A Spoonful of Sugar

I recently started playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - the latest in a video game series that is a pacesetter in the single player Role Playing Game (RPG) genre.  I found myself wondering whether the distribution of content in virtual worlds - were it as sugar - is better lumpy or sprinkled...

Beyond horse armor and other evolutionary innovations, Oblivion appears faithful to its genre and the history of the RPG formula.  As disclosure, I have always loved the idea of the single-player RPG but am forever finding myself short of the ideal.  I loved Morrowind (the predecessor to Oblivion) and its expansion packs for all the 100 times I started and restarted but never finished them.   The formula of deep and intricate quests and Player Guide-driven play structures  eventually got in my way.

However.

Whatever you may think of its genre, Morrowind (the predecessor to Oblivion) was notable for - amongst other things - superbly crafting and embedding its tutorial and character creation process into the opening narrative of the game:   you were a prisoner on a ship slowly remembering your land legs and soon to be confronted with a release into a gradual mystery.

Oblivion goes one step further.  I found the opening drama involving the doomed emperor seductive. I found its tutorial and character creation process so cleverly woven into the tense fabric of the emperor's escape that I quickly became drunk on "For The Win" (FTW!): long live the emperor!

I'm not sure how my Oblivion experience will end, but at least to now, I find myself so jazzed by the opening  segment and its flow into the main-line quest that I can easily overlook the lessor  irritations of min-maxing and cranking skills, levels, money - the grind stuff.  A lump of sugar in a long afternoon of watery tea-sipping goes a long way.

A long while ago I saw the "Making Finding Nemo" documentary (DvD).  I recall a discussion on the strategy they used to maximize the impact of their water special-effects.  Given the limitations of resources the choice they made was to focus most of their budget on a single scene and skimp everywhere else.  They found it more efficient to sell the audience once, do it really well, and then abstract elsewhere.

Sure.  Literature and characterization in general works like this.   All media does:  any successful presentation is unlikely to be equally deep in all places.  The art is picking the right spots.

However, to bring this back to MMORPGs and the virtual world experience.  Are there places where MMORPG content could be improved to move players forward with disproportionate effect?   Or have I got this wrong.  Is the lumpy strategy relatively less useful to MMORPGs because of their emphasis on a longer and more socially-driven experience?   Should MMORPG developers work with lumps or focus on sprinkling the sugar all about?   


Comments on A Spoonful of Sugar:

Mike Rozak says:

While I didn't use the analogy of lumps of sugar, I also noticed that Oblivion did well providing a balance of hand-crafted content (like the opening sequence) as well as more procedural content (like many of the dungeons). This makes the world feel both large and deep. Compare this to Myst, which is all hand crafted, and feels SMALL and deep, or a typicall MMORPG which has more procedural content (fields of monsters) and which feels large and SHALLOW.

More info on http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/OblivionProcedural.htm

Posted Apr 29, 2006 6:11:36 PM | link

Mark Wallace says:

I'd love to see an MMO that combined lumps with sprinkles. This concept has been kicking around in my brain, but it's pretty rough. The sprinkles would come in the form that MMO content currently takes: a string of quests, individual or in brief chains, that moves character development forward and guides you through the zones of the world (although I think zoning could be tweaked a bit as well, but that's for another post). Then, for the lumps, you have *one* long-range quest chain that stays with you from beginning to end. But you only interact with it at key points. Maybe at Level 1 you're charged with bringing a message to someone in a zone you can't really survive until Level 10. Then you've got to retrieve an artifact that you don't have access to until you're in the 20s. At which point you're sent to an instance to off a boss. Etc.

Ideally, the chain would have a branch or two at each node, so that which part of the quest you chose to complete would be part of your character development. Maybe you meet two NPCs at Level 10. One wants you to retrieve an artifact at Level 20 and bring it to NPC X. But the other wants you to kill NPC X. So you make these choices and perhaps you receive new powers or abilities or standings based on them. Etc., etc. (You have to be careful to design this so it can't be gamed, but I think that's do-able.)

I'm not far through Oblivion, but I get the feeling it works in a vaguely similar way. There are elements of this in World of Warcraft already, with faction standings, but I don't feel like it goes deep enough. Gear is not character. And maybe that's a subject for another post as well.

Posted Apr 29, 2006 10:45:26 PM | link

Torley Linden says:

I haven't played Oblivion yet--one of the things that blew me away about it was finding out what Tiger Crossing's prime job is in SL (it's in his profile, natch). :)

What Mark mentioned about branches fascinated me in particular. I always wanted to have that level of intricacy but very replayable thoughtfulness in a cyberpunk game because of how additionally oppressionable the whole "dystopian" vibe is. Deus Ex made very big, at some times obvious and other oblique, points about being responsible for your choices. I wish it had more strings of quests in a similar way, more cities, etc.

