This is an attempt at a taxonomy of style choices I've observed in CRPGs (I still refuse to call the game genre “RPG”; a game is not an RPG unless it in any way involves playing a role). This is based on “old-school” games I've been playing most of my life, on “massively social” games that have been popping up recently (and a nod to those that aren't CRPGs as well), and on second-hand accounts of MMORPGs, which I personally haven't played enough to form opinions on.
Special attention is given to how these choices affect the design of Crossfire 2.0, and other future projects I have planned.
If you first need an introduction, refresher, or fact-checker about the “scene”, I'll make a somewhat heterodox recommendation: Sluggy Freelance's Years of Yarncraft storyline is an in-depth, insightful, and accurate, if not serious, look on the whole thing. It doesn't cover the “massively social” phenomenon, but I hope I will do that in the article.
I'll start with player and playing styles, because I believe understanding how people play a game and how/why they enjoy it is necessary before you can even discuss the rest.
Bear in mind, like most taxonomies when applied to people, most of my classifications below are talking about primary traits; most people will be a combination of different types, either by combination, or over time (like, on different days you may be an explorer or a role-player).
Primary activity interest
A very, very long time ago, people who played actual RPGs (nowadays relegated to being called “tabletop RPGs”, sigh) first classified players in two basic camps: the hack-and-slash camp, and the roleplay camp.
Over the years, and as we got acquainted with CRPGs and adventures and computer strategy games, this was refined, expanded upon, simplified again, and distilled. Today, while there are many ways to make this distinction, which are certainly valid in their own ways, I believe a simple split in four groups is the most useful, in terms of understanding and designing games.
So I call players either: gamer, hack-and-slasher (H&Ser), role-player (RPer), or explorer.
Hack-and-slashers are in it to fight. Nowadays, that doesn't necessarily mean actual in-game fights; rather, H&Sers like to win. They get fun from the game primarily by enjoying the rush of victory and superiority. In a classic CRPG, the easiest and most rewarding way to do that is by combat.
The key aspect to please H&Sers is challenge/reward: it must be relatively easy to find something that challenges them, the challenge can't be too easy, it can't be impossible, and the reward after winning must be proportional and appropriate, in order to trigger the reward pleasure centres.
You can alienate H&Sers with limits. If, for example, they can only run so many fights in a day, your H&Sers will probably just create second/third/fourth characters, or abandon the game after a short time. If they defeat everything you throw at them and then there's nothing more to fight and they need to wait a day, or three, or a week before there's more, they will probably not log in at all during this period, and there's a chance they will have discovered something else in the interval, which means you lost the player.
Role-players are run by imagination. They want to “be” someone else and do things they wouldn't do in real life. They really care about the character. They also form a mental opinion of the character's personality and preferences, and try to make choices according to that.
The key aspect to please RPers is believability: they must be able to suspend their disbelief when they start playing, and stay in their imaginary world until they decide to leave. Anything in the game that pulls them back to the real world is a disruption to that “flow”. Believability is not the same thing as realism; realism is just one of the ways of doing it, but it would be boring if all games were realistic; many (most?) RPers go to the games precisely in search of some “believable” fantasy. My personal “three pillars of believability” are internal consistency, depth, and detail; I'll expand on another post if there is interest, but I think it's pretty self-explanatory as it is.
You can alienate RPers (other than the lack of the above) with simple discouragement. RPers are a relative minority, and many other players think they are a bit weird. Every time you remove a feature that benefits RPers, or add one that hinders them, their interest will wane. If players are allowed to openly discriminate against them, they will leave. A good strategy some games adopt is to offer separate, RP-focused servers where RP is mandatory.
Gamers see the whole thing as a game. Which, technically, it is ;-) A gamer enjoys looking for edges and tricks to optimise the character, the overall strategy, battle tactics, economics, party/guild workings, everything.
