Category Archives: Miscellaneous

The “leaver” problem in DotA genre games

Ever since the early days of Defense of the Ancients (and I’m sure in Aeon of Strife as well), players leaving in-progress games in this genre has been a pretty big problem. And of course, why wouldn’t it? In a 5 vs 5 game that can take an hour to play where every single player matters a great deal, all it takes is one person to quit for the game to be ruined for the 9 remaining players.

Today, with 2012 fast approaching, we’re seeing the explosion and growth of a genre at a probably never-before-seen rate in the games industry. With League of Legends raking in obscene amounts of money, the actual “sequel” to DotA on the horizon as well as another game from a separate company using the DotA name, the genre is absolutely booming.

I’ve always been fascinated by the popularization of this genre, as I’ve written about before, since it boasts an absolutely huge entry barrier. While the games do not tend to take much reflex skill (although being a subgenre of real-time strategy, it certainly has its place), they almost universally require a huge amount of knowledge that can only really be obtained through grinding out hours and hours on the game in question. For example, Heroes of Newerth currently boasts 93 playable heroes, each with unique skills and hundreds of possible item builds (and of course, no game is played the same way twice).

This barrier of knowledge and experience leads to a pretty obvious gap between players in the game (“omg why did you buy X item on Y hero”), and makes it very easy to blame a teammate for your teams short-comings. As it’s not really a matter of skill, players tend to almost never have the feeling that they personally screwed up, so they will often pass the blame to a teammate – whether deservedly or not.

All of this, the knowledge requirement, lack of personal blame, and long game timers ends up making these games hellish for new players to get into, as an inordinate number of games will end with people yelling at each other. If you’re not playing with anybody you know, and your team loses, chances are people will get heated at one another for wasting each others’ time.

Which leads to people leaving, potentially in the middle of a game, often before the game is even decided. As mentioned, the big problem here is once a player decides to leave: that’s it, he’s gone and his team is probably as good as done for. As these games tend to be very “task based”, even a bad player is much preferred to not having the player at all (aside in some cases, such as “feeding”, but that’s another topic for another time). If 9 players in a game play for 30 minutes and all generally think the game is going well and is evenly matched, but one player had a bad start or died too much or is generally frustrated and leaves the game, there is a good chance that the game is ruined for all 9 remaining people. At least the other team of 5 get an easy win, but in these games a well fought match can often be more rewarding than an easy win.

As this genre has become more retail-based (unlike the actual DotA game, which is merely a Warcraft 3 map), they have implemented “leaver protection”, which is usually just a fancy way to say “if you leave the game, you get punished”. The problem with this is it locks players into playing the game, forcing them to be even more frustrated, causing even more discontent in the community. Still, it’s preferable to no leaver protection at all, as again it is one player’s experience against many.

Mostly, I am surprised that no game in the genre has attempted some kind of re-joining mechanic. Games do have re-joining on disconnects (another staple feature that the original DotA lacked), but this only works for people who disconnected due to hardware or network malfunction, not people who intend to just cease playing the game. Of course, with the aforementioned complexities that happen on a per-game basis such as item builds and which hero is more powerful as a result of feeding/farming, it would be very hard for someone to just jump into a game in progress. So it certainly would have to be an option, such a checkbox when looking for a match entitled “I am willing to take a disconnected player’s place”.

As well, players that do this should be considered to be doing charity work: they should not receive any negative statistics that may be incurred on the original player that had left (i.e. ELO rating decrease in the event of a loss). I am not sure how the ratings of the other players should be affected, as it’s entirely possible that the replacement player may be much better than the one he replaced. Perhaps some kind of “good guy Greg” policy where the enemy team can no longer lose rating if they lose and possibly gain some for allowing it. Obviously, this mechanic would only be allowed in a non-serious ladder format, i.e. public matchmaking when you are paired up with strangers.

