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A collection of thoughts on Browser Based Game Design

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Development Chronicles Continue

First, the fun stuff. A picture from my brother-in-law/game-artist

Now, for the less fun, but interesting stuff.

The following is a continued list of design complications, and the approaches I plan to take:

In my last post, I discussed my dislike for Rank. In American style games, where BBGs rank you based on power, there are no viable ways of climbing the ladder. It is impossible to defeat the person above you because he is, by definition, more powerful. So, everyone in the game is stuck attacking downward, picking up few gains, and all players end up growing at the same linear rate. This is not fun, and thus a bad design choice.

In Euro style games, where power and score are separated, and players are ranked based on score... we have some improvement, but still an ugly mechanic for the player to deal with. Namely, why spend money on power if it doesn't increase your score? And, oppositely, why spend money on score when it doesn't improve your power? Making this decision is not fun for the player, and I want to avoid it.

So, I have designed an experimental solution to this problem which I think is fairly cleaver. Because I cannot take rank out entirely of a bbg (it would leave players guessing at who to attack, and pure guesswork is tedious and boring), I have come up with a system I call Castle Upgrades. With Castle Upgrades, all players will be ranked according to their Castle Level (CL). A high CL will have both pros and cons. The pros will be higher rank (a perceived value to those who want a high rank), and will increase your military strength by 10% for each Level (added, not multiplicativel). It will also be a requirement for unlocking key features such as technologies and treaties. The Con will be that a high CI will cause other in-game items to cost more.

The idea behind this is that any player can climb through the ranks simply by upgrading his or her Castle. So, as long as money is available, obtaining a higher Rank is not the issue. However, since CI increases the cost of all other goods in the game, there will be a theoretical, difficult to calculate point at which it is optimal to upgrade your Castle. This will cause players who upgraded too early to fall in rank later in the game. It will also, I hope, keep players who upgraded too late from climbing very far. Although I do not desire a large amount of rank-swap, I believe this situation is more enjoyable than no rank-swap situation.

There are 2 methods I plan to use to break up the balance of power amongst the players. The first is to use a 3-tier combat approach. Each player will have the ability to invest in combat, espionage or magic. When fighting, military will fight military, spies will fight spies, and wizards will fight wizards. Its basically like paper-rock-scissors.

Now,I hate the paper-rock-scissors approach. And its not possible to design a solid tactics system in a large scale PVP BBG. So, what is my reasoning here? Well, there are a few things. First, the idea is that even the wealthiest, highest ranked player will not be able to successfully guard against attacks from all 3 attack types. Even if I give defense a mod of *3, it will be very difficult for even the best defender to appropriate his funds equally. Second, because I am building this system around zero-player-losses (ie, getting attacked and losing does not cost the player anything), it creates more fun on part of the player to build his offense in lieu of worrying about the holes in his defense. Third, there will be indications in-game what a player may be weak to, so there will be 'some' tactical planning required to scope out your targets. There would be many better systems for combat if this were not a BBG. But since players will be competing against a very large user base, and there will be limited to no NPC's, this is the only approach I can conceive.

The 2nd method relies on the traditional model of increasing fun through increasing game space. When a user is given many options on how to increase his military power, and each of those options has both pro's and cons, it increases the number of possible decisions (or game space). With more decisions comes tougher optimization, which I hope increases both fun and replayability.

All of this is experimental, but after considering it all for 7 years, I can only hope.

Anyways,I feel like I'm coming to a premature stop, but that is all for today. Until next time.




My love for BBGs and BBG Pitfalls

I have always loved the concept of browser based games. In a perfect BBG, as I imagine it, the game would have a low time commitment, high number of rewards, and rely more heavily on mechanics than graphics to keep a users attention. All of this, IMO, should theoretically be obtainable.

So, back in 2004, I set out to make such a game. I am a mechanical engineer by profession, so I figured this task would be fairly simple to complete. But, after nearly 7 years of trying to develop a BBG to my high standards, I have come to the following realizations:
1) I have yet to play a BBG that I can say I 100% enjoyed
2) BBGs have far more design pitfalls than meet the eye

So, my purpose for this blog entry is to share my discoveries with other developers, and help me flush out some of the design challenges I've been having with Lords of Midnight.

So, First, what do I want Lords of Midnight to be about?
I have a vision more so of the pieces of LoM than I do the whole project. I know that I want the theme set in a Medieval Fantasy setting (similar to Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana). I know I want a user to open an account, build and grow that account over a long period of time, and then take pleasure in having a strong, well built account. Also, I know I want it to be mainly PvP, and for the user to be forced into making a difficult series of decisions that define how quickly they grow in power. Everything else is either simple math or a cleaver facade to explain it all.

So, lets talk about what makes a good game.
My quest to assemble the pieces of an epic BBG has taken a lot of turns over the years. My current focus is on defining good aspects of games, and then fitting the needed mechanics and facade into place to make it happen. The pieces I've manage to uncover so far include:

Chance to Win
A good game will always provide the weakest, most underpowered player a chance to win. This can be a 1 in a million shot of winning, but it must provide a chance for success. Many BBG's suffer from this requirement as there is no mechanic that makes it viable to defeat a higher ranked player.

