Tag Archives: Classic Games

EQ the Return Part 3: Legitimizing your “Mistakes”

After an exploratory return to the game, we mulled last time over how “abhorrent behaviors” in Everquest became acceptable, reasonable tactics for players.  As silly as they were in the game, the players were still having fun, perhaps only at the cost of detracting from the immersion in game’s fiction.  Of course Everquest’s world seemed to be pretty much a lump of 20 years of the creators’ favorite Dungeons and Dragons campaigns (Racial languages? Foraging skills?) so there wasn’t a whole lot of immersion to break.

Spawn campingOf course that was okay!  They were forging new territory…  While Ultima Online was the first large-scale success in the online space, with Everquest it got even more widely-accepted…  and new gamers were still enamored with this persistent multiplayer combat-and-socialization model and discovering what they enjoyed doing.  If people found, say, staking their virtual claim on a small collection of huts, systematically killing every orc that appeared there to be effective (that is, spawn camping) perhaps there’s something to it.  These gamers didn’t want to wander around and trust that a patrolling creature might not jump them at the wrong time, but rather find an area of a reasonably predictable challenge and socialize while they waited.

Subsequent games tried to change that habit.  Dark Age of Camelot gave players an extra XP incentive to kill creatures that hadn’t been killed in a while, encouraging them to move between spawns rather than stick to a single one.  Star Wars Galaxies had the interesting take of creating monster “hives” that continuously spawned its supply of mobs until it culminated with a boss fight, after which the hive was destroyed.  A shame that the world wasn’t an interesting place to venture out in otherwise. :-/

But in both those cases they tried to change the core behavior of those gamers, which was to seek out a location of stability where they could grind in peace.  In most cases MMO’s since Everquest has tried to create alternatives, but I’m not aware of any (with the possible exception of Galaxies above) that tried to create new gameplay around it.I actually find that surprising because in many cases game developers are pretty good about taking an odd bit of unexpected gameplay and turning it into an asset.  Take the practice of kiting, for instance, where a player uses a combination of damage and incapacitating powers to keep a powerful creature at a distance while they slowly whittle them down to their eventual death.  In Everquest, this was seen as an abhorration that allowed players to kill things that were genuinely higher than their appropriate level.  A series of nerfs ensued to try to rectify the situation, but the tactic (there’s that word again) entered the basic toolkit of the everyday MMO player.

These days, kiting is less often frowned upon and considered more of a valid tactic in games like LOTRO and City of Heroes, although maligned by some.  It still bears the mark of being player-driven, however…  there are occasions where players accomplish feats that the designers never even dreamed of, like these WOW players that awesomely kited a devastating boss into the main human city of Stormwind.  My hat’s off to you, lads.

Anyway, games are full of unexpected surprises that delight gamers and even their creators.  When id Software added knockback damage to rockets to Doom and Quake, they didn’t initially do so with the intent of creating the technique of rocket jumping (that is, to fire your own rocket at the ground to blast you high into the air).  This only became apparently through play.  However, once it happened, they didn’t shut it down.  In subsequent games like Quake III they made it easier, and better balanced the risk-reward of liftoff versus damage taken.  These days, Team Fortress 2 has turned these antics into practically a twisted, explosive ballet.


Consider also the “errors” that gave us attack canceling in Street Fighter II (brilliantly explained in this article by God of War’s Eric Williams) that led to the lengthy combos that are integral to tourament play over 15 years after the game’s creation.  The ridiculous pistol juggling seen in Devil May Cry, where a “bug” caused a damaged creature to stop falling, was embraced by its creator and set itself as the hallmark move of the game.  The entire game of Deus Ex relied on emergent gameplay (whose very definition implies unforseen uses of gameplay elements) to deliver the player an experience made unique by their solutions to problems placed before them.

Without these “accidents”, gaming might be a lot less interesting these days.

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.

Archive 3: Hail to the Prince

This was the second article I wrote for Joystick101 in Spring 2004… Sadly enough, around that time, the site was pretty much dying on the vine. It tended to be down a lot. Since blogs and blog sites weren’t really too common yet, this was the only outlet for this content, so my participation in that forum pretty much died with the site. Again, when it was resurrected in 2007 it was relaunched with a WordPress backbone and the old content and community was reset.

