The Long History of Twinking & Soulbinding

Twinking is not really a thing anymore in modern MMOs, so I think it is worth explaining exactly what twinking is. Twinking is when you give lower level characters, whether your alts or friends, high level gear in order to give the lower level character an advantage in moving through the game.

In early MMOs, this was a big problem because higher level characters had more money, had more gear and had stuff to spare to give the lower level characters so this was easy for them. The problem for the game though is that it tends to ruin the power curve. Games are designed to take X amount of time to get from point A to point B and MMOs in particular are being designed to stretch out the amount of time it takes for players to get bored. They don’t want a player’s attention for a month or two…. they want it for a few years straight.

The initial method in which to stop twinking was actually the most effective, but not flawless. That was… the level requirement (and sort of class requirements… not that an item was limited to only certain classes, but that only 1 class could use an item). The level requirement is pretty simple… you have a powerful late game weapon, you make it have a requirement that it can only be used by late game players by adding a requirement that the player needs to be at the level cap in order to use it. This solves the extreme version of twinking pretty easily.

Now this method does actually kind of break immersion… if I know how to use swords, there’s really no difference between swords, they are all pretty much the same. This isn’t entirely true, of course… but the differences in swords are minute and have more to do with different types of swords than specific swords… for instance if you know how to use a Rapier, you may not know how to use a Great Sword… but that’s extreme. There are also minor differences to builds within the same class, but even so, you might have a minor disadvantage when first getting used to the sword but once you do, you’ll be fine.

It’s interesting to note that there have been methods to merge the level req with a more immersive and natural behavior. The first that I can think of is Dark Age of Camelot, which allowed players to use items higher than their level but the item was under-powered until you hit the weapon’s level… this actually kind of sounds like what I said in the previous paragraph, that was unintentional. I can’t remember if it was also DAoC or another game, but another concept has been to have durability go down faster if you were below the required level, which is a similar concept just done a different way.

The problem is, it doesn’t solve it completely. Not all items are the same even if the requirements are. If you have have 100 levels, and you are max level but want to help a level 5 player out so that they have an easier time…. it’s quite easy to buy them level 5 super rare super powerful items that aren’t easy for them to get due to rarity. So twinking generally still happens.

This lead to the birth of soulbinding. Soulbinding is when an item can only be used by the character it is soulbound to, and this soulbinding usually occurs on the character acquiring the item (though there are games, such as GW2, that has some items soulbound on use). This method instantly takes away twinking… because… obviously you can’t give the powerful items to other players. I believe (though could be wrong) that this idea originated with EverQuest, but was expanded upon with newer MMOs and even within EQ. Originally, it tended to only get done on super rare items and quest items, but the idea of soulbinding has expanded exponentially. There has also been an addition of Account Bound since its inception, meaning that you can trade it between characters within the same account.

I do think that the idea of soulbinding has been expanded upon for a reason other than to stop twinking to be honest. It has become a staple largely to help deal with the high level economy. The problem modern MMOs have is that because there is no durability and no death penalty in most games, there is no way for items to be removed from the game. Raising level cap fixes this issue… but that creates an issue of forcing developers to create a lot of in game content in order to appease all the players at a now higher level. The problem here is that players tend to move faster than developers. I know in WoW… players tend to reach the new level cap within a week (oftentimes days)… now it may take them a month or two past that to start getting the best gear. But once they get that gear they can start twinking other players with the best gear who now also can start twinking other players when they start getting duplicates and so forth. Soooo soulbinding to the rescue. A hardcore player may be able to get the best gear in the game rapidly, but they are going to punish themselves instead of the developers for that so that other players will still need to work for it, giving the developers far more time before the remaining 95% of the player population starts receiving their max gear.

There is, of course, a negative side to soulbinding gear in this fashion. And that’s player interaction. While twinking, overall, is a negative when done prolifically, it isn’t necessarily all bad. Players generally don’t just give each other their best gear, they sell it more often. Generally, straight up giving is held for guildmates and friends. And in reality, this is what an economy actually is… buying and selling things. By soulbinding everything, a game is getting created where the level economy and the boredom economy is taking precedence over the actual economy. And if I’m going to be honest, there are actual players out there who are more interested in the actual economy.

