• Game Design,  MMOs

    Game Development: The B Team

    At lunch I read a post which I thought was very interesting, by Elder Game: The Warcraft Live Team’s B Squad. There are a number of game designer blogs that I read, since I’ve always been very interested in the art and craft of making games and virtual worlds, and this is a good one.

    In this article, he talks about changes in Warcraft development and game balancing caused by the original “A Team” developers and designers being assigned to the new MMO, and the second string taking over maintenance of the game.

    This is exactly the same thing that I’ve discussed over the past months with friends and guildmates: Warcraft has seen a lot of wild swings since WotLK in regard to balancing classes, and it feels a lot more random than it has in previous expansions. Hunters are (obviously) quite important to me, and they’ve been yanked all over the place.

    A: Hunters are TEH AWESOME DPS!!!!
    B: We must change that – hunters are doing too much dps.
    *hunter dps goes straight into the toilet*

    A: All raiding hunters are beastmastery!
    B: We must balance the trees better, give hunters more of a choice!
    *all hunters are now Survival. Those who really enjoyed BM cry about it, but they’re Survival, too*

    I don’t understand the wild swings and the drastic changes that make it off the test realms and into the live client, before devs realise that the changes were too drastic and must be re-balanced. Surely you nudge something a tiny bit to see what happens, before you make a huge change?  I’m not a game developer, but it just seems logical to me.

    The article goes into the experience, and finesse, needed to balance human issues like fun and enjoyment along with more quantifiable things like class balance. It’s a fascinating look into what it’s like to work on an MMO like Warcraft, and why the things that we all QQ about on the forums actually go wrong when designers get too close to their pet issues and no longer see the larger picture.

    I’d love to be able to get insight into why problems that we fight with every single day cannot be fixed – why is it so hard? For instance:

    Why can they not, after all of this time, fix the pet cower bug, and the problem with pet talents turning themselves off if they’re not on the pet action bar?

    What exactly IS the issue with ammo?  Why should a hunter have to spend so much more gold per raid than any other member?  Raid-quality arrows are damned expensive, and then you have your flasks and food and repair bills. I couldn’t raid right now even if I wanted to (if we’re working on new bosses, that is) – I couldn’t afford it for more than a couple of nights. If you admit that the costs for hunters are too high, surely it’s not a horrendously difficult fix?

    Anyway, a very interesting article on what happens behind the curtain.

  • Game Design,  MMOs

    Virtual Worlds

    Keen and Graev had a couple of posts which really got me thinking: What is your favorite thing about MMORPGs? and What is your ideal MMORPG setting?

    The things that I really like about MMOs, not necessarily in descending order, are:

    1. The feeling that I am a real person, in a real world.

    Character customisation is a big part of feeling as though I am playing a unique character – I have to play around with that area until I get exactly the right look, and the right name.

    Feeling that I am in a real world is a bit more subjective…sometimes I couldn’t tell you why one world felt real, and another didn’t. LotRO never felt “real” to me – although I know a lot of people who thought it was quite immersive. It just felt too sterile. Warcraft, even though the graphics are very stylised, always felt like a real place. I remember the first time I saw a wolf run after a rabbit and kill it…I was enchanted. (Noob moment, I know.) I’ve been in Barrens in the early morning, when the dawn light is just creeping across the plains, and that felt very beautiful and very real. Add a herd of antelope, and it was a perfect gaming moment.

    2. I like being able to solo but still feel that there are people around me.

    By choice, I solo. I hate pickup groups, I don’t like grouping with people for quests unless it’s impossible to do otherwise. But I definitely need to know that there are other players around me…I hate single-player games. I want to go into a city and see crowds of other people – even if some of them are goldsellers and most of the rest of them are jerks. ;)

    3. I like the idea of roleplaying.

    Do you see how I qualified that statement? By choice I’ll roll on RP servers. Since all my successful characters are “people”, they’ll usually have a backstory and a definite personality. I could roleplay them quite easily…but I usually feel like a tard doing so. Stupid, I know – but I’m shy.  :D

    4. I like hunter-type pet classes.

    My favourite class is hunter, hands-down, and it has everything to do with the customisable nature of your pet, and the synergy between character and pet. I’ve played other classes, like warlocks with demons and mages with spirit pets, and while it’s nice to have a pet to tank, you still don’t feel as though they are real entities. Kitsune levelled to 70 with her boar Ennui, who was her very best friend and a big part of her backstory.

    I’d love to see another hunter-type class in a different MMO.

