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This post is about the insides of the RPG’s within Second Life. The largest and, what until now, most exciting game in SL has changed its combat/RP system. What does a meter change mean to a game?

Land of NoR (Nation of Remembrance) is self described as a Dark RPG with combat. Previously it used the WARPS (now XRPS – NextRPS) combat system. For two years this 29 sim RPG used WARPS. Now for various reasons Land of NoR (LoN – do we have enough acronyms yet?) begin upgrading the WARPS to XRPS and is now changing to DCS2, another combat system. Why?

WARPS/XRPS is a free, to players, combat system supported by donations. Players in Land of NoR are getting free upgrades to DCS2, a popular L$75 combat system for Second Life.  One joins the Land of NoR Chatterbugs group, by invitation only, to get a free copy. Ask anyone in the LoN sims and they will get you in touch with the game managers (GM’s or Admins) for an invite. If you have purchased DCS2, that copy is the same and it will work. (One has to wonder what this is doing to DCS2 sales.)

Update 11/28/09 – DCS is no longer free for NoR players. new players get DCS just as they would in other RPG’s in SL, they buy them from a DCS vending machine for L$75.

XRPS or NextRPS is used and appearing in other sims and RPG’s. Several other games have decided to allow those leaving LoN to transfer experience points (XP) from LoN to their games. When one considers that a level ten character has 76,800 XP at 90 to 150 XP per hour or 512 to 850 hours, the transfer is no small thing.

Drama

In most parts of Second Life drama is …undesirable… and to be avoided. But much of the role play in all dark and other RPG’s is about drama. Supposedly synthetic drama, but drama. From that one should have a clue that people that enjoy some level of fantasy drama might allow more drama in their Second Life than the average resident/player. Add to that the dark role play, which has a large BDSM part and start thinking about the natural or logical progression of events in and around these RPG’s… lots of drama and control issues in and out of game. Also, consider what personality types the creators of the games may be. It is a dramatic mix and any decision about a basic component of the game will be filled with drama and conflict.

Combat

In a non-combat game role-play-combat is the only type of combat allowed. Players agree before hand to some general script for the course of events they are going to role play. In some dice or the computer equivalent is used to add some randomness and risk to the outcome. This usually results in slow exchanges and drawn out RP as seen in many RPG’s. One makes a statement in chat, usually with lots of emotive information, and then waits for the other players to respond. For observers it is like a book slowly being written before their eyes with a little bit of acting thrown in. Everyone waits, with nothing happening, while players type in a paragraph of response.

In pure combat sims there is little or no role play. Play is more along the lines of Doom or Half-Life2. Any exchanges between players are usually insults, taunts and cheers of victory or the chatter of combat leaders… ‘team 2, flank left’.

Then there are the mixed combat and RP games. In games like LoN, CoLA, Lost City, Kingdom of Legends and Judgment a mix of combat and RP is used to make a more exciting, fast passed and spontaneous role play game. They decide the outcome of RP by combat. Not only is there RP but skill is required to win an exchange. One best be good at hand-to-hand combat and good with a gun.

The Mix of Combat and Role Play

The owners or game creators have made their game along the lines of what they like or think the players will like. The more complex situation occurs in the RP/Combat games. One can assume that a more versatile, flexible game will appeal to more players. For commercially oriented owners wide appeal would be a goal. Having combat and RP mixed with a liberal dose of sex and violence should be a great recipe for success. Sex and violence certainly sells on TV.

The trick of course is balancing the mix.

One needs a meter that can score the combat and enforce a victory/defeat. As many of the RPG’s involve fantasy spells and skills they become part of the game and the meter handles those as well. So, a meter the player knows and is practiced with becomes important to those using it. It is important to both combat types and RP type players but for different reasons. Changing the meter is no small thing in a popular game.

How one balances the combat and RP sets the tone of the game. If combat is easy to engage in, those liking combat tend to engage in more combat and invite in more combat types. If they ONLY engage in combat the bodies of the RP types are laying all over the place waiting for their defeat timers to expire with no RP and that pisses-off the role players. If combat is too difficult to start then combat types get bored while RP types are chatting their roles and trying to seduce or conquer their intended. Either way someone is unhappy.

