I can annoy you, but you can’t annoy me

Almost every game I’ve ever looked at, played, or worked on, has someone or a team behind the wheel that thinks it’s always a good idea to put something incredibly awesome into the hands of one race/faction/class that the others do not. It is. People don’t like being the same as everyone else, and everyone loves customisation, I mean. why play a game if you can’t play it the way you want to do a degree of satisfaction (you’re never going to have it all your way!)? Having said that however, I find myself playing games more frequently which often incorporate something that is awesome and ‘totally cool’, but also very, very annoying to be on the end of.

Now most people usually retort this with “give the others something which is the same”, but then you end up with a game in which everyone is annoying everyone else, and that’s not fun. You don’t play a game to be annoyed, you play it to enjoy yourself (and yes, there are those of you who play to annoy others). But hang on there and stop and think for a second. What happens if the other players get tired of being annoyed, and decide to just not put up with it anymore.  You end up damaging your playerbase, which in turn means less players, which in turn means there is a greater chance of those who use the mechanic annoying those who are frustrated by it, which in turn means even less players. The tool or mechanic in which you thought was ‘totally cool’ and awesome, has in turn started destroying your game. Game over man.

I work on a game called DarkSpace (link on the side of the site), and it went through a turbulent patch a few years ago when someone thought many of these ideas should be put into play and would make the game more deep and strategic (counters to counters to counters to counters). In the end, players found the deepest counter to everything and all jumped aboard abusing the tools which had originally been put in place to make the game ‘totally cool’ and awesome. You couldn’t balance it because then everything else was thrown out of wack, and so a year later, our playerbase had shrunk to less than a quarter of what it was prior. Putting tools and mechanics into players hands that annoyed the other side/team destroyed our game. No-one wanted to play it, and we ended up with a playerbase full of people who enjoyed annoying others. Fun times.

Years later we’re still repairing the damage, still tweaking and removing redundant stuff that almost destroyed one of the most fun and promising games I’ve ever played and had the pleasure to work on. So next time you think you have a good idea for something, stop and think. Turn it around and think how fun it would be for others to be on the receiving end. If it’s not, drop it like a plague. Move on, think of something else.

Games are meant to be fun. Not annoying.

Origin fails to supply demand…

EA failed to keep Origin operational when the might of the internet and the Battlefield 3 beta met, a considerable screw up considering this was meant to be the big push for Origin against it’s (arguably) only competitor Steam.  One could argue that there’s no-way they could have expected this level of load, but history teaches us that Valve have had similar issues in the past with Steam, to which they have addressed by having a large content delivery network and many, many phat pipes.

There is little excuse on EA’s end to have this level of in-operability for such a big launch, and leaves me wondering whether they’ll be able to rectify this in team for the retail release.

Balance, balance, balance.

Most of you who read this know I work for a small game development company in my spare time called Palestar.  Palestar own and develop the niche MMO DarkSpace.  This game has been running, in some shape or form, since 2001, and I recently got transferred Development Lead.  In a nutshell, this means I oversee the active development of accepted projects that are assigned to the content team.

To start things off, I’ll give you a bit of detail about DarkSpace.  The game is one of the most unique games I have ever had the pleasure of working on and playing.  Unfortunately, it is also one of those incredible games that are plagued with the issues of no advertising, and no full-time staff to work on the game (everyone who works on the game does so for free and in their spare time).  Despite these issues, the development team has always strived to make DarkSpace the game it should be, not content with sitting still and letting it die.  It’s due to the commitment of an incredible few over the many years that the game still exists, and does so in a fantastic manner.

The game focuses on combat between three factions (teams), of which there are many different classes.  I say classes, but realistically, you cannot define them as such.  There are 9 different hull types, (Scout, Frigate, Destroyer, Cruiser, Dreadnought, Station, Engineer, Supply, and Transport), and although a few of these hulls are specialised, many of them have several configurations that carry out different roles.  Each faction have their own sets of weapons that work in different ways and apply their varying amounts of damage in unique fashions.  The game is very unique due to this, but it’s also one of the hardest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of balancing in return.