As this subgenre extends into more and more varying gameplay types, I’d really like to see this mechanic be tested. It’s kind of a strange concept as these games tend to be considered at their core RTS games, which have never had join-match-in-progress, but this genre takes the RTS elements and pulls them much closer to the arena deathmatch style, which has alwyas had the join-match-in-progress mechanic.

I understand the complexities that these games bring to the mechanic of joining matches in progress, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. For example, and what inspired me to think about this design, Super Monday Night Combat is in the works which is going to be a DotA-style shooter that should be much more welcoming to this kind of option. Really, I’d just like to see it tried – as an avid player in this genre and clocking in far too many hours with DotA classic and Heroes of Newerth, I can’t emphasize how many games have been ruined by leavers. The problem is certainly alleviated to a great extent with the leaver protection, but that just means in place of an empty player slot, you have an angry (or AFK) person on your team half of the time. There are a lot of times when it would have been great to just swap that guy out for someone fresh.

I know it’s a strange reference to make here, but this feature has sort of already seen a rough implementation in the World of Warcraft dungeon finder. With it, you queue anonymously and get paired up with 4 other total strangers. Of course, in this game, you are merely fighting NPCs, but the same amount of aggravation can occur (more, even) if people don’t do their job correctly. And if a group member isn’t working out for you, you can kick him and get a replacement easily. It really avoids a lot of the rage and aggravation and streamlines things much more, and I’d love to see it tested in the “hero arena” genre.

APB and misc.

I was going to make one of my long, drawn out, boring posts about the how and why of APB’s failure (ironically, given the most recent prior post on this blog), but this ex-RTW employee has kindly done it for me. I find it kind of sad that I predicted a lot of this in beta and that they never managed to get it changed (the business model, mostly). How is that companies manage to make such great content and games and then fail at execution so horribly as to sink the entire project? I don’t understand why the MMO genre still has this plague hanging over it’s head. Hasn’t anyone learned anything?

As noted prior, I still think APB is a really great game, and the developers pulled off some awesome things. Heck, I even forgot to mention some of the stuff, like the fact the game has a built in music sequencer. They basically made damned-near standalone ready apps for the game itself. Maybe this was part of the reason it blew a huge budget and failed, who knows. The core gameplay was solid though, and it’s a damned shame that the future of the game is probably bleak or nonexistent.

In other unrelated news, Consoul is one of the most incredible indie shorts I’ve seen in a while (make sure to turn annotations off when watching from that link). Ever since watching it last night, and subsequently staying up until about 2:30am, staring blankly at the ceiling; I’ve been basically just stuck in thought about life and random shit. Listening to Pogo at work isn’t helping to settle the wandering mind. I have to wonder if we’re in a second renaissance as far as art goes, I have never really sat back and appreciated how large a wealth of art and culture the internet is – but wow, are we ever lucky to have this stuff at our fingertips.

Anyway, here’s the anonymous ex-RTW employee’s post, re-posted here to preserve its existence … (Read More)

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APB is Pretty Damn Good

I have very little faith in MMOs today, mostly because of the horrific design that seems to be plaguing this genre for some reason. I have wrote about this at length and even have several posts waiting to be finished – a seemingly impossible feat, as the more I go down the rabbit hole of MMOs, the harder it is to finish writing about them. Just one of my forthcoming blogs has gone from one post and split into three.

Anyway, it becomes hard to write about how the genre is dying because developers keep making horrible decisions and nothing is changing. Negativity sucks. So I want to write about this instead: APB is awesome.

APB, or All Points Bulletin, is being developed by Scotland based developer Realtime Worlds. New-comers to the MMO industry, working on a project that had been lost in limbo and rumored to be canceled in the past, it’s hard to think that anything good could come of this ill-fated title some years later. However, RTW has really pulled together and created something extremely impressive.