One can recognize a pretty well balanced game when they can find both sides in the game’s forum arguing there is too much combat and the other side that there is too much RP. You should note that a quite forum does not necessary mean a quite game. You may have to join the game’s chat group to find out what is happening.

Why did Land of NoR Do It?

For some time debate has raged… that may be an over characterization… about too much combat and not enough RP in LoN. There were some power combat players that were likely using various combat aids to win victories. They tended to skip RP and move to the next battle. Since what is and is not cheating gets way complex this was creating loads of conflict in and out of game. Since the subject can really only be discussed* one-on-one with a game admin the smart player just never asks what is and isn’t cheating and does as they choose and feel fits within the stated rules.

Improving the meter was in some part to help with the cheating problems but mostly to add new features to improve RP and shift the balance.

Whatever the politics of the situation a decision was made to move from newer XRPS to DCS2. There were some deliberate leaks of the coming change. With may be a month to think about it players might have made the change over to DCS2… if they had believed the leaks. For most of the community it was a login shock. Change is poorly accepted in most cases. Shocking change is even more upsetting.

So, is DCS2 better and has the change achieved its goals? It is really too soon to tell. What one can see is something like 75% or more of the player base has left and is regularly playing in other games, that are mostly still using XRPS meters. At least 3 sim owners have shut down or moved their sims to other games. (2009/9/7 – now 18 to 20 sims) The average number of players in LoN,  from a map count when I play, has gone from 150-250 players to 25-50 players. A large number of the regions have large empty areas as renters give up their land. More shop stalls are empty as merchants see the drop in traffic and sales. However, LoN management says they saw the same thing two years ago when they went from CCS (or was it something else?) to WARPS and LoN survived then.  So, time will tell.

Has DCS2 improved role play? It may also be too soon to tell. I think DCS2 in LoN is effectively changing the game play from player-vs-player (PvP) to player verses environment (PvE). That seems so far to drastically reduce role play. That could change as players learn the new meter and move back to PvP combat. I can hope.

Combat with the new meter I find particularly annoying. XRPS has some serious lag issues that add to the fog of war in combat. It is not gesture friendly. However one can deal with lag issues. But otherwise XRPS stays out of one’s way and players learn to handle the meter lag with chat commands and F-keys. It’s part of learning XRPS. DCS2 with particle effects and healing/attack animations seriously disrupts combat. However it seems to suffer way less lag and is more flexible with gestures, both big pluses.

I see no way that any of these new DCS2 affects add to role play, but that is me. Imagine you are in RP with someone and someone nearby casts an area heal and floats you into the air amidst a swirl of particles. Do you add that into the rp, ignore it… Does this add to the immersive nature of the game or detract? For me it detracts.

11/28/09 Update – Since this article was written the admins have been busy getting changes made in the DCS2 meter. Most players have learned to turn off attachment particles.

In combat where one is running the particles can blind one. I guess players learn to adapt, change their particle settings to reduce or turn off the problem. But the change from chase and easy targeting to a face full of particles… is not a fun change.

DCS2 allows for interaction with the environment. So, None Player Characters (NPC’s) are now part of the game. I suppose this can be worked out. For now it has turned LoN into a shooting gallery with very little role play. Monsters are the excitement in LoN for now and I’m already burning out on shooting monsters. But LoN management is planning other activities.

DCS2 allows more control over environment, I’m told. So sacred ground is possible which causes damage to lycans and vampires. May be infectious water could cause damage to humans and other organic life. Salt water might affect cybernetic life forms. There are possibilities.

Characters… when one has 500 or more hours in building a character some or much of the character can be based on its abilities. To suddenly change the meter and abilities means some players will lose parts of their character. A good fighter can run their mouth and get away with it. Change the skills and a cocky fighter may have to change.

