Monday, November 15, 2010

PACE System

A great paradigm for MMO’s today, if not the greatest, is its progression structure, based on experience gathered from activities such as killing monsters or other players, completing quests, exploring new places and such. This experience is then converted into levels, labeling the character a given level and rewarding him/her with points they can either freely spend on their desired attributes or with preset values that are added to the  attributes automatically after each new level is achieved.  The “MMO-OFF” contest had the objective of inciting the creation of ideas and designs which incentivized players to spend less time inside the game. As well as solving the problem of players burning through the hand-crafted content too fast, which these genres of games so heavily rely on. The problem, as the contest presented, led me to wonder about two issues of the standard system today, which were the following:

Issue 1: Players spend too much time in the game. Now this is interesting, because can you really blame players for wanting to spend more and more time inside the game? When the precise message the gameplay yell is: “The more you play it, the further you get into it!”. It’s hard to think that players actually dedicated and truly interested in playing and exploring the game’s world, lore and gameplay possibilities would not follow this simple advice from the game itself. You’re creating the game and telling players not to experience it, not to enjoy it as deeply as they can. It’s like putting food for your dog and making the poor thing just sit still right by it and stare at it, you can’t really blame him if at one point, sooner or later, he starts eating. It’s just natural and instinctive. So, one way that could be changed is by having the experience of playing the game convey a different message. This “message” would be one that incites players to explore and dive into the world in doses, balancing time inside and outside the game in order to fully progress in the game, without worrying about leveling up or if he’s friend is going to surpass his level because he’s not investing 7 hours a day into it. So this is one point that ought to be re-explored and maybe even re-defined.

Issue 2: One of the aspects that keeps the playing of the game interesting is the feeling that there’s always something new to be found in the next corner, in the next area, after a certain event, a new NPC to meet, someone new to get acquainted to or the latest development in the conflict afflicting the land the game features and the player ventures. This necessary aspect makes the game fun to explore, but when put together with the current message most game structures convey, players end up experiencing content rather quickly, sometimes  even to the point where it renders the game boring. Even though it’s a given this state will be eventually reached by all players, unless more content is released periodically, it would be, nevertheless, interesting for developers to have a reward system that looks free and intuitive, even though it provides them with a subtly tighter control over how long it would take for all players to experience all content without making them feel like they’re being controlled or kept (be it either in time or space) from experiencing all the game has to offer.

With these issues in mind, and attempting to create a solution that addressed them both, I came up with the  PACE system, which was my submission for the GameCareerGuide’s Game Design Challenge regarding this subject, although it was rather poorly explained in the original entry due to word-count limits, the name  of the system stands for Persistent Absorption Character Enhancement and it is, at its heart, an MMOG character progression/reward system which mainly focuses on inciting players to limit their playtime in the game without feeling like they're being kicked out of it by some mechanic that increasingly limits their progress the more they play and allows developers to manage the amount of content players have access to in a given amount of time.

A first, and very important, point to be made is that leaving the game is entirely up to the player, at all times, though the system subtlety encourages him to do so through rewards and benefits if he takes longer periods of time off the game between quests and adventures. Secondly, keep in mind this is a system, therefore it’s flexible. It should work for the designer’s purpose, not the other way around. It can, and should, be tweaked for the experience’s best interest. More on this later, as I unravel the concepts behind the system.

So, basically, the two main issues presented by the challenge were the fact that players need to forget the notion that spending 10 hours a day playing the game is necessary to enjoy it, but in doing so they also need to be aware they’re not missing out on anything, making sure they don’t fall too behind in terms of progress, since it’s a given that if they indeed cherish your game, they won’t want to be behind their friends and other players who can afford to spend 10 hours inside the game (issue number one) and we need to allow a more rigid control over the game’s content by the developer that created it (issue number two), from there I created the key concept behind the PACE system: The Slow-Absorption Element (SAE), or just Element. Ideally, there are no levels in PACE. The Slow-Absorption Element is the item sought by players to enhance their attributes, just like experience and levels would in any other MMO’s, but an Element is not limited to just that. In PACE, SAE’s are the responsible for character growth in all aspects of the game, be it new equipment, magic, spells or whatever other feature the designer wants to make accessible to the player. Elements can be used to give players access to new technology, reach the next level in their character’s magical studies or any other contextual reason the designer might've created for their players to pursue. The sources from where a player could get a a SAE also depend solely on the developer's choice and design. It could be something bought in the black market, assembled from a series of special ingredients and rituals or found through exploration of desolate planets across the galaxy.

