The base question at hand in this topic is:
Should there be a penalty for ‘death’? How severe should this penalty be? What should impact the penalty making it more / less severe?
There is a certain amount of snobbery associated with advocating ‘actual death’ games. Players of Diablo II provide a great example of this with the idea of playing ‘hardcore’ to incur actual death, as defined by complete loss of character and possibly all your gear if nobody is in the same game with you to recover your body. Calling it ‘hardcore’ immediately frames it in a different light than those who are ‘softcore’. Which is problematic.
Phantasia4 has an even more ‘hardcore’ version of actual death. When you die you go away. You leave a corpse, which is a shell of your former self with very little of actual value on it compared to what you started with. Death in P4 is absolute with the exception of characters who have made it to the third phase of the game, they are given three ‘extra lives’ which allow them to escape death. But once they actually die by using them up, they are dead, gone, starting from level 1 again.
I bring up the idea of ‘actual death’ because it results in a different type of gameplay and a different investment in certain aspects of the game. Diablo II hardcore characters invest in more health and value different statistics in gear. Phantasia 4 characters spend large amounts of time preparing for certain steps in the game to ensure they wont be squashed as soon as they find their first monster.
This is different than games such as WoW, where the only loss is a bit of money (via increased repair costs, which can be avoided by being naked) and time. WoWs death system encourages you to try things without significant fear of failure, but also allows certain types of content to be cheated past via corpse-running.
And even other games have more systems for handling death, EVE Online punishes death with a lost ship (which costs in game money to buy) where some of the equipment on it can be recovered under the right conditions, and ejects you into a ‘pod’, which can then also be destroyed. If it is you lose a special class of items that provide significant benefits , and can set you back in skill development if you aren’t up to date on your ‘clone’. Losing a ship is a pain, it’s lost money. Getting ‘podded’ is worse if you have invested in implants or if you’ve been lazy.
Of these it is interesting to note that you are expected to invest certain amounts of time in each game that is roughly reflected in their take on death. WoW characters take very very extended amounts of time to get to the upper levels and each item you get can take extended time to gather, so allowing them to break and disappear or removing the character entirely would be an extremely frustrating thing. Diablo II characters can take a large investment to level, but you have the choice of being hardcore. Phantasia characters can go from the bottom to the top in a week if you work at it, so them dying isn’t a huge time investment lost. Eve characters themselves take years to develop, but making money to buy a ship can be a few afternoons of play , so it’s to be avoided, but not the end of the world. Etc etc etc.
Essentially, punishing players for failure harshly only is acceptable if that failure can be recovered from quickly, either through game design (P4 is easy to level in) or minute penalty (WoW, gold and time).
What is then interesting is the question of just how bad can it get? In WoW the worst case scenario is you get yourself into an area that you can’t handle the monsters, die repeatedly, and eventually find a safe place to respawn (Transition from ghost to player) to hearth (teleport) from to a safe location, worst case result is a lot of repairing of gear. In P4 the worse case is any death. In Diablo the worst case is any death without a friendly player nearby to recover items from your corpse under hardcore rules, in non-hardcore dying in an area with a lot of monsters available to resquish you as you attempt to get your body. In Eve the worst case is death in an expensive ship, and getting podded without an up to date clone or with expensive implants.
Note that of these only P4 has absolutely no significant recourse. I contend that this is truly the ‘actual death’ where WoW is the opposite end of the spectrum with ‘meaningless death’.
How much customization should a player have? Is there such a thing as too much? is there such a thing as too little?
There is an innate desire amongst humans to be able to control aspects of their entertainment. Whether this is simply the choice of what they seek for entertainment or more specifically how they enjoy that entertainment when they get there, it is always there. When it comes to gaming, especially over the last decade or so, this has taken off to amazing heights to the point where I think often times we forget that some things actually are customization in favor of the more obvious.
