EQ the Return Part 2: Over-Correction?

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been delving back into the first Everquest after a hiatus of six years.  So far I’m at Level 12 and reliving some good times in Befallen.  As I said, there’s something fun and intense about the experience that I haven’t felt in the long line of succeeding MMO’s.

Certainly one element about it is the sense of danger that exists.  From corpse runs to trains there certainly are a lot of things that keep players on their toes.  Combats were risky…  a few bad misses or fizzled spells and that blue mob suddenly had the upper hand and you were fighting for your life.  Players are flush with stories of how they overcame adversity, or had victory snatched from their hands at the last minute.

So it’s interesting to consider for a moment the fact that all the “problems” that each successor, from Camelot to WOW, have tried to fix were indeed features that made EQ fairly dynamic and more importantly unique.

Consider zone camping.  Due to technology limitations that were less stringent in WOW and DAOC, Everquest was broken into zones or sub-levels that created hard boundaries that initiated a level load for the player…  and of course monsters could not cross.  As such, a common practice was for players to use the zone edge as a safe zone (even if they were deep in a hostile area) because they could exit the level at the first sign of trouble.

This tactic came hand-in-hand with the risks of monster trains, which resulted from the fact that Everquest monsters were vindictive and followed you almost forever once you damaged them.  What’s more, if they happened to pass by another idle monster, that creature would likely join in on the chase.  This resulted in dungeons sometimes being the scene of ridiculous parades of hostile creatures, all chasing a single player balls-out (see inset).  Once a train started, a party had almost no choice but to evacuate to the zone, which of course led all those mobs to the happy zone campers sitting to gain back their health… you can imagine the carnage that erupted.

Zone boundaries (and hence zone camping) were eliminated through the introduction of continuously-streaming levels in games like WOW.  The removal of barriers like this made it also necessary for the monsters to give up any chase for a short distance, more or less stamping out trains…  This is not only because it would be ridiculous for a snow creature to be led all the way to a desert town, but because streaming levels have very stringent rules about the graphic and sound assets loaded for each area, and hence a wolf needs to stay within its expected habitat.  (This is the biggest challenge for us when dealing with open world mechanics of This is Vegas.)

While gamers generally shouted “Hooray!” at the demise of these odd mechanics, ironically these were the same players that were carefully planning around zones and trains…  In the Everquest community, it quickly evolved from capitalizing on quirks of the systems to legitimate tactics.  And these tactics were just as interesting as the “mez/root/tank/heal” manuevers that had developed over EQ’s combat.  They provided an additional layer of experience between “per combat” and “per session” that might be called “per expedition”.

So am I saying that players were having fun and just didn’t realize it?  Well, sort of.  I’ve held for a long time that gamers don’t always understand what makes a game fun, and that penalties, inconveniences and grinds are often a close companion to reward (as opposed to creating a “win game” button).  However, in this case, gamers were complaining more about chaos and unpredictability than against the situation itself.  They just never knew when a train might come in from some other player and ruin their evening. 

Nothing is more frustrating than to spend an evening and not make progress (this was one of my biggest pet peeves about Everquest back in the day), and many players had successful sessions punctuated by devastatingly frustrating sessions.  No doubt, they always remembered the worst ones.  These gamers wanted a more predictable and efficient way of exchanging time for advancement, and they always seek out the easiest path to do so. 

In EQ they found areas where they could spawn camp with the easiest XP and loot.  They located the areas with the biggest reward for the lowest risk.  And when new games came out like Camelot and WOW where these aspects were more predictable, they rejoiced and jumped ship.  They moved to experiences where each encounter was more predictable, where nothing ever went really, really wrong.  They played in games where they could maintain a basic strategy and always end up on top.

Ironically, what they moved towards is al almost perfect definition of a grind.