    5. Raiding/Instances. Hmmnn…that’s a love/hate.

    Perhaps because I raided for so long, I’m totally burned out on raiding. But there was a time when I was in love with the fact that 40, or 25, or whatever people could come together and work in concert to do difficult things. I absolutely loved it.

    I like small instances as well – as long as I can do them with friends. I loathe pickup groups. (I have the worst luck as well – if you’re emotionally defective in some way, or any type of idiot or asstard, I’ve probably pugged with you.)

    6. Exploration.

    I love exploring new areas – I’ll have sessions where that’s all I’ll do. I especially love games like Warcraft that kind of fill in your map as you discover new areas – it feels as satisfying as filling in your map with stickers as a child.

    7. As for MMO settings…

    That’s a tough one. I love fantasy MMOs, although along with the rest of the world I am bored with the traditional high fantasy races: elf, human, dwarf. I’d like something new.  Gaming is escapism for me, and fantasy tends to be highly romanticised (I probably spelled that wrong), so I do like fantasy.

    I also read a lot of science fiction, and I love sci-fi in games. EVE felt like a real environment – the whole experience was gorgeously done. I was less happy with not really having an avatar, though. I’m looking forward to Walking in Stations. I was really, really excited about the Stargate MMO, and was bitterly disappointed that we’ll probably never see it. I think that may have been the perfect sci-fi MMO for me – so many gates, with different environments and encounters behind each one.

    So what about you – what do you like best about MMOs?

  • Art,  Game Design

    Game Design Excercise: Shadowland

    This is going to be an ongoing experiment in game design. Don’t ask me why I couldn’t have started this when Top Sekrit Project first went under, and why I didn’t spend all that stressful unemployed time being productive, because I don’t know. I suck. Anyway, this will be an exercise in creating the concepts for a mythical (in that it will remain a concept only) game so I can play with design documents, art concepts, and so on…and perhaps get back into some 3D work.

    I’ve always loved “secret door” fantasy. Books or movies where the lead character finds a wardrobe in an empty room, a secret staircase, the magic book, etc., that leads them to an alternate reality have always been close to my heart. (Someday I’ll find one of those doors – I’m still looking!) So, we have puzzles to solve, and secret doors to find, that lead into other worlds. Perhaps a mechanic like something from The Chronicles of Amber would be interesting…where you shift your reality from shadow to shadow to travel. Perhaps a treasure hunt mechanic where you collect the needed bits that will allow you to overcome the final challenge. Perhaps that’s derivative, boring and cliché…probably. :/

    It won’t be multiplayer. I’d like to continue working on the challenge of creating browser-based 3D environments, building on the work that our team was doing in X3D. Although my Flash skills really do need honing…that would probably translate into a more job-related skillset, since very few companies are trying to do anything with X3D.

    So:

    • Secret doors that have to be found, figured out, in order to travel and open alternate realities
    • Something that feels like dark fantasy, without elves or unicorns or vampires…something different. Maybe throw some steampunk in there.  :D  A touch of Goblin Market, or Coraline, with an intrepid girl heroine
    • Single player
    • A series of small worlds, rather than sprawling large ones
    • Talking animals, we definitely need talking animals

    Ok, I think I need to sleep, I’m getting punch-drunk.  :D  But it will be fun, once I’m awake enough to think about it properly.

  • Game Design,  Personal

    The Importance of Usability

    I’ve always been passionately interested in user experience and usability design. My formal job title is Web Director, meaning project manager of large-scale websites. In actuality, I do a lot of design and branding, SEO, fairly junior-level coding (I can do some simple functions, or if we’ve done something similar, I can rework that for a different purpose, but I’d never call myself a senior developer), information architecture, etc.

    I form a picture of what the end result should be, how it should function, what users will want from it, what the KPIs are, and perhaps most importantly, how we can make it fun. Then, I start writing documents which I call functionality specs, which are the starting point for how each area will work. The information architecture work involves determination of what areas are most important to the user, and then dividing those into smaller chunks, which forms the wireframe of the site. My background on ecommerce sites stands me well here: customers want to find products quickly and easily. You break products into large chunks, such as “Electronics” or “Home & Garden”, and then into smaller sections from there. You create alternate paths for people who aren’t sure what they want, such as “Gifts for Dad” or “Web Specials”.

    Most importantly, you make sure that the really important stuff hits you in the face. My Account. Login/Register. Help/FAQs. Contact Us. Things like that. (EA Store, are you listening?) You make that important stuff accessible from every single page, so the user never has to hunt for it.