Euro style systems have tried to find a work around for this by separating score in power. In this style system, you can either choose to spend your resources to make your army more powerful, or to raise your score. This adds interesting elements to the game, especially when score points gained are increased for attacking someone with a higher score than your own. The result is a mechanic that actually can encourage players to suppress their score early in the game, and then attempt to rapidly increase it toward the end of the game.

The American solution often includes adding randomness. In an American combat system, if a player can do damage of 0-Dmg_Level at random on attack... then there is a chance, albeit a small chance, that the random generator can give the stronger player a 'miss' with every swing, while the weaker player deals critical damage. So while growing in strength and rank are kept closely related, the best player can only raise his probability of success, and not guarantee a victory.

But neither of these systems truly address the underlying problem. The players who gain the early advantage will usually keep it so long as they remain active. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can be quite frustrating to the player ranked #100 who has not seen his rank improve or go down for weeks on end (see next comment on anti-fun). If this were starcraft, where rank was determined after many games of play, that would be ok. But in BBG's, where score is almost entirely accumulated over time, and games last for months at a time, this is problematic. Unfortunately, I have not found a solution to this that I like.

Fun vs. Anti-Fun
Players are much more likely to quit and never return over a mechanic that is annoying than they are to stay over a mechanic that is good and enjoyable. In many PvP type BBGs, there is a mechanic of stealing resources from another player. I have come to believe that this mechanic is flawed by design. Although it sounds great (and logical) to be able to take resources from another player (and to really screw them over), the anti-fun effect from the loser is far greater than the fun effect from the winner. Nobody enjoys logging in to see that their account has been thoroughly plundered. So, what is required is a system that allows a player to gain resources upon defeating another player, but does not take any resources from the player that lost. It does not seem logical, but I believe it is required to maintain user interest.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement
There have been many articles, such as this one (http://www.cracked.c...u-addicted.html) that discuss the idea of a skinner box (aka, a mechanic that sets up an addiction). I do not view this as a bad thing. Rather, players want you to set up mechanics that have them coming back for more. The positive reinforcement side of this is very rewarding, and players seek it. However, I have come to find the negative reinforcement tends to lead to behavior extinction (aka, players quit playing). If included, it must be used very sparingly. In BBG's, negative reinforcement is often ok in the beginning stages of the game (such as asking players to log in hourly to ensure their gold doesn't get stolen), but players quickly equate this to anti-fun, and do not return. See previous topic note.

Social Aspects
In all my game design experience, I have often been asked to develop better tools for communication with other players than I have for almost any other feature. They may call it factions, alliances, or whatever... but players crave this communication. In fact, I have almost come to value it as much as the gameplay itself. You only need to look as far as Facebook to see how high in demand this is.

Lots of Surprises
Players like nice surprises. It is perfectly fine to set up mechanics that give money for attacking players, money hourly for owning a certain building type, or money for voting on top sites. But players also crave random, unexpected rewards. Games should be full of such good surprises. I am currently considering adding NPC challenges that proc at certain accumulation thresholds, but I am unsure how this will work in a mainly PvP type game.

Total Randomness
There is a fundamental flaw in paper-rock-scissors. Namely, the outcome is random (if played correctly). This is not fun, and is not a good mechanic to incorporate in a game. I'm not saying that counter strategy should to an opponents pick should be taken out of the design, rather my emphasis here is on randomly choosing. In games that contain counter measures, there must be a mechanic for knowing what an opponent is weak against such that the weakness can be exploited. This exploitation is extremely fun for the exploiter, and causes minimum anti-fun effects for the Mark. However, BBGs suffer in this regard because of the sheer size of the player base. In Starcraft, it is possible, though difficult, to play against multiple opponents and to pick them off strategically. I often enjoyed trying to play 1v7 CPU, building a near perfect defense, then sending in air waves to slowly break down the computer. But in PvP BBGs, where the user base is by design expansive, designing counter mechanics is not practical as it is simply not possible to both guard against and to penetrate the defenses of so many players. This detracts from the very ideology that I have for BBGs; ie, that interesting mechanics should be able to replace the need for graphics. Its chaos theory at its finest, and perhaps the very core of my struggle.

So how to address BBG games then if the strategy element is so complicated? After many weeks of debate, and after reflecting on writing this blog post, I believe the typical BBG needs to abandon the typical tactics found in popular games altogether. They instead need to rely on sheer collection of items to determine success. With this approach, two players who have amassed a large collection of 'stuff' can experience the thirll of attacking each other, not quite knowing who's stuff pile is truly more awesome. This has a second function in that it allows players to collect a lot of 'stuff' in game, which is fairly rewarding. And, althought I wish that I could say this idea is unique, I have already considered that it has been implemented and proven in several other BBGs. If you're current on BBG games, perhaps you know the one I'm referencing.

So where do I go from here?
The same place I go every night Pinky... back to the drawing board.



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