MMO Chat: Cardell Kerr

July 21st, 2011

The next interview in my MMO Chat series is with Cardell Kerr, Creative Director at Turbine, who has been at the company for 11 years. He started as a content designer for Asheron's Call, was systems lead on AC2, worked on setting up DDO and is now Creative Director for LOTRO.

Starting with Asheron's Call, how did Turbine come up with the very unique systems for AC?

It's funny because AC is how I fell in love with the space. That was it. I got hired to work on AC and I played the heck out of it initially. I can say that I feel like, looking back on it, knowing where the company is and knowing what we've been doing all this time, AC is one of the first truly world-centric attempts at what it is to make a systemic game. So like you were talking about the bank notes and the economy and then there's the whole spell economy and what it meant to discover spells and utilizing those spells because you have them and if you were the only one who had them they would be more powerful for you. It was very much a game built on "we're going to use the systems of the world around us – and recognize that secrets are, to a certain extent, power – the more information you have the more powerful you're going to be in this game. You can see it in AC: a lot of that was information: how you travelled around in the portal rings and these other aspects. Therefore the economy was kind of a multi-headed beast. There were so many hidden things in the way AC was done: there was the economy of bank notes and pyreals and where you can buy certain components.

Even down to identifying what magical items actually did.

Correct. Exactly. That whole cycle. Then there was the other side of it: knowing what portals to use to get where, know where to buy, knowing what monsters are highly successful to your build, there was just so much more exploration in that game and it was really meant to be a game of trial and error and in many ways many brutal trials.

I do remember in AC it was a lot of fun just wandering off in any direction. It didn't have zone lines like a lot of MMOs have. The whole world is just one big "world" and you can get there by going through the portal network or you can just start running in a direction and see what you can find.

Absolutely. And there were many times when you would find "Oh! There's a lifestone out here!" Or there's some randomly neat spawn of certain types of creatures. In terms of that, that was the very first foray into this model, so we tried to put stuff on markets that were actually worth money, in terms of pyreals. But we also found that, after a while, people would respond more to being able to do a specific deed to get something. This is what kind of led to the birth of the Atlan weapons and the whole Mote economy.

I know you talked about how in AC secrecy, or rather information, was power. How much information do you think players should have access to? We talk about artificial limits on knowledge, how games sometimes don't present something in the UI, like the way information about weapons was hidden until you had enough skill to appraise it. On the other hand players will try to circumvent that, like how in AC you'd get a friend to identify your weapon for you and you'd write the stats down in the inscription of the weapon, then everyone would know what the stats were. Or there were third-party tools like Split Pea were used to find the spells or AC Explorer that would map the superior route from any point on the map to any other through the portal network. What are your opinions on that? If you actually put that limitation in by design as a way to make the game more fun and then players sort of circumvent that, does that ruin the game?

It's funny because old me would have said yes, and by old me I mean eight years ago. Now I revise my opinion to be more along the lines of players should have access to as much information as they can handle without hurting their gameplay experience. It sounds very politic when I say it that way…

Or it sounds very meaningful!

*laughs* That's why I have so many meaningful clauses in there. But it really is more like… there is a lot of information that we tried to put in in order to allow players to try and determine how they would socialize with other people. We wanted there to be a whole sort of secret organization that could handle all the spell research, kind of have their own spell economy and really have their own mages guild around these types of things, but what we found was that this was generally not the case. Generally most communities want to disseminate that information. They really do. In terms of players, they clearly want to fight and kill each other, as anyone on Darktide could tell you…

I didn't fare well there…

Very few people did! *laughs* But it doesn't change the fact that they would still share a lot of information. Because of that fact, as designers, it kind of proved one of the tenants that I have definitely taken to heart and it was brutal when I first started here, which was: "hey no matter how smart you are, you have no idea what your players are going to find fun." You can have a concept in your head, but really the benefit of the games we make they're alive and they're ever evolving. That's what Turbine's all about. So don't get too attached to the concept of the spell economy being what your game's all about in terms of secrecy, or in terms of moving around through different portals. The reality is that your player base is going to push that information out to other people and the sad fact is that you only end up with a game with multiple tiers of knowledge. When a person just picks up your game and has no idea what's going on, whereas if they downloaded these one or two other apps they would have a good time. And that's never a good thing from the point of view of a designer. I want everyone to log in and play a game and at least have the same consensual experience.

AC's economy also had a system where when you died, you dropped a few of your most expensive items. So, at the time, one of the strategies was to carry a few very expensive but light-weight items as a sort of "insurance" so, whenever you died, these were the things that dropped and not the stuff you were actually using. How did that come about? How did that affect the game's design?

I can say that initially the thought was always that this death penalty would work: "Of course the most expensive items would be the stuff the player finds the most useful!" Again, that was one of those over-simplifications because when AC was launched it was the first of its kind and in many ways it has been the only one of its kind. There were a lot of systems there that were just very alien and very new. Because of that fact, I don't think, at the time, we actually thought there would be items that were both inexpensive and strictly better than items that were actually more expensive. *laugh* so there were so many times when a person was running around with their iron cestus, which just happens to have the benefits of both attack and defence, which would cost them less than a thousand pyreals, and then they'd have these other items that were generally nowhere near as good because they had these enchantments on them that weren't really useful to the person who was using them. That kind of juiced the economy the other way because what that meant was that, at least then, pyreals had a very specific in-game value. There was always a world where I could exchange my pyreals for something that I will drop. It's basically an insurance policy. That was good because you basically took that money and mapped it to an in-game function, thus kind of stabilizing the economy.

Eventually we had the whole bound items, the items that are just stuck on you, which meant in that world you didn't have to worry about it as much, but ironically it was almost impossible to get a full outfit of truly soulbound stuff that early in the game, so what would happen was you'd end up maybe having a weapon but no pants. So you were still stuck in a situation where you needed to have some number of various items, and that was good because it gave our pyreals a kind of fixed cost.