There is also the case for gold farming… by making items soulbound, gold farmers cannot farm high value items and sell them as easily and thus flood the market with those items. But there are better options at dealing with gold farmers and the reality is that game development companies just don’t want to. As evidenced by the fact that gold farmers still very much exist and are as prevalent as ever, and game developers stopped dealing with them completely outside of adding more and more soulbound items.

What I’m trying to say is that, switching to a system that relies heavily on soulbinding in order to stop twinking, keep players interested because they have to actually get their gear, and help prevent gold farmers… is yet another system that is going into place that interrupts player interaction in a negative way. And ultimately, the genre is COMPLETELY built around player interaction. There’s a ton of systems that have been added to the modern MMORPG that has disrupted player interactions, and this one is actually rather minor unless taken to an extreme. But it is an avenue all the same and does have negative repercussions that, I would argue, are actually MORE difficult to fix than the actual issues you are trying to fix by adding in soulbinding in the first place. You could, theoretically, just add another way to force players to interact in its place, but it would likely feel more forced and players resent being forced to interact. And really, nobody is doing this because it feels like more and more in the genre, all they are trying to build are single player games with a built in chat room.

Few games have gotten even close to UO in terms of tradeskills

Even past the ‘interactions” concept, making the most powerful items in the game soulbound, completely borks the idea of tradeskills. It continues to amaze me that game development companies continue to include tradeskills in their games while putting in such low effort into making them work, and more often then not making them specifically not work. Instead, because of something like soulbinding, we often end up with generic tradeskills that must be done by players themselves, rather than buying a tradeskill player’s goods as is supposed to be the case.

I will say that, I am not against soulbinding in general… and I’m certainly not against level requirements. I actually think a lot of early soulbinding usage was appropriate. If game devs build in a system in which to get legendary gear that takes a character a long time to acquire and these items are supposed to be the hallmarks of a character’s life… it’s totally appropriate to soulbind that item. I also have concepts in my brain to allow the player to choose soulbinding as a way to pay off positive attributes on their items, which I may or may not get into at a later date. I feel like soulbinding has its place, but it needs to be considered when it is used as it really does take away fun from the game to do it.

So I want to go into a little more how Guild Wars 2 is addressing this because I think that GW2 is proving to be an extreme case of soulbinding in particular. I also want to go into some thoughts that I have on what I would do in order to combat some of these issues without delving into the usual methods. But I feel that this post is long enough, so I’m going to split these into two other posts that will be released in the future. I think this is actually going to be something I do going forward… I will have one post giving a background of a concept and give arguments as to why I like or dislike certain aspects, follow up with a case study of the concept (good or bad), and then followup again with my thoughts on what could be done in a potential game.

Done With Final Fantasy XIV

It may come as no surprise to anyone that late last week I cancelled my account for Final Fantasy XIV. The game is beautiful, has a couple of cool ideas, but overall it just isn’t for me. I had tried to salvage it one last shot by switching guilds, but the new guild didn’t work out so I just cancelled completely. Here’s a listing of overall issues I had with it.

