Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Academatrix - Games as Systems

Matrix Online. Game-play session. Jan 26, 2009.

Submitted as an assignment for Magy seif el Nasr's "The Theory and Design of Video Games" class, Simon Fraser University (Spring 2009)...

NOTE: This text has been slightly revised for the blog...References to the Matrix Online have now been converted into the past-tense since this world no longer exists.

This description was based on a segment of the game-play for one of my characters, “Distri”. The goal was to eventually transform her into a “Code-Shaper” archetype but I believe that these archetypal assignments would have eventually emerged through the choices made during the game-play.. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the mechanics, objects and balancing metrics in the original Matrix Online and is only reflective of my game-play situation at the time.

Here is a self-portrait of Distri. Distri attempted to jump onto the back of this truck but for some reason, could not jump that high even though the character can leap across the roof-tops of buildings.

The Core Mechanics have been described according to the following sub-heading categories that were based on a power-point lecture provided by the UC Santa Cruz School of Engineering. October 06, 2008.

These core mechanics consist of...

A - Movement Controls (Process Mechanics):

Distri runs towards her new friend “Blackjack18”. Distri is not running directly towards her new friend because of the bandwidth lag that resulted from this particular game-play session. Her character briefly froze when turning left and/or right. This made basic navigation very difficult.

i – Running – Using the arrow keys, the character can run in any direction (until hitting a wall or some other obstacle). As of yet, there has been no evidence of the character being able to simply walk around the virtual space. In some cases, the character can run right through semi-solid objects and this situation may have been embedded by the designers to illustrate the illusory nature of the Matrix reality. Regardless of obstacles or virtual stress-levels, the default motion for any arrow-key movement appears to resemble running.

ii – Strafing - By holding down the ctrl key + the arrow keys, the player can “strafe” or in other words, walk sideways along a linear axis. This strafing technique was first personally encountered while playing Doom in the early 1990s. This type of movement is useful for accurately targeting opponents and for stealth purposes (i.e. sneaking along a wall).

iii – Jumping – By pressing the space bar, the player’s character can jump straight up. If the player is running while pressing the space bar, the player will flip forward. The height of the jump seems to depend on the amount of vitality (its equivalent in WoW would be “Mana”) in the game and/or the current level of the character. Also without any in-game explanation, some encountered obstacles allow for higher jumps than others. For example, one can flip right over a bridge and can easily jump from roof-top to roof-top. However, the character cannot jump onto a small bench nor onto a low-positioned object. This inconsistency between what constitutes a conceivable action versus an accessible one (Crawford, Chris. The Art of Interaction Design. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2003) causes some frustrating game-play scenarios.

iv – looting – Just as in many other MMORPG games, the player can “loot” the inventory from a corpse after he/she/it has been killed by right-clicking the opponent. At this point, only Non-Player Characters (NPCs) have been looted but once Distri has acquired a faction team to join, she may choose to also test the act of looting on player-character victims. With looting, the player’s character crouches over the body and a pop-up window displays the loot that would be transferred directly into the character’s inventory

B - Combat Controls (Fighting – Configurable Core Event Mechanics)

Distri being flipped upside down by “Bell Jane”. It seems as if all the opponents have their own fighting configurations which in this case, proved to be superior to the speed/punch combo (known as “Self Defense Martial Arts”) that Distri had selected to fight back with. In a sense then, the combat interplay is similar to the game “rock, paper scissors” where the player needs to intuitively determine the opponent’s preferred combat style. The player cannot know the opponent’s current fighting style until a given fighting sequence has already occurred. The opponent’s icon combo is displayed at the upper right of the screen. This means that the player can guess as to what kind of combo might be selected yet and can select his/her own combat response accordingly. This flip caused by the automated pairing of “speed” and “grabbing” left Distri dazed and ultimately left for dead.

