Dragon Age Legends Post-Mortem

I wrote the following post-mortem on Dragon Age Legends during the summer of 2011, a few months after release. Because the game was still live at the time, the piece was never published. However, as the game has now been offline for over a year, and most of the development team has moved on from EA, I feel comfortable posting my thoughts from that time period.

My thinking today is different from back then. I have largely soured on the potential of free-to-play gaming as it almost inevitably leads to an unhealthy addiction to whales – customers willing to pay thousands of dollars for various items and perks. Legends never attracted the whales necessary to sustain itself, which is perhaps for the best anyway as I’m not sure how I feel ethically about players spending that much money on my games. (Having said that, I also feel one of Legends main problems was that we priced some items, such as energy, far too high.)

I do still believe in the potential of asynchronous gaming, especially for limited-scale, turn-based games (like Hero Academy or Ascension) or for long-term, real-time games (like Neptune’s Pride or Civ4’s PitBoss mode). With Legends, however, the asynchronous format screwed up an otherwise solid gameplay loop – the energy system artificially limited game flow and tying the game’s mechanics to real-world time made balancing for every type of player a nightmare.

These novel formats – appointment mechanics, friend recruitment, limited session lengths – seemed interesting at the time, but I now believe what should have been obvious – that a game’s format should enable and support the game experience, not limit and complicate it. Looking at the core gameplay systems now, I can’t help wonder how the game would play if remade with a dynamic XCOM-style campaign, with each turn-based battle moving the game clock forward, which would then determine how fast the characters heal and consumables are crafted. The game loop would still work and all the energy gate, friend list, and free-to-play complications could just be dropped. Maybe someday…

Our primary goal with Dragon Age Legends was to create a “social game for gamers.” This social RPG combined the interesting decisions and difficult trade-offs found in traditional games with the innovations of the social game world. In fact, the game is split into two halves – a turn-based tactical combat system similar to Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy and a persistent, appointment-based castle-building game inspired by asynchronous Facebook games like FrontierVille.

What Went Right

1. Core Design Loop

We designed our core game loop specifically to match the Facebook format, with players jumping into the game for short play sessions throughout the day. The character’s core stats (health and mana) do not regenerate naturally as they do in most RPGs. (Health does replenish but only outside of combat and only in real-time – one heart per hour.) Thus, if players want to restore their health and mana between battles, they need to rely heavily on their consumable items – health and mana potions, injury kits, and mana salves.

These consumables are the fuel that powers players though combat. What makes Legends unique compared with traditional RPGs is that the player is actually in control of the supply of consumables as the player can create them in the castle with timed appointments. (For example, the castle’s apothecary can create two health potions in 30 minutes.) If a player begins running low on a certain item, she can always invest extra time at the castle to rebuild her supply.

The two halves of the game – the castle and the combat – create a self-sustaining economic loop. Gold earned from fighting battles and completing quests can be invested in expanding the castle and upgrading its rooms. Accordingly, the castle creates the potions, salves, and bombs that the player needs to defeat the increasingly difficult monsters encountered over the course of the game.

Hence, the combat and the castle provide context for each other, motivating the player to keep fighting and to keep building. This loop gave the team a clear central vision for the game, to pair the meaningful decisions of a turn-based RPG with the compelling persistence of a castle-building game. The system proved a good fit for Facebook, in which players might dip in at any time to fight a couple battles or just to craft a few more potions.

2. Meaningful Social Hook

We also wanted our game to have a meaningful social hook – a reason to be on Facebook instead of just being on the Web, like the game’s predecessor, Dragon Age Journeys. Simply put, friends should make the game more fun.

Further, we were not impressed with how many Facebook games implemented social features, often forcing players to pay a “friend tax” by, for example, asking 10 friends to help finish a building. These features help social games spread virally, but they often feel artificial and even abusive of the player’s social network.

Instead, friends should be a part of the core gameplay, so that players will naturally want to invite their friends to join. As a party-based RPG meant to be played a few minutes at a time in a browser, we had an opportunity to address this problem with a new format – the asynchronous MMO. Although players develop a single character, they recruit their friends’ characters asynchronously to help complete the party in combat.

The details of this feature led to some interesting social dynamics. A recruited hero receives a gold bonus that the hero’s owner can pick up the next time he logs on. As players tend to recruit higher-level and better-equipped heroes, their owners have a strong incentive to keep improving their characters, so that they will earn more friend gold.

Recruited heroes enter a rest state after each use, from a few hours to most of a day, depending on how much damage they withstand in combat. Thus, deciding which friend to use and for.which battle is a strategic choice as one’s most powerful friends can only be used a few times each day. In other words, friends become an important, but limited, resource.

This system led to much interesting discussion between our players about how friends should develop their heroes and even whether one friend was using another friend’s character reciprocally enough. In other words, the social interactions between players had become meaningful. As a nice side benefit, Legends differentiated itself from other RPGs because players were regularly exposed to the entire skill tree via their friends’ characters.

3. An Actual Closed Beta

The term “Beta” has lost some meaning over the years as almost every Web-based game exists in a state of perpetual Beta. FarmVille, for example, didn’t remove the Beta tag until April of 2011, 22 months after the initial release and well after falling from its peak of 83 million monthly active users in March 2010 to today’s 43 million.

Many Facebook games are developed iteratively in public, starting from a minimal initial version with many missing features. This approach has many benefits as teams get immediate feedback about what is working and what isn’t – a big improvement from the multi-year silos of traditional game development. However, there are disadvantages to a continuous public development process; early design decisions can become permanent as backing away from them might upset the current community.

We took a different approach as we started our public development with a Closed Beta from January 2011 to our release in mid-March. Just like a traditional MMO, we encouraged players to sign-up for the Beta online and then periodically sent out keys to grow our player base, letting in over 50,000 players.