  1. Lonely – I keep hearing how great the community of FFXIV is… maybe it is the juxtaposition of the juvenile community of WoW. But I never got over my sense of loneliness in the game. You were rarely encouraged to do quests as a group, really because they all contained long cut-scenes, in a lot of respects you were discouraged from grouping in them. Dungeons were largely cross-server which meant pick-up groups were even more throw away than before as you have no way to communicate cross server. The only real way to group was to get lucky on  your guild pick up, which I was not…. twice.
  2. Easy – FFXIV follows the WoW trend of making a game that requires no effort at all. No death penalties. Like, I’m sorry if I can do raids and extreme/savage difficulty in a pick up group, there’s something wrong with the game. The high end loot is all easily attainable by anyone. The game is, like WoW, designed to make sure that everyone has access to everything, and generally it takes the same amount of time, as everything is fairly kept to a cap, for everyone. (There are a few pieces that leave this formula but too few.) I find it funny that I had convos with people about the original FFXIV, and one of the things they brought up with why it was bad was that you lose xp on death… man that sounded nice. Now I have since watched videos on why the original was bad and I don’t think it was good, but that particular functionality is not a reason.
  3. Itemization – This game had really crappy items. I mean REALLY crappy. I feel like the game in general had a lot of features that were overly simplistic because balancing is hard. I mean, yeah it’s hard, that’s why they pay you money to do it and not just throw crap in. Items were super basic, there were no sets, no randomization, items never gave bonuses to skills. You have a stat for strength? Item will give it a bonus and nothing more. It wasn’t good and it made it difficult for me to want to progress. I didn’t look forward at items and go “Man I can’t wait until I get the extra 10 to Wisdom.”
  4. Raids – I have discussed this in a previous post. I chose FFXIV because I wanted to raid. And while the 3 raids the game had were pretty nifty… There just weren’t many here to hang your hat on.
  5. Class Selection – I will say, for the most part, the class selection in the game is fairly vanilla. I landed on Astrologer because I felt like it was one of the more interesting classes in the game, and also because I like healer, but everything else is also pretty standard. It’s hard to say so early, but I am kind of disappointed that Stormblood releases 2 DPS classes. Red Mage could have been cool if they did something to follow the traditional half-healer half-DPS, but they already got that sort of covered with the Scholar anyway. And the game completely ignores the fourth pillar of classic MMO class balance… the Support. I was leveling a Bard towards the end, but the Bard at its base is really DPS. It does touch on support, but not much.
  6. Elder Game  – Or lack thereof. This is kind of a summary of previous points to be fair. Obviously if there are few raids and no itemization. the Elder Game is going to be lacking as well.  I feel like FFXIV, and feel that again this is a problem in WoW as well, utilizing leveling  up secondary classes as a form of Elder Game, and as someone who just wants to play one or two classes at a time, this really holds little appeal to me. The game, and others in the game, really encourages you to go ahead and level that other class because it’s just so easy to switch between classes on the same character. It’s cool, but shallow. Stuck on the time limit to get better gear for your main class? Just level a new class! They entice you further by giving bonus XP for already having a max class character, so why not? Because there is no way for items to get lost, there is no need to get items more than once. And because it isn’t particularly difficult to get items, you always kind of have that urge of, I’m done with this class now to do another. It’s just not for me. Of note was the inclusion of a casino, haven’t seen that rendition of an Elder Game since the olden days. I didn’t mind that so much except to avoid people from getting rich, they made their own currency <rolls eyes>.

So with that, I end a chapter in my MMO life. At this point, there aren’t many  other MMOs I am very interested in. Most of the MMOs these days area either PvP or WoW-easy and I’m not that interested in either. Maybe in a year I will revisit the genre and there will be something new.

Return to the land of MMORPGs

It was during Christmas Vacation, amidst working during my time off, that I was contemplating my current state of loneliness in life. And I was trying to think back to a time where I was feeling less lonely and more fulfilled by interactions with others, and I realized that this came largely due to friends made during online games rather than in real life.

I’ve always had a select few really good offline friends, but this was always supplemented by online friends made in games. It was in this way I always felt very fulfilled with my relationships in life despite having a case of social anxiety.

Well as it turns out, 5 or 6 years ago, I was playing Travian fairly hardcore and also in a hardcore EQ2 raiding guild when I had some fights with my roommate that led to me deciding that I needed to make my priorities a little more real life and a little less online. This was also helped by the fact that my raiding guild had broken up and though I joined a new one, I didn’t find it as fulfilling and didn’t really like the latest expansion from EQ2 so it felt like a natural time to end online games.

Now years later, no roommate and my kid is nearly 18, I find myself having less real world responsibilities again and I notice myself becoming more lonely. I realized that it was this absence of online games which had a big part of it so here I am, returning to the scene of the MMO.

I first thought, well EQ2 is still kicking but upon looking at the game as a whole I must say that it isn’t kicking all that much. I’m a little disappointed that EQ Next was axed as I think that one may have been a good home. So I started looking at what games made a good Raiding experience. I feel that, though I tend to prefer sand boxy games, this raiding cromradery is what I miss from my online life. Relaly guild cromradery, but I think raiding hardcore really speeds up frienships so that’s what I’m at for now.

