Rewarding the Character vs Rewarding the Player

It’s hardly possible to move these days in an MMO without tripping over a slew of new rewards. Emblems, xp, gear, badges, pets, titles, gold, cosmetic clothes, house decorations, mounts, achievements, quest unlocks, and so on – and with every patch, the list gets longer.

And yet, not all rewards are equal. There’s been a slow and ongoing trend in MMOs to reward the player rather than the character. I’ll give some examples of what I mean by this.

Rewarding the character means that you get something that will help with character progression. When you are levelling, almost all the rewards you get in game are to do with character progression. The xp, the new gear, new abilities, talent points to spend, being high enough level to travel to more interesting places and unlock new quests, for example. All of these things are about character progression and your character’s story.

Rewarding the player is a different kettle of fish. Rewards may add extra gameplay options, or more ways to interact with other players. They might simply be avenues through which players can compare achievements or satisfy those collection itches. So achievements, cosmetic pets and clothing, fluff, fun, and anything that doesn’t really operate in the same sphere as character progression falls in here.

So far, so good. Older games also included many of these player rewards, but they tried harder to tie everything to character progression also. So for example, in City of Heroes, if you get the right set of titles, your character gets some stat bonuses. Moving away from that era is a very distinctive and definite shift in approach. And it solves a lot of problems. Because if players could be gotten to concentrate more on player rewards than character rewards, then character progression could slow right down.

The problem of character progression

Character progression has been an albatross around the neck of MMO devs back since the MUD days. It’s not an issue with single player games, but there are specific problems with multi-player games. For example:

  • How do you pace progression so that the hardcore and casual players can all be satisfied?
  • How can players interact with each other when they are at different levels of progression?
  • How can a new player cope if they come into the game a couple of years after the start? Will they be too far behind to catch up?

Interestingly, we didn’t have this problem to quite such an extent in MUSHes. But that was because they were such social games, and your character’s power level wasn’t as important as who your friends and contacts were. And that’s worth remembering, because it is one solution to progression that hasn’t really been explored.

The other problem with character progression is that players adore it.

Many many games, not just RPGs or MMOs, are based on the idea that a character starts off weak and defenceless and gradually gains more power, knowledge, and tools over time until they can defeat some kind of final challenge. Character progression is a powerful story tool, and it’s also the most basic, the most primal story in the world. It is the story of life. We are born weak, we grow up, we gain knowledge and power, we make friends and relationships. (And then grow old and die but games don’t explore that side of the story very deeply, which is a shame.)

Character progression in MMOs is painfully basic. The story is mostly killing monsters, getting loot, selling said loot on the auction house, maybe learning a tradeskill, and interacting lightly with the same quests as everyone else. And once you have finished levelling, the progression has nowhere much to go. It’s because our character’s stories are so weak that we treat the rewards as so much candy. Another day, another piece of gear. Ho hum.

So at endgame, it isn’t surprising if devs want to shift to player based rewards. Creating more character progression is hard, and although tentative steps have been made towards player driven character progression in games like EVE (I’m thinking of proper virtual politics and the player council) , that’s not really how game developers have been thinking.

The great advantage of player rewards is that they don’t affect game balance or do anything mechanically to put up extra barriers to prevent character interaction. They also foster a different type of social dynamic, and one that is potentially less character based.  And yet … yet those pesky players adore their characters and their character progression. They want to tell more stories about those characters, not just the endless ‘I did instance X 13 times last week’ or ‘I ground out Y points in battleground Z’.

So it makes perfect sense for devs to try to move away from character progression. The problem of endgame might not exist if the rest of the game wasn’t all about levelling and progression. The question is, will better designed player rewards help to dissociate players from their characters?

And next year Bioware will debut Star Wars: The Old Republic, with their emphasis on story as the fourth pillar of gameplay. Will they be able to find a way to keep telling stories after the levelling period is over? Or will their game also dissolve into a mass of achievements, cosmetic pets, and random fluff?

Another day, another wallpaper

Yesterday saw two upcoming MMO teams with announcements about classes and races, complete with trailers and fun stuff to download like wallpaper for your PC.

Guild Wars 2 presented a video showing their races. This is fantastically atmospheric stuff with great voice acting (Dragon Age players may recognise Oghren, and fans of The Guild will recognise Felicia Day), and the stunning art direction we’ve come to associate with Guild Wars.

There’s a website also, which is where you can check out what a female Charr looks like and download wallpapers for each race. It certainly did the job of making them all look fun to play, I think I’m torn between the Charr and the viking shapeshifter dudes. I can’t decide also whether people who come from the frozen north should be wearing more clothes — I remember seeing girls walking around in mini-skirts in Newcastle in Midwinter when I lived there, so maybe they just get acclimatised.