During this period, we conducted a database wipe every two weeks, both for the sake of lowering our engineering overhead as well as helping to focus attention on the early game by funneling players through it repeatedly. Because our players understood that their characters and castles were not permanent, we were able to experiment and make rapid changes in ways not possible during an Open Beta.

For example, during the Closed Beta, we added a strict inventory cap, removed Always Critical Hit items, slowed the leveling curve, rebuilt the first five maps, and reworked the skills system multiple times. Although these changes were not always popular, any negative impact was lessened by the known lack of persistence.

In fact, we even began charging real money for our premium currency (Crowns) during the Closed Beta, mostly to make sure the system worked. Surprisingly, players began spending large sums of money, even with the knowledge that their characters would soon be erased. We quickly developed a system to return all spent Crowns to players after each database wipe to give spenders more confidence in their purchases. This simple change was worth the effort as the information we gained was invaluable to our monetization strategy.

What Went Wrong

1. Client/Server Synchronization

We devoted the first few months of the project to rapidly prototyping the combat system. which went quickly because we reused code, art, and animation from EA2D’s previous Flash-based RPG, Dragon Age Journeys. This period of quick-and-dirty development led to important innovations, such as the accessible, icon-based health/mana system and the extra combat step for consumable use.

However, Journeys is a more straightforward game that runs entirely in the player’s browser, unlike Legends, which requires a client-server architecture. When building the prototype, we ignored this difference for the sake of development speed, which cost us in the long run. Because of concerns over player cheating, we couldn’t just allow the client to handle the combat, and because of lag issues, we couldn’t let the server handle it. Thus, the combat calculations needed to run in parallel on both the server and the client, which meant we had to ensure that the two sets of algorithms were identical.

When the time came to turn on the servers for real testing, the client kept falling out of sync with the server because we had no real solution for guaranteeing the calculations would be in lockstep. For a time, we considered some technical solutions that would allow us to write the code in one language which could be run (or recompiled to run) in both places, possibilities which included the Google Web Toolkit, the haXe language, and running Javascript on the server.

In the end, we adopted the simple, but painful, solution of using manual brute force to ensure that every combat function was written identically in both Java and ActionScript. This process cost months of time for our lead gameplay programmer, during which time design and testing was essentially paused because the combat system no longer worked. This ugly solution blew a gaping hole in our schedule as little design or testing could be done.

2. Brittle Quest System

One big advantage of developing games on the Web is that they can be constantly updated – multiple times a day, if necessary. Bugs get fixed faster, and no gatekeeper stands between the developer and the player, slowing down the delivery of content. This rapid pace, however, does have its downsides, one of which is the challenge of keeping the persistent data of hundreds of thousands of characters in a playable state after every update.

Unfortunately, our quest system commonly dropped a small, but significant, number of players into a broken state after game updates. The problem was that the system did not fail gracefully. If a player was in the middle of a certain event that got changed, renamed, or even removed during an update, she may suddenly have no way to finish her current quest.

This problem was compounded by the strict linearity of the map and quest design. Maps were often a linear series of nodes that were paired with a linear set of quests that a player could only progress through in a certain, set order. If these nodes or quests were modified in any way, then players in an intermediate state could easily fall off the quest chain, with no hope of recovery. They might play through the rest of the game without ever seeing another quest!

As these issues began appearing, our engineers scoured the database, looking for characters with broken quest states, and then manually repaired the data. Eventually, we developed a tool to assist with this labor-intensive process as well as safeguards within the code to automatically fix stuck characters, if possible. Nonetheless, we lost significant engineering time during a key part of the project. The lesson learned is to design game content and systems that are flexible enough to fail gracefully when change inevitably occurs.

3. A Fear of Social

Our goal was to make a social game for gamers, many of whom express grave reservations about the tactics used by typical Facebook games to spread virally, by spamming friends with requests and notifications to pull them into the game. We put our greatest effort into making an engaging RPG and only developed social features that treated our players’ social capital with respect.

Thus, although we developed what we believed to be a fun, core MMO that fit the asynchronous format of the Web, our game was light on the viral loops found in most social games. Although Legends attracted a committed audience eager for new features and more content, our viral factor was very low; our players were neither inviting their friends into the game nor convincing lapsed veterans to return.

The majority of our team, including all of our designers, had never made a social game before, which meant that we were simply not familiar enough with the social hooks and viral features Facebook provided us. The list of standard features that we did not have at launch speaks to our naivety about what makes social games work and spread:

  • No use of Facebook’s notification/request channel
  • No rewards for clicking on another player’s wall posts
  • No collaborative tasks or reasons to ask friends for help
  • No gifting between players (even of actual loot items, as is common in MMOs)
  • No daily bonus for returning to the game

Further, we lacked many of the tools common to social game developers, such as A/B testing and a metrics viewer customized for our game. Instead, we had to rely on our own intuition and feedback drifting in from our community, which meant that we were never quite sure why our basic numbers (DAUs, MAUs, ARPU, K-factor, etc.) were either going up or going down. Ultimately, we were not developing a game that played to the strengths of its platform.

When the game was taken offline in June 2012, the team released a free standalone version that dropped the energy system and allowed people to either start from scratch or import their online characters. The game balance is not quite right as the Legends was not built to be played in long, offline sessions. For example, friend cooldowns were removed but not replaced by anything else, so the player can simply recruit the best allies for every battle, which was supposed to be a core gameplay decision. Further, the crafting system is still in real-time, which goes far too slow if the game is not played in bursts. Still, the game is at least available, which is better than many other Web games which just vanish into the ether.

What Microsoft Should Have Done

The biggest story of the upcoming console generation is that Microsoft has, within a month of the initial Xbox One announcement, already bowed to pressure and reversed its attempt to cripple the importance of physical discs. The Internet is currently doing a victory lap.