The key aspect to please gamers is strategy: there must be cool, useful, and difficult to find tricks. There must be a wide range of possible strategies. But to avoid alienating the other players, it must be possible to play the game without them. It's also a good idea to “shake things up” occasionally; change the rules so that some strategies get nerfed, others spring up, and the gamers have to look for the new ones. They'll complain, but it won't be sincere; while they do have an attachment to their painstakingly-develop tricks, they have more pleasure in finding new ones than using what they have.
You can alienate gamers with ephemeral rewards. For example: say you offer a way to greatly improve weapons. Say it's either hard to do, or expensive; and say it's relatively hard to find. That's the kind of thing gamers love. But then, after a lot of effort to improve his sabre, he discovers that your game mechanics require changing weapons every few days. So now, all that effort is wasted.
Explorers want to see your game. They want to see everything, try everything the game has to offer. There are subgroups, of course; some want to see the whole world, some want to play every single last quest, some “collect” items, some want to understand the underlying story, some want to play many times with every possible class (or profession or whatever the equivalent).
The key aspect to please explorers is rich content: this one is a no-brainer :-) the more there is to see, the more they'll like it. But it has to be interesting; if every town looks the same, they'll stop by the 3rd or 4th.
You can alienate explorers with too much or too little obstacle. If I can simply create a character and explore the whole world, I'll have fun and maybe even write you a good review, but I will also drop the game after a few days. On the other hand, if I can't explore anything new for a whole week, I'll get bored and leave as well.
An interesting way to put it is that each of those 4 groups “plays with” a different portion of the brain. The H&Ser plays with the instinctive pleasure centres, the RPer with the imagination, the gamer with the intelligence, and the explorer with the curiosity.
Finally, there is of course a fifth group: those that aren't interested in the game itself, at all. There are many possible cases here; some people play MMORPGs and “massively social” games primarily to “meet” new people, or to chat. Others like looking at the game, because it's cute or cool or whatever; although those either don't stick around for long, or evolve into a specialised sort of “explorer”. Some play because they like the setting; this is especially the case for games that are adaptations of known fictional settings. Again, those players either leave after a while, or drift into one of the other categories.
To quest or not to quest
Good quests are one of the best tools of the trade. It's what turns a game into a medium for interactive storytelling. However, the plain, harsh truth is that some people don't really care about your story! Some people want to be able to enjoy the “regular” things to do in the game, and stay away from the quests, or do them just as much as absolutely required. Again, it's a spectrum; on one end, some players completely avoid quests, while on the other, they play for the quest and only do other stuff in order to “support” the quest requirements.
Wait, what? Some people like doing the day-to-day character maintenance more than quests, or even to their exclusion? It's easy to fall in the trap of assuming the day-to-day stuff is boring; but in reality, people are different and have different tastes. True quote from a real person in my tweeter feed today: “I hate when my routine gets disrupted. Life without routine is totally boring and not worth living.” I was amazed at first, but upon reflection, it just proves my old core belief that people are different; and it matches my observations of game players. Some really do come back every day for the maintenance routine, and find quests a disruption.
Worker vs. fighter
In the “massively social” CRPGs that are popping up online recently (I'll offer Travians as an example that I actually like playing), you have other things to do than going around bashing people's teeth in.
Now, on many MMORPGs you can do other things as well. The stories of “gold farmers” in WoW are a famous example; real-life sweatshops with people connected to the game making in-game items in an in-game sweatshop. But in most games, those activities are second-class; you can't be a level 70 tailor or miner, for example.
To explore the case of Travians, it started up not so much as a CRPG, but a kind of RPG-ified “The Sims”; just like “The Sims” was originally a toy to spy in more detail on the life of citizens from Sim Cities, and later grew to oversell its “parent” game by far, also Travians grew out of another game by the same company, called Travian (yeah confusing... but the company is German, and in German Travian is called Travian, but Travians is called Travianer, which is... well, slightly better). Travian is a strategy game, a kind of massively-multiplayer Catan/Civ. Then along came Travianer/Travians, where you get to play one of the actual citizens.