Play Appraisal: Observations of a Developer
By Patrick Lipo
March 2004

Hail to the Prince:

When I heard about the development of the most recent sequel to Prince of Persia (PoP: The Sands of Time), I along with many others indulged in skepticism. I loved the original and really enjoyed the second one, and look back at them as the absolute best in action-exploration. I do recognize some of this feeling as nostalgia, however, since they were also excellent examples of gameplay that was common 15 years ago… a 2D world filled with death-defying jumps and quick, easy deaths. Having tried the third title in the series, PoP 3D, it was easy to think of that game’s limitations as evidence that the series could not be updated to a modern 3D presentation without losing its spirit. That third title unfortunately had a very difficult time with establishing a working control scheme and camera, but in addition it focused on giving the player more choices and weapons for fighting (as a gamer might expect in one of today’s games), rather than considering PoP’s pedigree as a game of exploration.

When considering the difficulties that PoP 3D had, I cannot help but appreciate the core elements of the original’s design, and how bringing them to today’s game-playing audience would be quite difficult. For those that have not played the original Prince of Persia, it was a side-view exploration game, where your character progressed through various screens and overcame a variety of death traps in order to continue. It was a fairly brutal game, with sparse checkpoints and unforgiving traps that had to be overcome, including long falls, spring-loaded spikes, slashing blades, collapsing floors, and other instruments of serious peril. While the player did have a health bar to absorb damage from short falls and the occasional swordfight, running afoul of a trap generally meant instant, gory death.

Rube Goldberg:

While it is easy to categorize the Prince of Persia games as exploration mixed with sword-fighting and jumping challenges, after a period of time playing, you find an unexpected game buried within. For example, while some platformers rely on split-second timing and twitch abilities to accomplish their most advanced moves, each of the Prince’s leaps, crawls and dashes are fairly easy to accomplish. In fact, the famous wall-run created for PoP: Sands of Time is so forgiving that it almost feels as though the hero is guided along a track. It and most other of PoP’s moves (most notably in Sands of Time) are actually difficult to do incorrectly assuming you chose the correct time to use that move. Some hardcore gamers bash Sands of Time for that reason, stating that the game strays too close to playing itself rather than providing the player with sufficient challenge. To dismiss the game for that purpose is to miss an important aspect: Once the player has a general understanding of the moves and the obstacles that each move is capable of overcoming, the game becomes as much of a relationship with the classic game The Incredible Machine as Super Mario 64.

In The Incredible Machine, the player is given a set of pieces that each exhibit a certain behavior and accomplish a task by applying them to the level’s game board. In Prince of Persia, the player is trained to use a library of moves that can be used as tools to bypass obstacles, after which he is challenged to accomplish a task (typically reaching the exit) by applying them to the presented environment. In addition, the presentation of Prince of Persia has two other elements that are required to allow the player to approach an area as an intellectual challenge rather than a test of reflexes. The first element is that the player has a clear set of predictable properties that he can draw from. This is his “toolkit,” as it were, that he can draw upon to complete a given level (while Sands of Time was admirably seamless, each area was definitely presented as a stage or level to overcome). The Incredible Machine had easy-to-understand physical devices such as treadmills and rolling balls, whereas PoP draws from a set of very predictable moves. The “forgiving” nature of the wall-run that puts off the hardcore player suddenly becomes an asset because the player can look at a wall and immediately know whether he can clear that space with the move. The challenge, then, was not in executing the wall-run flawlessly, but rather figuring out when to use it.

The second element that makes Prince of Persia playable as a puzzle game is its ability to present the player with a clear view of the level for planning purposes. The original 2D versions could easily present “the game board” in this respect, as the viewpoint revealed all elements to the player. Nothing was hidden completely… even the collapsing floors in the original PoP could easily be revealed with a quick jump in-place. This gives the player the ability to plan and mentally execute the solution before committing his hero to it. In taking this formula to 3D, Sands of Time provided very grand, open-aired spaces for the hero to navigate. This had a fabulous impact in presentation, giving the feeling of very large spaces, and locations so high that a real sense of vertigo can be experienced. In addition however, it also provided a clear view of the elements that would be navigated, going so far as to provide a specially-placed camera that the player could always switch to in order to see the challenges ahead of him. Since the player was able to plot his route, if he were to die, it was always clear that it was due to some flaw in deduction rather than an arbitrary timing mistake or unfair “gotcha”.

A Ticking Clock:

Binding this puzzle-oriented gameplay together in the original Prince of Persia was an unusual method of limiting the player’s deaths. Instead of a set number of lives, the player is given exactly one hour to complete the entire game. Being killed simply meant some time lost from retracing one’s steps from the last checkpoint. This gives the game some urgency but also presents a tangible but relatively small penalty for taking risks. This penalty, however, grows naturally as the player progresses towards the end, since the amount of remaining time is constantly dwindling. The player will of course run out the clock many times over before he can even come close to the end of the game, but with each attempt he will improve his speed, and reap a quantifiable reward from increased prowess (additional seconds on the clock when starting each level). And naturally, as less time is spent in the early levels, the comfort zone where the player feels at ease with experimentation migrates into later areas of the game.