With EQ pretty much out, there really isn’t a ton of games with a good raid experience. I kept on searching and finding people pointing at 3 games… World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and Wildstar. Well, I kind of don’t want to go to WoW…. I have always been against how they have dumbed down the genre and made it easier, and though they do have a raiding experience, in my EQ2 days, EQ2 was largely thought as the better experience. It’s totally possible WoW has since gotten better, but meh I just don’t want to play that game really. I also have discovererd that Wildstar, though newer than the other two, has lost most of its subscribers and is a fairly lonely game so I felt that kind of took it out of contention for me. This left me with Final Fantasy XIV.

And so, I began my journey into the world of Eorzea. So far, so good I guess. The first 50 levels went by pretty quickly but it did slow down quite a bit at 50, largely because the quests stopped giving experience at that level. I have picked up playing White Mage because in my raiding days, I primarily played a healer… though now that I’ve been playing, I have heard that Scholar and Astrologean are more desired in the raiding tier. I will probably switch to Ast once I attain level 60 but for now I’m sticking with the white mage. I think this makes sense because you gain an xp bonus on future jobs once you hit the cap.

I do like that you can switch jobs at will whenever you like with no penalty. And really each class is separate. You get attribute points for leveling, but the points you get are kept only within the job that you leveled. If I switch from White Mage to Warrior, those points I put into Mind, go away entirely and once I level I can put points into Strength without a second thought. I really like the system, it makes me wonder why they gave everyone 8 characters to play. 8 Characters per datacenter at that, so you can build 16 on American servers alone. Seems like a good way to make mule characters. Another nice feature is that you can have up to 10 hot bars, but you can mark certain hotbars as unshared. What this means is that if you do switch jobs, the unshared hotbars will switch as to the new job as well. Very nice touch. Theoretically you can have a completely new set of 10 hotbars per job which really gives you a lot of room to play around with.

So far, it does largely follow the easiness of WoW. I am currently level 42, and the only time I have needed other players is when I have needed to do a dungeon to complete a quest. You can’t do a dungeon solo, there isn’t even the option as far as I can tell, you have to do it with a group. So group I must. I have also grouped and done dungeons just as a change of pace from walking back and forth from the dull quests. But overall it’s a mostly soloable game which I don’t like because it is an multiplayer game after all. Also, I play a healer, which to me by definition should be asking for someone to heal but whatever. There is also no real death penalty as far as I can tell. I know items degrade over time, but they degrade for pretty much any reason. Using a spell in combat degrades boots for some reason, as does enemies hitting you and once to 0% I think the item no longer provides its bonuses anymore but I don’t ever notice a big enough drop off in my production so I tend to just keep going with a few items broken. Oh well. And I don’t notice a significant hit to those items durability from death so again I don’t really notice a death penalty. Really FFXIV seems like a WoW 2.0. But I feel that is where most MMOs are going these days so I guess I gotta live with it if I want to continue with the genre.

I also dislike that FFXIV requires you to unlock everything via quest. And I do mean everything. I don’t think I could have grouped until I unlocked that via quest. You have to unlock jobs via quest (which I think is good), every dungeon, trial, every version of dungeon (Hard, extreme, savage), everything has to be unlocked via quest. To some degree I kind of like it, it gives an extra sense of progression. But on the other side, some features I feel should just be available. Like really? I have to unlock the email service during a quest? It also makes me think I can’t do certain things until I find the quest to unlock it so that when  you run across one of the few things you don’t need the quest to unlock, you still aren’t using it because you still feel you need a quest. (I ran into this with their guilds, thinking there must be a quest to unlock them as there was a greyed out option in my bar and i figured I needed to unlock that to search for guilds, but no, you just can’t search for guilds in the game apparently). I am currently in the midst of a bit where I have tons of unlock quests from the time that 50 was the highest level, so there are all these level 50 dungeons I need to unlock and hard versions and extreme versions and whatever. It gets old, and none of them seem to give xp because 50 was max cap even though it isn’t anymore.

