Archive for June 2011

Spy Game Design – Combat

The next area to make over in MMOs is combat. I like some elements on combat in MMOs, but overall it’s not very exciting. Mostly it devolves into “OK, I’m gonna hit you now, then you can hit me”.  There’s very little strategy in combat systems. I know things like chains and combos exist, but really – why would my attack be more effective just because someone in my group did a specific attack? It makes very little sense.

Part of the problem with combat in MMOs may be because AI is a little lacking. How many of you ever just ran around a couple of corners in a dungeon because your health was low and the mob lost interest and went back to his “guard post” (which is another point – why is the mob just standing there?!? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?).

How about MMOs where you can zone to escape combat? Nice for the player I guess and I used it a lot during my MMO playing days, but it’s seriously unrealistic. There needs to be some element of danger to combat and that’s lacking in every MMO I ever played, once you get to higher levels. (tangent thought – how many people felt stupid when you got killed by a giant rat or some kind of bug? 🙁 )

Some things I’d like to see in the combat system for this spy game:

  • Realistic fire rates for weapons
  • Range modifiers
  • AOE for grenades and such
  • Specific damage locations and targetted areas
  • Decreased ability due to wounds (that carries over after combat maybe)
  • Effective cover (think Gears of War)
  • Effective stealth attacks
  • Incapacitating civilians for stealth missions
  • Consequences for combat in public (law enforcement, compromised cover, civilian casualties, agency discipline, etc.)

Overall, I’d say combat should be rare and quick. Prolonged firefights only happen in movies, mainly due to running out of ammo.

Would an MMO that didn’t focus on combat be interesting enough to play for the time it would take to get to level 50 in WoW? I think it could be, but it would take a lot of interesting missions in an interesting world.

Spy Game Design – Advancement

The typical way characters advance in MMOs is ok, but I think it could be a lot better. I have a couple of ideas, none of which are really revolutionary, but which would change the way the game is played.

AFAIK, most MMOs use either an XP system or Skill system for advancing the character. In an XP system, every time the character does something (kill a mob, complete a quest, etc.) he gets experience points. When the total experience points reach certain levels, the character’s level increases. For example, here’s the level progression from the 4th edition of the D&D ruleset:






























































In a Skill system, as characters use different skills the proficiency with those skills increase and the character becomes more effective at using those skills. There may or may not be classes associated with those skills, limiting the skills that a character can use to different classes.

Skill advancement should be happen of course, but it shouldn’t be the measure of advancement of the character. The character advancement should be pretty transparent IMO. The reason for a level-based system is to give the player the feeling that he’s accomplishing something. Shouldn’t those accomplishments be defeating enemies, completing missions, etc.? Why implement an artificial system just to make the player feel like the character’s getting better or becoming more powerful? If the player is so busy worry about that, isn’t that a sign that the gameplay isn’t what it should be?

If the player needs/wants something to keep track of to feel he’s going something, I think things like the number of missions accomplished and stats associated with that would be good, kind of like a personnel file for the character. Is that enough? I’d love to hear different opinions on how advancement in a spy MMO should be done.

Spy Game Design–Death

There are a couple of options for handling death in an MMO that I know of:

  • Respawn somewhere with some penalty:
    • Corpse retrieval
    • XP penalty/loss
    • Decreased capabilities
  • Perma-death – you die and you start another character
  • Damage to items

Most MMOs use one or a combination of several of these when a character dies. None seem particularly desirable for a spy game. Two additional options that I can think of might be:

  • Character is captured and has to be ransomed
  • Character is merely unconscious and has to be revived and removed from the situation. This is best used in a group environment. If the player is solo, the first option is used.
    I’m not really thrilled with these either. The first option means the player is stuck until he can be ransomed, if he ever is, depending on how that’s handled. The second option is really only good for an MMO based on grouping, which is probably not the norm in a spy type game.
    It’s tempting to go with perma-death for solo players and the last option for group-based encounters. Am I missing an option though?

Spy Game Design – Assignments/Missions

One of the things that annoyed me the most about every MMO that I played (and I’ve played about a dozen since being in the EQ beta) was that I never felt like I was making a difference in the world. I’d get a quest to get rid of some troublesome mobs and an hour later they’d be running around right back where I left their corpses.

I understand that in order to balance the games the way they’d been designed to make it fair for all the players that they had to do this, but haven’t we evolved past that? Is it not possible for players to do things that other players haven’t and still have it be fair and balanced? As long as players all get a chance to do the same amount of quests and get the same level of rewards/experience, it should be ok, right?

That’s what I’d like to see in my hypothetical spy game. There should be enough trouble caused by the “bad guys” (who can be players) that the good guys have enough to keep them busy and the world should be alive enough for the bad guys to find things to do to keep the good guys in business.

Perhaps the game can help both sides out by providing tidbits that lead to missions (think – snitches for both sides). How about allowing players to play both sides of the fence as informers? Non-action type classes seemed to work well in SWG, after all. Hmmm, have to think about that. How would that type of player progress through the game? Money, probably, which means he needs some way to spend it (I smell a topic for the next blog post). At the very least players should be allowed to try to infiltrate the other organization in order to bring information back to their HQ.