i – punching and kicking – These moves are interchangeable with slapping, drop-kicking and roundhouse kicks and cannot manually be controlled by the player. Once pre-selected as a “speed”, “close combat”, and a “power” icon from the “hot-bar” at the top of the screen and placed next to another combat icon (see the top left hand side of the screen), the fighting sequences occur automatically. In fact, some manner of punching and kicking automatically occurs when any two icons are selected when engaging another player or NPC in close-combat range. The only icon that reduces the amount of offensive kicking and punching is the “evasive maneuver” icon combined with the “speed” rather than a “power” related icon.

ii- grabbing, flipping, head-butting and the “cheap shot” – Flips become a core-mechanic for the player and/or for the opponent if one of the combat icons selected from the “hot-bar” at the top of the screen involves the “grabbing” action. Head-butts are usually reserved for the player’s (or NPC’s) final move when detecting that their opponent’s experience and health points are sufficiently low enough for a final blow. The “cheap shot” seems to be a completely randomized move (determined by the invisible virtual dice rolls) that is used also as a final blow.

iv – shooting (if one has a weapon) – Each collected gun can be made available in the hot-bar at the top of the screen. When selected, the player can fire a gun at close range as one of the paired combat icon configurations. There is no manual “fire” button per se as the icon is simply paired with another action and the computer automates the chosen shooting/fighting sequences for the player. All of the guns that have been seen and collected so far are variations on machine guns.

C - Chat and Questing Mechanics –

Here is a screenshot showing the menu that is available when engaging a “Hardline” terminal.

i – Hardlines – Also known as a “phone booth”, the Hardline terminals have multiple core functions. One function is to teleport players to other locations. Just by clicking on a hardline for the first time, a player can “landmark” his/her location and have that particular segment of the city added to his/her map for easy teleportation when jacking back into the Matrix. By right-clicking each local Hardline, a menu appears with choices that include the uploading of abilities, quests and also possesses its own marketplace hub.

ii - The mobile phone icon - The tiny phone icon that is on the right hand side of the cardinal compass acts as a short-cut to receiving top-down quests from those NPCs who reside “outside of the Matrix”. This phone icon can also be seen as an “object” but it has been embedded into the GUI as well as a core-mechanical feature.

iii – “Missions” (timed Quests) – The Matrix Online also has an infrastructure in place where every player can embark on a quest. Known as “missions”, a player has the option of either creating a mission, receiving one from another player or receiving one via a local NPC. There is also a fourth instance mentioned with regards to the mobile phone icon mentioned above. Once accepted, all of these quests have fixed completion durations and difficulty levels. In same cases, the player has to hand in an item to the Quest-giver which becomes located on the mini-map window.

Here is an example of Distri receiving a quest from her mobile phone icon. This window looks the same when receiving a quest from the mobile phone icon.

Here is an example of Distri receiving a Mission from a quest-giving NPC. Each quest-giving NPC has an “i” halo over their head to represent “information” (not to be confused with information credits). In this case, the NPC prompts the player to click on the mobile phone icon after speaking with the NPC.

Here is an example of Distri receiving a Mission from another online player. In this case, there is a timed duration to both accept the invited Mission but once the Mission has been accepted, it is up to the Mission-giver to set the duration.

D - Health, Vitality and Recovery Mechanics –health and supplies – The Matrix Online has embedded objects within the various NPC opponents that one might encounter throughout the game. Once killing and looting an opponent, the player can receive all sorts of health potions that when activated, can increase the player’s health and vitality. In this sense then, these objects function as core resource mechanics. In addition to health items such as “Antibiotic 1.0”, “Health Pill” and some “Holy Water”, ammo that is found and collected from looted corpses also qualifies as part of the recovery mechanics of the game. .

E - Internal Economic Mechanics and early balancing mechanisms in the game... (emergent resources when entering the game)...

i - “sources” – the mechanics by which a resource enters the world i.e. spawn points, limited vs. unlimited, automatic resources

In this case, when a player spawns into the Matrix, no perceivable bonus item seems to have been received for logging in unless it is in the form of some intangible resource such as extra Experience Points. However, when you die, you do end up losing items before you log back into the game as will be explained later...So far, it is unknown whether or not there ever were any tangible incentives for spawning.