There are two kinds of SAE's: Consistent and inconsistent. Consistent ones are those achievable by some type of currency. Money or any other type of currency the game might feature. Fallout 3, for instance, used bottle caps. These consistent Elements can be bought in a regular store or even in the black market, as I’ve already mentioned before. So, questing for money is the way to get them. They’re called consistent because they’re always there, available to the player, as long as he/she has enough currency to get it. There're also the inconsistent ones, which require the player to explore and quest for the items specifically, thus the player never really knows when he'll come across an Element or if he'll even successfully find one at all.

After completing quests, amounting enough money and/or uniting the recipients needed for the SAE’s formula the players have three choices: the first option is the trick behind PACE, the player can choose to persistently absorb all of the artifact’s power through a slow and lengthy process, called the Persistent Absorption Process (PAP). By undergoing PAP the player fully absorbs the power contained inside the Element and takes full benefit from his efforts spent into acquiring the SAE in-game. Second option, absorb it right away and gain some of the Element’s total benefit instantly in order to keep playing, we encourage the player to leave the game after collecting some Elements, but he’s never forced, this second option is his tool of choice in order to keep playing. A third option would be to save it for later. Players do have slots to hold onto some SAE’s and use them after an event or something important they have scheduled later that day or so, though not too many slots are available to the player. We don’t want them scheduling PAP’s for the next five months and not showing up until then. So, summarizing, if the player wants to rush the process of absorption and keep playing, he can, sometimes, do so using the second option. There's no penalty for it, he’ll even gain some of the SAE’s benefits, but not as much as if he took a break and underwent the PAP, but we never force the player to use the SAE right away. We give the player some flexibility to plan and even to go back on a choice, depending on the element being used.

The Persistent Absorption Process requires no player input; in fact it actually requires the player to be logged off. The progress of the PAP is showed in the login screen letting the player know when it'll be finished and what percentage of power has already been absorbed. Attempting to login before the process is finished prompts a warning, informing the player that entering the game will interrupt the PAP, either making the remaining energy in the artifact go to waste or resetting any benefits acquired from the Element, but letting the character keep it, at player’s choice. Needless to say that PACE is a pretty context heavy system, and this means two things: Number one, it goes against the flow of experience and level based character progression systems known today. So you need to make it clear for players what they're getting into. Number two, you need to ornate the system a lot with reasons, explanations and excuses as to why things must be done the way they do. Everything must be pretty well explained, otherwise the mechanic becomes a nuisance in the eyes of players much used to the old whoever gets there first, leaves there first mentality.

It's also important to remember two things: First, it is part of the designer's job to know the average time it takes a player to get a hold of a SAE at any given point in the game. Thus it’s also his job to choose how the system will play out in his game. Does he want the system to even out any discrepancies that are going to occur by the difference in playtime the players have? Then the designers should tweak the numbers so that any benefit a player can acquire by absorbing an Element for three hours can also be acquired by instantly-absorbing X Elements, X being the average number of Elements a player can possibly find in the same three hours, and so on. It solely depends on the designer’s vision. Secondly, it’s important to point out that the so-called SAE’s, or elements are just generic names. A project's creative designer has to come up with cool items that relate to the world’s back-story and make sense gameplay-wise to fill the SAE's position, like the examples I mentioned above.

During the creation of the PACE I came up with 4 different items that could be classified as SAE’s. Please, keep in mind that I created all these examples using a 4-layered character structure, therefore any differences towards any other character structures would have to be appropriately balanced and adapted. For the ones who don’t know what I’m talking about, the four layers are:

The first layer contains attributes like Strength, Dexterity, Vitality and Intelligence which the being invariably has. These are all attributes which define who the character is. This category holds all the attributes and numbers that have a more indirect use in the game world. It’s what defines all the abilities the player has.

The second layer is the abilities layer, which carries specifications for actions like running speed, explosion speed, physical damage capable of inflicting and withstanding with his limbs and torso, will power, fatigue level, reaction time, awareness and etc. They’re all calculated using attributes as their base. Abilities are, in this particular sense, what the character is naturally capable of doing when bare naked, with simple clothing or with no skill and technological assistance. This category holds all the attributes and numbers which can be more directly used in the game world, therefore they can be considered the actual gameplay itself.