In the simplest of gamer translations, APB is more or less an online version of Grand Theft Auto. Players choose to play as either a criminal or an enforcer and proceed to partake in cops & robbers shenanigans as the game pits them against one another in small packs amidst a large section of city. The way in which the game pushes either faction of players towards one another is two-fold. For one, either faction can receive missions from their contacts. These missions are pretty basic: criminals go set buildings on fire, enforcers investigate crime scenes. Most missions in this game basically boil down to going to an objective location and either using an item, dropping an item off, or holding a point. When players enter missions, the other faction will randomly receive chances to try and stop whatever they’re doing, which pits the players in a mission against one another and lets them slaughter each other with a variety of ballistic and explosive weapons.

The second way of players engaging one another stems from what are called “open world crimes”: criminals can break into storefronts and grab loot, mug pedestrians or simply cause chaos, all of which can be done at any time, in any place. If an enforcer “witnesses” a criminal in the act, and neither player are part of an active mission, the enforcer will have the option to begin a mission involving himself and the criminal regardless of the criminals say so. And yes, this system really does lead to enforcers going out on patrol and looking for criminals, without the game forcibly telling you to do so.

Ram raiding a storefront: a sophisticated crime that can only be pulled off by the brightest of criminal masterminds.

This second system is really interesting to me not only because it literally turns into a game of cops and robbers – which is awesome in it’s own right, but it also shows that APB isn’t afraid to disregard the players consent. If I were to hear about a system like this without first playing the game, I would have been completely unsurprised if I had seen the enforcer having to ask the criminal if it’s OK for him, as a cop, to engage in combat with the criminal. The criminal could then tweak his mustache, adjust his monocle and with a gentlemanly bow be on his merry way. Fortunately, APB is not so gentle, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I did see. Being tagged for an open world crime will toss you in a mission instantly, with no warning, and most of the time with the enforcer behind you ready and waiting with a pair of handcuffs. Or a shotgun.

Daily leaderboards tie into the game via rewards and bragging rights.

This isn’t the only way in which the game tears down the foam padding that newer MMOs have spoiled people with, betraying a players sense of safety while they’re in what are aptly named the action districts. At any time there can be numerous players roaming the map with bounties on their head. After you get to a certain level of notoriety, the game announces to the entire area that a bounty has been placed on your head. Everyone, enforcer and criminal alike, is now free to kill you. The best part? You are now free to kill everyone. Yes, the guy standing at a vending machine trying to decide what outfit he is going to wear today is cannon fodder. A group of people discussing Lady Gaga’s genitals on the sidewalk via the games area-based VoIP can freely be run over by a bountied player in a garbage truck, honking his horn and screaming like a lunatic the entire time. Even better, the game rewards players for going on long kill streaks by again announcing your manly feats to the zone and awarding you extra money per kill. If you manage to get the best kill streak and top the daily leaderboard, you even get a prize sent to you in the in-game mail. And of course, since you do have a bounty on your head, after all – the player who finally ends your rampage will get a nice chunk of change.

Carnage in the Streets

With all this mayhem going on, it might sound a little too chaotic. However, the districts are designed with the 100 player limit per instance in mind and – while disconcerting to think about in comparison to the massive numbers a traditional MMO server holds – this is perfect much a perfect fit. A small enough amount to generate a sort of whimsical “single serving community” of common friends and foes within an instance for the duration of your play session, but also plenty of people to get a steady stream of missions and never have a dull moment.

The district level design is of particular interest, especially being a level designer myself. Like GTA games, APB is set in big city districts and basically lets the player roam free and do as they please. However, every last alleyway and parking garage is crafted with exquisite care as the game can choose nearly anything to be a location for a mission. With this in mind, APB appears more like a series of shooter game levels tied together by roads, and the missions reflect this. In an FPS game, you would play a round on a certain map, then the scoreboard would appear and everyone would load into a new map. In APB, it feels very much the same – only the “loading new map” process is simply getting in a vehicle and driving down the road to the next objective. The thoughtful placement of the mission locations ensures that each area usually has at least a handful of entryways and exits, and plenty of varying ground to get on and cover to get behind. Along with a clever effective range system, this allows for a ton of different play styles and ensures that shotgun users and snipers alike can generally feel useful regardless of where they are in the map; but there is certainly room for planning and strategy.