The transition from physical to digital was sure to be rocky, but the start to this console generation is now a lost opportunity for the industry. Physical discs are bad for everyone (except for retailers, of course). They are bad for developers, who lose the long tail of revenue once Gamestop undercuts them with used copies. They are bad for consumers, who end up paying artificially inflated prices for new games because of the inefficiencies of selling a digital product as a physical good. Physical discs are expensive, inconvenient, wasteful, and – most importantly – allow the entrenched and reactionary interests of retail to control gaming.

The answer, however, is not to implement a slate of arbitrary and restrictive rules that push the consumer away from physical discs. The answer is to make digital games so attractive that players will abandon physical discs on their own. (One might call this the Steam strategy.) Microsoft could have avoided this whole fiasco by maintaining the old disc-based ecosystem while softly undermining it with three moves that create an alternate digital future.

1. Cap the price of all digital games at $40

I argued that converting players from retail to digital required a price drop back in 2008. Besides the fact that both the publisher and the developer get more revenue from a $40 digital sale than from a $60 retail sale, the price cut strongly incentivizes players to buy the digital copy instead of the physical one, which is what Microsoft wants most anyway. The different price tiers make logical sense as well – a $60 disc costs more because it can be loaned out or resold while the digital version has the restriction of being tied to the original owner. Valve has maintained the $60 price point for new AAA PC games, but they have put in 10 years of hard work earning the trust of the community (not to mention that the $60 price is mainly an anchor point to make the discounted price more attractive). Microsoft does not have the same well of goodwill to draw upon, so they need to make a bold statement about the benefit of a digital game, which should start with a lower price.

2. Heavily discount older titles

Developers selling games on Steam always report that their highest-revenue days come during Steam Sales, better even than the first days after release when the game is still at full price. The power of the sale really has to be seen to be believed (here is an example from the indie game Dustforce.) Many developers were concerned about what these heavy discounts would do to their overall revenue, until they saw the actual results. Steam Sales generate extra revenue by appealing to a segment of the audience that might not normally buy the game – someone who is only willing to pay $5 but has either the patience to wait for a sale or the urge to buy before time runs out. Indeed, one of the hidden benefits of Steam is how many games are bought and then never actually installed; the community is full of collectors. Ultimately, heavily discounted digital games are the best weapon against used games, which at least still carry some stigma of being a secondhand item; buying a “new” digital copy at a bargain price is much more compelling.

3. Purchase persistence and backwards compatibility

I will never buy an Android phone or tablet. Why? The reason is that, now that I am on my third iPhone and second iPad, I have a lot of apps attached to my Apple ID, the majority of which are games. If I switched to Android, I would have to buy all those games all over again. Instead, when I upgrade between Apple devices, all my games are waiting for me. Much of it will never be downloaded again, but the option still exists. I haven’t gone heavily into iTunes for either music or movies, and that would tie me even closer to the Apple ecosystem. Neither the Playstation or the Xbox works this way; migrating to the PS4 or the Xbox One means starting a new digital games collection from scratch. Ostensibly, this migration of games between generations is not possible because the consoles are not backwards compatible; put another way, Microsoft and Sony both made the strategic decision not to spend the money to support this feature. In fact, the companies are missing a huge opportunity to help players tie themselves to their own closed ecosystems. If digital purchases from a Live account persisted forwards across every version of the Xbox, how less likely would a player be to switch over to the Playstation? Most importantly, purchase persistence gives players one more reason to buy a game digitally as it will be forever included with the account.

Combined, these three changes would destroy the traditional retail market. The $40 price would make digital games cheaper at release; the ongoing heavy sales would undercut the used games market; and persistence would make digital games easier to maintain across multiple devices. Microsoft needs to make buying games digitally a better deal for the consumer than buying them physically. The trick is to allow both physical and digital to co-exist and then let the consumers catch up with the obvious benefits of the latter. Allow the retail market to wither and die by evolving past it rather than attacking it directly and needlessly.

The Road to Zynga

So, I’ve got a new job, which was revealed publicly in an interview at GamesIndustry International. I’ve actually been at Zynga for nine months now, so most of my games industry friends (and regular friends, for that matter) had known about it for quite awhile, making this move one of those “worst-kept secret” things. Surprisingly, the news stayed out the press, with the exception of an off-hand reference at Gamasutra during my first week of work! The turn of events which got me to Zynga is somewhat head-spinning, especially since I am now back in Maryland, working with Brian Reynolds, Tim Train, and a bunch of other former Big Huge Games people. I can’t helped be a little bemused because I was originally hired in 2000 to replace Brian & co. to finish (or, more accurately, to restart) the development of Civilization 3 after the mass exodus to BHG. Indeed, at the time, emotions were still a little raw at Firaxis, so my initial, second-hand impression of them was perhaps not ideal! Over the years, I got to know Tim and Brian in person, and I could always tell that their design culture would be a great fit for me if the opportunity ever arose. I didn’t always expect that opportunity to come at Zynga, but so far, so good. I’ll have a lot more to say on that topic once I can actually talk about my current project!

Here are some relevant bits from the interview:

Q: You’re the latest in a string of former EA employees to join Zynga. What do you think this says about EA and what does it say about Zynga?

A: The shift we’re seeing with industry talent moving towards social and mobile games illustrates the challenges of the old model. That model demands selling a $60 box product, which requires exceptionally high production values to sway the consumer. Of course, AAA production means development costs measured in the tens (or perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars, which then requires a game to sell at least several million copies at the $60 price to be worth developing. This business model can work, but the margins are not great, and they keep getting worse as development costs increase and retail sales soften. One of the bizarre paradoxes of this system is that some mid-tier games cost too little for traditional games companies to fund because the company needs to put all of its organizational weight behind a few key titles.