Would the game need a 3rd organization to balance out the two and provide more activities to perform? That’s a thought. It would be a ton more work, but might help keep things interesting longer.

The types of assignments are something I’d like to see expanded from the regular MMO variety. Of course there would be the typical Fed Ex, kill <x>, escort, etc. but there has to be a way to make them more interesting.  For Fed Ex and escort missions, there should be a chance that an opposing agency knows about the delivery or person being escorted and that would lead to the player having to figure out whether to try to complete the mission stealthily or by gunning it out. For the latter, calling backup should be an option. Completing the mission for a percentage of XP is better than dying, right? Which brings up another topic for discussion – death. :\ That’ll probably have to be another post. I’m of two minds on the subject and need to think about it.

Multi-step assignments are also something that should be part of the game. Every good spy show carried some missions through multiple episodes where they did something new each episode. An eavesdropping mission turns up information about a Fed Ex mission or theft being planned that the agent then needs to stop. After stopping the delivery the package is examined which leads to another mission.

Obviously, the mission system is going to make or break the game. I can see many man hours being spent designing the system, let alone figuring out missions and how to set them up and get them to players. I’d love to hear some feedback on what’s wrong with current quest systems and how to fix them while keeping them fun and balanced.

Spy Game Design – Inventory and Related Areas

So in thinking over how inventory should be handled, I came up with a couple of issues:

  • # of weapons that are carryable
  • ammunition for said weapons
  • reload time based on location of ammunition
  • how does ammunition affect combat
  • how much gear should be reasonably allowed to be carried, even considering strength
  • how gear is obtained
  • First off, I wanted this to be semi-realistic, which means unlimited weapons and ammo are out. This should be more about the skills of the character than just being able to blow away all the enemies standing in the way of the completion of the mission. Two, maybe three weapons max is reasonable IMO.

Obviously, realistic weapons mean those weapons have to have realistic ammunition in terms of type of # of rounds. This brings into play how many clips a character can carry and where are these clips stored. A character can reasonably have a couple of clips quickly available, but if he gets into an extended firefight, after these clips are used up, it’s going to take longer to get to others and reload. That means combat resolution has to take this into account. Not a big problem but making the combat fun and still keeping these things in mind is an issue. Having weapon cooldown between clips like spell cooldown in fantasy MMOs seems a good way to handle this. The cooldown obviously changes based on how many clips are used. This also means clip location has to be handled in the inventory. Again, no problem, just something that has to be noted in the design.

Gear loadout is going to change mission to mission of course. The agent would get this gear at the agency headquarters, assuming that’s where he gets the mission. I’m imagining missions can be obtained on-the-fly in the field. These missions would provide more XP, since it would possibly mean some improvising, thus making the mission completion harder. (note to self – document in design doc :D)

Obviously, gear selection is going to be tailored to the mission type – the character isn’t going to be able to select a rocket launcher on an infiltration mission (geez, another thing to note in the DD :\). The character also isn’t going to be able to load up on every piece of equipment that could possibly fit the mission, so how do we determine how much equipment the character can carry while keeping in line with the where is it stored idea noted above in the ammo discussion. The time to retrieve this equipment isn’t as important, usually, since it’s mostly used during non-combat times, but still – even the biggest backpack can only carry so much and the character has to have the strength to handle it. Does this mean every item has to have a property to tell how much area it’s going to take up along with it’s weight? Possibly. Is this the best way to handle it? Don’t know yet, what do you think?

I envision a black market being available in the game where equipment can be obtained in the field, which means the character has to carry money of the type used in whatever country he’s in. Where does the character get this money? Agency HQ, hideout/safehouse in the city he’s in, stealing it? All these are possibilities I guess. This means a fairly robust game world with a lot of NPCs that can be interacted with in a lot of ways, but that’s a good thing IMO. Most NPCs in MMOs are usually just placeholders for things like training, getting quests, buying and selling loot, etc. They’re not really non-player characters. This is one thing I’d love to see changed in MMOs. Yes, it means a lot more work, but it’s a big thing that needs improvement.

Spy Game Design – Agent Specialties

So I’ve been thinking about what the design elements for an MMO like The Agency would be, just for fun.

There will probably be many posts on this and probably not in any kind of logical order since I’m coming up with stuff as it hits me.

The first thing I thought of was class/non-class. Since a spy should be good at everything, making the characters class-based didn’t seem to make sense, but it did make sense that a spy might be better at some things than others. An area of specialty seemed appropriate as a class alternative.

The question then became – what areas should there be for the player to choose from. Some initial items I came up with were:

  • Seduction (covers all areas of interaction for a Charisma type skill where Charisma is not physical appearance)
  • Demolitions
  • Martial Arts
  • Sniper
  • Ranged (non sniper guns)
  • Computers
  • Infiltration
  • Burglary
  • Language Fluency?

What other areas am I missing?


There’s a discussion going on over at the Game Programming Wiki forums on this, but in the middle of creating the 2nd discussion item, it seemed like making posts on this would be a good idea as well, especially considering my severe lack of posting here. Who knows, this might actually turn into something. I’d love to see a good spy MMO done and was actually looking forward to The Agency before it was cancelled. Obviously I’m not going to create something on that level, but a prototype is a possibility.