    You also make the site as accessible as possible. Clean and simple is the mantra, even on very rich/complex sites. If what you create is not clean and simple, you have failed. This applies to code, to graphics, to unneccessary bells and whistles. Accessibility has a lot to do with web standards and validation. Unless this is your art portfolio, never create a site in Flash. Personally, I browse with Firefox, with a NoScript addon to avoid drive-by keylogger installation. If your site is so larded with shinies that I can’t access it without enabling everything, I’ll probably bypass it.

    Which leads me to my Warhammer experience. I’ve just spent an hour googling how to find my access key now that headstart is over, since the EA Store and GOA sites are so full of fail. This is not an hour spent in resolving the issue, mind you, it was an hour spent FINDING HOW TO GET AT THE INFORMATION. Ridiculous.

    This whole experience has been a very good illustration of a number of sins:

    1. Never, ever code informational and especially account-related sites in Flash. Duh.
    2. EA Store, why bury login and account information so deeply? That is one of the most important things to have on your homepage. Finally discovering where to log in didn’t give me account information, just personalisation information as though I must perhaps want to use your site as a social networking site. I finally found a link to order history beneath a well-buried FAQ section. Sheer stupidity and total fail at usability.
    3. Always have official forums. Yes, you’ll collect a lot of asshats. But people like me will have a place to go, rather than having to wade through fansites where users try to help each other (since no one is available to help us officially).
    4. Talk to your customers, and give them a chance to talk to you. I felt as though EA had a take-the-money-and-run ethos. I have a problem – listen to me, and take care of it. Don’t give me a web form as my only contact area that doesn’t even list the game that I am having problems with.

    Well, rant over. Final words?  Hire me, damn it.  There is obviously a need out there for people who know what they’re doing.  :)

  • Game Design,  Game Reviews

    A Horse of My Very Own

    Today I was doing research into what is possible in horse sims for a potential client. I’d heard of the Pippa Funnell games, and Mary King’s Riding Star, but I was hoping to find examples of online games. Riding Club Championships fits the bill exactly…for anyone who loves horses, or anyone who is still a twelve-year-old girl at heart, this is a VERY fun game.

    It looks good, and the horse and rider animations are extremely realistic and fluid, much better than I would have hoped. There are practice exercises, competitions, and a thriving community on the website. All in all, I would give this a 10/10 for what it is. I think that we would have trouble matching this within the timeframe that we are likely to have, which is a reflection of how truly good this is.

    I really enjoy playing games at work as research, btw…that totally rocks.  :D

  • Game Design,  MMOs

    Treasury of the Ancients

    Last night I took Dravven to an instance called Treasury of the Ancients. You access it through doors set into the desert floor near the Pyramid of the Ancients in Khopshef. This brings you into a very dark and atmospheric hallway lined with black granite columns and rows of statues in oxidised copper or blue stone. This was one of the best and most atmospheric small encounters that I’ve ever experienced in an MMORPG.

    You walk down this long hallway, between the rows of statues, looking around yourself for mobs. The entire place is silent as the grave, aside from a large female figure dancing slowly at the far end of the hallway. Failing anything else to do, you walk towards her. As you pass the statues, you seem to see flickers of movement out of the corner of your eye. Did that one move back there, or was it your imagination? Very creepy and tense.

    As you get close to the dancing goddess at the far end, the earth shakes and your way back is blocked by two stone figures. As you go back down the hallway, you hear a grating of stone, and in ones and twos the statues come to life and slowly approach you. The first time it happened I actually squeaked, it surprised me so much.

    Extremely well done, terrific atmosphere…I loved it.

    Edit: here’s a video that doesn’t really capture the creepiness of it, but gives you an idea of how it looks.

  • Game Design,  Personal,  Warcraft

    What it’s like to be a game developer

    I found this at lunch (presently eating a microwave meal at my desk. Oh, sure, the package said Antony Worrall Thompson on it, but he should be more careful what kind of crap he puts his name on. Could have used more flavour, more seasoning, and a hell of a lot more f-words) via the Madness & Games blog. Awesome. Classic. Perfect.

    There was a photographer here this morning taking pics of everyone to accompany an article that they’re doing on the site. (Yeah, duh, of course we didn’t tell them about the current financial crisis – maybe an angel will swoop down from VC heaven and throw wads of cash at us. You never know.) We all grinned like monkeys and posed in front of screens showing the site. Meh…one for the scrapbook, alongside my “Women in IT” articles.

    Not sure what I’m going to do right now. Get my personal site up and running again. Redo my CV. Start answering my mobile (I neverever answer calls from employment agencies, they’re always for programming languages I don’t know -and yes it DOES make a bloody difference- or for jobs at the other end of the country, or for “designer” jobs. Yes, that’s part of what I do…but pays a third of my salary.) Anyway, I need to start looking.