Character customization allows for in-depth control including body modificaton, tattoos, and multiple clothing layers.

Perhaps the thing that has generated the most press regarding APB, and what will invariably continue to do so for a long time to come, is the customization system in the game. In what has been a fairly competitive title to claim in the MMO market – who has the better and more in-depth character customization, APB has just abruptly ended the contest for at least a couple of years. The extent that the detail of character customization APB goes into is simply ludicrous. When creating your character, you can only choose body measurements and colors. However, upon entering the social district, a whole new world opens up to you via clothing (which can be applied in realistic-feeling layers), tattoos, vehicle decals, and especially: the symbol designer.

The symbol designer is more or less a light vector editing program. You are given a certain number of shapes to work with out of a large list of basic and more complex unlockable shapes. You can apply various modifiers to these shapes, such as layer order, gradients, outlines, and even masks. Any veteran photoshopper knows the power of masks, and it certainly marks how intricate the APB symbol designer is. Even during my short time in beta I had already seen people create custom clothing and sell it for tons of cash, and turn around and buy a new car or weapon. People have created uncanny images of popular characters and memes. The editor is also very simple to use and I was creating detailed symbols using dozens of shapes in a matter of minutes.

Items and symbols can be sold on the in-game marketplace.

And of course along with the symbols are plenty of places to put them. As well as tattoos on your skin, imagery on your clothing and decals on your cars, your symbols can also be used as your graffiti. Around the districts are various billboards. As mentioned previously, there are leaderboards in-game for players or clans who got the most kills, stole the most cars, or other various objectives. Being top ranked for one of these categories will display your graffiti symbol on the associated billboard for everyone to see. And with the, er, creativity of the denizens of the internet, this makes for an interesting feature. A particularly amusing thought what with the latest innovations of the gold selling community is that, at least in this game, they would have to work for their advertising!

APB is a refreshing breathe of air. While not truly an “MMO” in the traditional sense, I find that even the more basic elements of the game are designed and implemented extremely well and make for a really fun and engaging shooter. The fast-paced arcade feel combined with the terrific mission system pretty much ensures no dull moments are had, and racing around the huge districts from mission to mission guarantees a new change of scenery at every turn. I especially look forward to seeing what is in store for the future of this title, as there are so many ways it can be taken. More cars, more equipment, new leaderboards for stuff like car stunts, minigames in the social district, new action districts with special rulesets like FFA – the possibilities are really endless with where APB can go, and it already has a rock solid gameplay foundation. I look forward to seeing where Realtime takes it, and being there for the ride.

I killed Ronald :(

Heroes of Newerth

Time for another non-article post. I’ve got a few big posts that are all kind of waiting to be finished but keep growing larger and larger (hey, I heard that audible groan). In fact, they actually started out as one and split due to length and topic spread. MMO-related, in any case. I was on a slight MMO binge and, as always, it makes me think of how flawed the genre has become over the years; how a games “success” is rated, how unwilling any developer is to take a chance – yet when they attempt to create a carbon copy of a successful product they miss out on the subtle but integral things that made the initial target so appealing… many thoughts, many words to write.

