Thursday, July 9, 2015
Player Action vs System Action
Writing about the Marvel Heroes MMO got me thinking about MMOs in general. Now, I'm not a big MMO fan. My gaming experience started with table-top pen-and-paper role-playing games (D&D of course). It was a few years later when I'd get my own computer, a Commodore 128 (yeah, I'm that old) and I started playing computer games. Through that, and the 486 PC that followed, I'd mostly play computer RPGs, which were the closest to the pen-and-paper RPGs I was playing with my friends through High School. So ideas like controlling a whole party, exploring and mapping, leveling and customizing each party member to work as a group were the sorts of games I played.
Years would pass before I got another computer, a P4 Windows XP desktop (which was sweet at the time). I started playing a slightly wider style of games, like Diablo 2 and Master of Orion 2, even The Sims 1. When I stayed with my friends I was introduced to the Xbox 360 and games like the Borderlands first person shooter and the Mass Effect FPS/RPG hybrid. At the same time we started playing Pathfinder, after a decade-long hiatus from PnP RPGs. I dabbled with MMOs a little, playing EverQuest 2, Age of Conan, and a little World of Warcraft. Aaron and Sara would get me seriously playing The Lord of the Rings Online though.
LotRO was a very interesting game. I first played on my friend Matt's computer, as a Guardian (tank) that he had as an alt (he liked the Minstrel). When I started playing the game myself, I made the same thing - a new Guardian, and got him pretty high, to about level 40 (I think the level cap was 80 back then). He was okay, but as a tank his focus was on drawing aggro from the party members - so his damage output was not great, I could take a beating but it also took minutes (that felt like hours) to kill anything and everything; and when I didn't play with my friends I had no use for half of my skills. Then came the Warden.
The Warden was one of two classes added to LotRO (the other was the Rune-keeper). Classes in MMOs in general, and in LotRO at the time, tended to be very specific. The Guardian took aggro and survived the damage. The Hunter had the high damage output. The Burglar and Lore-master did crowd control (with the Burglar doing some burst damage too). The Minstrel healed everybody. There was a Captain class, which had a sort of flexible role, but by and large each class had a specific job in the party. It was the Warden who ended up becoming the true jack of all trades.
The Warden used a very different mechanic from anything else in LotRO, and honestly in any other MMO that I've played. Combat was based on a two-tier Builder and Gambit system. You started with 3 Builders: the Spear, the Shield and the Shout. The Spear did some damage to your opponent in melee (Wardens started weak at ranged combat), the Shield gave you a 10 second buff to your defenses and the Shout generated aggro. Each Builder you used was put into a queue, and when you had 2 or more, you unlocked a Gambit. So Spear-Spear created a Gambit that did extra damage. But Spear-Shield created a Gambit that interrupted your opponent's action (some monsters had 1-2 second inductions, if you interrupted them they lost their action - if you didn't they got off a super-attack). And Shout-Spear created a damage-over-time Gambit. As you leveled up you learned the 3-Builder Gambits and then 4-Builder Gambits.
This gave the Warden incredible flexibility, they could focus on damage output or limited crowd control or defense - eventually they could even heal the entire party and drain life from a group of enemies. The catch was that you had to plan ahead. Each Builder took about a second to execute, and the Gambit took another second - so it could be 5 seconds from when you started until you triggered your desired effect (which is actually quite a long time in a fight). You had to constantly be looking at the direction of the fight, at what you would be needing soon, and building your way towards that. On top of which, you had to remember all the Gambits. When you used a Builder it went into a special part of the UI, and it would show you the Gambit you had currently unlocked - but it wouldn't show you the other possible gambits. That was in a list in your skill panel and you just had to memorize it. So playing a Warden required a lot of thought - it was the opposite of the button-mashing, basic rotation that most MMO classes use. But, there was a quest early on where you have to get attacked by a group of bandits. More bandits patrol the area and likely some will join in on the fun. My Guardian, who was built to withstand all kinds of punishment, was killed. My Warden took them all on and walked away. I even soloed elite monsters, who were over-powered for their level, and who were several levels higher than me to begin with. He was my only character who got the achievement for making level 20 without dying. He was, in a word, awesome.
