Putting the Dynamite in Dynamic Content
A Companion Piece to Tempting FATE
NOTE: This is a companion piece to my MMORPG article which looks at the history of dynamic content in MMO’s — Tempting Fate
In my article, Tempting FATE, I discussed the origins and evolution of dynamic content in MMO’s. In part, I wanted to counter the misconception that Guild Wars 2 invented dynamic content. Additionally, I wanted to give credit where credit is due for the origin of ideas we associate with dynamic content. I also wanted to identify some of the better concepts to emerge in the dynamic content arena.
One thing that stood out in that column, dynamic content has been around a lot longer than we think. Anarchy Online introduced the first iteration of dynamic content with its Alien Invasion expansion nearly a decade ago. In that decade, at least six MMO’s (including FFXIV 1.0) have included some aspect of dynamic content.
We are at a point where dynamic content should have an identified set of best practices. In this column, I want to explore some of the ideas that make up those best practices. Additionally, I want to explore some of the ideas that seem to be missing in dynamic content design. Referencing back to the MMORPG article, the best practice ideas I see in dynamic content (along with their originator) are:
- Branching/Sequenced dynamic events (Anarchy Online)
- Success/Fail sequenced events (Tabula Rasa)
- On the fly group formation (Warhammer: Age of Reckoning)
- Zone-wide events with roaming patrols and epic final bosses (RIFT)
- High production staged openings (GW2)
Of these, I really think the first four are mandatory. The fifth one, cinematic or staged openings really depends on the event. Not everything requires a major introduction, but certainly the more epic dynamic events should have some introduction. However, looking at the last couple of games to provide dynamic content, only RIFT really uses many of the best practice elements.
Having events which follow successful events and having events which follow failed events help create a sense of urgency in your players. Making it easy for people to form parties makes it easier for people to adopt group roles during dynamic events. Finally, massive zone-wide epic events create a sense of epicness and reinforce the multigroup aspect of MMO’s. Dynamic content gives developers the ability to really hammer home why the massively multiplayer genre is a unique and special beast in the gaming industry.
I know there are people out there who wish dynamic events could really feel random. At least in the present, that’s not very likely. The placement of an event impacts whether it can be completed or not. Events which can not be completed can easily adversely impact people playing through that area, particularly after the launch window of a game. Good events need some staging and that takes writing and planning.
I think that rather than wish for truly random events, we should really be hopeful for a development team that adds dynamic events to the game in regular updates. Over time that gives every zone breadth of dynamic content and a bit more of a feeling of randomness due to the deeper deck to draw from. True randomness, though, seems to be a bit of a pipe dream for now.
I do, however, think there are things we aren’t seeing happen with dynamic content. Things which could make it better and which still lie within the scope of what should be feasible with today’s technology.
Bringing Roles to the Table
I genuinely sympathize with developers creating dynamic content. Building dynamic content isn’t just like building static content, it’s monumentally more challenging. They need to design content which feels epic, but remains defeatable. Further, it needs to be defeatable to random configurations and volume of players. The fight has to scale down to a handful of people or up to multiple raids and still seem interesting. That’s a tall order to fill and I think it speaks volumes when a game like RIFT pulls it off well.
If your game is built around roles, it’s important that your dynamic content reinforces the utility of those roles. Unfortunately, dynamic events often boil down to a tank, a healer and a lot of DPS. High hitpoint, single damage output bosses aren’t epic, they are tedious. You can do things to the content to allow multiple roles to flourish.
Multiple healers can be facilitated using modest area of effect damage and damage shields (reflective damage). You don’t want these to be so high that players are one-shotting themselves, but you do want some persistent damage occurring around the boss. Enough so that if healers are present, they have a job to do, but if healers aren’t present players can simply disengage and recover.
Support functions can be encouraged as well via buffs and debuffs. Bosses should periodically pulse buffs to themselves which the players are better served if they counter in some way. In a game with open grouping (WAR or RIFT), buffing players have an easier time applying their group buffs because it’s easier to get into groups.
Many of the MMO’s which provide dynamic content argue that your contribution determines your reward. Unfortunately, many of those contribution systems boil down to “do DPS.” That needs to change if different roles are to be valued. Some of these games do include objectives that aren’t simply DPS (e.g. picking up objects), but that simply relegates your non-DPS players into taxis.
In business, a balanced scorecard system is a way to help senior managers keep a focus on the breadth of their responsibilities. In such a system, the company has a scorecard for financial, internals, externals and learning/growth goals. By doing this, managers retain an eye on the bottom line (the financials) but also on the things which ultimately create the bottom line (internals, externals and learning).
In some business segments, individuals are also evaluated on weighted scoreboards. Using myself as an example, in my non-gaming life my annual evaluations look at my performance across three not quite evenly weighted dimensions. The weighting keeps me focused on organizational priorities, but the presence of three dimensions means I can’t evaluate well if I ignore any one of them.
A balanced, or weighted, scorecard seems like it would be a good fit to event contribution systems. At the end of an event, players could be ranked on separate tanking, healing, DPS, support and objective completion scoreboards. You don’t even need to make the ranking terribly complex, use a five point scale based on a normal distribution to provide a rank for each scoreboard.
- Tanks – damage mitigated and enmity created
- Healers – damage healed and conditions cured
- DPS – Damage, duh!
- Support – buffs applied, debuffs stripped
- Objectives – event specific (e.g. picking up barrels)
Players scoring around the mean (+/- .5 standard deviations) receive a 3pt score. Those closer to +1 standard deviation get a 4 while those out near the +2 deviation receive a 5. Players below the mean by -1 standard deviation get a 2 and those -2 from the mean get a 1.
From there, a players reward should be based on their best ranking. Someone who gets a 4 in healing but a 1 in DPS should get a healing award (healing currency perhaps). Those who scored high on objective scoreboards (e.g. those who played taxi) should get to choose which reward pool or currency they pull from. Further, players should be able to see and review all of the scoreboards after an event, not just the summary scores or the boards where they contributed (e.g. healers should see more than just the healing scoreboard).
I need to detour for a moment and step away from talking about dynamic events in isolation. Dynamic events should also help fit into the social narrative of your game world, and I don’t just mean the lore. I am a big proponent of the idea behind dungeon finders, but I think the tools in current use work against social cohesiveness. That doesn’t mean dungeon finders are asocial, rather it means that dungeon finders aren’t built in ways that build social cohesiveness. In an ideal world, the dungeon finder should use social metrics to build a balanced group of people you are likely to like.
This can be done simply by using basic concepts of social networks and social networking. At a basic level this means using the friends list before using the general player population (or never grouping together people on /ignore lists). But at a deeper level, games should use like networks to facilitate grouping. One way to do this is to let people +1 players they enjoyed interacting with.
At the end of an instance dungeon, you should get an option to +1 people. Every time you +1 someone, they are then weighted higher on your Dungeon/Raid finder tools. You don’t even need a -1 option, simply use the /ignore feature to capture dislike networks. Ultimately, people that have a null value will gradually be weighted far enough down the list that players are unlikely to see them again. Dungeon Finder tools should then try to build groups that are balanced by class and maximize the summed like value of the team.
How does this relate to dynamic events? Well, if you use open, public groups in your dynamic events (and you should do this), players should get a +1 scoreboard at the end of the event. This scoreboard lets them nominate any of the people they played with using a +1 to indicate “would like to group again.” In this way, the dynamic event becomes the melting pot where your community starts to learn about each other.