Mobile and social gaming suddenly became very attractive for game designers because they circumvent this problem entirely. As these games require a fraction of the cost of AAA games, radical new ideas can be tried out fairly easily and with little institutional pressure. Further, feedback is much easier to gather from the Web or connected smartphones, and teams can continually course-correct with regular updates. The old system of expensive, multi-year development, cut off from the oxygen of player feedback, suddenly became much less appealing.

Q: Given your experiences in the past on Civ IV and Spore, how well does what you’ve learned on traditional games apply to the social space and Zynga’s approach?

A: Fun still happens inside the player’s head, and that doesn’t change from platform to platform. What does change is that certain design possibilities are unlocked with each new technology, such as zero account overhead, assumed persistence, guaranteed connectivity, pre-made friends lists, built-in viral channels, universal access, and ever-improving game engines. These features let us explore areas of design that were previously unavailable. Indeed I feel like my work right now is a direct continuation of what I have done in the past, and I am simply using my twelve years of experience as a strategy game developer to take advantage of these new possibilities.

Q: Are you coding, or designing, or some of both?

A: I am doing the code and the design for the project, just as I did with Civ IV. I like working this way because I can spend less time explaining how I want a feature to function and more time watching how it works out in practice. I am using a somewhat unusual technology solution (GWT/PlayN) that enables me to write a HTML5 game in one language, including client and server, which means I have no duplicate, error-prone code and a very consistent style. Of course, doing code and design could make me a major bottleneck as the project grows larger, but one of the advantages of strategy games is that – because they are rules-driven instead of content-driven – a small amount of code can create a large amount of gameplay. Thus, extra engineering resources will be dedicated to features that work in parallel to the core game – scalability, UI, matchmaking, metrics, modding, and so on.

Q: Can you give us any hints at all about what your game project at Zynga entails?

A: I’m afraid that it’s too early to reveal much about what I’m currently working on, especially since a lot could change between now and our release date. However, I can say that I am working on a game that would not be a shocking departure from my development history, but one that is multiplayer-focused, free-to-play, persistent, and playable in the browser. Most importantly, the game is one that actually ends, with real winners and real losers. That’s a big departure for Zynga, but it’s a necessary element for many types of strategy games. Decisions matter in vastly different ways once games have an actual victory condition. Put another way, a bit of a level race does exist in persistent MMOs like World of Warcraft, but ultimately the race is just with yourself. No one else really cares how much time you put into your dwarf cleric. On the other hand, it’s a powerful feeling when you beat someone to a wonder in Civ IV.

Q: Do you see social games becoming more like familiar PC or console games in terms of mechanics?

A: After a couple years the term “social gaming” came to mean different things to different people, and many traditional game developers simply use the term to describe “games on Facebook that we don’t like.” On the other hand, some of the biggest hits (Words with Friends, Bejeweled Blitz, Draw Something) are not really thought of primarily as “social games” but simply as great games that take advantage of the possibilities of social gaming – guaranteed connectivity, account persistence, meaningful friends lists, etc. Therefore, the best-case scenario for social gaming is for the term itself to disappear as all games become more social, even ones that are traditionally thought of as primarily single-player. For example, consider how friend-based leaderboards drive the experience in console games like Trials Evolution or Burnout Paradise.

Ultimately, gameplay is determined by the input and output of the devices we use, which enables and encourages certain types of play, and there are currently three important formats – the consoles (defined as gamepad, high-def TV, couch-based), the PC (keyboard, mouse, monitor, desk-based), and mobile (small screen, touch-based, omnipresent). Consoles will continue to dominate avatar-based games as controllers are built to “pilot” characters or vehicles. PCs are the natural home for more complex games because of their precise input and “lean-in” environment. Mobile is perfect for asynchronous gaming, and the touch-based user interface creates entirely new types of games just like the Wii did with motion-based controls. The best games will take advantage of the unique power of their formats, which is why we shouldn’t necessarily expect Facebook games to suddenly become Halo.

Q: What’s your take on the impact of social and mobile games on the traditional console business model?

A: What’s interesting about the games business right now is that we have four different business models operating at once. For console games, retail still dominates with increasing revenues from microtransactions. On the PC side retail is dead, but traditional, single-purchase games still thrive on Steam. Furthermore, free-to-play games from CityVille to League of Legends can succeed purely via microtransactions. On mobile devices, the app store dominates with the big money coming from in-app purchases. Over time, these four models will almost certainly merge into one consistent system. We have already seen plenty of convergence; Steam made a big push to support microtransactions and free-to-play games while in-app purchases were an important later addition to Apple’s App Store. The big question is the next generation of consoles. The benefits of fully embracing an app store model are obvious, but there are many entrenched interests and historical relationships slowing down that transition.

App stores, in general, are very interesting simply because they make it possible to actually charge players for small-scale games. For example, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to buy Ascension for $4.99 to play in my browser, but the tradition simply does not exist to “buy” web pages. On the other hand, the Apple App Store combines frictionless purchasing, flexible pricing, automated submissions, and an enormous audience to create a market for games which didn’t exist previously. At some point, the importance of the browser (with open standards and cross-device support) needs to combine with the ease of the app store (with a standardized purchasing model), to hopefully create an even better system.

Q: Do you think the kind of hardcore PC player that you targeted with Civ IV will want to play your next game at Zynga, or do you have to change your design philosophy to cater to a new, more casual audience?

A: I expect Civ fans will absolutely be interested in my current project at Zynga; in fact, I anticipate them to be among the first wave of players to try out the game. As with Civ IV, I will be trying to make the game as simple as possible to keep it accessible for any kind of player. Remember that Civ itself is no typical strategy game and has an audience which is an order of magnitude larger than any other turn-based strategy game. The reason is that the series is infused with “Sid’s design parsimony” (to borrow a phrase from Chris Crawford), refusing to pile on more and more rules and mechanics in the name of realism. I hope to carry this tradition forward to make a game for every gamer.

Dragon Age Legends: Guilds Explained

My current game, Dragon Age Legends, was released last month. I wrote the following post as designer notes on the upcoming guild system.

