Blogger Christopher Taylor said...

I've played a lot of MMOGs all the way back to Ultima Online and not a single one has implemented or started with the ideas I suggested.

People argued that paying for repairs would enrage players, but people shrug at it. Why? Because the money isn't theirs, its game money, and because the rest of the game is entertaining enough. If the rest of the game is fun, then having some of your money go away for various incidental costs is acceptable, even part of the fun, if handled correctly.

The biggest flaw with the enchantment/trades system in games is that the designers seem more interested in balance and controlling the game than producing something that makes sense and is fun to use.

That and the apparent fixation on PVP which dominates game designer thinking to the expense of the rest of the game.

8:48 AM, January 15, 2014  

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