Another one of the oddities I remember in early Asheron's Call was that a lot of the systems that later became standard in other MMOs didn't exist in early AC. Like, at first there wasn't secure trade, so there was this little dance where two people would run off into the wilderness and both drop they items they were trading and kind of run past each other to pick it up so they wouldn't cheat each other. There were all these interesting player systems that developed to compensate for the lack of market systems. And there was no auction house or centralized marketplace so players would congregate together in Arwic and do their trading and later Turbine would blow up the village! What was the approach to the centralized market? Was Turbine so opposed to people getting together and trading in the same place that they'd blow up the location for it?

*laughs* No! It's funny that you should mention the destruction of Arwic.

That was one of my favourite moments in the game.

It was one of those moments when we sat down, we were trying to figure out a content update that everyone would feel. And, basically, we were trying for a while to find other viable trade areas because we want our players to be able to socialize, we want there to be a hop-in area where you could always find other people and get together with other folks and exchange information, talk, hang out, you know, decompress. The problem we ran into was that Arwic, based solely off of its location, was just superior to every other place.

Especially because of the Subway, eh?

Yes. Because of the Subway. And it's another one of those examples of how the Subway was there as more of an interaction, more of a secret, we expected people to recognize this was a secret and keep it that way. And once you've exposed our secrets there's a world where, well, it's like those money-lending manuals you find advertised: if everyone knew that buying corn in China was going to make them a millionaire, then clearly everyone would do it. And Arwic was that as an example. What we found when we were doing our updates, we kinda decided to kill two birds with one stone because we wanted to demonize one of the villains – I can't remember which villain it was at the time – as a person who effectively was inconveniencing the players. Plus, we actually wanted there to be viable different player hubs where people could actually go in order to split up our population.

I think it was… Bael'Zharon?

Yeah I think at that time it was actually Bael'Zharon.

Cuz he was also putting out Portals to Teth, that would drop players way up in the sky above Teth.

Yup! *laughs* The good ‘ole "Portal to Teth" trick!

And dropped cows on people. That's always fun.

Yup! *laughs* But that was actually the reason why, we actually really liked that we had a bunch of players who were fairly dynamic about the types of places they wanted to get together because of the fact that we didn't have that auction house model. We didn't have a lot of those systems so it was good to have players at least congregating. But at the same time we didn't want there to be… it was always bad when you were walking to Arwic during prime-time and you were getting portal-stormed like mad. That used to happen, so eventually it was the situation of us trying to make the hard decision there.

I had completely forgotten about portal storming! That happened when you had too many players together.

Yes. Exactly. And that was another of those systems of: "Ok, how do we handle load?" We didn't want players to be able to congregate and crash our server so that was the other side of it. When you have unforeseen player bunching in the magnitude that we had in Arwic at the time it was very much the smart decision for us in order to actually remove Arwic and let players kind of vary. After Arwic was gone, because Fort Teth was always a popular spot, there was that place Crowley built in the south side of the Direlands… Ayan Baq'r!

And the little hut on the east side of the Obsidian Plains.

Oh yes, I know what you're talking about.

A couple merchants there, a good meeting space before going hunting.

Yup. Yup. And this is why we kept trying to add other sweet spots but Arwic always had the gravity, because Arwic was always in the best location. It had the most mobility. Because of that fact we at least wanted to let people… we wanted to basically tap into what you were talking about before: we can run from point A to point B and maybe on one server you have a very significant representation in Ayan Baq'r that you have on another server, but we really wanted to let players define their identity that way. We always wanted players to be able to define their own values in terms of their economy. I think, in many ways, as a designer, that's a testament to the kind of content you built. Because if players are really excited about it and they've effectively commoditized it then that's a good thing. You've effectively built one of those milestone systems for your game. The Atlan Weapons were a great example of that. They were a milestone system because they were a system that had a very fixed output, had a little gambling at the high end because you want to get the best possible Atlan weapon you could get, but it took a certain amount of time and mote-hunting and coin too. It was great.

I do remember, at one point, that there was a very significant shift from a pyreal-based economy to this sort of mote and shard economy.

Yup.

Where players would go to the Vault Network forums and list the stuff they had to sell and it wouldn't be priced in Pyreal, it would be priced in motes and shards. Then these other enterprising players would come up with this whole pyreal-to-mode-to-shard exchange rate. How did you guys feel about players using motes and shards as the new currency?

Being as I was a player for a lot of the early development, because I was one of the early testers and I was brought on as a content guy after words, I can say that I felt pretty good about that. And the reason for is because I can always get more money. Money is one of those canned things. If I have time to spend in the game killing Tuskers, or even Virindi occasionally, then I'm going to get more money. It was almost always a barter economy from my perspective because at the end of the road what I wanted to do was convert that money into a really great wand or a really awesome hume or some particular object. So in that sense equipment-based games are almost always driven by barter. So I thought it was a more genuine representation of the style of game that we built. In many ways I feel it foreshadows every item-centric MMO since. I mean, all of us have barter economies. In LOTRO, of course, we have a much more official version of that, which is mostly that there is an actual flat barter system, but you see them in every MMO now a days.

Another interesting thing that happened after I stopped playing was the addition of housing to the game. I was curious about how that came about, how that affected the economy. I know when I was playing my friends and I had this spot on the Sho Roadside Hut, which just had one merchant, but it happened that a number of portals exited right there. That was our little get-together location. We'd all hang out by this little hut in the middle of a road somewhere. But the housing in AC is different from housing in most MMOs, as I understand it, because it wasn't instanced housing. It was actual houses around the world.

Yes, and that's where much of that world model came in. Again, AC is so much a world with a game in it rather than a game that is emulating a world. So, with that model it was very much a "look we're gonna put a bunch of houses everywhere and first-come first-served." I hate to use the Lord of the Flies reference but it was very much a land-rush scenario. People were running around to be the first one to get to a location that they really really wanted. And from there it was good because those locations gave them additional storage, so obviously you could store more of your death items there, because obviously you couldn't access them in the field. But, chances are, if you are killed, you can always recall back to your house, get some more death items, and then try to get your corpse back. In that sense, it was us just trying to find a way to put more to standardize pyreals as an in-game service.