Be that as it may, I am trudging through. I have found a guild and continue on with progression. I have yet to find myself in a raid because I still haven’t hit 60. But I hope to be full on raiding shortly. Here’s to hoping at least.

Mistakes in Virtual Ecologies

I have been playing a bit of Guild Wars 2 of late. The game isn’t great but it is also not the worst game I have played, and the lack of a subscription fee makes it perfect for a situation where I can’t afford one. Playing an MMO inevitably makes me start thinking about the design of the genre and my own past ideas on how to build an MMO and I eventually returned to thinking about Ultima Online’s Virtual Ecology.

For those who do not know, since it has been so long… Originally, Ultima Online had a Virtual Ecology where each animal and monster had a set of desires in which controlled its AI. Deer wanted to eat grass and  have a bushy hide out, Wolves wanted to eat Deer, Lizardmen wanted to attain gold. If a Wolf, could not find a deer to eat, they would start looking for other things to eat, like players. This actually created a system where a Bear would not be aggressive to players unless it was starving and to some degree it actually worked. The problem with the system though was it really only worked with the absence of players. Once players were introduced into the ecosystem, they would kill everything en masse, bears would starve because food would be scarce and players would get attacked by bears. This culminated in a famous event during beta where dragons began attacking Britain because they were so hungry. An event that essentially caused the devs to remove the ecology totally, even though to this day I consider this event to be one of the most fun occasions that I have had in an MMO ever as I remember the calls going out to save Britain and players returning from across the globe to help out!

I think one of the main problems that this virtual ecology had was that the predator to prey aspect was completely wrong. I believe I have talked about this in previous blog entries years ago, but it needs restatement. I don’t know what the ratio that Origin used initially, but my guess would be 2 to 3 prey for every predator. I mean this was a fantasy universe and it was a game, you need decent amount of predators in the world to ensure players can feel like heroes. However, I do feel like the ratio should be in the range of 10 prey per predator. What this means is that for every 1 wolf in the world, there should be 10 deer at any given time. If not more, the number may actually need to be 15:1 or 20:1 or 25:1. It should be so high that the prey should be overpopulated in the absence of the player.

On top of this  previously thought of issue, I had another realization or two last night while thinking about the ecology. The way that players killed deer in UO was spectacularly odd.  You see deer, and other creatures in UO, weren’t actually  very fast. So players would take their swords and start hacking away at a deer. The deer would turn and run, but from memory it always seemed like the deer would take a step, pause, step pause step pause. Players could completely outrun a deer and this fact is backwards. In real life, a Red Deer (which I am pretty sure deer in UO were modeled after) can run around 40 mph. Have you ever heard of a human running that fast? The fastest recorded speed of a human is 28 mph on a 100 yard dash, meaning a short distance run for someone who trains for running fast, wearing light clothing not medieval armor. A human might be able to leap upon that dear unawares and stab at it once, but if you didn’t get a killing shot on the deer in the first blow, you can kiss the deer good bye. Even with say a magic potion that might double your speed, it would be a pretty tough race. I also would wager that trying to stab a deer to death with a sword is not entirely as easy as one might think, however I’ve never tried so I can’t entirely comment on this concept. My overall point here is that in real life, animals tend to run when they get attacked. It is the best defense they have against anything trying to attack them, human or predator. In Ultima Online, this didn’t happen all that much. Animals more often than  not just kind of stood there and took it.

Conversely, predators probably wouldn’t outright run if you attacked them. They’d probably attack back, or at least it seems logical enough that they might and thus not lose a realistic feel by programming that in. If injured enough, they probably too would run and if they run, unless seriously injured the player probably would be out of luck. However, a human attacking a bear is no easy thing. They kinda hurt, and they can take a beating as well. I imagine even a warrior in full plate would get a bit beaten up by such a fight and it might not be worth it overall.