    I signed up for Mt Hyjal tonight, and am on the reserve list. I don’t really have the gear for it, having switched mains so I could play my hunter. I haven’t read tactics or anything yet, so am admittedly unprepared. I just feel so blah about everything.

    But spring is finally here, there are daffs out and the sun is (mostly) shining, so that is good. I always feel more hopeful in the spring.

  • Game Design,  Personal,  Warcraft

    Morogrim Down

    morogrim_down.jpg
    Morogrim goes down!

    Quote of the night?  “Man, I’d forgotten how much I hate murlocs.”

    Today I am duplicating 3D models for avatars, and skinning them. At this point in our X3D development, we’re not able to dynamically load a skin file, a hair shape, a texture for the hair, then the clothes, all separately, and still animate it. It’s being done as one single x3d file, one single texture file.  Do you know what that means?

    7 male models and 7 female models. Multiply by four different skin shades.  Multiply by seven different hairstyles. Multiply by seven different haircolours.  (I don’t know where the seven thing came from, it just happened.) Multiply that by as many outfits that I can skin by Friday.

    You think it’s not going to happen?  Yeah, me too.  :(

  • Game Design

    X3D Economy

    X3D areas, which are viewed as part of the page in a browser, have to be small. There is the potential for browser freezes at worst, and poor performance at best if the file sizes are too large. A single model of a sofa, for example, might be 300-500kb. Huge.

    Our approach has been to simplify everything as much as possible. Save on furniture model sizes, so you have more to “spend” on avatars. All of our furniture has been redone as very simple, fat, squashy shapes with no frills. If something isn’t made to be interacted with, like a chest of drawers that can’t be opened, we’re modelling it as a flat surface, and the drawers and pulls are painted in the texture. This could be boring…or we can be as creative as possible within those constraints. The blocky chairs are skewed, all at off-kilter angles. Trees will probably be flat, like stage-prop trees. Everything will depend on the art direction…if the style is right, then it will work. If the art is wrong, then it will be boring.

    This is an area where anyone who has a background in working on high-volume transactional sites has an advantage – you’re used to being as creative and innovative as you can, within the constraints of bandwidth, validation, accessibility, etc. It’s very good training. Given enough cash and manpower, working with Unreal Engine (starts at $350,000) would allow you to create literally anything in near-perfect realism. It’s much more of a challenge to be creative within a tiny, cramped box of what your technology actually allows you to do.

  • Game Design,  Personal

    Companions in Games

    And in the spirit of total ignorance of self-preservation, I decided not to let the lovely leftovers of my seafood feast go to waste. I had it for lunch again today.  :)

    I’ve been doing some work in preparation for adding pets to the project.  Initially, it will be a pet with a simple set of animations, and the user will be able to upgrade their pet based on their xp level.  I’d like to make the pet interactive in the sense that it reacts when you pet it, thus increasing the happiness level.  Eventually, I want to add pet companions to the virtual world.  I see them as guides and advisors, but also as creatures that need to be taken care of (much in the way that hunter pets work in WoW).  The pet AI would be able to give simple FAQ-type information, and guide you to certain places (again, similar to the way that city guards do in Warcraft).

    And then come horses and other mounts.  :)  They would work both as a pet that needs care, and also as a mini-game (grooming, feeding, taking quizzes from horse trainers on horse care, conformation, etc.).  You could explore the countryside on your horse, or show it in virtual shows.  The 12-year-old girls would love it.  And would they come in pink sparkles?  Need you ask?  lol…

    I’m very blue today, speaking of horses.  I had to meet with my vet again yesterday, and he’s going to do more scans of her leg.  But he was making these non-committal forays into preparing me for what was likely to come, such as “The prognosis for recovery isn’t very good, to be honest.  We’ll do more scans, but you should start to think about what you want to do.”  Poor Lizzie.  I think about the morning that we found her so ill, when I had barely walked onto the yard and as soon as she heard my voice she started screaming. My Lizzie, the psycho mare who hates everyone, and I’m her safe place.  I’m also the one who will have to do this for her, and be there at the end.

    That was a bit of a personal story getting off the topic, so back to pets in game.  I suppose that I started wanting to add pets after seeing the Fable 2 pet videos. The dog was stunning.  I fully plan on buying and playing Fable 2 now just because of that dog.  How cool would that be?

    Everyone needs something to love.  Some people, some kids, need to learn how to love, need to learn about care, responsibility, and the effect that our actions can have on helpless creatures.  A pet mechanic in the game would be a great way of doing this.