I argue that classes are inherently customization, and thus seeking further customization under them needs to keep that in mind. Especially when you include ideas such as different ‘kits’, ‘specializations’ etc the customization is happening to a certain degree by that selection moreso than anything else.
At that point designers and players need to ask themselves: What am I actually customizing here? Am I making myself more unique, or simply hiding several simple choices behind a wall of complicated pseudo-decisions?
Blizzard Entertainments interactions with the WoW talent trees are an excellent example of this effect. WoW started with 9 classes, three specializations (called ‘specs’) each, for a sum 27 theoretical class-spec combinations. This eventually became 10 classes and 30 class-spec combinations, and will soon be 11 classes 33 class-spec combinations. From the original release up until the release of Cataclysm the talent trees grew more and more complex. Theory folk like myself spent large amounts of time analyzing the different trees and talents trying to find the best avenues to take, which resulted in ‘cookie cutter’ allotments of talent points. You must do at least X Y and Z to be successful, and here are a few trifle points to put where you want because they don’t matter anyway.
With Cataclysm this changed somewhat, the trees were shrunk back down, and a focus was given on increasing the proportional amount of talent points that were spent on things that “don’t really matter” but add interesting or fun utility to the class-spec combination. All under the guise of ‘customization’. Still, there were cookie cutter specs, and often times even the free points were lumped into ‘for this encounter use these’ type scenarios.
With the next expansion Blizzard has announced that they are doing away with the trees, and simply giving a selection of three potentials at regular level intervals. Eliminating all the extra noise of the talent trees and giving you simple choices for utility benefit. Most of these, theoretically, won’t be able to be mathed out to what the best options are. We’ll see if that actually works.
My point in describing all of this is that this isn’t really customization, this is dressing up class-spec selection that actually was the customization. Selecting utility abilities is all fine and dandy, but if they don’t significantly change the way you play the game (And thus have an easily mathed out result), that the goal hasn’t been realized.
I would argue that instead of this, a system more like that of the game Fable represents true customization. Fable provided you with four types of experience which you could allocate to three types of skills, one of the experiences was general and could be applied to any of the three, the other were specific to that area. This allowed you as a player to pick and choose abilities and build your own character completely. That, is customization. Picking an Arms Warrior (thus a melee damage dealer who uses two handed weapons and a limited set of abilities) in WoW is not the same as picking individual abilities to develop and specialize in in Fable that result in you being a two handed melee damage dealer. Picking which crowd control ability and shout you get to use in your new talent selection toggles is certainly not on the same level of adding magic abilities on the side of your melee in Fable.
Now, is this masked lack of customization bad? Not really, but it needs to be identified for what it is. Not truly customized, merely selected.
Why not have a game where your strategy decides the rate at which you advance independently of your time dedicated?
The ultimate question as gamers continue to populate the so called ‘productive’ age brackets of society is how to find time to play games, and what type of games can be supported. It is true that if you decide to dedicate yourself to it as your free time that you can probably find some amount of time, but this is not necessarily enough time to accomplish what you want to accomplish. For example, at the peak of my WoW playing and theorycrafting I was probably spending a good thirty hours a week on the game, if not more. Now that I am married I don’t think my wife would stand for that (Warcraft Widow Syndrome), if there were kids in the equation I definitely don’t think it would be supportable.
However, if I had a game that I didn’t as much play for 30 hours a week, as I watched for 26, and played for 4, that would be different.
What if the game were about teaching the game to play for you, and then watching it happen?
This can allow you to decouple the effort vs benefit debate from the game, you can put in as much effort as you want, your time dedicated only results (potentially) in better strategies and thus better results. Someone able to come up with a good strategy in a shorter period of time need not dedicate as much time for as much benefit.
The base question at hand is the following:
Should a player receive increased benefit for increased time dedicated? Should this increased benefit be unlimited? Should it asymptote? Should it hard limit? Should it exist at all? Should the benefit cease as soon as they stop dedicating time? Should it continue at an equal, slower, faster, etc rate?