One of the design goals of Dragon Age Legends is to have meaningful social mechanics. Many social game are social only in the sense that they use the player’s social graph to help spread the game virally through her network – by encouraging the player to invite her friends as neighbors to grow her farm, for example, or trading items with one another through the gifting system to finish a building. While these mechanics help grow a social game’s visibility, they don’t necessarily make the actual experience of playing the game more fun.

Our core social feature in Legends is borrowing friends’ characters to fight alongside one’s own character in combat. As one’s friends level up their own characters, they make the game more fun by providing new skills and stronger characters to use. Unlike most RPGs, players of Legends will be able to try out the entire skill tree depending on how their friends upgrade their characters. Borrowing a friend’s character also provides that friend with a small gold bonus, which creates some interesting dynamics – encouraging players to have the most appealing characters (to earn more gold) while also giving veterans a charitable reason to bring along low-level friends they want to help.

However, a genuinely meaningful social mechanic can create its own share of problems. Facebook friends are not necessarily one’s actual friends. Players often announce their names and character details in various forums, hoping to find “fake friends” to fill out their list. Doing so creates three advantages. First, the more friends the player has, the more opportunities for his character to be borrowed and thus earn friend gold for the player. Second, high-level friends make combat far easier because of their high stats and upgraded skills.

Finally, a surplus of friends allows the player to bypass the rest time restriction. Borrowed characters enter a rest state after combat finishes for a certain period of time (often for a few hours, depending on the level and damage sustained). This rest period exists so that players will not be able to reuse a single friend’s character over and over again (and, thus, feel no incentive to invite other friends into the game). However, if a player has a huge list of fake friends playing the game, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, this mechanic becomes irrelevant as there will always be a ready supply of fully rested characters.

These three advantages can greatly distort the balance of the game. In particular, if a player has a huge list of high-level friends, which is not difficult if one looks in the right places, the combat becomes trivially easy. High-level characters can wade through most monsters easily, which prevent us from finding an ideal difficulty level. We could boost the strength of all monsters across the board to compensate for endless high-level friends, but that change would ruin the game for the average player who only uses her real friends. Besides, we want the player to experience the power of a high-level friend mowing down waves upon waves of darkspawn from time to time, just not in every battle.

To fix this issue, we are creating a new system – Guilds. A Guild is a select group of 16 friends who are playing Legends. The player can only borrow characters for combat from this group of 16. The composition of a Guild can be changed at any time (as long as the character being removed is not currently resting), so a player is not restricted to whichever friends are first added to the Guild. Also, a new castle room – the Great Hall – will allow players to expand their Guilds.

Guild membership is one-way; I might have my friend Ethan in my Guild, but Ethan does not need to have me in his Guild. However, if we are both in each other’s Guilds, we receive a bonus of a shorter rest time when using each other’s characters. This feature creates some interesting social pressure, forcing players to choose between using their friends with the best characters and using their actual best friends.

From a design perspective, the greatest benefit of Guilds is tuning as we can now balance the game for a single target – a player who has 16 friends, with a mixture of low- and high-level characters. Because rest time is proportional to a character’s level, players might not want to fill their Guild with only high-level character who would often be unavailable.

Ultimately, the player should be making interesting decisions during all parts of the game, including when deciding which friends to use for combat. Perhaps a certain battle looks fairly easy, so a player might want to use a couple low-level friends or maybe to even try it solo. Perhaps a looming boss battle makes the player hesitant to waste his highest-level friend on a normal encounter. With infinite high-level friends, these dynamics disappear, to the detriment of the gameplay.

Moreover, we want players to be interacting as much as possible with their real friends, as these are the most important social bonds tying the player to the game. Guilds encourage this behavior via the reciprocal membership bonus to rest times as well as the simple ability to build a subset of friends most relevant to the player. Guilds are a small but important step towards creating meaningful and balanced social mechanics within Dragon Age Legends.

Dragon Age Legends: Economy Explained

My current game, Dragon Age Legends, was released this week. I wrote the following post as designer notes on the economy system.

Many successful Facebook games are persistent management games. In FarmVille, the player plants and grows a prosperous farm. In Millionaire City, the player designs and constructs a bustling city. These games give players a certain number of resources to spend on development and then reward their smart moves with more money to invest, creating a positive feedback loop. The money players earn enables them to buy more things that will earn them even more money for more things and so on.

While this mechanic forms the solid underpinning of most management games, it creates two problems for long-term, persistent play. First, as the gameplay is stretched over months (instead of a few hours in the case of non-persistent games like SimCity), the amount of interaction required for each visit is quite small – place a building here, drop a road down there, etc. Therefore, most social games add UI busywork to fill up the player’s time – plowing, seeding, and harvesting every plot for farming games or clicking on each energy, food, and wood icon that appears in FrontierVille. In actual time spent, these often mindless activities comprise the bulk of each play session.

Second, these games often lack a sense of purpose outside of simply growing the player’s ability to continue growing. If the only reason to earn more money is to invest in items that will earn more money, the game eventually loses players not interested in pursuing purely aesthetic goals. At some point, maintaining a city begins to feel more like clearing the weeds or doing the laundry than playing a game.

The turn-based combat of Legends solves both problems at once. The tactical battles occupy the majority of the player’s time within the game, and they are clearly not mindless click-fests, challenging the player and rewarding smart moves. Furthermore, the battles give the persistent castle an actual purpose; expanding the castle is not an end in and of itself. Instead, the output of the castle is consumables the player can use in combat: health potions, mana salves, shard bombs, and so on.

Indeed, the way consumable are handled in Legends is meant to improve on their use in traditional RPGs as well. Traditionally with these type of games, hoarding is quite common as the player is uncertain what is around the corner – what if she uses too many potions and will not be able to tackle the later game as the difficulty increases? Turn-based RPGs suffer even more as the player is usually choosing between a repeatable skill and a consumable item, which means that the power of the latter has to greatly outweigh that of the former to be worth the permanent loss of the item.