Everquest the Return: Kickin’ it old School

Wayback timeMy wife and I entered the wayback machine this past weekend…  After a six-year hiatus we cracked open our dusty copies of Everquest and had fun playing it for the afternoon.  Yeah, not WOW, and not the bland-by-comparison Everquest 2, but good ol’ completely-cryptic-interface, 1999-graphics-by-way-of-2001 garden variety Everquest.  The Everquest that was a patchwork of every fantasy trapping and mechanic that the staff could think of before ship.  The Everquest that was as unforgiving and sometimes infuriating as being kicked in the gut…

Yep, we played that Everquest, thanks to a loan of some updated discs from Dave Webb.  After some extensive guesswork, we managed to remember our old accounts and were pleasantly surprised to see most of our characters still hanging around.  And we had 21 days of free playtime to boot (no doubt thanks to some “come back to EQ” promotion at some point).  Nice. Thanks Sony!

Our experience playing it was very “Everquest”.  The very first moment Sandi logged on with her beloved character Celestiel, she was struck dead by a long wandering dark elf guard.  We hadn’t left the game six years ago in a completely hot zone, but we had become complacent about the amount of risk that existed in that world. 

Everquest 1, once pretty, now showing its age

I remember back in the Raven days spending every Monday night playing EQ with Jersey” Jim Hughes, Rick Johnson, Matt Pinkston, Chris Foster and Jeremy Statz among others…  We spent a solid six or more depressing months with this ritual, ultimately barely reaching level 20 for our efforts.  We’d get home from work and start playing around 8, struggling to find each other.  Sometimes somebody was on the other continent, and we had to wait the 30-40 minutes for them to take the boat over.  We’d find our hunting spot and set up camp, and do great for a while…  until a wandering monster or a player-led train finally got the drop on us and we perished, losing half the experience we’d gained in the previous hour. 

After one fairly successful evening before we finally broke it up, Jersey was heard to say “I actually had fun tonight”.  We were amused, then in shock, in the realization that we were paying to play this game when 75% of the time we just walked away angry.  But who was listening to us…  Everquest was making Ferraris full of loot at the time, and apparently the crazy nutball addicts were happy…  Incidentally, we had one of those addicts (who I won’t name) at Raven.  I remember when they first released the command that tallied the total number of days played.  This dude bragged that he had over a month online.  I stopped for a second and pointed out “Dude!  The game’s only been out for three months!”  Yes, along with work (10+ hour-a-day crunch time even) and sleeping, he was still averaging over eight hours a day playing.  That’s probably not that amazing nowadays that “online addiction” is starting to go mainstream, but Jesus, that was insane back then.

Back to Sandi and I.  Once we gt our bearings and we figured out the new HUD map that helped us navigate, we did pretty well.  And we did have fun.  There was something special there that has been diminished with the iterative MMO’s that we had played since, from DAOC, to WOW, to LOTRO.  What was it…?  Ha!  I was going to write it today, but I got too wrapped up telling my war stories, sorry!  I’ll hit it up with some meat next post.

More This is Vegas coverage

This is Spegas!Over the past few weeks there have been a bunch of great references to This is Vegas.  Forgive me while I plug them for a minute. 🙂

Links

Video

One last edit:

My list of coverage can’t even approach this person’s…  Read the very first This Is Vegas blog.

Diablo and X-Men

I just noticed today that during my blogging hiatus, Citizen Parker had stumbled onto my posted Analysis of Diablo 2.  It was a fun write, and a Parker had some really cool things to say about it.  Thanks for the nod!

Thanks to Citizen ParkerA bit of history on this, I wrote it while I was in the midst of a job search.  They had asked for an analysis of this sort for one of several games, including my fave, Diablo 2.  I was uncomfortable revealing this at post time because it would have been unfair to reveal their hiring practices, but this was for the sadly-departed Iron Lore in Maynard, Massachusetts.

At the time they were looking for a lead designer for their ultimately entertaining and polished Diablo-like game Titan Quest.  I visited their studios in a cool old New England building, and met with folks like Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill…  It was a nice operation with what seemed like a great culture and feel, and it saddens me that they weren’t able to keep the money flowing.  The public at large (and many developers) seem to forget how hard it is to have an independent studio these days…  New IP is difficult to get attention for, and the game-buying public tends to pool their money on a few selected hits and ignore the rest.

Anyway, back to Diablo…  It was kismet that they had asked me about that game not too long after I finished X-Men Legends.  As you get done developing a game, you mind is filled with the choices you made, and all the things you could have done to make the game better.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to close the book and move on, and it feels important to keep a log of what you’d do different if there was a next time.