The Star Wars team ‘announced’ the Jedi Consular (well, announced in the sense of making official what everyone already knew), a class that looks to be taking silly hats to a new height.

They also offer a wide selection of wallpapers on their site — a couple for each announced class and some pretty landscapes from different planets as well. Although their style is not as high art as Guild Wars, the Star Wars team make up for it with some amazing flash animations of the different classes in action on their class pages – the Jedi Knight is a particular favourite.

So, game themed wallpapers, do you like them or hate them? I am one of the people who rushes to download these things when I find them, and I love having cool game related art on my PC.

But despite the artier Guild Wars pictures, it’s the smuggler who sits in pride of place on my wallpaper at the moment. I admit this is mostly because I find it easier to locate my icons on a dark background.

SWTOR: Jedi, Jedi Everywhere (and all the stars did sink)

Hurrah for Europe and for publishers who don’t realise that in these internet-enabled days, even a magazine article in *gasp* a foreign language will be translated and spread all over the net in a matter of hours. Thanks to german magazine “PC Games” (PC Spielen?), the final two classes have been revealed for Bioware’s upcoming Star Wars MMO.

As Massively report in the previous link, Bioware did confirm that the Jedi Consular and Sith Inquisitor will complete the lineup. They have chosen to keep the numbers of classes small, and have stated that each class will have its own personal epic storyline.

So, what do we have on offer? I’m going to run down the list and make some assumptions about the styles of the storylines and what sort of role each class might play in combat. I am assuming a holy trinity based game, I love Dragon Age as if it was my own child, but Bioware’s strength is in storytelling and producing awesome gaming experiences, not in reinventing the rule book.

Republic

Trooper

“The fate of the galaxy rests upon ordinary men becoming extraordinary heroes. This is the path of the Republic Trooper.”

The Knights of the Jedi Order have defended the Republic for generations, but they have not fought alone. A host of unsung heroes have marched at the Jedi’s side—common men courageous enough to enlist and face the same risks as their Jedi comrades despite not having access to the Jedi powers of protection.”

It sounds as though this storyline is all about how ordinary guys and gals in the Republic special forces become extraordinary heroes and end up fighting alongside Jedi and … err.. smugglers. The gear has a strong military flavour.

As far as their role in combat goes, the official site has this to say:

“A Trooper’s rifle is his best friend, and the military is constantly challenged to design faster, more powerful and more reliable blaster rifles every year. Wielding such rifles and wearing protective battle armor designed by the Republic’s top engineers, the Trooper will not hesitate to step right into the crossfire.”

Sounds like a mostly ranged class to me.

Smuggler

“Stacking up enemies as fast as they stack up credits, Smugglers only survive in this galaxy by being slick, sneaky and street-smart.”

“Experienced in flying under the radar, Smugglers are amazingly elusive. Yet when backed into a corner, they quickly become cunning and often deadly combatants.”

OK, so the smuggler is Han Solo. Since he was the coolest character in Star Wars, that’s not a bad thing, and it  gives a good indication of the sort of storylines to expect.

For the role in combat:

“Smugglers often rely on the element of surprise, using stealth and trickery to catch opponents off guard. Despite the sly tactics, they are more than capable of holding their own in a fair fight.”

So it’ll be roguish, probably with some tricks and traps, but the flavour text sounds as though they prefer pistols to melee.

Jedi Knight

“A source of inspiration to allies and intimidation to adversaries, the Jedi Knight’s presence is welcome in any confrontation.”

“With unwavering allegiance to the Republic and the light side of the Force, the Jedi Knight fights with valiant determination, wading into the thick of any battle to protect freedom and democracy and hold fast against those who oppose it.”

Wading into the thick of battle to protect X  and Y, and hold fast against Z screams tank to me.

The combat tactics section reads:

“Whether defending allies by deflecting a barrage of blaster-fire or charging in to challenge a Sith Lord, the Knight’s role is crucial in any conflict.”

Defending, charging in to challenge nasty Sith Lords … it’s a tank. I have no idea where the storyline might unfold for this one, but I’m thinking Knight at King Arthur’s Court for the style of story and moral dilemma.

Jedi Consular

Not one but TWO Jedi classes on each side. We don’t have much information about this class yet, but it is known to be a ranged heal/ CC type of support class.

Sith

The Sith classes  sound stronger than their Republic counterparts — maybe to encourage players to pick the side they haven’t seen so much about in the films.

Bounty Hunter

“In the bounty business, one’s name is everything, and with each mark a Bounty Hunter takes down, his reputation grows, as does his price.”