Legends solves this problem with a few simple changes. First, consumable use does not end a character’s turn; instead, it is an optional step. The character can either shoot an arrow or drink a potion and shoot an arrow. Thus, by passing up the use of a consumable, the player is forfeiting an opportunity and needs only to weigh the effect of the item versus its permanent loss.

Second, the game’s core stats, health and mana, do not regenerate as they do in most RPGs. Health does replenish but only outside of combat and only in real time – one point of damage per hour. As for mana, characters receive only one or two free points at the start of combat, enough to use a couple skills per battle. Thus, if players want to restore their health and mana, they need to rely heavily on their consumable items – health and mana potions, injury kits, and mana salves. As long as battles are balanced correctly, consumables become the fuel that players use to power though DAL’s combat.

However, Legends also differs from traditional RPGs because the player is actually in control of the supply of consumables, via the castle. The core of a player’s castle are the workshops – the apothecary (for crafting potions), the infirmary (for salves), and the alchemy lab (for bombs) – which can create consumables over certain timed increments. For example, the player can place a worker in the apothecary to create 2 health potions in 30 minutes of real time. Giving players this control frees them from the anxiety of depleting their limited supply of items. With Legends, players can always invest time and gold into their castle to start rebuilding their supply.

Indeed, the two halves of the game – the castle and the combat – create a self-sustaining economic loop. Gold earned from fighting battles and completing quests can be invested into expanding the castle and upgrading its rooms. Accordingly, maintaining the castle and tasking workers to create items provides the potions, salves, and bombs the player needs to defeat the increasingly difficult monsters encountered over the course of the game.

Thus, the two parts of the game fit together and buttress each other. A well-supplied character will lose less battles, earning more gold that can be invested in the castle. A well-maintained castle will create more consumables for the the player to use in combat, increasing the odds of success. The combat and the castle provide context for each other, motivating the player to keep fighting and to keep building.

Dragon Age Legends: Combat Explained

My current game, Dragon Age Legends, was released this week. I wrote the following post as designer notes on the combat system.

One of the most lauded features of Dragon Age: Origins was its tactical combat system, which encouraged players to plan ahead and make interesting choices during battle. Indeed, although the system ran in real-time, the player could set a number of triggers that paused combat, to give time for deciding which skills to use and against which enemies. This feature allowed some to play Origins as almost a turn-based game that emphasized smart tactics over fast reflexes.

The Dragon Age Journeys Flash game built in parallel with Origins brought elements of the franchise to an actual turn-based game, in which battles played out on a hex-based grid. For the new Dragon Age Legends Facebook game, we built on top of what worked within the Journeys system (which itself was based on Daniel Stradwick’s Monsters’ Den Flash RPG).

For example, we borrowed the interleaved turn queues from Journeys, which means that the heroes and monsters take turns one at a time instead of fighting together as alternating groups, as is common in many group-based RPGs. Giving the player knowledge of which exact characters will move next creates some interesting tactical decisions. A monster who will attack sooner might be a better target than one who is a greater threat overall. Skills which disable or freeze enemies can be used intelligently to keep the most dangerous monsters at bay.

However, we simplified other mechanics from Journeys. Instead of using a hex-based grid, we adopted a simpler layout familiar to fans of Japanese RPG series like Final Fantasy in which the heroes and monsters line up on opposite sides of the screen is static slots. We built a 2 X 3 grid for each side, with front and back columns so that characters in the back column are protected from melee attacks by characters in the front column. This arrangement allows players to plan ahead by attacking a specific monster in the front line that, when dead, would expose a weak but dangerous blood mage in the back.

Another big change involved how we handled health and mana, the two most common stats from RPGs. Instead of using a bar-based system, in which a character might have 45 of 80 health points, we adopted a more chunky icon-based system. A character’s health is represented simply by 4 hearts, which are measured in halves, identical to the health system from the Zelda games. Mana is represented by single icons and as most skills cost just one mana, the number of icons a character has is shorthand for how many skills she can use.

This simplification had a number of advantages. First, the system had much greater clarity than opaque health and mana bars. These bars generally have the same size on the interface for the sake of consistency, which unfortunately obscures their true values. Although one character might have 20 hit points while another has 200, their health bars look the same on the game screen. In fact, most modern RPGs have superimposed text on top of health bars to give the actual values to avoid any confusion. With the iconic hearts, Legends avoids this problem as the graphics do not obscure any game data – what you see is what you get.

However, the most important reason to adopt the icon system is that it gives players a very tangible understanding of the consequences of their actions; the interface tells the exact effect of every possible action. For example, mousing over the “Power Strike” skill button next to a Hurlock shows that the action will take one-and-a-half hearts away from the monster while draining one mana from the player’s character. Mousing over a health potion shows that two hearts will be restored to the character. Mousing over a shock bomb shows that one heart will be taken away from all enemies. This transparency enables the player to plan ahead and make smart moves.

One reason so many RPGs go with a bar-based system is that hits points need to scale up over the course of a game, ranging from 10 hit points for starting monsters to over 1000 for bosses. With icons, Legends can never support hit point values that scale so high because the interface can only show so many hearts. Instead, the underlying character stats – attack, defense, agility, and luck – provide the scaling we need as players progress through the game.

Damage is calculated by creating a simple ratio between the attacker’s attack and the defender’s defense values. As this ratio increases to 2:1, 3:1, and higher, the damage value in hearts goes up. However, if the ratio remains constant, so does the damage. Thus, characters battling with 10 attack and 8 defense do the same amount of damage as characters battling with 50 attack and 40 defense, which means that the relative value of hearts stays the same. Similarly, agility and luck determine the odds of glancing blows and critical hits, by comparing the attacker’s luck with the defender’s agility.