One game that I have absolutely fallen in love with lately, and find myself hard pressed not to ponder about at work, is Heroes of Newerth (“HoN”). Being created by S2 Games, the developers behind the Savage series (of which I have some experience), HoN aims to replicate the experience of DotA, a Warcraft 3 map which has evolved into a phenomenon and a tournament game. Frankly, given the long time success of DotA I am surprised someone hasn’t done this already, although we did see Demigod attempt to earlier this year being the same style of game – it just failed immensely on, again, realizing what made the original game popular (one thing everyone enjoys about DotA is the wide character selection, currently the game has over 90 heroes to choose from – Demigod has 8). Also seeking to claim some of the DotA landscape is League of Legends, which is in beta as well. So, the competition will certainly be there, and it will be interesting to see what DotA players think of the games, and if the majority of them will even be willing to change. HoN seems to claim the most interest because it is a very faithful reproduction of the original game. The developers have essentially cloned DotA up until a point, and are now brewing up new heroes of their own device and tweaking existing ones. It’s also interesting to note that since HoN is a full game  and not a Warcraft 3 map as DotA remains to be to this day, it has some pretty significant advantages – namely it’s extensive statistic tracking. It should be very easy for the developers to see which heroes are being played the most, which might seem out of the ordinary, common item builds or possible exploits and so on. As well, HoN contains some features that DotA players would absolutely die for – such as the ability to rejoin a game if disconnected. Being that HoN games commonly go for 45 minutes to an hour or more, disconnects are not an uncommon thing, and the ability to rejoin a game is immense as people dropping is a huge problem in the oiginal game. As well, HoN implements a “leaver” system where it will track your percentage of games left unexpectedly and go so far as to let players disallow certain leave percentages from joining their games. This was another huge issue in DotA as, since everyone was essentially anonymous and there was no way to have statistic tracking for a custom map, if people were doing

poorly in a game they would just leave, thus in many cases ruining a possibly good game for the other 9 players.

Every aspect of HoN oozes with strategy, even from the very first game screen there are significant metagame elements involved as each team chooses their heroes; counter-picking one another or choosing random (which lets you start with extra gold), letting the timer run out to hide a pick, one player picking a hero in a draft early and swapping it with a teammate later – these are just some examples, and the game hasn’t even loaded at this point.

When the game does load, you’re bombarded with a slew of more choices to make. What skill build are you going to go on your chosen hero? Possibly more importantly, what item build? There are many items which you can buy and eventually combine with one another to turn into powerful weapons. After choosing some starting equipment, you need to figure out which “lane” you are going to go to. Lanes are the main pathways from each team’s base, and there are 3 lanes, with 5 heroes per side. This means one hero has to “solo” a lane, which has many interesting side effects as they may have a harder time going solo, but they will also advance more quickly since they gain more experience from being alone.

As the game progresses, each side fights to push the lanes toward the enemy base. Waves of allied NPC units (“creeps”) that spawn at your base and traverse down the lanes, fighting whatever comes in their path, assist in this goal. When you finally enter the enemy base, destroying key buildings can make your creeps stronger and creates a lot of pressure on the enemy base. The ultimate goal is to destroy the opposing team’s main building at the back of their base.

While the environment and items make up a huge part of the game, the heroes really steal the show with their unique array of abilities. From summoning a voodoo doll that transfers damage it receives to its target, to making an impassable boundary by tearing a fissure through the ground, to literally picking up and throwing one enemy at another one; there are a lot of possibilities for very interesting combinations of heroes and abilities. Again, this really enhances the metagame aspect of picking the right heroes and making sure your team has good synergy. Your team might have an incredible ability to deal damage, but no stuns or disables and thusly can never finish an enemy hero off. Or your team may have too much of an emphasis on disables and not really have anyone to do the big damage necessary to capitalize on them. Of course, there are always items to fill in the blanks with activated abilities like being able to go invisible, or apply a reflect damage buff, or disable an enemy hero by transforming him into a critter for a few seconds. There are endless possibilities and somehow, through it all, the game manages to be incredibly well balanced.

Heroes of Newerth is currently in beta, but invites can be found pretty easily. I’ve got a couple left myself so if you’re looking for one feel free to drop me a line with your e-mail.

Dystopia released on Steam

Well, I was going to post this a couple of nights ago but it kind of got swept up in the excitement. What excitement you ask? Well…

Click the image to go to the Dystopia Steam page.

The new version of Dystopia is out! Although 1.2 might seem like a meager decimal increase from 1.1, it actually marks a huge improvement to the game and even more importantly, the first release that I can really say I had a huge part of. My latest work on the game was creating the trailer along with the help of the team’s musician, bioxeed. Bioxeed has also recently put up a mix of all of his Dystopia music, so if you like this music style be sure to check it out.