The funny side-effect of this story is that, although there is fighting aplenty and a quest, the main focus of Travians is not to fight, but rather to be a productive citizen. You harvest one of the primary resources from Travian (clay, wood, ore, or grain), or you process them into secondary resources (bricks, boards, coal, iron, flour, bread). Fighting doesn't reward you with money, only experience; to get money you need to work. (But if you really, really want to be a bum, you can live off of digging up treasure in the swamp.)
This experiment (and the success of Travians) brought a realisation: some people like doing things other than fighting. Some people like putting the character to work, or figuring out the complexities of trade.
And frankly? After the success of The Sims, we really should have figured this out earlier.
Simple vs. rich (or, dull vs. complex)
Complexity in a game is a tough issue. Complexity comes in all levels: quest, rules, user interface. Make it too simple, and many players will be bored; and, of course, you won't attract any “gamer” players. Make it too complex, and many players will be bored, or confused.
Personally, I'm a follower of the school of making complexity optional. Offer a very simple version; the easy-to-find quests, the basic rules, the default UI. But also offer layers and layers of extra complexity the player can opt in to: extra quests or side-quests that, preferably, tie into the main quest and enrich its story; additional corner rules for special, rare items, or for advanced classes, or something; optional elements in the UI that can be configured.
And then there are wizards. This is complete guesswork on my part, but from observation, I believe people who prefer to play magic-users, also prefer a little more complexity. It makes sense; understanding large spell lists, with the reward of having more options of action, as opposed to getting a weapon and bashing stuff — that's clearly a complexity choice.
The trade of trading
Trading is a human pleasure. Like most human pleasures, some people abhor it, others can't live without it.
In most CRPGs and CRPG-alikes, some form of trading is required. In Crossfire, WoW, or even old-school Diablo and Ultima, you'll get random stuff from questing, stuff that you don't want but that is worth money; on the other hand, some items you'll never find, or you won't find often enough, so you'll have to buy instead. In Travians and others, you need to actually produce and sell things in order to make game money.
But from that, sprung a funny tangent: some people like doing it. Some people enjoy looking for the best price, or even finding ways to make profit out of buying stuff in one place and selling it elsewhere.
I'm told in the Korean MMORPG Ragnarok Online, playing a trader is actually an option. It's still somewhat limited, as you still need to fight in order to level up; but it's an added choice, and apparently, lots of people actually go for it. I'd like to see a CRPG where fully playing a trader is an option; your goal is actually to make profit, and you level by making good deals. Or rather: I'd like it even more to write it ;-)
Game model styles
Time is money
A trend that is integral part of the “massively social games” phenomenon is limiting how much you can do based on time. Generally, that's done using some sort of points that regenerate through time, and which you spend to do some of the things in the game; Travians has “occupational points”, and Imperial Galaxy has “command bandwidth”, for example. There are ways to get bonuses to produce these points faster; in Travians you get more OP if you sleep in better beds, while in Imperial Galaxy it's basically a matter of keeping your “home sector” clean.
Strategy and building games use more resource-centred techniques; in Nile Online and Travian, your limit is how fast you can harvest resources that are needed as materials to build stuff. Also, each building takes a fixed time to build, and you can only have one construction going on (per city) at any given time; so if my current palace upgrade takes 12h, that means I can't build anything else on that city for the next 12h.
The purpose of these limits seems to be twofold. On one side, you want to avoid giving compulsive players that have no lives a very big advantage, because that drives everyone else away. But also, these daily limits are an encouragement for players to come back every day and do a little more.
This is a hard choice to make. And personally, I think there's an enormous risk of limiting it too much and becoming annoying; everyone I know who plays Travians agrees there aren't enough OPs in a day.