As for mana, most skills cost just one point, with a few costing two and a handful costing more. The skills are all upgradeable up to ten levels (similar to the Japanese RPG Etrian Odyssey), which means that their power increases over the course of the game. However, their costs do not, so that players can expect to use the same number of skills per battle through all phases of the game. The costs can remain fixed because the better skills are simply an extension of the character’s growing power as he levels up.

Thus, the game’s simple and discrete health and mana values are maintainable across the game’s various levels. The players quickly gain an intuitive sense for how the game works (“shard bombs do one-and-a-half hearts of damage”) without having to memorize formulas or manage large, crooked numbers. Being able to think in small increments – a point here, a couple of points there – allows the player to fit a whole battle into her head at once, making combat a fun, tangible experience instead of a chaotic, stressful one.

My Favorite Week: 2011 Edition

GDC 2011 start on Monday, and I am even more excited than normal this year because I helped program the conference. The GDC Advisory Board invited me to join them last summer, and it’s been very interesting watching how the sausage gets made. I’m looking forward to seeing which ideas and sessions work out and which ones don’t. (If you don’t like that the “fuzzy” sessions – the rant, the microtalks, and the challenge – are scheduled during lunch, you can blame me!) It’s been an honor to be part of the process – I am as much a GDC junkie as ever.

I’m taking part in one talk this year, a panel on strategy gaming, for which I hand-picked the members. Hope to see you there!

Strategy Games: The Next Move

SPEAKER/S: Tom Chick (Quarter to Three)Ian Fischer (Robot Entertainment)Soren Johnson (EA2D)Dustin Browder (Blizzard Entertainment) and Jon Shafer (Stardock)

DAY / TIME / LOCATION: Friday 11:00-12:00 Room 134, North Hall
TRACK / FORMAT: Game Design / Panel

DESCRIPTION: Strategy games have one of the longest traditions within the industry, including two of last year’s biggest games, STARCRAFT II AND CIVILIZATION V. In what direction is the genre heading? What are some of most important, and possibly overlooked, gameplay innovations of the last few years? How has the growth on online, persistent play affected the way strategy games are developed? Has the rapidly expanding mainstream audience changed how strategy games are targeted, or is the genre at risk of turning into a ghetto? As the market moves towards free-to-play, micro-transaction-based gaming, how will strategy gaming adapt while maintaining fairness of play? Is there still room for traditional, boxed strategy games?

TAKEAWAY: Several experienced strategy developers will share their own perspectives on the future of the genre, offering insights on both game design and the challenges facing the genre in the coming years.

INTENDED AUDIENCE: Although primary of interest to strategy game developers, the session will also be relevant to anyone interested in how a game genre evolves and reinvents itself in the face of a changing market.

Talking about Dragon Age Legends and Social Games

I’ve been on a couple podcasts recently in which I talk about my newest game – the Facebook-based Dragon Age Legends. The first was the strategy-focused Three Moves Ahead, which also addressed my talks/columns on theme and meaning in games. The second was the The Digital Life, in which I was paired with veteran design Brenda Brathwaite to talk about the emerging format of social games. I can’t promise that I don’t repeat myself between the two, but they are both worth a listen for developers interested in this field – and for fans interested in my next game!

“Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

GDC 2010 is now in the books, and it will be a hard one to forget because the whole conference seemed to be obsessed with one thing, which I summed up in this tweet. Or, as Sirlin puts it here: “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.” Off the top of my head, here are the highlights and lowlights of this fixation:

  • The long-running Casual Games and Virtual Worlds Summits have vanished entirely from the conference, presumably eaten up by the new Social Games Summit.
  • Ngmoco’s Neil Young describing the growth of free-to-play online games as “the most significant shift and opportunity for [game developers] since the birth of this business.” This shift fundamentally changes the way game are made because developers can now launch early and adjust based off play patterns and user metrics.
  • Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”
  • My old Spore teammate Chris Hecker railed against external rewards as a true motivator as they can mask an otherwise dull game. Further, focusing primarily on metrics can actually make the game worse because they can overvalue external rewards, which are easier to measure. Chris also leveled this broadside at metrics-focused companies: “If you are intentionally making dull games with variable ratio extrinsic motivators to separate people from their money, you have my pity.”
  • Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell walked back from the ledge of his now infamous DICE talk on pervasive rewards systems, saying that doomsday is not inevitable. He went on to explicitly draw the line in a new war between persuaders (developers who want players’ money) and the rest of us (who want to give the players joy). When addressing persuaders, Schell actually used the phrase “you know who you are.”
  • Zynga’s Bill Mooney offended the entire independent games community in his acceptance speech for Farmville at the Choice Award by defining the Facebook game as “just as indie” and then trying to recruit everyone in the audience, many of whom have open disregard for Zynga. Josh Sutphin had a message for him: “Learn some fucking tact.”
  • Brian Reynolds, who is now Zynga’s Chief Designer, showed up on no less than three panels to point out repeatedly that social games need to be social first and games second. Farmville‘s crop-withering mechanic, in particular, was referenced as a not-fun mechanic that compels people to play out of a sense of shame. (What if my real-life friends see how poorly I am maintaining my own farm?)
  • Daniel James of Three Rings puzzled over the phrase “social gaming” as he felt that his old games (such as Puzzle Pirates) were far more social than Farmville, which is a primarily single-player game in which players pass around “tokens.” At multiple times during the conference, James expressed his serious ethical qualms over the path social gaming was laying for the industry. So many of the methods for making money are thinly-veiled scams that simply exploit psychological flaws in the human brain.
  • At a panel on why “dinosaur” designers are flocking to social games, Reynolds, Slide’s Brenda Brathwaite, Noah Falstein, and Playdom’s Steve Meretzky all praised social gaming as a new frontier where radical and rapid innovation exists, in contrast to the more conservative world of AAA retail games.
  • Will Wright pointed out that the astonishing growth of Facebook (and Facebook gaming) more likely resembles an S-curve than a power law curve. Thus, although this new market is indeed enormous, the upward sloping curve will level off at some point, so we should be careful not to make exponential predictions.
  • Sid Meier only briefly touched on Civilization Network, his new Facebook project, in his conference keynote, but what else needs to be said? Sid Meier is making a Facebook game! (Quite literally, in fact, as Sid is doing his usual designer/programmer thing.) Further, the three primary designers of  the Civilization franchise (Sid, Brian, and myself) are all now making social/online games.