While different radically in gameplay but with the same appreciation for fine storytelling, has anyone else played The Longest Journey: Dreamfall yet? I haven't but it's been long-awaited for me; I enjoyed the first game very much, as linear (and at points, tipping the hat to the now-past art of the point-and-click adventure) as it was. Lushness of atmospheres.

I didn't see the Finding Nemo documentary but I enjoyed the movie immensely. It's funny because at points, I was thinking "How much new tech did they get in to do such nice water?" and yet, I felt the land scenes--like in the dentist's office--were crafted quite well too, with a nice contrast of color from the submerged blue.

Kinda reminds me of, "Oh, don't spread yourself too thin, focus on this one thing and do it immensely well; if you have extra you can layer it like icing."

Posted Apr 30, 2006 12:44:22 AM | link

Frederick Levy says:

For a game to be genuinely good there has to be a "coating" rather than a sprinkling. I play Lineage II, which is an MMORPG, it's graphics engine is used extensively throughout and to good effect. Notably the water effects yet also the grand buildings within the towns. Unfortunately I major grip I have is that the opening areas are very dull save a few trees. But I think this is forgivable because you don't stay there very long. Also the item drops of creatures is also relatively consistent throughout the game, being that a creature that is a mild challenge to kill will drop an item attributable to your level.

Going slightly back off the topic, the use of "nice looking single scene advertising" is widely used. Take Oblivion for example in all the adverts we see lovely sweeping shots with glorious lighting effects and such. Yet many who play won't get to see them due to such heavy requirements placed on their computers.
Another example of "nice looking single scene advertising" is that used in console market, not so much now but previously, pre-rendered footage was widely used to promote games. I am not saying that this is bad but it is a cunning way for developers to sell there game.
For a game to be genuinely good there has to be a "coating" rather than a sprinkling. I play Lineage II, which is an MMORPG, it's graphics engine is used extensively throughout and to good effect. Notably the water effects yet also the grand buildings within the towns. Unfortunately I major grip I have is that the opening areas are very dull save a few trees. But I think this is forgivable because you don't stay there very long. Also the item drops of creatures is also relatively consistent throughout the game, being that a creature that is a mild challenge to kill will drop an item attributable to your level.

Going slightly back off the topic, the use of "nice looking single scene advertising" is widely used. Take Oblivion for example in all the adverts we see lovely sweeping shots with glorious lighting effects and such. Yet many who play won't get to see them due to such heavy requirements placed on their computers.
Another example of "nice looking single scene advertising" is that used in console market, not so much now but previously, pre-rendered footage was widely used to promote games. I am not saying that this is bad but it is a cunning way for developers to sell there game.
For a game to be genuinely good there has to be a "coating" rather than a sprinkling. I play Lineage II, which is an MMORPG, it's graphics engine is used extensively throughout and to good effect. Notably the water effects yet also the grand buildings within the towns. Unfortunately I major grip I have is that the opening areas are very dull save a few trees. But I think this is forgivable because you don't stay there very long. Also the item drops of creatures is also relatively consistent throughout the game, being that a creature that is a mild challenge to kill will drop an item attributable to your level.

Going slightly back off the topic, the use of "nice looking single scene advertising" is widely used. Take Oblivion for example in all the adverts we see lovely sweeping shots with glorious lighting effects and such. Yet many who play won't get to see them due to such heavy requirements placed on their computers.
Another example of "nice looking single scene advertising" is that used in console market, not so much now but previously, pre-rendered footage was widely used to promote games. I am not saying that this is bad but it is a cunning way for developers to sell there game.

Posted Apr 30, 2006 5:34:25 AM | link

Froztwolf says:

I think this can and should be utilized more in MMO's then is currently being done. If more focus was set on making the first week of play deeper, more aesthetic and generally more pleasing then is often the case then players would forgive the grind that may follow.
A few such points throughout the level line and people might actually not get bored before getting to maxlevel.

Posted Apr 30, 2006 8:12:39 AM | link

illovich says:

Then, for the lumps, you have *one* long-range quest chain that stays with you from beginning to end. But you only interact with it at key points.

Given the difference between a player's internal identity between single player games and MMORPGs (in single player games you tend to be the messiah--or "the one" at least, in MMORPGs you're an extra in a cast of hundreds of thousands), I think there's always going to be differences in designs, although I can see how a designer could extend the beginning newbie quests all the way through the game (to use WoW as an example, there could be a quest chain that takes you from killing defias in Elwyn Forest to the death of Nefarian in BWL -- arguably that quest chain is there, but it could be more explicit).