Yeah, I guess at that point, as I understand, the Pyreal became a lot more valuable because you needed a lot of it to pay those rent costs.

Correct. It was very much a static model of, if you like having extra storage and you like having your own house with your own stuff around it…

And the status

Yeah, and specifically if you had a very prestigious house in a very good location then that really meant that you were going to have to be active and do a lot of hustle in order to keep your house upkeep going. It was good because at that point X amount of pyreals a month buys you this much more inventory slots and potentially this much more insurance against death.

I've spoken with other devs and they've said that players hate paying rent. Rent is this terrible thing in the real world and why should you ever have to get into a game and all of a sudden be paying rent again. How did that filter in? How did AC players feel about rent?

Well, I guess I can say that this is a situation where the limited inventory of these places – like, the limited amount of them – worked in our favour. You have the scarcity principle. We weren't nickel-and-diming people, it was very much a first-come first-served and, since not everyone was guaranteed a house, we had a lot more critical mass around people wanting to get it and wanting to keep it. So I definitely say, as a designer, it's always easier to get people to embrace bonus rather than debt. You saw this with the WoW rest states, they just toggled their percentages around.

Exactly, from 50% penalty to 200% bonus.

And suddenly everyone was "oh this is great!" when in reality the numbers were exactly the same. And that's where marketing comes in. Where Adam's realm hits my realm. Where we try to use the appropriate words to describe the designs we have in our heads.

Did having limited housing, since there were only so many houses available in the world, did that ever make players frustrated? Did they go "hey, I want a house, how come I can't have one?"

Yeah, it absolutely did. We ended up with a lot, a lot of complaints around that particular side-effect. By virtue of going to a non-instanced housing system – it's great because we had a lot of in-game prestige factor, you see this great house and you want to learn about who owns it – but there was still a world where you could run out, or the inverse which was that players didn't want to buy a house in the middle of the woods way north of some horrible town or the crater that was Arwic. I want to own my house over by the Shoushi Hut. What did that mean? We got a lot of complaints around that one. As a result we ended up adding more places where we could put housing as time went on, but it was definitely a limitation of the design.

Moving on chronologically from Asheron's Call to AC2…

*chuckle*

It's an interesting story. Obviously because this game is, sadly, not with us anymore.

Yes *chuckle*

AC2's also very unique in a lot of its game mechanics, do you want to talk about it?

Sure! That's fine. I can definitely say that, with AC2's economy side, we really wanted double-down on the tradeskill side of what made AC AC. Because before it was like you had to build specific character builds in order to actually get things like alchemy. You had mule characters – you had a combat character and a mule character…

And your mule character would just make your arrows…

Yeah, it was just kind of hanging over by the lifestone and he'd log in occasionally to make some stuff, hopefully right near where you dropped your bag, and that was it. Eventually he'd do it in your house too, but like it still wasn't the best role, like "why would you want a character who just only did tradeskills?" when in reality you're just playing your other character. We decided then to bring in crafting as another axis to what a player could do. At the time, we were definitely – again, chronologically, it's hard to remember exactly when this was – it's just funny to me because, at the time, there wasn't really much information about what players really did. Therefore, it was a lot of gut instinct from the designer and a lot of hear-say from what people supposedly did.

Not so much information parsing?

Yeah there really wasn't a lot of it. So we were kind of looking at the road of "what if I just want to be a crafter?" we had a lot of people saying and posting to the forums "I just want to craft! I don't want to do this other stuff!" and AC2 was kind of bucking that. It was sort of "I recognize that you just want to craft, and you can totally just sit there and craft if you want to, but you also have to recognize that in order to find stuff to craft you're going to have to depend on adventurer's to fuel you. Or go on adventures yourself." That was more of that kind of how we tried to make AC2 a lot more driven in the sense of "we expect you to play the game, and play it this way. We expect you to run out and fight monsters and defeat opponents and get loot and go back and try to find a way to make that loot relevant to your character." This is why the AC2 model was so craft-centric. We had a treasure system that basically put out a bunch of objects and we wanted the same depth that AC1 had, in terms of being able to find treasure that was very interesting and hit that jackpot moment of like "this is the best weapon I've ever found!" but we didn't want you to end up in a world where you just had a bunch of vendor-trash just kind of sitting in your inventory. We didn't really want to make Diablo in the sense of how Diablo works: you're running around getting a bunch of stuff then going back and selling it. We really wanted there to be multiple axes you can hit in terms of jackpotting. So not only might you find a great weapon, but you might find a weapon that has this specific resource you need in order to craft something that will get you one step closer to being able to craft the best weapon you could possibly make. It was us trying to push a lot of different things into that loot cycle of going out, killing something, gathering loot, and coming back.

My memory of AC2 is fragmented, I think I only ever played the beta, but if I remember correctly it was based on this idea of picking up loot and deconstructing it into crafting components?

Yes, exactly. What would happen was, you could find a bow which had some amount of wood in it and therefore you could use that bow as a raw component in a recipe that you were using to make something else. So it was our model to be "we're going to give you a bunch of ways of finding stuff that's interesting to you." As a design it was definitely the attempt to try to make two wildly different play styles in the past play well together. Before, you needed to have two separate characters, they were two completely different vocational things, and that was it. This was much more of the fusion now, of the almost one-stop-shop, though even in AC2 you couldn't be everything.

Yeah one of the big issues in AC was that you had a number of skill points that you could use to train skills and every time you trained a craft skill that meant you couldn't use those points on a combat skill. That made characters split between: "this is a craft character" and "this is a combat character." Did AC2 introduce differences between sort of "adventuring" and "crafting" classes?

Yes, I mean we sort of fused them together, that was the start of the vocation system. That was the ancestor to the LOTRO vocation system, they are effectively two separate tracks.

So you could do both the combat and the crafting and it wouldn't penalize you for one or the other.

Right.

What about AC2's money system? Did AC2 have the same sort of issues that AC1 had? Did AC2 end up with a sort of "mote-and-shard" economy or was it all money?

In many ways, because the fact that you could convert stuff to money pretty much at will, it didn't quite have that same level that AC1 had. AC2 was also trying to do… gosh, I'm in the Way Back Machine at this point. *laughs*

*laughs*

AC2 was also trying to balance very specific class roles, but we also wanted to make sure you had a reason to have to come back into town in order to do things. So, like, you needed to be near forges in order to engage in that crafting model. But in terms of like the mote and barter system we ended up adding an analogue similar to that after launch. But it definitely wasn't there initially.

What about systems? Was there a secure trade at launch for AC2? Any marketplace or auction house?

There was definitely a secure trade in AC2 but there was no auction house.

So players still had to find each other and…

Right, it was still very much you had to find each other and trade, and in social centres you had to talk and get people to come to you. Eventually we added a consignment vendor system so you could actually go and sell your stuff and not have to be there for it. But we never went to a full auction house for AC2.

But that brings us to DDO which does have a full auction house. But before DDO's actual systems, I wanted to ask you: how much of DDO's economic systems design was influenced by the original Dungeons and Dragons source material?

A LOT!

I'd imagine!

A lot was. To the point where one of the challenges as a designer's perspective was trying to find a way to execute with the standard money scaling you find in a Dungeons and Dragons adventure as compared to the amount of money that normally circulates in an MMO. So in that sense it was very difficult because, just in terms of the types of creatures you're going to be fighting as you get to be higher and higher level, they're just dropping way way way more money or they're giving you items worth way more, to the point where it's incidental. It's almost similar to what you see in some games now where at max level I have so much money if a new player asks for help I can go "here! Have my cast-offs!"

Yeah, there's those huge differences, how in a lot of MMOs with multiple currencies, the copper, silver, gold, and plat, you end up with so much of the biggest currency, tens of thousands of plat, that the other three are completely meaningless.

Right.

In contrast with Asheron's Call where you had just the one currency: you had the Pyreal.

Exactly. And because of that fact, it was definitely a challenge because money is one of those things you're programmed to advance. All of us recognize that more zeroes after your haul is good, right? We're trained that way from birth. "Get a stable job! It's what pays your mortgage, son!" Those are the types of values we bring to the game. So when you're designing a game that has an IP associated with it one of the ongoing challenges that a designer has to keep in the forefront of their mind is how to make sure the game behaves in a way that is consistent with the players' understanding of what that IP is. In many ways, the IP for D&D was the system. It was the Armour Class, very specific weapons like long swords, Holy Avengers, wands, there are a bunch of things that people expect to work that way. There's even the money conversion: x amount of copper coin makes a silver coin, x amount of silver coin makes an electrum coin, that cycle.

Originally in D&D, all these conversions were ten-to-one, right?

Yes, but to be fair they changed that as they went forward. Electrum was always the odd man out. So we stuck with the "base" currencies. In some ways those tiers are very important because they're almost ranks of achievement for players. When you're going out and getting these types of gear or those types of objects you're getting hauls that are worth this much more money. Or I'm getting them in silver as opposed to copper. That monetary value is a great personal achievement but once you start applying it across the community you end up with this very odd world where you end up with millionaires just giving out money to peasants. Because they can. They're playing these games to play with their friends, playing these games to, in some cases, just be a good member of the community and they're just helping other people out. So they're just giving money away knowing full well that at that time if they spent an hour playing they're going to come back with more money than that low-level player could get in playing for two weeks. In that sense you always have to kind of balance those two trends, and that was definitely one of the early challenges in terms of recognizing that if we're going to support multiple types of currencies where to go and also keep things with a good amount of fidelity.

DDO has a few odd quirks… in other MMOs with multiple currencies, it's basically like putting commas, they don't actually mean anything. 100 silver and 1 gold is literally synonymous; when you're at 99 silver and you pick up 1 more silver the UI displays 1 gold. DDO doesn't have that. You'd actually have thousands of each currency showing up in your UI.

Oh yeah, they're completely separate. The real question at the time was "do we want to keep adding currencies?"

Like Astral Diamonds from 4th edition?

Right. Yep, and do we ever want a world where it's like "no, you can only ever buy this in silver." That was more of that world of trying to find interesting ways of leveraging the different pools of currency that we had in the game in order to drive a player economy. "I'm going to hold x amount of silver because, at the end of this quest, I'm going to convert all my silver into the Maul of Titans." Because there's some merchant who only takes silver coins, or something along those lines. As opposed to another merchant who only takes gold. For DDO, from the onset, it was always about the campaign and the module. We really wanted to hit that. DDO, Dungeons and Dragons, has always been you and your friends get together and play a tailored game that has a lot in it that are staples – you're fighting kobolds and orcs and hobgoblins and things along those lines – but at the end of the road there's some kind of idiosyncrasies, some kind of ‘got you' there. "Oh, I found a crafter who only wants to work with some specific thing that I didn't happen to have at the time" or "when I come back next time I'm going to bring that." The goal was always trying to build us a system, and this trickles all the way down to the economy, of ways in which we can do interesting things that might be a little unexpected to the player but still made sense when they saw it.

There was another sort of odd quirk in that DDO has an Auction House and it used to be that all prices in the AH were set in gold, but this wasn't the biggest currency: there was also platinum. So, in your inventory, you'd end up with only platinum because stores would use up copper first, then silver, then gold, converting currencies up to plat. But later on, the AH was changed to Platinum too.

Yup, consistency.

But why, originally, gold for the Auction House? Is it because it was this traditional key currency?

That's a good question. I think, looking at it now, at the time I was deep in LOTRO, I'm going to guess, just knowing what I know about the game, one of two things: either it is traditional, people understand gold, they're not going to guess in terms of platinum, or you end up having to end up dealing with some kind of edge cases, where you're always showing smaller numbers for the majority of items that might be on sale in a certain category. But on the other hand you're not going to take the other stance and show everything in copper! That's just crazy talk! As a player, you don't think of everything in copper value. And there's the UI side where you're auctioning this sword for one million copper, that's just hard to display.