High quality x264 download link for the trailer available here.

It’s really been a great ride. I never thought I would become a game developer but it is something I really enjoy. Even moreso, I never thought that the old Doom maps that I’d toy around with in DoomED would be the precursor to year-long projects that push every limit of a next-gen engine. Having finished two maps from scratch, picking up and finishing a partially-completed third one, and collaboratively working on a fourth with other members of the team (termi, Venciera, charlestheoaf, Spire), and creating a few dozen model props and textures, I’ve been working on the mod for over two years now. And even though Dystopia is getting to a point where I can see myself being done working on it, there is plenty more exciting things in the future in the world of game development. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to pursue an actual job in the industry (I don’t know if I could be as passionate about something that isn’t my brainchild), but I’ll certainly be continuing it as a hobby.

I’ll try and get a Game Development page up soon highlighting the work I’ve done so far with Dystopia, now that it’s all public. If you’ve got a Steam account and any source game that includes the Source SDK Base, be sure to check out Dystopia and let us know what you think on the forums.

What makes a good esports title?

The struggling hobby that is e-Sports has gone through a lot of ups and downs recently, so this is certainly an interesting question to pose: what does make a good e-sports game?

The first thing that will come to many gamers minds will be the type of game it is. First-person shooter fans will be quick to defend the FPS genre, along with real-time strategy fans for RTS (and of course, the sub-genres within these genres for one-versus-one or teamplay, different rule-sets and such). However, I believe this division is what is holding e-sports back from becoming truly mainstream.

There have been some leagues – albeit none taken very seriously – that have tried to cater to this division in utilizing a multi-game format approach; however these have mostly been for fun or very small cash prizes and thus not gotten a lot of coverage or interest.

The most successful e-sport currently is StarCraft, and that is largely because the playerbase has refused to deviate from this title; thus allowing spectators ample time to learn and understand the game – and for the players to become extremely skilled at a single title rather than spread their skill thin as other e-sports players have to do quite often. It will be interesting to see what StarCraft 2 does to this e-sport scene, as real sports don’t have to deal with sequels, however I think the impact will be minimal as it has grown so large as to be a part of the culture itself in the main StarCraft hub, Korea. It is in every way, shape and form an “electronic sport”.

Overall, I think the biggest thing that a good e-sport title needs is consistency, which is mostly up to the players to determine. Everyone has their favorite games, but a decision needs to be made on a lone title to use as the platform for that specific e-sport genre. As we saw with the CPL, CGS, the old cyber games and other leagues rise and fall, the reason mostly seems to be due to the inconsistency with games being played and the lack of staying power. As with any sport, it is up to e-sports to have a good fan base to generate the revenue necessary to run them. With most leagues constantly bouncing from game to game, fan interest is very hard to hold and they seem to inevitably fail. The game needs to be simple to understand, yet have a large amount of skill and depth involved. It needs to have a good level of showmanship for the all-important spectators, and there needs to be a pre-existing level of fandom for the game itself – you cannot simply make a game specifically for e-sports and expect players to embrace it.

Given all of the aforementioned attributes, and the fact that game developers rarely seem interested in e-sports, I’ll have to chalk the answer to this question up to luck. As Korea became infatuated with StarCraft (due to it being one of the first titles released internationally there), it become more and more a part of the culture to the point of where it wouldn’t be considered strange to hear two people talking about it on the street. Although it is not strange to hear people talking about videogames in other countries, they are often talking about the topic as a whole, and not a specific game. Indeed, it is rare to even find someone with the same preference in games as you in most of America and Europe. If a game becomes truly explosive in popularity in these regions, and boasts the necessary traits to become an e-sports title, we may see resurgence in this hobby in these regions. Until that day comes, whether or not you can make a living off of professional gaming, I think e-sports will still largely be considered a hobby.

Originally posted at ugame blog