What is to be made of all this? Meretzky made a key point in the dinosaur panel that, with free-to-play games, there is no more separation between game design and game business. Every change to a game’s balance might immediately and significantly affect revenue. Will it go down because the virtual items for sale are now less desirable compared to the free ones? Or will it go up because the player is now inconvenienced enough to buy a boost? Or will it go down because the inconvenience has driven away enough of the core fanbase? (I made a similar point in my Nov 2008 column on designing free-to-play games.)

The question on most developers’ minds is the following: what is the role of the game designer in this new world where business and design mix in such fundamental ways? The answer to this question drives fear in the heart of the boy or girl beating inside most professional game developers. Brian Reynolds himself often pointed out that the role of Zynga’s Chief Designer is not actually as important a position as one might imagine. At the VCON Summit, Eric Goldberg of Crossover Technologies suggested that companies “use the tactics that make the most money possible… that your staff can live with.” At that summit’s keynote, David Perry talked about the morally dubious “treasure chests” of ZT Online, which are engineered to prey on gambling addicts and provoked a visceral response from Sirlin:

This egregious, unethical practice is the kind of thing he should have presented as extremely dangerous. If you are “playing to win” in business, yeah, you’d do that. But doing so is damaging to the lives of our own customers… I mean personally, I’m embarrassed to be part of an industry that so blatantly manipulates people like rats in a skinner box, and isn’t he embarrassed about that too?

This debate over business-vs-design spawned a thread at Quarter to Three in which game developers are expressing their feelings over Farmville and its ilk:

It’s not social games as a threat to game design, it’s money-driven treadmill games that’s a threat to game design. A coworker identified a similar problem with a money-driven free-to-play social game, in which they specifically destroyed the balance in key ways at times in order to persuade the players to pay money to fix their own game balance. It is a war. It’s suits versus the creative people. (link)

I can’t believe one of the most important figures in strategy gaming [Brian Reynolds], the guy who had a major hand in bringing us absolute classics like Civ 2Alpha CentauriRise of Nations, and Rise of Legends is now Chief Designer for those creeps at Zynga. (link)

I don’t like that at all. It turns my art into a business intent only on making as much money as possible. And while making money is the goal for the large industry, the fact is that we’re still as much about creating great experiences first and foremost, and the money is a happy second. With Farmville and such, the premise is to make a lot of money, and that is the drive that informs every single decision. (link)

Making the game worse can make it generate more revenue. The lesson is to focus on generating fast bucks over improving the artistic quality of your game. Enjoyment isn’t as important as long as they keep paying and playing. The dividing line flaring up is an old one; are games an artistic endeavour furthering culture or are they just slot machines to be designed for revenue maximization? (link)

Farmville makes overt use of known psychological techniques to influence and control behaviour and ties that directly into revenue generation. . . . When you have games industry professionals from large companies arguing that we shouldn’t worry about making a game less enjoyable as long as it generates more revenue – to me that is something to be concerned about. (link)

Farmville‘s formula is simple. Make it easy to scream forward to the point where you can’t properly spend your coins anymore without spending real money. . . . Do not misunderstand me, I am saying, without any ambiguity, that doing this is wrong. I see very little difference between this and tactics at stores such as raising the price of something, removing functionality, and slapping a “On Sale 40% Off!” sign on it. (link)

The question will be, when it comes to tuning Brian Reynold’s Facebook game, will the guiding principle be increasing Zygna’s revenue or making the game more fulfilling? (link)

The Zynga guy said, you need to identify what people are doing most often in a game, because that’ll be the most fun activity. If that were true, the funnest activity in Starcraft is building Zerglings and the funnest in late-game Civ IV is clicking END TURN. (link)

Obviously, developers are wary of how Facebook gaming will change the industry in the years ahead. (Compare the importance of business metrics now with 1997’s Ultima Online, which lead designer Raph Koster points out “wasn’t designed around any business model in particular.”) The irony is that Facebook games typically share four characteristics that really do promise great things for both gamers and designers:

  • True friends list:  Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the Catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.
  • Free-to-play business model:  New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction.
  • Persistent, asynchronous play:  Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.
  • Metrics-based iteration:  Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.

These four pillars are the reason why many game developers are flocking to Facebook. (Of course, many of these characteristics are not exclusive to Facebook, but combining them together with such a large audience makes Facebook the obvious choice right now.) However, Jesse Schell is right; a war is brewing over who will call the shots. However, the question is not simply one of suits-vs-creatives. The question is will designers take the time to learn the business, to learn how to pay the bills while also delivering a fantastic game experience? As BioWare’s Ray Muzyka put it during a panel on connected gaming, ultimately all decisions are made with a goal to make money, but the goal may be short-term revenue (“can we sell more blue hats tomorrow?”) or long-term growth (“does our community believe in what we are doing? are we creating life-long fans?”). The successes will not come from open conflict between design and business but from developers who internalize the tension and attack the problem holistically.

I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines. With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players. The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer.

Theme is Not Meaning: The Slides

My keynote on theme-vs- mechanics went well. I’m getting positive feedback so far although I am curious where people may have felt my arguments were not as strong. I’ve posted the slides in the sidebar, but here is a direct link. Also, the talk was written up a couple places online, with the Destructoid piece almost being a transcript: