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.

MMO State of Mind

MMORPGs are really the genre of my heart. While I do love RPGs and strategy games, I always want to return to MMOs and hope to find something to sink years into and find new friends to chat with. It is a genre I feel so strongly about that for over 15 years I have been designing my own MMORPG in my head and on paper just for my own mental play and have even written articles on this blog about my thoughts. I have considered at many points creating my own on my own and have made minor attempts at it through the years in various ways.

Yet looking at this blog, I haven’t mentioned MMO’s for 3 years… an article where I talk about FFXIV… before that… 2012… where I talk about upcoming MMOs that looked interesting (only Elder Scrolls Online really worked out and I never played it)…. and it has seemingly been about 10 years since I really talked seriously about MMOs from a design/analytical standpoint.

Part of this, I realize, is that over the last 5 to 10 years, I really just have vacated the blog sphere entirely. Life etc… The other part of it is that I have also almost completely vacated the MMO genre due to the WoWification of it. The FFXIV spurt of articles that I wrote came because I was really jonesing for the genre so I went to the best available game, which fortunately or unfortunately was FFXIV.

Since about… August… I’ve been playing Guild Wars 2. I have played this game periodically on and off since near launch. I think the most the game has ever hit for me previously was the 3 to 4 month timeframe. I did take a break from GW2 for about 4 to 6 weeks over December and January, but I seem to be back in… We are now sitting at probably… 8 or 9 months of play which is fairly substantial for me these days.

So this coupled with the recent announcement that GW2 will get a third expansion and so I’ve been contemplating things I’d like to see in the game for that expansion, coupled with a lot of downtime due to Coronavirus… and I’ve contemplating game design for MMOs again of late. To add to it, last year about this time, I got a promotion at my job where I am developing programs with Java, and while i’m still new at it… I think I’m pretty freaking good at it and so the concept that I could program my own MMO is resurfacing as a very real possibility.

So… short story long… I kind of want to get some of these mental discussions back into blog form with the extra time that I have been granted. The one thing doing this really does for me is that it helps me focus. Because I can take a single topic. Talk about it and my ideas on it. Really dig in… and because it’s getting written, i don’t circle around it quite as much.

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.

To Those Who Have Inspired and Saved Me…

Video Games are an extremely important part of my life. I mean, as regular of a blogger I may not be, I do blog about them and that sort of proves the point of just how much they mean to me. I picked up on video games at a very early age and though I would never admit it at the time, and still have a hard time doing so, games offered me something that the world could not in so many ways… interactivity. This is extremely ironic to be sure, games do nothing but to try to emulate the real world in many different fashions. But for me, I could not be in the real world like others could physically due to my hemophilia. I take pride in my ability to conquer my disease and not let it stop me from doing what I want to. But the reality is, that I cannot do what others do in the same way that others do. This becomes painfully more clear to me with each passing year. I become less and less able to do what others do, but video games offer me an out. I can do what others do in games. I can be who I want to be without the pain that follows suit.

And maybe because of hemophilia, maybe because I’m too smart for my own damn good… but I have not been able to interact with other people in the same way that I know other people interact with each other. I feel very little empathy and it makes it difficult for me to go and reach out to friends or family when I maybe should have in the past. It makes it difficult for me to know when or how to help others who have needed my help in the past. But yet in games, I can helps others without issue. I mean I get to rescue princesses, rule an empire, or even start a family. Yeah, all these experiences are extremely simple compared to real life interactions, but they offer me an ability to interact in a way that I can’t in real life all the same. Even in MMO settings, I  have the ability to interact with people on the other side of the screen in a much more “normal” way than I can in real life. Maybe it is because games are MY world, when people play with me, they are playing in my home turf. Maybe without being face to face I don’t feel as judged, even if I am.

I was reminded of all this over the last few days as I lay ill, not from hemophilia, but just a random virus that has been going around our office. I laid down on my couch and picked up FInal Fantasy 1 to play again for the first time in some time. And was reminded of how ground breaking this was to my feeble 12 year old self. It caused me a great many fines from the local rental store but I just had to play it more. Or how, my grandfather was the first one to give me a console and really introduce me to games at home. Though for the rest of his life he never seemed to understand my obsession with video games, for one glimmering moment he changed my life for better or worse with a pong machine that he likely picked up at a garage sale. Or at Christmas at my Aunt and Uncle’s house while everyone else was socializing, I would leave the chaos of the party behind in order to go play Pitfall on my cousin’s Atari, thinking how amazing it was because we didn’t have one at home… one of those cousins recently gave me his PS2, somehow seemed very fitting but I don’t think he understands why.  Or after bowling, me and a whole bunch of kids would sit and play the TMNT arcade cabinet as we waited for our parents… though we bowled with each other, I didn’t entirely feel like one of them until we started playing games together. Or when I was hospitalized in second grade, it was an Apple II that comforted me with Carmen Sandiego, Oregon Trail, and some weird game where you hunted monsters that got loose in the town based on clues about the monsters… if someone knows what game I speak, please for the love tell me, haven’t been able to figure it out. And all of the people that I have met over the 20+ years of playing MMOs, every which of one I wish I was still in contact with on a daily basis but life has torn us a part.

And my mother, whom somehow for some reason understood what video games meant to me without saying a word and would bring home her work computer with Karateka so that I could play with it, enrolled me in summer school to learn how to program a Commodre 64, and bought our family a Radio Shack Computer for similar purposes. And honestly never minded a whole god damn much that I sat downstairs playing video games. A lot of people may have called her a bad mother, and am sure she didn’t like me playing that much either. But she dealt with it. Ya know what? I never once have killed a single person, never stole anything of greater value than baseball cards, never done drugs or cigarettes, didn’t have any alcohol in my life until 23 and even still have never binged. All thank you to my mother and video games. I am 36 and I grew up on video games and a better man for it.

For all that and more. Thank you mom, grandpa, Nolan Bushnell, Richard Garriott, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, Chris Sawyer, Will Wright, Satoshi Tajiri, Notch, Yuji Horii and the thousands of other video game developers that have created video games over the last 4 decades. Without you, I would not still be here. Don’t stop doing what you do. Thank you.

AC2: Two Months Later

It has been a full two months since I picked up Asheron’s Call 2 for a second time, so I thought I would make a post rounding up what I am up to and what I continue to think about this game. Overall, I’m still loving it and still fairly addicted to it. I go home every night after work, log in and look for a group. Every morning before work I try to go kill a few simple tasks that I need to get done. It is a good MMO. A lot of the early issues have been fixed. The servers are stable. You can get past level 50. The whole nine yards. Continue reading “AC2: Two Months Later”

Dereth, Here I come… Again!

I really wanted to be able to go and put the old AC2 disks into my computer and do a fresh install of the game. I don’t know why. Maybe just some sort of justification for why I kept those disks for a decade. Maybe just to get that special feeling that i had 10 years ago when Asheron’s Call 2 first launched… that initial excitement. I openly admit for that to be too much to ask for though as much has changed from those days and thus I found myself downloading a 2+ gigabyte file from Turbine for 20 minutes. Continue reading “Dereth, Here I come… Again!”