For an example of how difficult it is, lets say I take the “Particle Cannon”, and want to increase it’s damage.  If I tweak the damage it’s increased across the entire range of ships due to our usage of level modifiers in the weapon files (each ship hull as a level mod that is inherited by the weapons, we do this so we don’t have to manage x versions of the same weapon).  So modifying one ship to do something better will often result in the entire range of ships with said weapon doing it better.  So when I say that right now we have the most balanced version of the game I’ve ever seen, you better believe some pretty smart people did the math do make it that way.  Looking at the damage, falloff, range, amd reload time graphs is such a time consuming job, but if you want a balanced game, graphs and maths are a must.  But math isn’t everything…

There are always going to be cases where 1+1=2 on paper, but in-game it comes out as 3 and you have no idea why.  You’ve done all the math, and it adds up, but you jump in and play it and nothing does.  In the past a lot of what’s been done has been based purely on math and the belief that “if the math is right, then the game must be right”.  I’ll shout this to the day I die : “nothing in games can ever be purely based on math”.  Any game that has huge balance issues usually has some arbitrary rule that the content designers have to follow, but in turn ends up ruining the balance due to edge cases that aren’t covered by the rules.

Game development is 10% math, 90% gameplay, and that’s being generous to math.  If something doesn’t “feel” right, then you go in and you change it until it does.  Math is a great way to get a baseline and a starting point, but you never use it as an absolute measurement.  That said, if you base a game purely off of gameplay, you have no idea what to change and in what direction if the shirts hit the flan.  Maths isn’t everything, but boy do you need it : it’s the proverbial foundation to our house that is being built upon it.  Do the math right, and you’ll usually end up with some pretty decent baselines to work your way up from.

Working on DarkSpace is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  It’s not a degree, and it’s not 50 hour week shifts, but it certainly ranks up there with the things that make my brain ache until the wee hours of the morning.  I worry how games will continue to grow in complexity and remain balanced as players want and need more levels to gameplay.  How do you balance a game?  How do you do it correctly?  Is there a correct way to do it?

If I knew the answers, I wouldn’t have written this post, and boy do I wish I could have been the content designer for pong.

Thoughts on Rift

For the last month I’ve been playing Rift when possible and I’ve got to say, it’s good.  Damned good at that.

I had applied for closed beta sometime late last year, and had completely forgotten about it until I got an email from the developers (Trion), which I put into my “Read later” folder and promptly forgot to until about a week later.  After reading the various infos online and looking up when the closed beta was up, I decided to jump in, and after all of 20 minutes wished I had been one of the lucky few who had an invite to the very early beta’s.

Rift is an interesting MMO.  It takes a lot of parts from other games and refines them, adding to them, and pretty much improving them in a way which makes you think ‘Why wasn’t this done before?’.  I’m not going to say it copies WoW, because that’s stupid, and if you’re going to bring up that, then you might as well say EVERY MMO is a copy of Everquest, and whatever was before that, and so on, so forth.  Yes, it takes from the previous list of games and experiences, but it does what every good MMO should do – it ADDS and BUILDS to it.

The game is generally about Rifts, which are a sort of global event that everyone and anyone can attend.  Rifts spawn NPC mobs that come in waves, each wave getting progressively harder as you progress through the event.  You can instantly spot a Rift whilst walking around because of the gigantic tentacle-like things that come reaching down from the sky, usually accompanied by a very bright beam of light (which signifies which type of Rift it is (Life, Fire, Death, etc).  Rifts are also noted on the map, which you can mouse over to see if they are a Minor, or Major Rift.

Minor Rifts are the sort of events you can do solo, but can bring a friend if you so wish.  They don’t pose a huge threat, but they can be interesting, and they give decent rewards.  Major rifts on the other hand, are crazy.  Not only can they spawn Invasions (groups of NPC’s that will walk to the nearest outpost or town and start clobbering you), but they can require a group, or an entire raid to take down, which brings me onto the next topic.