Another interesting thing about DDO is that, unlike the "themepark" MMOs where items level up in power as you do, DDO sticks to the D&D roots. So at level 1 and level 20, your long sword always deals 1d10 damage. Instead, it's the magical bonuses that go up. What kind of effect did that have on the economy, especially because all that gear remained un-soulbound.

Well thankfully, players are always going to look for an edge, especially in D&D where those bonuses are so concrete. When you're running around with 16 hit points, a weapon that does +1 damage is awesome, comparatively. As opposed to games which have much higher numbers where that +1 doesn't mean as much. In that sense it still worked out pretty well because players are still very much gravitating toward higher-end loot and better, best-of-breed loot. I can definitely say that, from the design point of view, it was a very big challenge. Inherently, MMOs, specifically PvE MMOs, almost entirely revolve around numbers getting bigger. Being stuck in a world where you've just bought your first long sword, you're level one, that 1d10 is pretty much what you'll be holding strong to until you're max level. It almost brought me back to AC1, because that was almost always the case, when you've got a 2-7 cestus, that's pretty good, eventually you'll find a 3-8 and you'll be good to go. That flat damage will never change. Instead you're looking for all those additional values like durability and these other kinds of beneficial traits you can get on your weapon. It forces you into a world where you have to be very creative with how we handle our treasure systems.

While other MMOs just make the numbers bigger, it seems that DDO increases challenge by adding extra mechanics, like resistances or immunities. You have ghosts for which you need a ghost-touch weapon, things that can only be hurt by fire so you need a fire weapon, you go into the dungeon and you have to have sixteen different swords for the sixteen different types of monsters you'll face.

Yeah, exactly. It's great we eventually got there because when you start out these games you have a very wide standpoint of where you want these games to be. When you start adding on them more and more, sometimes it's really good because you end up with players who really like system X but they didn't like system Y. So that's not too bad. But other times we're just running out of time so some of those systems have to go away. One of the baseline ideas for DDO, back when I was working on it in the early early early stages of it, was that you bring the right gear for the job. This is exactly the model that finally got realized with the difficulty settings. You need to bring very different gear with you once you're playing on the hardest difficulty than when you're playing the easiest. Doing so forces you down the road where you're not just finding the best possible weapon, it's not "I have the best possible sword ever, therefore I am good." It is more of a "I have the best possible fire weapon I can find" but in order to handle some other quests I need to find an electrical one. And aaaallll the other ones. As a result there's a reason to keep engaging in the economy.

And that meant that all the loot you got, there was a good chance that, for every unusual combination of magical properties, there might be someone out there who could use it.

Yeah that's very true. Items are passive enhancements; everyone should have a use for items in your game. That was one of the challenges we also had in AC1, when we were moving forward we were like "Oh, we'll never do that again." Because, back then, if you build your character in a certain way, you didn't need items as much as a character who was build around just using weaponry. So you want to end up in a world where all players can utilize all equipment, because it gives them a reward point they can strive towards.

DDO seems to rely heavily on creating alts and re-playing the game content, and that was reinforced by the introduction of the reincarnation system because you'd take your level 20 character back to level 1. That meant that you'd have to go through the whole set of gear every two levels all over again. Did that help keep the market going strong, because people kept re-using gear as they re-leveled-up?

Absolutely. I think of the concept of "re-warding" because that's what we used to do with MUDs. Having alternate characters, really established players have them anyways. You may play your main character with your raiding group and play your other character only with your spouse on weekends, for example. Most established players have multiple different characters. Finding a way to allow them to keep going through that cycle and still gain more power from it was a big win for us and it definitely drove the idea of "ok, I need some levelling gear."

What about crafting in DDO? Crafting was pretty big in AC and, of course, played a huge part in AC2, but it doesn't seem that crafting is quite big in DDO.

No, I know that, again, it's funny, because I think the DDO team has some plans on this particular front, but I know that ancestrally, in terms of how we were trying to build it out, we kind of looked at the source material and a lot of the time it was you need X amount of gold coins in "materials" and someone to make the object. So, in that sense, at least initially, we relied pretty heavily on the treasure system because most crafting systems are built around "if I put X and Y in I will get Z out." They're very predictable. Where treasure systems are very much "I'm rolling the dice and I will different buckets based on the challenge." So, to use the Diablo model, I'm rolling better on Nightmare than I am on Normal. That's kind of more the reward mechanic that DDO was built around. In that sense crafting wasn't that big of a focus, but that doesn't change the fact that you can still find objects through the treasure system that you could clearly auction off to people because they weren't as good as the objects you had or they were just usable by a completely different class. Inherently, the Auction House is a way for people to say "I've put this up for trade to get X amount of money which I will then go out and spend on some very specific quests or objects in the game that are still usable for me."

But that approach changes dramatically with LOTRO, crafting makes a big comeback! Especially compared to Turbine's first three MMOs (AC, AC2, DDO), LOTRO goes down the road of WoW-like standards, the themepark MMO, everything gets progressively more powerful, crafting systems, and a bit more of a traditional economy; the design philosophy LOTRO took seemed down that path.

I would say that it kinda goes back to – it's funny, looking back, I've worked on both DDO and LOTRO, in the sense of trying to integrate IPs – the big challenge there was that LOTRO was everything that DDO was not. Lord of the Rings is just a story, there are characters…

A very narrow IP to work with

Right. You kinda have these heroic expectations of what it means to be in a story. On the very facile level you can just say "I wanna be Strider" or "I wanna be Bilbo" or I just want to be these characters. But I think that, taking that approach, for the style of game that LOTRO is and for most MMOs of this style, it's kind of limiting. What you're really looking to do is sell a person on: "you are a hero in Middle Earth." Because of that fact, you're doing some very iconic things within Middle Earth and therefore I want you to focus on the story and story presentation, I want there to be a lot of custom instances and a lot of custom story delivery mechanics, and I don't really want you do be wrestling with the controls. There are a lot of things about accessibility and I think Ray Muzyka – or… I don't remember, one of the BioWare guys – said recently WoW is kind of a tent-pole of usability. Like, accessibility. In that sense, you can say what you want about the game, it doesn't change the fact that, out of the great MMOs we've had before it, it was above and beyond the trend-setter of "how do I play this game?" and understanding that relatively quickly.

That was our design philosophy. We wanted to stand alone on the strength of our story, on the strength of our epic, when it comes to how we deliver the story experience and realizing Middle Earth. Whereas DDO was about building a system and wanting people to understand the system, but we want that energy that comes with you and your friends are talking about "I slide down that banister and stab the Arch-Magi in the head." You can't really get that with a standard delivery game. We had to push that envelope. Push the pace when finding a more action-oriented way to make that game work. Whereas LOTRO was allowing you to feel like you're in Middle Earth, feel like you're a part of this main story, and really run with that experience.

Also like WoW, LOTRO had this reliance on "bind-on-pickup" quest rewards. A lot of the gear you got you got from the quest grind. That's a huge difference from both AC and DDO where it was this random loot, unbound stuff, a lot of tradable treasure; now, all of a sudden, the gear you got was all pre-determined by the designers who made all those quests. What was the motivation behind that rather significant change?

Two things really. One of them was that we wanted a person outside looking in to be able to look at our game and say "this is the path we should take in order to play." There was effectively what we refer to internally as a glossary. It's a glossary of terms that a person can say like "I'm going to do this quest and get this object" and this allows me to make my character as tough as my character can be. As opposed to continue adventuring until you're lucky enough to find the specific item you're looking for. Additionally, one of the things that I think is very important from how Tolkein handles crafting and the crafting approach to things is that each item effectively has its own story. Because of that fact, that was definitely one of the factors that came in. From my point of view, I wanted most of the items in the game to have story associated with them.

Yeah, they all have interesting names.

*laughs* Eventually you'll end up in a world where you can only come up with so many different names.

*laughs* yeah and I thought that was a big difference because the stuff that you get from the quests, the bind on pickup stuff, tends to have this unique name, but the stuff that you can craft is all very generically named. But how did the bind on pickup affect the economy, because you obviously can't be selling your quest rewards.

Well, to be fair, because of the raw amount of content that we had, it was very standard for players to be selling their quest rewards.

But not to other players.

Oh yeah, that's true. So what you end up with instead was that you had much more reliance on money. You're going to take that money and fuel it back into the crafting stuff that you're doing on the sidelines. You'd be using the money to buy better components and better raw materials that you can then use to craft. Any of the things you need to refine your ores that you're finding when you're running around, just to give you more choice about the types of gear that you want to buy. Additionally, for people who are really really skilled, they would often out-level… they would find bumps in the road where they weren't finding the types of gear that they really needed. At that point in time you can clearly go and buy vendor stock, but what we really wanted was that the best items in our game were crafted by other players or given as a reward for engaging in epic quests. And that's definitely a stance that is much more of a personal economy than a community economy.

I noticed one of the big things that makes LOTRO's crafting unique is the ability to "crit" when crafting and get extra-powerful items that are actually very good at the level; often better than quest rewards. Did that give a lot of strength to the economy?

Yeah, I'd say, once you found a way to crit and item, maybe not reliably but you had a good streak, that was it. Certainly from launch that defined the Auction House stuff in the end-game. You were pretty much buying your best-of-breed gear that you couldn't get from raiding there. Critted craftables. In many ways, that was exactly what we were hoping to do.

At the same time, LOTRO's crafting is very "grindy" where you need to make a lot of items in each level to progress to the next level. When you designed that system, what did you think players were going to do with all those items? Did you expect them to sell them to vendors? Was it just a time and money sink? Or were players expected to sell those on the auction house to other players?

To be fair, both of those things are true. The hard lesson of working with MMOs is that you always hope that players will find a use for the stuff they're making, you don't really want a person to be watching a progress bar fill up and end up a sad man because they have nothing at the end to show for it. Instead you want them to really make stuff and give them the option to auction stuff off and get some decent returns at the end of it. But with that stated, this is why we have the dual natures of the building of competency and the mastery tiers. Now you're critting, you have crit options. Then it's the gambling of wanting to keep making things in the off-chance that you critically succeed and make a breakthrough object. From there you can definitely put it on the auction house, or keep it for yourself, or give it to an alt or a friend. We wanted there to be there two-tier rows. One is just advancement, the bare minimum, to be competent with the systems we have, with the basic vocations, but not be a master and capable of critting, not being able to take a one-shot recipe and make something awesome out of it. We really wanted there to be a tier there so there can be a carrot for players to potentially pursue. Not just making some objects that clearly aren't as good as what you can get from doing The Rift or from Myrkwood or something along those lines.

One of the big earth-shattering events that occurred with Turbine was the original shift of DDO from subscription to free-to-play and the similar shift with LOTRO to free-to-play. These have a lot of impact on the real-world economy, but what about the in-game economy? For example, you can buy weapons and armour straight from the item shop with real money instead of buying them from other players or by crafting. Or, in LOTRO, you can buy materials to craft an item or buy something to gain crafting points faster which might affect the in-game economy.

I can definitely say that when we did our migration, there were definitely moments of concern, on all sides. No one wants to break their baby. Each of these games is based around certain designed that were meant to go in a certain way. But one of the things that we ultimately gravitated towards was time. That was it. Pretty much everything was always about time. With that in mind, it's kind of us trying to give players two different sides of how they can progress in the game: either they can spend the time and go off and fight and participate in the natural game mechanics themselves, or they can spend the money in order to not spend the time doing those particular things. With that in mind, and kind of applying that to what we see in each of the games, it didn't have as large an effect as you might have thought. I guess the reason for that is, under the hood, it has really always been about the amount of time that the player has available to them to participate. No matter how you look at it, whether it's at the beginning where, y'know, you've got a family man with kids and 2.5 bathrooms and the white picket fence, or you're a person who's very deeply embroiled in this particular game, they spend all their time playing, the difference that we really saw has been that people who didn't have the ability to participate at that level of intensity have suddenly become more competitive. Suddenly, they can make the most of what time they had to spend, as opposed to spending time gathering resources or finding weapons or gear.

On a completely unrelated side note: why are there no rogue henchmen in the DDO store? There's so many dungeons where there are these fatal traps and I just want to solo that dungeon with my Favored Soul but I need a rogue to disarm the traps for me, and there's no rogue henchmen!

Yeah, I mean, it's funny you should mention that. I will recuse myself from making any strong comments on this point, but instead I will talk to Brando on your behalf.

In your opinion, how central to an MMO design is an in-game economy? Do you see it as this sort of necessary side-element or by tradition it has to be added because players expect to see it, is it an integral activity, part of what makes MMOs fun to play? Or could an MMO be completely viable with basically no economy at all, just token systems and bind-on-pickup loot alone?

That's a hard one, actually. It's a good question. I will say that I think it depends on the size and scale of the MMO you're trying to build. By that, I mean, if you were looking to launch into the WoW / LOTRO / Old Republic space, then it's something you absolutely have to have. At the end of the road, people are not going to be magnanimous as assuming that you're game didn't really need it because they'll just expect it to be there. Also, the further and further you go into the equipment-driven game, the more and more you need to have a model that allows for people to disseminate equipment quickly. It's just a simple fact. Money is one of those things that will always be useful and I think that as long as that money can get you things that are outside of your avatar's skills, you will always need to have an economy. You will always need to have a model that gives those things away. Whether that be old-skool AC1-style "I'm going to drop a stack of pyreals on the ground for you" and you use that to fuel your Atlan creation, or you're talking modern day where it's, to use the LOTRO analogue, "I'm going to mail you the latest axe I critted." There's always got to be some way to socially communicate with other folks.

With that said, a truly vibrant economy like what EVE has –

Like an economic simulator with a game wrapped around it?

Right absolutely, there's a game there, there's absolutely a game, when you look at a lot of the casual market and the facebook games that are out there, I harken back to the BBS games that I grew up playing where it's kind of like I can very easily picture there being a much more central viable economy. To an MMO, it's one of those things that it only plays second fiddle to whatever your MMO is about. If your MMO is about story and questing, then your economy is going to be largely some auction houses and the ability to pass around gear and that's about it. Once you get to the top tier, you'll still be in a world where you have to make the hard decision of rewarding players for content and gameplay they succeeded at or do I want there to be an economy method where they can obtain gear that's as good, if not better than, the content gear. And that's the whole statement of: "can you craft the best gear? Or do you have to raid for the best gear?"

What about player crafting, in general theory, is it something that has to be in games? If you have an MMO with an economy, do you have to have a crafting system? Do the two go hand-in-hand? Or are the separable?

I think that they are effectively hand-in-hand, and the reason that I say that is when I look at the crafting system, that's very much that predictive "if I put in X, I get Y out." Once you have an economic system you kind of expect to have a canned output for certain objects. I think it would be a very odd world to have a crafting system that didn't actually have an economy in it. I can't really picture how that would work unless you were crafting access to content. Which could possibly work, I know in games like Mythos, they, at least initially, had the ability to make treasure maps. You saw that in Torchlight as well.

What about just crafting for your own stuff? Like… collecting spell components and crafting your own abilities, which you could then not trade or share with anyone else.

Right, absolutely. Crafting with no economy. Maybe that makes sense. In that world you're crafting things but you're not crafting gear. Maybe that's my answer: as long as your crafting system doesn't result in gear, then I guess you can have one without an economy. But as soon as it results in some kind of gear then I think you're on the hook for an economy.

Another issue is that MMOs tend to be pretty different from real world economies because in MMOs, money is basically created and destroyed as part of the game. Looting cash from monsters or buying from NPCs, the money's coming and going from the economy. How do you feel you ought to sort of compensate for that sort of money-in, money-out imbalance? Do you have any thoughts about money generating and money sinks?

This is one of those Warner ACME-style throwing the stair from behind you in front of you and taking that step. If you err on the side of making sure that a player can advance first, then you are on the hook effectively to always be balancing for the monetary intake of the people at the top of the lot. Just because of the kind of conversation we were having before, one millionaire blows out the experience for their rewarded character or even their friend's first-level character. In that sense, I think that's fine in today's game-space, mostly because I want to play with my friends. We've got to the point now where, when I log in to a game, whether it's an MMO or an FPS or some odd combination of the two, I want to go over to my friends and hang out with my friends. Because of that fact, because that's the experience that I think is important now-a-days, I think that compensating for the money coming in, in terms of the money you're creating on a moment-to-moment basis, is probably tilting at a windmill. I don't think it'll help you, even if you found a way to compensate for it, I don't think that it helps you solve that particular problem. What's happening is that players are solving that problem by giving their friends tons of money. That way they never have to worry about not being able to afford training costs or gear or the other things you get with money. The kinds of things you get with money at the upper echelon of things kind of don't matter as much because you may have a couple of big purchases you have to make, but realistically the amount of money that you can make as petty cash will basically bankroll your friend for 20-40 levels.

What about ongoing money-sinks, like in AC you had the housing costs. In World of Warcraft I played for a while and got to the max level and was raiding and there was never anything to buy. I would just accumulate and accumulate money and had like 50,000 gold and there was never anything to buy with it. I thought, at the end of WoW, the economy basically comes to an end, because you're only buying and selling stuff as you're levelling up. Once you're at the max level, it's only bind-on-pickup stuff. I just thought: is there a way to keep the economy running at the end of the game?