God, my head was filled with stuff like this.  X-Men Legends had an early start conceived as a turn-based RPG ala Final Fantasy before I evolved it into the real-time adventure that got released.  Things get so clear after the fact, but in the midst of it we were struggling to get our new console technology going and iterating on AI.  The XML really wasn’t fully playable (particularly having good companion AI) until pretty near the end of production.  (Although I should say that the unstoppable Simon Parkinson really lived up to the challenge of making that whole package work together well).  But, as even the mighty Penny Arcade has finally begun to understand, sometimes games play like shit until they are fun.  It doesn’t happen with every project, but there are times when you just have to trust your instincts and carry out a plan.

Wolvie and SabertoothIn the case of X-Men, there were a few things that dawned on me too late to really get into the design.  The first was a smaller realization…  For a good chunk of development we were looking for solid gameplay elements that took advantage of the various forms of elemental attacks that the X-Men used…  Typically it was difficult because it was custom-scripted, and generally required one specific hero at the expense of all others in order to enact, which went up against our credo of letting the player choose their favorite X-Men and focus on them.  However, after Harvey and Randy Smith’s excellent talk on emergence at GDC 2004, I came back to work all fired up about the possibilities of the interactions of objects with elemental properties and how they could create some unique gameplay.  Creating more water that could be frozen or barrels that leaked flammable oil would have added a lot of variation to the X-Men’s activities, but the idea really came in too late to really act on.  We were pretty much at alpha at that point and couldn’t take the risk.  Ah well.

The second inspiration I got, however, came nearly at the very end of the game, as we were doing final tuning.  For so long, we had been chasing the dragon of encouraging the player to switch characters.  Ostensibly this was to support the X-Men chestnut of “combo attacks” like the Fastball Special.  These would have, ironically, been a breeze if we had stuck with the turn-based Final Fantasy model, but they were really hard to implement and control in the chaotic environment of a real-time, multiple-enemy brawler.  Anyway, switching characters with the D-Pad was a great combat option that existed, but generally any one character was powerful enough to deal with any challenge.  As it was still a bit disorienting to do a lot in battle (and a bit inconvenient because of the use of the D-pad), the player usually just switched for variety and flavor.

What was apparent to me right at the end of development (not that it was a revelation) is that using powers were always going to be the most exciting thing, because that’s where we lavished the most love and custom effects.  The unique opportunity that existed in X-Men Legends, however, was that there were four characters that were usable most of the time.  So, while in other games you shoot your wad and drain yourself of power, then go off and recharge or drink a potion or something, our players could continually switch characters and use that character’s powers while the drained character was busy recharging.  As such, we could have introduced a mechanic that encouraged the player to keep a power chain going, rewarding them for using power after power, ultimately reinforcing the fun that should exist with all these extravagant powres going off.  I think that would have completely cemented the “team” feel and brought the game beyond just being a multi-character elaboration on Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance (and I make no claims that we don’t owe that game a great debt).

Of course by then the game was nearly out the door, and I was gearing up to move on to new opportunities.  I feel a bit sad that we weren’t able to get that sort of thing in, but since that game has spawned two successful sequels built on the same mechanics, I guess I can’t complain.  It just proves that there is always one more feature, one more bit of polish for every game you work on. You can either kill yourself over it, or just save those ideas for next time…

This is Vegas!

So over the past two and a half years, we’ve been laboring at Surreal over a game that is really a different sort of game than those I’ve worked on in the past.  The cool thing is that we’ve been able to apply all our knowledge from a multitude of past action games into a completely new experience.  Overall it’s been an enriching experience, making me think of new ways to tackle old problems, as well as come up with solutions to entirely new challenges.  If anything it’s a fantastic breather from “shooter of the month”.

But I can’t say that the silence has been easy to endure.  “So Pat, what’re you’re working on?” my industry friends would casually ask as we munched awesome, giant slices of pizza…  The answer used to be so easy…  “Military shooter” or “Star Wars game!”  Those chats were easy, and would elicit a knowing nod…  Little else needed to be discussed.  Maybe talk about a new weapon or multiplayer mode, or gripe about problems with the technology, but not much else.  Lately it’s been a struggle:  “Well, it’s an open-world action game, but it’s got this sort of lifestyle component…” They’d stop, and give me a puzzled stare.  “I can’t really say anything else, but it’s pretty different.  It’ll be announced soon I think.”.  As they turned back to their slice, they mumbled: “Uh, sure, sounds cool.  Can’t wait.”