In past MMO’s, getting a group for world raid bosses, or just groups in general, can be difficult.  Rift brings something to the table which I cannot believe hasn’t been done before – public groups.  When you walk up to any event, which includes Invasions and both types of Rifts, a neat little button displays in the top-middle part of the screen stating “Join public party”.  When you click this button, all players in the area are grouped into a party, or raid, which can then tackle the problem at hand, and share the rewards.  It’s incredibly simple, intuitive, and as I stated earlier, I cannot believe it’s taken this long to do.

Now, Rifts are only one part of this game, and it would be unfair of me to finish this post without going into some detail about the others.  Firstly, Rift is one of the few games that I can remember in which I have not spent most of my time playing looking at that damned EXP bar.  I just PLAY it because it’s fun, and every now and then “YOU HAVE GAINED A LEVEL” appears on the screen, to which I usually go “What the hell?!”.  It’s lovely to be playing a game and enjoy it to such a degree that I’m not obsessed with hitting level X or getting item B.  The progression through the levels, the quests, the design of it all is just fantastic, and if you’re one of the few people who ends up rushing through this game, then I feel sorry for you – you’re missing a lot.

Rift also has a neat class system, in which you can choose a main class (Warrior, Cleric, Rogue or Mage), and then decide what Souls you want to use.  Each class has 12 souls, of which do various things (tank, support, heal, range, melee, whatever) and you can mix and match whatever ones you want.  Further more, just because you pick those three, doesn’t mean you’re restricted to just those.  At certain points you can pick up quests to unlock a new Soul, which you can swap in and out at your leisure by purchasing a new role at the trainer (you can have a maximum of 4 roles, which you can swap on the fly as long as you’re out of combat).

It doesn’t just stop there though…  To stop players from rushing through the tree’s and going for the last skill, Trion have requested that for every x number of points you put in a tree, you must put a few in another.  Now, at first I thought this system sucked (mostly because I wanted the end skill), but each Soul suggests two other Souls to be paired with, and they each have skills on the bottom few tiers that you can pick up that compliment your class really, really well.  The design that’s gone into this skill builds is insane, and it really shows.

The game has a level of polish to it that you just don’t get anywhere these days, and that’s no small feat.  Overall, Trion have done a fantastic job on Rift, which is exactly why I’ve pre-ordered it and intend to play it to hell and back on March 4th.  If you have as well, I look forward to Riftin’ with you!

Portal 2 release date set, pre-purchase available!

Portal was one of the most ingenious games of the past decade, so it’s little wonder Valve decided to work on a sequel (plus, who doesn’t want to hear that catchy song again?).

Today at 11:09, Valve posted a news article on steampowered.com, stating that Portal 2 pre-purchase was available, and that the game would become available worldwide on April 18th.

I don’t know about you, but I’m about 5 seconds away from entering my payment details…

Source: Steampowered

Do me a favour…

When your laptop won’t do Windows Update and refuses to install any Windows software, please, please, PLEASE check that your date is at least set to the current year, month and day before you ask your ‘computer expert’ friend to fix it for you.

Oh, Kevin Butler…

It seems Kevin Butler (@TheKevinButler) accidentaly re-tweeted a message he thought was a vague Battleships reference, but was in-fact the PS3’s USB dongle ID generator key, with the challenge “Come at me” from now infamous Travis La Marr (aka @exiva).  Someone should really keep ol’ Kevin up-to-date with recent events!

Source: Engadget

New website design, and CMS!

As you might have noticed, the website has undergone a rather radical change…  I decided to move away from Joomla, which was great for designing websites like www.galacticnavy.co.uk.  However, for a more single-user blog orientated website, it was cumbersome, and took forever to post a simple update.  So I bit the bullet, and moved forward.

In comes WordPress…  I’ve never installed, or tried out WordPress, but I’ve heard nothing but praise about it from the people I know who work with it.  From the 10 minutes I’ve spent setting it up, and messing with the settings, I can see that it is a fantastic little piece of software engineering!

Anyway, with that said, hopefully this’ll be used a bit more now.