One good implementation in MMORPGs that would have its roots more in asian rpgs would be class specific gear that you acquire as a low level character and then expand with quests throughout the game. There could be branches so that the gear was customizable so that people had individuality, etc.

Posted Apr 30, 2006 10:53:28 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Are there places where MMORPG content could be improved to move players forward with disproportionate effect? Or have I got this wrong. Is the lumpy strategy relatively less useful to MMORPGs because of their emphasis on a longer and more socially-driven experience? Should MMORPG developers work with lumps or focus on sprinkling the sugar all about?

I think there's a definitive answer to this question, though maybe not one most of us have considered directly. If you think about the "lumps" as special art or gameplay goodness, little rewarding places, experiences, or events, and if the goal is to bring people into the game and keep them playing, then I think there's a pretty straightforward answer: use a "variable ratio" schedule of such rewards, possibly preceded by and overlapped with a limited fixed duration schedule at the very beginning (the full explanation on the site A Behavioral Approach to Game Design is worth reviewing - though note that effective conditioning techniques are not synonymous with the experience of fun). I'm not a behaviorist by any means, but it's difficult to argue with the efficacy of operant conditioning for contexts like this.

As humans we respond well to visual and auditory rewards, so the idea of creating a lush beginning and then sprinkling those reward-lumps throughout the play experience with somewhat random and ever-decreasing frequency should help greatly in achieving significant buy-in and retention of players, and probably create the illusion that such rewarding lumps are actually more pervasive than they are.

Posted Apr 30, 2006 5:56:09 PM | link

gordon.calleja says:

I've tried to play Oblivion in two ways. Let me call these grind and rp. with grind i was concerned about increading minor skills to get maximal increase in characteristics without levelling too quickly and so on... with rp i tried to ignore the numbers and try and approach the game from the perspective of... what do I, as this character want to do now. And the lovely thing I found about the game is that it supports the rp perspective without the grind getting in the way... at all. I have no idea how far I am in the game, nor do I care as such, I find it liberating that it supports my freedom of choice. If something is too tough... I run away... after a long period of MMOGs I'm really appreciating that freedom and also the fact that quests make more narrative sense and thus draw me in more.

The bottom line for me is... balancing the gain in game pleasure from having other ppl around with the gain from more interesting content... and the latter comes out the undisputed winner. Do quests need to be so repetitive and mindless as is the case with MMOGs like WoW? I love playing with the people I m playing but in the last months, every time i see the WoW login screen I start fantasising about doing the dishes... and I hate doing dishes... and I still havent managed to get any of my two characters beyond 40

Posted Apr 30, 2006 6:54:48 PM | link

Thabor says:

It rather difficult to establish a variable ratio in games where open gameplay is emphasized. I tend to think of content banding by level range to be the conventional means of doing that.

Oblivion does fairly well with regard to distribution because is almost totally throws away level keyed content. Content and rewards are mostly scaled according to level.

However, being very open it is also subject to to major redistribution of rewards according to meta-information from game guides, friends, etc..

If anything I've found Oblivion to be too grind oriented, due to the persistant issues with their build/leveling model. I made the mistake of choosing a character with primary attributes that I normally would exercise almost constantly. I had to completely change my play style to prevent myself from leveling into incapacity.


The bottom line for me is... balancing the gain in game pleasure from having other ppl around with the gain from more interesting content... and the latter comes out the undisputed winner. Do quests need to be so repetitive and mindless as is the case with MMOGs like WoW?

Its funny to hear something like this, because I think WoW is coming off as repetitive due to the superior quantity of quests it has rather than any signficant difference in actual types of quests.

You're doing all the same things in Obliviion as in WoW, just at a different pacing with a different background..

Posted May 1, 2006 8:18:59 PM | link

Alex says:

Combining open-end game architecture with the minimalist restraints of the shared story-line and some consistent design elements would allow for development of really engaging and "esthetically stable" games... - Such "stability" is really missing in game systems that are too much open - like SL - pink bunnies 'n furry tales everywhere... yuk! - nobody sees me that place any time soon ;)

Posted May 2, 2006 4:12:46 PM | link

Alex says:

- ref. previous post
would allow for development of really engaging and "esthetically stable" games...

I meant development driven by the user - a new kind of mix - maybe 10% development + 90% modding - at all levels - from geometry & textures to story-line/plot and maybe game dynamics/simulations

Posted May 2, 2006 4:15:28 PM | link

gordon.calleja says:

Thabor- You're doing all the same things in Obliviion as in WoW, just at a different pacing with a different background..