Two things about the Warden that prompted me to write this post.
First, it got me thinking about Player Action vs System Action. (hey, I did finally get around to the title of this post :) Every game, from pen-and-paper to computer, has a split between the work the player does and the work the system does. In most pen-and-paper games the system picks up a lot of the work. The player decides to attack, and then the numbers already chosen at character creation and the numbers rolled on the dice take over to determine the results. But then there are more story-based games, even diceless ones, where the player may still roll or bid to gain the ability to narrate the results of the fight. In computer games, even in the first-person shooter genera there is the difference between directly aiming and auto-assist (when the game will fudge where you were aiming as long as it was 'close enough' to an enemy). How much the player puts into each action and what the system handles automatically determines a lot of the feel of a game. This includes decisions - if the game only offers one possible attack, that's mostly system action; but if the player has to choose between dozens of options, that's mostly player action (like Warhammer 40k or any tactical miniatures game where the number of pieces under player control creates a lot of player action, and there are very simple rules to cover the system actions).
So what, you may ask? What does it mater if the game is more system or player action? Well, that hits my second point. See, the Warden I have described was the original one I started playing in 2010/2011-ish. Since then they have revamped the system. A lot of abilities that were standard Gambits are now parts of a skill tree system, which has the effect of narrowing the Warden's previously unlimited choices. The new skill tree focuses on making you play as either a damage or tank or ranged fighter, simplifying the playstyle for those who might have found it too broad and confusing. In the process however, it reduced the enjoyment of the class for those of us, like me, who thought the system was perfect to begin with.
Feeling matters. If you loved the player/system split in a game, and then that dynamic changes in an update, DLC or patch (or new edition) - well, there goes that good time. And this matters to me because as a game designer, who is currently hacking 13th Age and FATE, I want to give my players a feel that they will enjoy. I want them to make meaningful choices, to help build immersion in the game and attachment to the character - but I don't want to overload them and give them more than they are comfortable with. Complicating the issue is that each person has a different sweet spot for how much work is too much. Most people seemed to think the Warden was overly complicated, I thought it was a refreshing breath of fresh air. So how do you build in some flexibility, some give and take, to let people still be equally useful while maybe using different levels of player vs system action? That is a good question, and a very hard one to answer. Part of that difficulty stems from the fact that we sometimes don't know what we'll enjoy until we try it. I had never played a class like the Warden before, and so I could not have articulated for you beforehand what I would like to play.
One of my dreams, back when I first started working on the idea for my own RPG, was to have three different levels of rules. Each "Ruleset" would be built on a common core, but each would have a different amount of complexity. The simplest would work at a high level, describing everything in broad terms, while the other two would get more focused. Take this example: at the top end you have the idea of "Crafting." Under that umbrella, there could be classes like "Metalsmithing" and "Woodworking." And even under a class there were still more specifics- a "Metalsmith" could be an "Armorer," "Weaponsmith" or general "Blacksmith." That final layer is about as detailed as it's worth going, and it really presents a much clearer picture than the layers above it - but they all nest together in a way, and they all cover the same basic concept; that the character is capable of creating things. Ideally, I thought, this would give each player the ability to be as broad or as specific as they wanted in describing their character - to find their own sweet spot of detail, and still use similar numbers and a resolution system that could let two different levels of detail interact. It was a nice dream, and a real pain in the backside to try to make into reality (getting one set of rules working right is a challenge, getting three and then having them interact, was a challenge to the 4th power).
Still, this idea has stuck with me. If you look at the market there is a wide variety of style of rules and balances between system/player actions. Even the continuum of Microlite20 <-> 13th Age <-> Pathfinder shows a lot of variety in a few essentially related systems. Really, this is just some open brain-storming, hoping that if I try to consolidate my thoughts into a post it might knock lose some great new insight. Sadly, no luck so far. But this concept, and what it means for the games I'm working on and playing, is something that I think bears consideration. It would be great if everybody could play in a style that they felt most comfortable with yet still all fit together. It might be an impossible dream, but it is a nice dream.