In some games, the limit can also serve to encourage players to explore other aspects; in particular, the more social aspects. But doing that well requires your limits to be partial (not affect the social aspects — Travians fails in this point), and more importantly, it requires the other aspects you want to emphasise as an alternative to be well-developed and interesting.
Specialise or balance?
This one has been an ongoing argument in Crossfire for as long as I can remember.
Some games strongly encourage you to build an all-rounded character. In Travians, for instance, I tried to ignore the combat aspects at first, but quickly found myself unable to complete quests. Then, still unwilling to split my (limited) attention, I decided to focus on combat; but after a few days, weapon upgrades became too expensive for me, and now I need to spend a few more days upgrading my tools. So their system essentially forbids focusing.
On the other side, MMORPGs usually encourage teamplay by giving strong benefits to cooperation between differently-focused characters; the typical successful WoW party requires (at least) one or two tanks, one or two damage-dealers, a spell caster, and a healer. (The typical D&D party adds to that recipe one trap finder and one leader.)
In Crossfire, focusing is good on lower levels, but the usual complaint is that pretty much all level 100 characters are identical (or possibly, can be divided into dragons and non-dragons).
It's all about choice
There are different kinds of players, with different preferences and styles. Do you try to allow all styles, or do you focus your efforts on pleasing one category? Both are valid choices, especially if development resources are very limited.
If you think this section is too short, feel free to re-read the first section of this post, Player styles, and reflect on all the game model choices hidden in there ;-)
Starting from zero we've got nothing to lose
In Years of Yarncraft, Pete Abrams pokes fun at this aspect, by having Torg's character start the game armed only with a stick, and having to kill a bunch of salamanders as his first quest.
How low do you want characters to start? The traditional answer, until relatively recent times, was that a starting character had to be reasonably capable, enough to entice and interest the player. But now, the trend seems to be starting very close to zero. And if the game offers a lot of choice, that may actually be a good thing, because then you won't have to make some of those choices until you have a better understanding of their effects.
Of particular interest to this aspect is the trend of making the first few quests a tutorial of sorts, teaching some of the most important things in the game. Travian plays this card heavily (possibly a little too heavily; you don't want people to feel patronised).
This also ties in to game mechanics choices (which I'm covering in the next post) about character growth and the meaning/algorithms of attributes and skills. It's common in simpler games to start all attributes at 0, which means normal human average, and then simply add to them a number of points per level, without any real final cap.
Those pesky economics
All RPG-like games must include some sort of an economy. In single-player games, that's traditionally just a question of making sure more powerful items are more expensive, while at the same time your ability to acquire game-money increases as you progress. Additionally, different items would be available for sale in different areas of the game world.
Then, simulation-heavy games and procedural content came along, and it became fashionable to try to achieve a “real economy” in the game world. I have personally not played a game that does that, or even seen positive reviews about one, so the benefit seems questionable.
But there's something better than a simulated “real” economy: a real real economy. Travian, Travians and Nile Online have all succeeded in doing that, Nile to a much greater extent. Quite simply, if most (or all) trading is with other players, and you have a sufficiently large number of them, soon real market factors will emerge, and in a way that players can understand without too much effort.
Maybe the ideal best is a mixed, real/simulated “real” economy, where player purchases have a strong (primary even) influence, but where items that players aren't really interested on can also fluctuate, as NPC demand for them grows and shrinks due to simulated or player-caused events. But the reason those web-based games have succeeded in creating an actual economy is one that may defeat this point: simply, those games have staggering numbers of players — thousands upon thousands online simultaneously at any given moment — which is enough population to simulate the economy of a small village.
On a side note, someone linked a very funny (but true) article about RPG economics to #crossfire earlier in the week. While the article is about D&D (and other “tabletop” fantasy RPGs), it mostly applies to CRPG as well.
To be continued
All right... I ran out of time and brain power :-) and I'm afraid nobody will bother to read this if it gets any longer than it already is. In a few days time, I'll write about game mechanics styles, and story/setting styles.