In addition, time in the game becomes a resource that the player wields with complete control. The player comes to understand that each time he fails the overall mission (runs out of time) it was due to his own actions and his general performance while playing the game. Conversely, as he improves, he saves time and gains security. Of course, once the game has been completed (within the allotted hour), the next challenge for the player is to complete the game in as short a period as possible. Since the hero starts out with very few health points and can only gain more by finding hidden potions, the best way to do get a low time score is to ignore the health-increasing potions and attempt to complete the game without the benefit of the extra health. The increased health mainly serves to give the player an advantage while swordfighting, so by leaving his health low, he must also put his faith in his fighting capabilities as well.

These aspects of Prince of Persia provide an intriguing meta-challenge to the player’s experience. Not only does he compete with the traps within the game, but he must look at a game session as a whole and determine how each early decision will affect the clock situation later on. He must also make decisions as to how much assistance he needs to complete the game without dying, rather than to take every gift offered him. The high-level “game” that continues in the player’s mind through multiple sessions of play is a puzzle all its own.

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again:

The choice to put a ticking clock in the original PoP added an excellent high-level playing experience, but when thinking about how it would be updated for the modern console audience, one must consider how it was built on an old-school approach to game challenges. The hero is quite vulnerable, and the player must endure multiple abrupt deaths as well as play through areas repeatedly after having to continue from a checkpoint. This sort of repetition and the inability to save games was familiar to gamers of the eighties and early nineties, but I am skeptical that this sort of approach would be accepted by the more casual gamers of today. However, to “fix” Prince of Persia by implementing infinite saves and higher character survivability could easily have destroyed the game completely. The very nature of death-defying jumps requires instilling fear and the risk of some sort of penalty. If there is no significant downside to poor performance, the player could become encouraged to blindly stumble through the challenges rather than to take a moment and plan his approach. Bringing in the timer from the original would have had its own raft of problems as well… The requirement of starting over from the beginning of the game repeatedly to make progress would probably have been seen as an extremely outdated mechanic and could have quickly driven away players. And to be fair (since I don’t consider modern players to be less worthy in any way), being stripped of one’s achievements again and again can truly feel frustratingly harsh.

In updating the series, The Sands of Time removed the meta-challenge of the time limit and relied on the more traditional approach of checkpoints and save games. This act brought the PoP series into a progression framework that fits modern players’ expectations, which was probably a wise choice. However, it still needed to address the issue of character mortality, which I would contend was necessary for the game to function as a puzzle game. With such deadly traps, the game could easily have become incredibly frustrating to play. Loading one’s savegame again and again would have been necessary to complete a difficult challenge (or to experiment with possible solutions to a level’s “puzzle”). The designers of Sands of Time, knowingly or unknowingly, were in a very difficult position. Either the game could retain its purity and risk being considered too hardcore, or it could have become too forgiving and transformed from a puzzle game to an action game. It is at this point that its predecessor, PoP 3D, most likely faltered.

The choice that was made for PoP: The Sands of Time to address this was an amazingly innovative one. In the final game, a limited resource of sand gives the player the power to rewind time at any moment, allowing him to retry any misstep. Essentially, it takes the player’s act of loading a savegame (which can be considered a “feature” that allows a player to retry any section of the game) and folds it into the game mechanics itself, going so far as to dedicate a controller button to that function. In most other games, when a player is forced to load a savegame repeatedly, the overall experience is diminished. In Sands of Time, the sand is a resource that is acquired through continuous adventuring, so the game becomes richer when players are forced to use it to retry a challenge. The interesting result of this strategy is that since the player is rarely forced to return to a save point, the game can present extremely difficult challenges while avoiding the seemingly inevitable frustration. Even more intriguing, the mechanic allows the player to almost continually experience new things and overcome new challenges, rather than retracing the same steps taken many times before. This choice may have taken a decidedly hardcore game type, an old-school platform-jumping title and restored its viability.

Crossing Swords:

While the Prince of Persia series has always had swordfighting, it would be foolish to think of fighting as the primary element (excluding PoP 3D, which focused a great deal on combat). In the original Prince of Persia, the guards blocking the hero’s way often acted as yet another puzzle piece… There were times when an opponent had to be dispatched in a certain way because he was located so he could kill the hero outright before he could draw his sword. However, in The Sands of Time, the fighting is more or less a pure interlude. This provides spikes in the game’s pacing but also simply sells it as a cinematic Arabian adventure. Luckily in SoT, the fights contained a few simple behaviors that provided a reasonably different experience than a typical brawling game.