Well that pretty much sums up what I’d expect in the storyline.

Tracking elusive targets across multiple star systems requires expertise, especially when the targets can be prominent, powerful, and often prepared for confrontation.”

“Bounty Hunters are renowned for their versatility on the battlefield and their ability to go toe-to-toe with force-users.”

“Whoever they must face, however, the Bounty Hunter comes armed with the most-advanced weaponry on the black market, packing heavy firepower but always keeping a variety of tricks and gadgets ready to go.”

It certainly sounds more flexible than the poor Trooper who only has her rifle to fall back on. The Bounty Hunter here sounds like a strong dps class with lots of tricks and gadgets up her sleeve.

Imperial Agent

“Agents of Imperial Intelligence track down and eliminate the Empire’s enemies—from intractable Republic senators to traitorous Imperial Moffs to bloodthirsty rebels with Republic ties.”

Though there are few idealists in Imperial Intelligence, the art of professional perfection is held in deep reverence, and the Agent embodies the Imperial ideal in this respect.”

So you’re going to be Evil James Bond if you play one of these chaps.

“Though striking from a distance or from the shadows plays to the Agent’s strengths, a well-equipped operative is more than capable of evading his enemies when necessary or moving in close to quietly slide a blade between an opponent’s ribs.”

Again, the Agent sounds like a more flexible class than her Republic counterpart. They will be stealthers, with some ability for assassination, and also have ranged capabilities.

Sith Warrior

“Sith Warriors crush their opponents and stride toward their goals with dreadful determination, leaving ruin and annihilation in their wake.”

A natural leader in any context, a Sith Warrior inspires both fear and undying loyalty into his followers and allies.”

It’s a tank.

“Protected by heavy armor and his powers of intimidation, the Warrior wades into the thick of the fight and unleashes pure hatred and fury to eliminate all who would stand against him.”

Huh, the Sith Warrior actually gets heavy armour. Well that screws up the plans for total world domination via robe.

Sith Inquisitor

The other newly revealed class, as with the Consular we don’t know a lot about this one yet. But it’s likely to fill a similar role.

Keeping down the Jedi numbers

So I think that all the Jedi are actually going to be support classes in this game. The Knight and Warrior will be tanking classes, and the Consular and Inquisitor will be support. The non-jedi will make up the bulk of dps and stealthers.

You have to admit, that’s quite a smart way to keep the numbers of Jedi limited …

Looking at trailers

There have been a lot of games going through open beta events recently (Aion, Champions Online, Gatheryn, lots of others which I haven’t been following) or releasing trailers to keep fans excited about releases that are yet to be dated (Cataclysm, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, Guild Wars 2, etc.)

Aside from being bowled over with the excitement of it all, what sort of information do you look for from a trailer, or from playing a beta? Is it mostly to get a feel for what the game is about? What the lore is like? Whether it’s a virtual world you might want to be a part of? How the graphics look? Just enough to decide if you want to buy the box and see more?

Or are you more interested in the gameplay? Do you want to see how the combat plays? How grouping might work?

The Star Wars trailer boasts 20 minutes of developer walkthrough with actual gameplay. They sold the vision with the last trailer, this time they’re showing off how it might look when you play it. (I have to say though, I was momentarily distracted by the Wolfenstein trailer at the beginning. Nice voice work on that but you can’t really go wrong with undead nazis.)

I enjoyed the trailer, I like the sense that they’re willing to sit back and let the game speak for itself. It isn’t as exciting as some of the others but it looks real. I also noticed that none of the characters were female or non-human other than some NPCs. Presumably they haven’t finished those models and animations yet. I also loved, “I’m just going to wave to someone, that’s what you do in multi player games.”

Check it out, especially if you’re interested in some of the thinking that goes on behind the scenes and want to see the Sith Warrior in action. Unlike the WAR trailers, I think showing real in game footage lends the devs some extra credibility.

Just like Han Solo

Do you think it’s possible that there are any smugglers in the Star Wars universe who are *gasp* not either Han Solo, or exactly like him?

Me neither. And if you had any doubts, check out Hal Hood’s developer post about smugglers. As a thought experiment, try two different readings:

  1. Add ‘just like Han Solo’ to the end of every sentence. Read in awe as it continues to make perfect sense.
  2. Add ‘just like Han Solo, but without your pants!’ to the end of every sentence.

OK, so we get it. If you want to play a character like Han Solo, play a smuggler in SW:TOR. And .. well bad luck if you didn’t, I guess. They do sound fun though, and now I’m wondering if Jedi really will be the most popular class in the game after all.

Jedi may see things before they happen, but Smugglers always shoot first.

And after all, who doesn’t like Han Solo?