Well, after an eternity, it’s finally announced.  It’s called This is Vegas.

There’s only a thimble-full of information, so until more gameplay is revealed publicly I’ll have to continue to wave my hands at our monthly pizza ritual, but at least I can point you in the direction of some of the early coverage:

On IGN:

  • Announcement, including our teaser trailer.
  • Full Preview, this is one of the better overviews
  • Entertainment, featuring a tourist map written by the ever-awesome Jay Pinkerton.
  • Gigs, touching on a number of the side missions you’ll undertake throughout Vegas.
  • Suits, providing an overview on the factions and communities that you’ll get to know.

The Teaser Trailer:

Alive and Kickin’

All right enough of this…  I miss the whole blog thing.  SurrealGameDesign was a great chance for me to collect all my various thoughts and collect them into (hopefully) a compelling or at least comprehensible package.  It was healthy as a designer and kept me sharp.  I pretty much starved this blog at the time so that I could maintain SGD, but it was worth it.

While eventually things got complicated enough that I couldn’t keep it going, I consider the blog an overall successful venture.  Last summer, I was growing frustrated with the lack of exposure that Surreal had in the game industry, since it had not been visible to the public since The Suffering: Ties that Bind shipped in September 2005.  I knew also that our new game would not be announced until early this year.  If anything, it made recruitment difficult, which makes it tough to build the best department I possibly could.  In addition, I was encouraging my designers to broaden their horizons by playing and talking about new types of games.  The blog’s mission was to both build outside awareness of the culture at Surreal, but also to build a team spirit and grow the perspectives of the design department at large.

By late fall, SGD was getting some great momentum, with several thousand visits a day and some notice from some cooler mainstream-y places like N’Gai Croal’s Levelup blog and Stephen Totilo’s Multiplayer blog.  Not bad for a studio with no visibility for two years and an unannounced game on its plate.  It might be resurrected in some form in the future, but for now I’ve archived the contents at a site called GamesGoneFeral.

So moving forward, this is the place that I’ll come to talk about my current efforts, and reveal perspectives on my past (and perhaps even my future).  Some of my compatriots have also carved out their own corners of the internet, as can be evidenced in the Surreal Network on the sidebar.  We’ll be responding to each other and encouraging others to join the (loosely organized) fold.  We’ll see where all this leads, but regardless, it’ll be a journey worth taking.

Mario Galaxy: Shine Get!

After recovering from a trip to the Chicago office for a technical design summit, I finally managed to crack open Super Mario Galaxy and give it a whirl. Considering it is apparently proving out to be the greatest game of all time, my expectations were high.

I was an incredibly huge fan of Super Mario 64, which I put up as my favorite game of all time. That game was a pioneer in so many ways, and its gameplay still holds up quite well today. It had an extremely workable camera that was tuned for each area you went through, and along with its controls, they went unmatched for many years after its release. (Maybe Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, another favorite of mine, finally matched it?)

Of course I was waiting for this game because I would love another Mario 64. Unfortunately I went through this same anticipation five years ago for Super Mario Sunshine and was gravely disappointed. I ask around a lot about what was wrong with Sunshine and I get very vague answers. It had all the trappings of Mario 64, but why did it fall flat? Thinking back I think it was an uncompelling package, another “island paradise” with arbitrary block puzzles sprinkled in. More offensive was that damn backpack/watergun thing. Mario is about motion, and that “clean up the gunk” spray nozzle thing required me to keep Mario in place. What were they thinking?!? Seeing that nobody that I know liked it (and even reviewers retroactively dis that game), but it still netted a 92% on GameRankings, I certainly have to take all the hype for Galaxy with a grain of salt.

Shine Get!
So Sunday I cracked Galaxy open and was drawn in. In a couple of good sessions I went through two full galaxies and probably about 25 stars. I’m a completionist so I went for all the secondary objectives first before moving to the next area.