I think there is, it's just that so often you end up with effectively a two-tier economy in these games. Even to go back to the AC1 model where money was always worth something, but after a while it started to motes or shards that were worth stuff. Barter objects that were worth stuff. You eventually end up in a world where, at that upper tier, the only time where that economy matters is when it can help you get to a very specific goal you were trying to get to. And if that goal was Amuli Shadow Armour or if it was the Balrog's specific weapon or First Age item advancement weapons in LOTRO, each one of those have multiple steps in order to reach them, so that becomes the economy that matters to people. In that world they will then try to figure out "if you can give me this shard I'll give you a thousand gold" and people will often spend that because of the perceived value of what they'll get from that later. But you almost always have their weird shadow economy at top tiers and I'm still trying to figure out a good way to get to a system where a player can honestly say "ok, gold is gold is gold." I think if you end up there you very much have the economy simulator that EVE has where effectively money is money. ISK is ISK. That's what you care about. Sure, I can give you some money at the top tier but I will always care about money because that's what drives my character. I guess maybe the answer there is that you're stuck in a world where how severe your money sinks are. If you're playing a game that doesn't have very severe money sinks in it, and by that I mean unfortunate player death, investment for loss kind of sense, like truly back of the hand slap money sinks, then you're probably not going to be able to keep yourself married to a single economy.

Finally, what lessons did you learn from previous MMOs that guided the design of your games and what lessons did you learn with your games that you'd like to pass on to future designers?

What did I learn? Here's a good one, and this is a basic design one, which is that I encourage you to play every style of MMO you can find because there are systems in MMOs that are really good that you will miss if you just look at one all-around MMO. You need to be very discerning, you need to be able to recognize that when you look at an MMO there are so many different systems that go into it that a system can be really good but not for that MMO. And vice-versa. You can also see an MMO that's like "this is the best MMO ever!" but emulating very specific systems from that may not be the right fit for the game you're trying to build. And that was something I totally learned from all the games I've played so far, from AC1 up until now, in addition to playing, like, Dark Age and WoW and all the MMOs that have pushed through the ages. There are systems from AC1 that are awesome that really don't have a place in the MMOs of the types we are building right now, just like there are systems from AC2 that were really really great, even though AC2 wasn't all that well-received, that really kind of, I feel, formed a lot of the games afterwards. I guess it's mostly an emphasis on really trying to focus in on that judgment call. Generally we are not designing – I guess this is different based on what school of discipline you are on – there's definitely a more of a raft-style of approach to "I'm designing a sandbox" but even if you're doing that, don't lose sight that someone, somewhere, is potentially going to have a screaming infant on their lap and trying to play your game. Don't lose sight of that. We make games that will run for longer than it takes for someone to get their PHd. They will be playing this game for a long time.

Yeah, Asheron's Call's still running.

Yeah! There's a world where people are still playing that game and they taught their son how to play that game. That's kind of crazy when you think about it. Just recognize that that is something to definitely keep in mind. You can't lose sight of the fact that, at heart, there is still one person sitting at a keyboard trying to play your game. No matter how much you look at "this'll be awesome!" and whether it'll be the AC-style "secrets will be great! Everyone will have secrets!" or if it's much more "raid groups will just do this because they'll need to to get ahead" raid groups are still a bunch of people sitting at a keyboard. If those people aren't having a good time, then they're going to go to an experience that they will have a good time at. And maybe that's one of those experiences that I will say I will pass forward, which is that all of our games, when I look at the space and what's happening around us, from Facebook all the way to things like On-Live, we are moving into a world where everyone is all about persistence, everyone is all about that long-term engagement where they want to play a game for a long period of time. Because of that fact I no longer feel it's enough to say "look! I have numbers going up!" and that this experience is going to be able to do over and over again. Sure, you're going to have things that are like that, on the way, but definitely emphasize moment-to-moment fun. If you don't have that in your game it's going to be harder and harder to compete as time goes on.

This is a bit indulging a personal desire… but have you heard of Minecraft? It's totally taken off as this extreme of sandbox. MMOs started off as more sandboxy, Asheron's Call was, I would argue, very sandboxy, especially compared to more quest-grind themepark MMOs that we have today. Do you think that there's space for a big comeback for an Asheron's Call-style sandboxy MMO? Do you think we'd ever see Asheron's Call 3?

I don't know if it would be called Asheron's Call 3, but I totally think it could happen. I think the reason for that is I look at the space now and, when you look at what he did with Minecraft, Minecraft is very sandboxy, but it's mostly because you're surrounded by things you can interact with and modify. It's not sandboxy in the sense that you've got a whole lot of empty space you can wander around in and eventually find something that's interesting, it's much more sandboxy because you can make stuff right at the beginning. I can knock down some trees and get wood, make an axe, build things all towards a specific goal.

And very much player-set goals. Unlike World of Warcraft where they say "you're going to do this" and that's all you can do.

Yes, and I absolutely think that there is a future in that style of game. The success of micro transactions has renewed my faith in the belief that instead of us being homogenized as an industry and just trying to make one type of MMO, I feel that there's a chance for a lot more creativity. Functionally you just have to make a game that is deep enough that a group of people like it a lot. Because they can go down that path for you and that's one of the things I found most exciting because it changed the mould a lot.

There's been some sandboxy MMOs but they tend to eschew adventure and combat entirely, like Second Life. I wonder if there's any way to bring those together.

That's one of the things I love about Minecraft. That sense of, at night time, zombies come for you. In my opinion, that is very good world sim, where this is going to happen over a chronological period of time, and you have to be able to shore up. We don't care what you do to prepare yourself for it, but you still need to. To a certain extent, that is exactly how I think it should be approached. Don't get me wrong, I think you're still going to end up with some risks, all characters are still going to have to engage in – I'm not going to say combat – but there's going to be something that characters have to retain viable at. So maybe you won't have that sense of "I'm just going to be a fisherman all day" whereas my friends are ought fighting stuff and living the Indiana Jones lifestyle.

I totally think that could work. That's a much more platform-y model of what could work. One of the ideas we often tossed around here before was we'd like to make a platform MMO where your class is caused by whatever you pick up. So that's a great example. If you've got a hammer, then you're the guy who can help me, because you can defend me because I, stuck with my pickaxe, goes to mine stuff. And there's obviously some gameplay there. I really do feel where that style of game could and will flourish.

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