Here is a screenshot of Distri “jacking into the Matrix” from the offline realm. These loading (cache) textures appear over-top of any character when they log back into the Matrix or enter into it for the first time.

ii - “drains” - the mechanics that determine the consumption of resources...

In addition to the obvious drainable resources such as ammo discharges (when a gun is being fired), there is a more abstract form of resource consumption that is quantified as “Inner Strength”. This usually applies to the generation of proxy NPCs for fighting on behalf of the player. However, only with future game-testing, can this drainage be clear. In addition, there are also “falling damage points” accrued when you fall from a high level in the game. What is interesting here is that there are no “collision damage points” in this game so for every player (before they gain an archetypal specialty at a secondary level), it is much safer to get hit by a car than to fall from a high roof-top.

Another resource that is drained is “memory capacity” but it seems that when a player collects hard-discs, the memory capacity can be retained. The more memory capacity one has, the more specialized abilities relating to their archetype are allowed to be stored.

Here is an example of the Ability Tree currently available to Distri who has the ambition to become a “Code Shaper” archetype. The ultimate ability is to create a “Proxy Coder” NPC that fights on Distri’s behalf but this is a secondary mechanic that was never play-tested.

iii – Codes and Abilities

Here is a screen shot of the marketplace menu. Codes and items (both exist as objects) can be bought and sold amongst players and NPCs. Codes have to do with the ways in which each player learns fighting abilities. The marketplace feature can be seen as a “secondary” mechanic.

iv - “converter”mechanics that convert one resource to another.

No obvious “converters” were ever located within the game-play even though many objects appear as if they could have acted as converters. There were many cash registers and ticket machines but none of them seemed to work. In a previous game-play session, a newspaper could be retrieved from a vender but it was unclear exactly what was traded to receive this news-media...

Here is an example of Distri posing in front of ticket vending machines that did not seem to be active...Perhaps the subway is actually free to ride. The use of many in-active converters throughout the game points to the possibility of internal design flaws.

v - “Traders” - Mechanics that govern the trading of resources between NPCs and players.

As is the case with many MMORPGs, trading in the Matrix happens primarily between players and NPCs. There is a “marketplace” button in the Hardline menu but this does not seem to be the area where active trading occurs.

Here is a screenshot of Distri shopping for clothing accessories from a clothing NPC vendor. The core purchasing mechanics allows each player to appraise an item before buying it. Money is available as intangible resource in the form of information credits.

vi - “Production mechanisms” Mechanics that make resources immediately available to the player.

The closest thing to any sign of core “production mechanisms” was in the form of a borderline “secondary” mechanic based around the custom configuration of abilities. Even though each archetype configures a different set of abilities, all of the players share the interface for “patching” the various movement and combat core mechanics. This interface is known as the “Ability Tree” and files each single ability under umbrella categories called “disciplines”. The unique configuration of each ability under a given discipline heading acts as a mechanism from which fighting moves can be automatically “produced”.

Here is an example of the “Ability Tree” and the division between Disciplines and Abilities.

Vii - “Tangible vs. Intangible resources”if a resource is not directly represented, it is intangible. Money is a typical example of an intangible resource.

As mentioned earlier, the information credits, experience points (XPs) and Inner Strength (vitality/mana) points act as intangible resources. In addition to these, the player gains quantifiably controlled “talents” in the form of what the system calls “attributes”. These attributes are subdivided into “Belief”, “Perception”, “Reason”, “Focus” and “Vitality.

In addition, these attributes can be intangibly enhanced through the use of percentage increases known as “Upgrades”. Upgrades can be downloaded from a Hardline after a player has leveled up their character. The customized balance of these five attributes eventually determines your archetypal path and from there, one would enter the realm of secondary mechanics

Here is a screenshot of the five attributes that have gradually been accumulating point-by-point in the current game-test session.