Here are a pile of impressions:

  • The Wii control scheme, for maybe the first time in my experience, isn’t annoying at all. You move Mario with the stick like you always did, but somehow the disconnected nunchuck feels better than a gamepad stick might, because it isn’t a big slab and can be tilted to help orient you to the action.
  • Thank fucking god they ditched the “flip the wiimote to jump” thing that they toyed with a couple years ago. You just press the A button as you’d expect, which doesn’t give you the 1/4 second delay you get with gestural motion in most Wii games. That would have killed Mario.
    • This is hopefully a very good sign for Wii. It seems like when it was introduced, everyone out there was trying to use fancy whirls and flips to do mundane things. Tilt the wiimote to steer? Wow, dude, you just invented the joystick. Shake the wiimote to make Link attack? You just invented the button, asshole.
    • Some of the wiimote point-at-this mechanics are a bit weird, such as the float-stars that pull Mario along, but they do feel pretty unique and perhaps not easily replaceable with a button (there are advanced techniques like gravity slinging that start to emerge later).
    • The sticky slingshot-thing (where you pull back with the wiimote to fling Mario at a target) certainly could have been controlled with a joystick, but in the end it felt like a fairly versatile game tool.
    • The secondary use of the wiimote works pretty well. Picking up crystals by pointing the cursor at them is a nice diversion when you’re being launched this way and that, and the idea that a friend can hang out and play crystal control is pretty cool. They do have the “shake to spin” thing that gives a bit of my above gripe, but it feels fairly responsive and doesn’t get too annoying.
  • Gravity takes you wherever it wants to. Walking upside-down, leftside-right, frontside-back is disorienting, but somehow he controls and camera manage to bring it home and you quickly adapt. As a result, you get a weird sort of topsy-turvy feeling that somehow you continue to keep control. It’s exhilarating, and addicting.
  • The camera can be a bit disorienting, such as when you are in an upside-down overhead view, trying to head stomp something. Only a couple times was I at a loss for control, such as when Mario is walking on some glass spheres and the camera doesn’t move when he’s on the other side, leaving you staring at Mario’s feet through distorted glass, wondering which way was up. The moment was so magical, however, that I hardly minded.
    • The incredible Psychonauts was the only other game that I can think of that did this well (such as the Milkman level, which for me was the moment the game went from curious to sublime).
  • The puzzles use their main mechanics in very interesting ways. Gravity will flip you this way and that, and it’s also localized, so you’ll meet challenges where you leap up into a zone that snares you with reverse gravity so you land on the ceiling. They could have stumped players, but the mechanics are so well communicated that you just feel totally in control.
  • The “collect crystals” mechanic is pretty weird though. First of all, you can “shoot” them, but so far that mechanic hasn’t been very important… You can use it to stun enemies if you don’t want to risk spin-attacking them or hopping on their heads, but I’m not sure that giving Mario a weak “gun” really added to the game. So far it’s been a redundant mechanic other than a couple times that it was shoehorned in as a required action.Tiny Planet
    • Oddly, the crystals you collectare the same ones you use as ammunition when you shoot. I’m not generally a fan of combining two very opposing purposes into single resources (imagine a shooter where your health was your ammo) because you become gun-shy (no pun intended) about using it. I really avoid shooting crystals very much, but so far the “currency” I’ve expended to unlock stars/doors has been pretty minimal, so maybe I’ll loosen up. I’m just worried that I’ll get halfway through the game and some mushroom-headed star mutant will ask me for 5000 in order to get some super-awesome thing.
    • Also, the “aim to collect crystals” is a bit weird since no other pickups like coins and so on work that way. I’m glad that I can hoover up dozens of the little things in seconds, or even grab them while in flight, but it can be a bit of a mental switch when you scoop up all those crystals and then have to walk over to grab the one coin. Of course it makes sense, because coins regain health, and I’m getting used to it.
  • Moving Mario is easy, as it always is (damn those guys can just nail motion). All the Mario 64 moves exist, but some are easier like the wall-jump (Mario “sticks” to a vertical surface for a quarter second before sliding down, giving you a chance to launch again).
    • The moves, however, are more or less undermined by the spin attack, however, which you can use during a jump to go higher and further. This pretty much negates the need for the old standbys of the triple-jump, crouch-backflip and the crouch-longjump. In a sense it feels like those old moves are just there as a nod to the previous game, although it felt nice and comfortable to know they were there.
  • Sending Mario into space is strange but oddly refreshing. After how stale the “island paradise” felt in Sunshine (what, am I suddenly playing Sonic Adventure again?), this suddenly felt like a wild reinvention of classic Mario themes.
    • However, I did lack a sense of place in some cases. I came to “know” these little chunks of rock, but the early part of the game really felt like I was being led by the nose, getting to a launch star and being sent to another planet over and over again. There wasn’t a sense of “planning” to it, nor did I feel in control of my exploration. But, nobody ever accused Mario of being open-world, so the fact that these paths are mostly linear seems appropriate to the series history.
    • The sight range was incredibly long, and it was amazing to be able to see these little chunks of rock far in the distance. I could even wave my wiimote pointer at them and steal distant crystals from the surface. My only regret was that I didn’t feel like an explorer… I wanted to see that piece of rock in the distance and figure out how to get to it. Instead I just went where the game led me next.