This whole idea that when animals get attacked, they generally flee lends itself to attacking with bows and crossbows instead of swords. Thinking back on my experiences with Ultima Online, I certainly never used a bow and can’t think of anyone who did (though admittedly it has been 15 ish years!). Everyone used Halberds and Viking Swords and Magic because those weapons did the most damage. But in a combat system where flight was an option…. Rangers wielding bows might be more useful. Thinking of Rangers, it seems like a natural addition that maybe traps could have been a thing as well in this game. Traps are a slower way to capture all the animals you want, and it works in a more natural progression and could have required a completely new skill. It also creates a new play pattern which I think would have suited UO quite well. Granted, this is yet another mechanic to add to a game that was already way behind schedule and still too buggy to launch but it might have made for a nice expansion addition.

The other side of this is that the main reason that players felt the need for over-hunting the predator’s food supply is that deer offered up leather which  you needed to make armor. I believe deer in particular was one of the better sources for leather as well. But here’s the thing. In real life, we can get leather from deer. We tend to get it from cows though. Now you could kill a cow and get it’s leather as well, but cows weren’t as common as deer and I don’t think they gave as much leather (I know not why). I believe all animals dropped leather, but deer was one of the better sources. So if you, as a player, needed leather, it didn’t pay to go get wolves, it paid to get deer. I think overall they needed to give wolves and other predators some sort of drop in order to make it desirable for a player to hunt them down. That could have been one solution. Another solution would have been the inclusion of yet another skill type for a farmer which could raise sheep, cows, and even llamas which could produce leather and cotton. The farming aspect, coupled with deer that ran when they were attacked would make it so that if you wanted to get leather, it might be more efficient to get a cow off a farmer than it would be to go find a deer and convince it to die for you.

Of course, this has the problem of requiring land to start a farm. More than one developer at Origin has since stated that they never intended Ultima Online to house 10,000 players per server. I think the number I heard was they initially intended between 500 and 1000. Space was sparse in the game, and sooner than you knew, the server was packed with houses everywhere. Even if you wanted a house it was difficult to find a location that wasn’t already taken.

The reality is that Origin tried to do too much with Ultima Online. A lot of the issues that they had really just came down to they didn’t have enough time to truly develop the idea.  It’s too bad, but at the same time I applaud them for trying to do too much. i remember beta in UO fondly. The world seemed natural and real. I lament all the time about modern MMOs no longer feeling real, I hate the genre much more now than I used to.  There doesn’t seem to be a game in the genre going for the Virtual World feel that UO began.

As a parting shot on this idea. Another thing I remember in UO early days that I am not entirely sure was due to the ecology or not… When you left a city in UO, what you found immediately near the city tended to be more naturalistic animals… deer, rabbits, mice, the occasional bear or wolf, maybe a llama or an eagle. It was extremely rare to find a lizard man. In today’s UO, you leave town and you can find lizard men, skeletons, and ogres right outside town. And that concept is really mirrored across the genre unfortunately. Anyway, I remember going out with a friend in beta days and we stumbled upon a lizard man camp. We were amazed. Had never seen such things. We killed a lizard man on the outskirts and he wasn’t the easiest kill, we were used to the animals which were a lot easier to terminate. But we did kill him and were entreated to a weapon, some money and reagents! Reagents were actually quite difficult to find in those days and we felt like  we found the mother load if every lizard man had one because there were maybe a dozen right in front of us. However, we soon discovered the danger of trying to take on lizard men and soon found ourselves fleeing. I assure you, we were not taking the same step-pause technique in running that deer in the game practiced.

Online Anniversary

2013 is actually a really special year to me. It marks my 20th year being online and playing online RPGs. I don’t honestly have an exact date as to when it occurred, I just remember being 15 years old when I discovered everything. I usually pen in my discovery of these fine interwebs and MMOs to August. Continue reading “Online Anniversary”

Richard Garriott Gets His Crazy Money

Note, this post is being dual-posted to RPGComplex.com as well.

It is like a car crash in the making. How can you not look? That’s how I felt when I saw Shroud of the Avatar go up on Kickstarter. I gleefully put in my $25 in order to get a front seat view at the wreckage that will surely follow. And now more than 22,000 other people have followed suit and given Richard Garriott more than $2 million dollars in order to ensure that this car wreck happens. So far, Garriott has not disappointed. Read More >>