A good healer is in demand for their skills. Fighters need them and serious combat players travel with a devoted healer. Healers have essentially been wiped out as serious player in LoN, my opinion. The game masters are working to restore the balance. But the DCS2 has subtle effects that create several unintended consequences. I have often found myself extremely annoyed at someone casting an area heal and floating me into the air just as I was about to pull the trigger or had a distant monster in my sights thus forcing me to wait, miss or re-aim. Annoying.

Update 09/07d/09

There is disagreement in the aiming issue and animation float. This is not as simple as I first thought. It was explained to me that my first impression was wrong. I was told the healing float does not affect targeting… I think it does. But that needs some plaining and testing because in one case it does and another it does not.

There is what you see on-screen and what REALLY happens in the game mechanics. Animations do not always move the avatar. If you have danced in a crowded place you will likely have noticed your avatar passing through other avatars. This is SL tech trying to save cpu cycles and faking the dance. Your avatar is not really dancing and SL servers are not having to calculate collisions. SL is just pretending it is moving the av and updating the image on you screen. Another way to think of this, is on the server you are not dancing. You only see avatars dance in the viewer, on the client side.

In combat games this displacement is generally known and good gunners aim for where the collision skeleton of the avatar really is, under the name tag regardless of where the avatar may appear to be standing. So, if the tag does not move, you are not really moving and your cross hairs should not move. But when affected by another’s heal spell one sees the cross hair move off the target and must adjust.  But does the tag, avatar and gun really move? Yes. If you are firing you are in first person and can’t see your avatar. But you can see others. You can also see your bullets if you are using colored bullets, they show the affect of the gun moving. This means one has to adjust their aim to follow a target.

Update 11/28/09 – Targeting is even more complex than I figured the second time around. With time I have watched and learned more about what is happening. You will see your AV move, your stream of bullets will appear to move off the target too. If you watch others and closely observe their stream of bullets you will see some changing and others not. What is happening is the AV and the gun are not actually moving, it is SL faking it. So, if one does not change their aim, allows the cross hair to move off the target without adjusting, as a spell floats them off the ground their rounds will continue to hit the target, the stream of bullets will not move. However, if the player corrects for the perceived movement THEN their stream of bullets will move and they will miss the target. Players that understand this have a better hit rate. From an RP perspective it makes sense that your aim would be affected when you are hit with spells.

Many fighters with the new healing powers gained in DSC2 will likely prefer healers stay away so they can choose when to suffer the float and particles (if they have not turned them off).

Summary

Obviously there are problems with a popular game changing a basic component. There are worse and better ways to go about it. LoN management says they had little if any choice in this change. Perhaps. We really can’t know. But, this style of change will be a lesson to others. Whether it is a good or bad lesson… is still to be decided.

Update 09/06d/09

LoN managers are making almost daily changes to the meter system. Each change restores some of the original flavor to LoN game play. But DCS2 and XRPS combat are never going to be the same. In the long run DCS2 may prove better. In the mean time the change is no fun.

—–

*For instance; the LoN forum is the only forum I have ever been kicked out of and it was for discussing whether Melee Lock** was a cheat. I said an SL game exploit should not be considered a cheat because the same thing could be achieved by sticking the mouse in one’s mouth and biting the right mouse button to have both hands free… I thought that was rather illustrative of the silliness of the idea that the SL exploit was a cheat when obvious alternatives are available. But, they saw that was giving away the secret of how to cheat. Right… There is a much more elegant way to achieve the same thing and not slobber up the mouse and electrocute one’s self …slobbery mouse… eeewww! Whatever, this is an over simplification of events, so don’t go off on LoN management or me about it. Just learn not to discuss cheating on LoN forums. You will know you have over done whatever you are doing when an Admin warns you to stop or boots you out of the game.

**Melee Lock – this is the equivalent of a Caps Lock key but for the mouse. In SL melee or hand-to-hand combat it is necessary to hold down the right-mouse button while using the movement keys to fight. A Melee Lock would free a hand up by holding the button down once pressed. There is a common trick to achieve this taught in most SL combat schools including schools once in NoR.

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