The enemies in PoP: The Sands of Time are essentially undead, which means that they will always rise after each knockdown, until the player can reach a downed opponent and strike the killing blow with his dagger (which takes a short amount of time). The challenge of the combat then becomes buying time with repeated knockdowns, and trying to separate a specific enemy from the pack so that he can be dispatched without the player being interrupted by other enemies. The tactics then rely on the hero being very mobile, keeping away from the pack of enemies until he is able to dart in and strike at an individual. This mobility-centric behavior builds on the game’s technical strengths beautifully, since the game is very impressive when the hero is moving about, completing dodges, flips and rolls.

Conclusions:

  • The traps in Prince of Persia each have moves that can overcome them easily, but the real challenge is to deduce the series of moves that it will take to accomplish an entire area, akin to a puzzle game.
  • The overarching timer in the original Prince of Persia provided urgency, yet allowed the player to experiment heavily in the early game without significant penalty.
  • Allowing the player to get an even higher score (e.g. a lower time) by avoiding powerups allowed the player to choose their own risk and confidence level.
  • The time-rewind feature of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time allows a very unforgiving set of traps to be viable in design.
  • Time-rewind more importantly means that the player can always be working on something new, rather than retracing steps time and time again.
  • The predictability and forgiving feel of the special moves serve a purpose of allowing the player to focus on deducing the moves rather than executing them.
  • The combat in Prince of Persia is simple, but in Sands of Time, the simple addition of a killing move allowed the fighting to become more about motion and looking cool than a single fight.

Playing through Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time recently taught me a fair amount. By looking back at the decisions the designers made, and examining how an older style of challenge was brought into a modern game, it allowed me to look back and understand how I experienced the series as a whole. The result is a series of conclusions that I hope will enrich how I look at other games as well.

Frantic, Fearless and Fun

Ridge Racer 7I picked up a PS3 the other day and still have yet to purchase a retail game for it…  Aside from staring at the crossbar and wishing I had a Blu-Ray movie to watch, I’ve spent much of my PS3 time playing demos.  After whipping through miniature slices of Motorstorm, The Darkness and even my coveted Heavenly Sword, I was still a bit bored.

Just for kicks, and because I was running out of diversions, I threw Ridge Racer 7 into my download basket.  God, I mut have been desperate…  That game hadn’t changed in like a million years.  I used to love RR, having played the hell out of the very first one on the Playstation, holed up in the basement offices during the early days of Raven Software.  However, other interests took my attention, so I hadn’t really played one seriously since R4, the last of the PS1 incarnations.

However, the moment I fired up RR7 and hit the accelerator, it was like coming home.

I raced around the track, not knowing the layout at all or the new mechanics like nitro boost and drafting.  However, I happily whipped around the corners like a madman and never even touchedthe rail.  I felt like a racing god for just a moment.  Holy crap!  After playing other (somewhat) realistic racers for a while like Gran Turismo and Forza, it felt incredibly liberating to just keep that accelerator down and try to skid around by the seat of my pants.  I don’t like to drive strategically, where I have to manage speed like a precious resource, I like to drive stupid fast and have to rely only on my wits to carry the day.  Obviously Burnout is the only other game that scratches that itch in the same way.

Sure, it’s not real racing, but it’s fun.

This got me thinking about other playing habits I exhibit.  For example, when it comes to shooters, from Doom all the way to this test build of Stranglehold I’ve got on my desk, I tend to really enjoy situations where I can head into danger, balls-out, and manage the situation on the fly.  Back in the Doom days, I got insanely good at shotgunning soldiers and imps, after leaping into rooms teeming with them and just barely manage to destroy each one as they lunged at my digital throat.  (I somehow did this playing only with a keyboard, somehow).  Does that mean I don’t like strategy, or a game that requires planning or thought?  No, I wouldn’t say that, but when it comes to shooters these days I do tend to lean more towards the Serious Sams of the world than I do the Ghost Recons.

Sure, it’s not real combat, but it’s fun.

To consider this to be a conflict between reflexes and strategic thinking isn’t the whole story.  To me the key is a loss of control, having to dive into danger and not quite know how you’re going to get out.  Assuming the game is forgiving enough and doesn’t punish you for those types of choices, it remains a fun experience.  If you can take the chaos of a situation and “surf it” to where you want to go, it’s a blast.  That’s what Ridge Racer drifting does for me, and sometimes my love for that type of experience leads to certain design choices I make, whether it has to do with driving, combat, or who knows what.