Shadow of the Colossus

  • They still have lives. You pick up the mushrooms to get an extra life, and gaining them is easy. Just like in Mario 64, saving and restoring the game will strip you of all but 5, even if you had 60 of them during a play session. People might consider that mechanic a relic, but it seems very Mario to me.
  • Mario still has some of the greatest personality of any game character in existence. Sure, he’s disgustingly cute as he yips and cheers while jumping around, but god damn is he charming. It never gets old to me.

The best moment so far was Megaleg, where you get thrown onto a little planet with this giant robot with big legs towering over you. Once a leg comes down, you climb up the side of it and onto the main body where you finsih him off. It felt like a unique Shadow of the Colossus moment, but even cooler because of the ridiculous exaggeration of the huge robot on a tiny planet.

So overall, I’m really digging Galaxy. Not sure if it is in “greatest game of all time” territory yet, but it’s probably the best game I’ve played this year so far. It adds a completely new angle to platformers in the way that Portal turned the shooter formula on its ear. If anything, it makes me glad to know that new ideas do still exist, waiting out there for us to find them…

Why yes, we DO play Team Fortress 2…

We sit in the aftermath of Surreal’s big TF2 LAN showdown. At the studio we’ve been getting pretty competitive in our matches of Team Fortress 2. Discussions on strategies such as where to place sentry turrets, and how to cap the middle point of Granary are common fare in the offices. However, in the past few weeks it got more and more difficult to squeeze in matches at lunch as we approached last Friday’s big milestone, so we planned a LAN blowout for the day after. Leading up to the big day we had a competition to choose two captains, who each proceeded to forge a team in the fires of Mount Doom. We were destined to meet on the field of battle, and on Saturday, November 10, the milestone was in the can and it was on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Teams consisted of Laser Jesus, led by Dan Osborn, versus JSM, led by Gameplay Programmer Austin McGee. No, I won’t explain the team names. 🙂

JSMvsLJ

The official matches were played from 4PM to 11PM, with lingering skirmishes continuing into the wee hours. The results had JSM take the win home, with five victories out of six:

  • Well: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Granary: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 2
  • Dustbowl: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 1 (Tie)
  • 2Fort: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Hydro: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Gravel Pit: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 3

Surreal TF2 Steam LogoThis is all a warm-up, though, because across the Seattle area, the TF2 showdown has crossed studio boundaries in the Valve-hosted TF2 Studio Rumble 2007. So far Surreal has defeated two contenders, and unless Zombie pulls out an upset tonight, we’ll be going up against the dreaded forces of Valve itself next week. Wish us luck!

I put up a “Games We Play” page for this sort of thing if you want any details on our teams.

Gallery:

 

Getting Set UpDistributed Power SystemThe MazeGamer FuelNeed beer… Lots and lots of beer.JSM Gearing UpLaser Jesus Gearing UpDeep Strategy SessionLaser Jesus Laying PlansIt’s On!Bring itFinal Score