The third layer refers to the skills possessed by the player, the knowledge which augments the performance or the duration of the basic abilities held in the second layer such as making the character’s accuracy better or increasing the it’s sprint time. It’s a fact that a character can get better and better in using a rifle through training or he can even entirely learn how to shoot a rifle through constant necessary experience, of course some things might not be capable of being used or operated unless the player previously has the skill, like a special vehicle or armor. In that case, it would be advisable to require the character to have the skill prior to trying to make use of the item. Basically put: the skill level affects the natural ability of the character, if such exists. These natural abilities are presented, again, in the previous layer.

The fourth layer holds all the equipment the player has. Equipment in a game can sometimes increase the player’s performance and capacity or even enable some kind of gameplay style or move in the player’s repertoire. Equipments work just like skills, except they can make a character fly and other cool stuff which simple skills can’t, unless you’re an alien, then maybe you can fly or become invisible with mental training. Anyhow, of course equipment can always be stripped of a character, whereas a skill can only be taken away with brainwashing, if you’re into this “staying true to some aspects of real life” thingy. It greatly supports the performance of skills and abilities, sometimes even enabling a given style of gameplay or adding to the player’s choice repertoire.

It is important to remember that none of elements explained below are in the same universe, much less in the same game. They could be, with the proper tweaking of their backstories, functionality and effect. Though it was chosen to present and explain them for what they are, using separate universes, backstories and the like. These are mere examples with the purpose of exemplifying the potential and some of the uses an element could take shape as. Anything not explained or detailed could, and should, be filled in with your imagination.

The first element I came up with during the creation of the system was an alien tablet. This tablet contains specifications for advanced technology; they’re called “Inscription of the Ancients”. This is an example of an item that could be used for a equipment-oriented reward and an example of an inconsistent SAE, since it’s an item generally found and not bought. The tablet can be read by a Portable Factory Module which is an item all characters heavily dependent on equipment have in the fictitious game world I created for particular this example. The Inscription is inserted into the factory and blasted with radiation which reveals the hidden markings and symbols. A little backstory for it: the tablet was actually thought to be mystically dangerous in ancient times, until a human scientist discovered how to read the information in it, ever since then PFM’s have been created and continuously improved. This explosion in portability and tech incited the search and scavenging of these tablets across all galaxy, one tablet can be read one time, and having technology nobody else does is considered to be an advantage. The PFM is programmed to thoroughly analyze the tablet and create the best possible outcome out of the information it contains. The process, of course, takes time (PAP), though the device does present the possibility of just skimming the inscription and assembling a quicker outcome. For example, let’s say the player comes across a flame ignition control and power tablet, one from which could potentially spring a nice flamethrower attachment for his main rifle. If the player decides to undergo PAP he’ll get a portable flamethrower, attachable to the main rifle, enabling him the use of two powerful weapons at once. If he decides to “instantly absorb” or, in this item’s context, skim the tablet in order to keep playing, the character will get a big and bulky flamethrower with a much less powerful oxygen combustion system than the original attachment. Not to mention the weapon is going to have to be wielded by itself. While the player still gets access to new tech, even though he instantly skimmed the tablet, this serves to incentivize the use of the PAP. This player, who skimmed the tablet, would have to find another flame ignition control and power tablets and either instant absorb a certain number of then or PAP the next tablet. The bright side is that, ideally, the PAP process would last a little less this time, supporting the idea that the skimming already meant something and that the PFM already has some information about the fire technology the tablet holds. Again, totally up to the designer to tweak these numbers and perhaps even out the differences a bit if he feels he doesn’t want his game to convey this message or experience.