...no I'm not. The narrative that makes up my character's past and informs my future decisions is dependent on the fact that there are interesting narrative hooks that add some layers to the bare bones system. The player is given a choice of essentially two perspectives: approach it as a numbers game and do as efficiently as you can (which seems to be the case with ppl that feel that there is a grind in a game which doesnt warrant it) or choose to do stuff in a considerably open world embroidered with a decent narrative elements (and here i dont mean the linear quest but anythign that helps the player create a story for him/herself). But even from a systematic point of view, I can do what I would like my character to do without having to hit a particular level to do it. I dont have to be level 35 to advance in my alchemy, for example.

Another thing is that the nature of quests sets a goal that can be approached from a variety of ways. I ve tried solving the same quest in different ways and have managed succesfully. Taking the object needed and running away, sneaking to the object past guards, killing everything in site...

Superior quantity of WoW quests? What difference does it make if there are 10 or 150 quests which ask me to kill x creatures or deliver y to z or worse still, kill a variable number of creatures to get x drops of items they often should be carrying anyway (such as heads)?
On top of that there is no narrative veneer. Why am I doing this? To get higher in levels to kill bigger creatures, gank more players (if in pvp) and explore more of the world.

Posted May 3, 2006 11:44:56 PM | link

Thabor says:


Gordon,


Maybe you missed it, but I was responding in particular to you claim about repetitive and mindless quests. There are plenty of narrative hooks scattered around WoW if you have the patience to read.

As far as grind goes, if you are not familiar with Oblivion there is a good chance you will choose a character templete with all the skills you like to use as major skills. Unless you are willing to grind this causes you to lose ground on a relative power scale. The result being that 20-30 hours into the game you may not be able to do much of anything other than run away. I have at least 3 friends who have abandoned the Elder Scrolls series because they ended up in exactly that situation because they tried to roleplay and didn't grind.


But even from a systematic point of view, I can do what I would like my character to do without having to hit a particular level to do it. I dont have to be level 35 to advance in my alchemy, for example.

Hate to disappoint you, but if you chose it as a major skill then for any given skill in Alchemy you will have to have a minimum of a particular character level. The relationship is just in the opposite direction. Assuming you started with a 35 in it as a major skill that means you'll have to be a minimum of level 7 before you have maxed your Alchemy.


Another thing is that the nature of quests sets a goal that can be approached from a variety of ways. I ve tried solving the same quest in different ways and have managed succesfully.

That isn't unique to Oblivion. Variable approaches are available where the developer's have supported it. There are numerous cases in Oblivion where a quest item can't be obtained without killing something, and also plenty of areas that can't be accessed without a key. It may happen more in online games, but there are still plenty of examples where you do have the freedom in MMOGs as well. The problem in MMOGs is most people pass up interesting challenges in favor of finishing by reliable overwhelming force. That doesn't mean that you personally have to.


Superior quantity of WoW quests? What difference does it make if there are 10 or 150 quests

Apparently it makes the difference between being called repetitive and mindless as opposed to innovative. As quests in Oblivion consist primarily of :

Travel to location or npc x.
Travel to location or npc x without being seen by npc(s) y.
Gather quantity x of item y.
Kill npc x.
Kill x npcs in location y.
Use item or effect x on npc or location y.
Protect npc z while doing one of the above.

So eight quest types or so over a hundred quests equals "interesting content".. The same eight or so quest types distributed across a thousand or so quests equals "repetitive and mindless".


On top of that there is no narrative veneer. Why am I doing this?

So rewards of gold, items, and titles constitute "narrative veneer" in single player games, but not multiplayer ones? PVP? How about I want to be a great general in the Alliance.. Killing bigger creatures? How about clearing support lines to a critical strategic point for a new campainged through the portal in the Blasted Lands.. You may choose to discount the backdrop but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

Posted May 4, 2006 1:45:40 PM | link

Fa:zza says:

Nate, I completely agree that Oblivion is just fantastic. The depth of the story is so well crafted that after a couple of hours playing Ihad to decide that I had to quit playing because otherwise I would become to immersed for the next couple of months. However, I have turned to 'The Elder Scrolls Construction Set' (TESCS) to develop a mod which we might want to use for educational purposes. We want to create a fully immersive 3d course in a 'Cone'. Have a look if you like: http://www.ics.mq.edu.au/~eric/2006-05-10%20Uni/IMG_4319.jpg
http://www.ics.mq.edu.au/~eric/2006-05-10%20Uni/IMG_4320.jpg
The first picture shows the testsetup on an Athlon 4000+ with 2 NVidia 7800 GTX and Oblivion stretched onto the three monitors and the second picture shows the Cone that we want to use for our learning experience. Can you imagine how immersive that would be to play Oblivion in such an environment with surround sound? Anyway, have fun, Fa:zza

Posted May 14, 2006 11:19:18 PM | link