Gamers should be familiar with this especially in the settings of persistent world or social gaming environments. If you do 8 hours of gaming and someone else does 4, should you be farther in the game than them? Should they have to do 4 hours of gaming to catch up?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each model. All highly dependent on how you want your players to interact with your game.
For example, World of Warcraft follows several different models depending on what part of the game you are in and what you are attempting to do.
For leveling you are in a gated advancement model. You have a certain amount of ‘rested experience’, where killing monsters gives increased experience values over the norm, after this is exhausted your experience increases at the ‘normal’ rate until you spend some time outside of the game and it recharges. This results in two rates of gain, initially increased followed by decreased. This type of gated model encourages interaction up to a certain point, and discourages it past that point, but does not remove your ability to benefit entirely.
For reputation gains you are typically in a linear (also potentially named ‘unlimited’) model. You can grind to your hearts content and no amount of action will reduce the gain you are getting from your investment. This is not entirely accurate, as each step in reputation status changes the benefits you receive from any given action, however these are not dependent on time not spent playing or other such action. They are just the reality of the advancement.
For raiding or other such actions to get gear you are typically in a hard limit model. There are a limited number of times you can kill a given individual or set of bosses or complete a given encounter per time period. Once you hit that limit you have no advancement potential on that path, and thus it is hard limited. Investing time in it is either impossible, or produces no benefit.
Gear advancement in WoW also provides an example of an asymptoted model, although it violates some of the constraints of this discussion. As you grind a given encounter level your potentials for advancement decrease significantly. If there are 10 gear pieces that are of benefit to you in the encounters as that number decreases you have the potential to spend more and more time per remaining piece just due the the probability of one becoming available at any given moment. This violates the constraints of the discussion as waiting doesn’t truly reset it, unless you wait to the point of a new tier of encounters becoming available. This is thinking on a significantly increased time scale.
So, what model is best? Are these examples of ‘good’ applications of the models? Somewhat, in a sense.
I argue that the best model for time invested vs benefits allows the widest range of players to accomplish what they would like to accomplish within the game with their available time. This is not to mean that someone with one hour of available play time per week should be on par with someone who spends 40 hours per week playing. But this is to mean that there should be aspects of the game that a one hour per week player can advance in in some way. More appropriately, your game should be tuned so that the minimum acceptable time investment that you want to be reasonable for your game should be able to advance in some way.
The next aspect of this is the question of what happens when you stop playing. Does the benefit stop? Does it continue at a reduced rate? The same rate? A gated rate?
Imagine a game like Tapfish (analogous to any number of recent social games, Farmville etc). You have a very limited amount of benefit from time invested, it is a hard limit system where you have a certain number of actions or certain amount of preparation before you are simply waiting for the next round of events to become available. Produce a tank full of Green Snappers, wait four hours, sell them. In between you can feed them a few times, clean their tank etc, but the true action that got you benefit was the filling of the tank to let them grow to adulthood in four hours.
In this case, your benefit per time dedicated is hard limited to being only a few minutes of time. This is both good and bad. It means that you cannot actively play the game for extended periods of time at a go (in Tapfish’s case, this is not true as you get to higher levels, but for lower levels it definitely is true). It also means that you don’t have to play for extended periods of time at a go, but will still receive benefit. True, you need to deal with your fish / strawberries every four hours, but that isn’t the same as needing eight hours per day of play time to be competitive. The benefit of your actions continue for a period of time after you do them.
This draws a line in the sand for the type of gamer you are attempting to woo to play your game. Some hardcore folk will scoff and say “pshaw, I play all day every day and obviously deserve more benefit than you do mister hour per day person”. Some so called ‘casual’ gamers will agree to that. Sometimes the limits of the game make the argument moot (as in Tapfish), but this will make some players less likely to pursue your game if they can’t dedicate long blocks of time to it.