2- Objects in the game...

As seen in the inventory screenshot below, Distri currently has accessories such as a baseball cap, glasses, three pairs of pants and shoes. Since this screenshot was taken moments after she was killed by a “Bell Janet” NPC, the inventory also has shaded areas that display lost inventory such as health pills. In addition, Distri collects code in the form of discs. Sometimes, multiple copies of the same code are collected onto many redundant discs. At this point, Distri had collected 19 code fragments out of 520 available ones and also possessed an envelope that contained a mission-related item that is supposed to be delivered to a target NPC assigned by the Quest-giver. It is interesting to note that the stored inventory a player can acquire is virtually unlimited in size. This infinite scalability has been known to anger some other players who have blogged about this experience. In the hot-bar during combat, Distri also has 2 machine guns but rarely uses them. Before dying, Distri also had collected a few keys which could be used to access certain buildings. Perhaps those NPCs have regenerated those keys for re-looting purposes.

Here is a screenshot of Distri’s inventory window before entering the Matrix.

The frustrating aspect to the game in general was that many of the objects appeared collectible but in fact, were not. There are many vehicles in the Matrix Online such as cars, vans and even a lone bicycle was encountered. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, there not been any evidence yet that these vehicles can be used. In addition to vehicles, there was no shortage of litter on the street –including some floating newspaper pages.

3- Properties of the objects...

Most of the described objects and core mechanics have already been described in context with their corresponding properties and function. Other examples include a “tactic booster” which allows one’s fighting abilities (in the form of “tactics”) to receive a better result from the “random” dice roll. The numbers that are assigned to these objects seem arbitrary as the random dice rolls seems to drain quantities unrelated to the objects that were received. It is unclear whether this is a design flaw or perhaps has to do with some of the property mechanics being concealed “under the covers” of the interface. Again, many bloggers have criticized the Matrix for this arcane lack of mechanical transparency.

4 -Relationships between objects...
These collected objects eventually activated the archetypal “attributes” that each player aims towards and helped determine ideally paired configurations for fighting...

Some of the objects are access cards which relate to the Hardline phone booths...Also some envelopes are objectified forms of “Missions”. Some of the collected data-discs seem to be related to NPC contact addresses and relate to missions and prestige within the game in case one chooses to align themselves with a given faction (the machines, for example). In addition, the collected hard-discs store additional source code to be used for downloading customized abilities and disciplines.

5- How is the game balanced?

Due to the arcane balancing system that the Matrix Online has developed for each archetypal path and discipline, a whole essay would be need to explain this process. However, here are some visible balancing summaries that emerged from that night’s game-play. The system provides a dis-incentive for death by removing code-bits, fragments from the player’s inventory when they log in the next time. This means that when the player logs back in, they will be farther away from realizing their archetypal role. Through the revoking of inventory items related to identity and prestige, the player still feels compelled to re-enter the game and try some of the same missions again.

In addition, Information Credits can be exchanged for clothing and weapons that provide a ludic advantage when it comes to both combat and prestige (i.e. looking good).

In terms of opponent combat, the game balances itself by assigning each opponent NPC with its own downloaded disciplines, attributes and abilities that can be compared against the ones manually set into motion by the player. Also, each weapon or health item has a version number assigned to the object (i.e. v. 1.0). This versioning allows the collected weapons and health bonuses to be level-specific even when engaging a multi-level spatial environment.

Information in this case, is interchangeable with experience points and money so these points can be accumulated via combat, looting or through accessing/landmarking a new location via a Hardline terminal. This ensures that ludic progress can occur without necessarily having to resort to combat. Because of this choice that is given, the players can have the illusion of “free-will” and eventually come to make a decision between joining a given team faction that matches their character’s ethical standards. This allows for an enhanced sense of fellowship and narrative depth.

Here is a screenshot of Distri being killed by an NPC and therefore, being forced to lose some of her inventory items related to archetype (and therefore narrative) development/progress.

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