The second Element is called “Hourglass”. This device is placed in one’s ear when it goes to sleep, provoking lucid dreams. The element allows anyone to train and improve their skills even when they’re sleeping. This is an example of an item which is used for a skill-oriented reward. It is also a consistent Element, which, as a perk of its own, cannot be instantly absorbed and the reason for that is simple: knowledge invariably requires practice and time for natural absorption and by the time this device was built they still hadn’t found a way to spike brain activity in a way a person could read and assimilate a 700-page book. Upon use of an Hourglass, the player would choose which skill or list of skills he would like to share his practice time and then get dreaming. The device works through emission of a very high frequency sound wave which is not even heard by the human ear, but is felt by the brain. The wave incites a slight peak in brain activity right before it’s about to enter a sleep state, causing REM sleep. In this state, the character enters a dream state which is moderated by the device, preventing the corruption of the “physical” dream world with fantastic features not true to the real world, although it still gives enough autonomy and freedom to the user to break those rules when strictly requested, the Hourglass simply makes sure the user gets a real experience, one that can be passed as a legit memory, not just a dream. But the user never loses consciousness that he’s not in a real world. As one could expect, Hourglasses require an enormous amount of energy to function, energy they get from the cracking of ruxxy crystals. Ruxxy crystals are incredibly expensive jewels which are mined from planets all over the galaxy. The population of the universe often wonders if the crystal’s steep prices and all the restraints put into the Hourglass device’s design are due to actual difficulty in finding and extracting the crystals or a way to keep a good percentage of the universe from engulfing themselves into a world of pleasure and fantasy that only their minds could provide for them, of course the results of such a trend would be terrible since it would alienate most of the population. In this hypothetical game world I present the players would buy the Hourglass device once, and subsequently buy any crystals he wishes in any authorized sale store, thus explaining why it is labeled a consistent SAE. After activating it the player would choose how many hours he would like to spend practicing each skill, and then logoff. When logging in the prompting is pretty much the same as the Inscription, although there’s one detail which I thought could be further discussed and I’ll leave it to the readers to take their pick: the hourglass could work in a way all the progress is lost if the player chooses to login without waiting for the crystal to run out of energy. That would require a change in the lore so that if the process is interrupted the crystal would need to remain intact, thus giving a chance for the player to reschedule his PAP. The second option is to use a more practical approach and go for the principle that what you learn, you don’t simply forget. Making players keep the progress they had up until the point where they cancelled the process, but taking the crystal from them. I enjoy the latter a lot more, for one because it provides a little variety in the way these this SAE works when relating to others. Even though the first option could be perfectly realized since people usually don’t remember all their dreams and the designer could very easily capitalize on this simple fact from the human condition to craft an acceptable reason for the players’ progress to be lost.

This third SAE is called “Essence of Kings” and it serves a very specific purpose, it was designed to be used for a mechanic called Path of the Ancestors. The Essence of Kings is, basically, a mystical glowing crystal shape and, even though it is solid, something glows inside the transparent crystal. The essence carries glowing dust scattered among the crystal’s molecules and absorption of the dust grants permanent benefits to the person’s natural abilities. For optimal dust absorption rate it is recommended to hold the artifact for a continuous period of time, usually during meditation (PAP). This allows the dust to be slowly absorbed by the skin, with no loss to the environment. On the other hand, one could break the artifact and, with the crystal shape broken, set the dust into the air and inhale it, though this method allows for only a portion of the dust being effectively inhaled. Its backstory is quite peculiar: In fantasy worlds these artifacts are generally created by collecting the necessary items for its creation and then imbuing the crystal with energy, coming from the character’s ancestors. The imbuing process can be done, once the materials are collected, by either the ever-moving spiritual sages, these are NPC’s scattered around the game world; the trick is that these sages are difficult to find. They are nomads and are constantly changing place, but they realize the work for a symbolical fee, since they are not interested in any material wealth. The imbuing process can also be done by any player with a spiritually-linked class, these of course are much easier to find though much more expensive. Imbuing the power of an ancestor spirit in the crystal creates a dust which carries the power of those who lived and trained before you. By seeking, crafting and using Essences of Kings the player has an opportunity to achieve key bonuses to their abilities and, at the same time, he actually crafts some of his story for himself. This gives the player a chance to incorporate into his RPG experience a history for his character, where he came from, who were his ancestors, what they did, what they accomplished at the same time he “chooses” which ancestors he would like to absorb knowledge from and carry on with him. This possibly increases the bond between character and player. This, of course, is an example of an inconsistent SAE, with an ability/skill-oriented reward focus. I do believe it is possible to incorporate this idea in a sci-fi world with a simple change from a spiritual to a scientific approach to the matter. In this case it would be explained that the Essence of Kings, possibly carrying a new name due to cultural differences, would be a product that must be produced on-demand, costing huge amounts of currency for a single iteration of it, of course, the SAE would then fall into the consistent category. The futuristic version of the element would scavenge the user’s DNA for ancestor’s genes which made them especially good at an specific ability or skill and rewrite these new-found genes into remote areas of the genetic code which would take effect, yet not disturb the physiological integrity of the body. This way the ancestral benefits for skills and abilities could still be achieved, but through a scientific approach, impliedly a DNA memory theory used in many games such as Assassin’s Creed.

The fourth, and last, SAE is a drug called “PUX-24/x”. Its backstory is one of misuse and carelessness: humanity had expanded throughout the galaxy and with its technological advances, some scientists created a drug which triggers the artificial development of the human body and mind. It is capable of enhancing one’s strength, agility, health, intelligence and perception, among other things. With the cheapening of the technology, the use of the drug became widespread among humanity: humans used it all the time to become stronger and/or faster for sports, more intelligent for test and such and some people even used it to live more. In fact, humanity started to abuse this drug to such an extent that a condition started to manifest itself in a great portion of people, eventually reaching out to 97% of humanity, the condition was dubbed metabolical development disorder, or MDD, and humans who suffered from MDD did not develop properly, either muscularly or mentally. The problem is that it is a genetic disorder, so parents passed on this condition to their offspring. The only way found by scientists to ensure a steady, healthy growth of the human body and mind was to continuously make timed use of the drug. The irony is that the drug is the precise thing that caused the problem in the first place, some folks around the galaxy even wonder if this was a planned feature for the drug all along. The rise of what soon got to be known as a disease was that PUX started to be seen as a constant need for humanity. As a consequence, its production had a huge boom in production and R&D, as more and more children were born with the condition; more and more drug doses were needed. Today,  PUX treatment is much like standard vaccines: you must take it as early as the age of three to properly develop body and mind. This triggered a bending of the default human figure. Old standards lost themselves among the prospect of stronger, faster and more intelligent humans that could more optimally perform their everyday tasks if they made continuous use of the substance. Doses which are mandatory for a child’s standard development are subsidized by the government, since the doses are extremely expensive. Anything beyond the necessary use has to be bought by the individual himself. As the backstory may suggest, this is a consistent SAE with an attribute-oriented reward. The name comes from the nickname that many scientists, during the first run at researching the main properties of it, used to refer to the drug: Power Up X;24” refers to the version of the drug, with each new version providing much less side effects and a revised formula for increased performance. “x” indicates the drug’s variant: “s” relates to the strength variant, “v” is the letter for the vitality variant, “a” is the agility variant and the “i'” codename indicates the intelligence variant. A designer could have as many variants as he/she wants, though, ideally, there’d be, at least, as many variants as needed to cover all the attributes individually. In this case, at least one variant relates to at least a single attribute, developing it when applied. It works like this: players need to first buy a syringe, which he’ll use to inject the drug into himself, simpler syringes allow for smaller doses to be applied and not much combination to be done, bigger, more advanced syringes allow for bigger cocktails of variants (thus creating bonuses for mixing them), after acquiring the syringe the player has to buy the doses from any regular store or pharmacy and mix them if he wants, and then apply the cocktail to himself. For example, combining one strength variant, two vitality variants and one agility variant would prompt a bonus for vitality, allowing for further specialization of the attribute if a character continuously takes a single variant at a higher rate. Time control over the PAP of this SAE is done by managing the size of doses, smaller doses are absorbed faster, which incites to player to have more contact with the game at the beginning and bigger dosages, which are unlocked later in the game, allow for developers to control and incentivize players to take a longer break between play sessions.

It goes without saying that much of the fiction created and used here does not match the reality of our own world and it doesn’t exactly have to be that way, this is to say that I am not an expert in alien technology, engineering, biology or sleep and the explanations for the Essence of Kings, Inscription of the Ancients, PUX-24/x and Hourglass do not have, in either shape or content, the pretension of being scientifically accurate.

I truly believe that the experience and the way people play MMOG’s should and can be a lot more healthy without taking away any of fun and the abundance of content and immersion. This is just one idea, one system which I try to present in order to give the first step, try and discuss a different way. The idea presented in this piece of writing is simple: make the player feel less constrained to the game in regards to time, allowing him to player other games, have different experiences and even work without worrying about the fact he’s being left behind by people who do have the time play the game all day long. At the same time that we try to keep the player within the game world through more interesting means like better content, more compelling story and more interesting experiences. The PACE system aims, as a first objective, to present a way of playing that doesn’t require the player to be at the game 24 hours, making an effort to change the way people think of online massive gaming and also give the developers a bigger control over the time people take to experience content, since all the experience is based around time and periods the developer himself have created, he can easily calculate the average amount of time it would take a person to experience all the sequences and acquire all the items.

Please, comment! Let me know what you think of my idea and let me know of your ideas. Tell me what’s bad in my design so I can make it better.

I appreciate your attention and your patience, if you’ve endured this far.

Licença Creative Commons
Persistent Absorption Character Enhancement System by Ronildson Scarani Sillas Palermo is licensed under a Licença Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

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