Monday, June 18, 2012

Badge spotlight: Realm of the Mad God

Naked and Famous (hard, 30 points) -- Earn 400 fame with a single character.
To Kill a God (hard, 30 points) -- Complete any 7 dungeons with a single character.

Having just finished Realm of the Mad God (by which I mean, gotten all the badges), I have some thoughts that I'd like to write down, so this post is going to be a little different than the previous ones -- it's more of an in-depth look at this particular game and its badges rather than generally applicable lessons (although I hope there will be at least some useful thoughts). Overall it's a very interesting, if flawed, game, and I think the badges match that.

So let's talk about the game itself. Realm of the Mad God describes itself as a "co-op fantasy MMO shooter", and I think that's about as good a description as you can get in four words, but let's go into a little bit more depth. At its heart, Realm of the Mad God is essentially like a classic 2-D "bullet hell" shooter, where everything on the screen, friend and foe alike, is pretty much constantly spraying bullets in some form, except that now it's massively multiplayer; up to 85 people can be in a "realm" at any given time. Realms are quite large, so it's quite easy to wander off by yourself if that's your thing (although the area with the toughest monsters will pretty much always be populated), but finding people to group with on an ad hoc basis is also quite easy (especially in the area with the toughest monsters). The game even makes this even easier by allowing you to teleport to anyone else in the realm instantaneously, with the only restriction being a short cooldown before you can teleport again. The graphics go for the retro-pixelated look, and, as mentioned earlier, the game has a fantasy theme -- the typical fantasy classes are represented (wizard, warrior, archer, priest, etc.) which meshes somewhat awkwardly with the shooter concept, in that even sword-wielding classes still attack their enemies by shooting at them (although with a small range); not quite sure how that works.

By far the most distinctive feature of Realm of the Mad God is that when you die, your character goes away. You don't just respawn in some safe location with everything intact, or maybe with a small experience penalty or having lost some of your equipment; no, you start over with a new character at level 1. (You do have a very small vault in which you can stash some equipment which a new character can use, but any equipment on your character at the time of death is permanently lost.) This is certainly not atypical for a shooter, but in a MMO-type game, it's highly unusual. The game claims that this isn't so bad, since leveling from 1 to 20 (the maximum level) is something you can do pretty quickly (maybe half an hour once you get used to it), but this is only half the truth at most -- reaching level 20 is nowhere near maximum power. After you reach level 20, the next step is to find potions which can permanently increase your statistics, one point at a time, until they reach their maximum values, and to find the best equipment possible, and this process can take quite a long time indeed. So if you lose a really powerful character, that can be many hours of work lost (and even half an hour is nothing to sneeze at).

Now, by itself, I think that "permadeath" (as the game generally calls it) is a good feature -- it's certainly a bold design decision, and I definitely like games taking risks like these. This is true even though it's really easy to die quickly -- a couple of seconds of carelessness in the wrong place is more than enough to seal your fate. Although one key is always sufficient to immediately teleport you to safety, certainly my reflexes on that key were not always fast enough to avoid my demise (and there are certainly things in the game that are capable of killing you instantly). Sometimes you can even be slain by things outside your control -- while the game generally does a very impressive job of maintaining good performance despite what must be pretty heavy demands on the server, occasionally you will get a spike of lag which can cause a lot of enemies to appear at once, and this is certainly capable of causing an entirely unearned demise. But that's not what I see as the flaw with the permadeath system.

The thing that frustrates me about the permadeath system is quite simple -- in a game like this, you'll naturally have to figure out what enemies and situations you can handle, and pretty much the only way to do this is via trial and error. The game gives you precisely one piece of advice on this subject at the beginning: "Stay near the beach at first. Harder monsters live inland." Everything else, you'll need to figure out by yourself. (It's also true that the game gives you quest monsters, which are generally appropriate to your level; however, in later levels, going after the quest monsters will often lead you through areas which are way too tough for your character. So this is a mixed bag at best!) Certainly, once you've learned how difficult a given situation is, it's relatively easy to navigate through the world, but obtaining that knowledge comes at a price -- and that price will take up a pretty substantial chunk of time, and become increasingly frustrating as the game goes on, since the cost of error only gets larger the better you do.

So this brings us to the badges. The first thing I find unfortunate about the badge design is that both of them require achieving a given feat in a single character. Given the issues discussed above, I think it would make a lot more sense to have one of them be a single-character badge and one of them be a lifetime achievement-type award, so that earning the badges isn't quite so dependent on avoiding death. Ths game certainly has an obvious option for this -- upon attaining a given amount of fame in a given class, you're awarded a star, with more stars coming at higher fame levels, and these stars stay forever. So you could easily set a badge which requires some amount of achievement in all classes (and if you're particularly bad at one class, you could easily balance that out by doing better in another class). I think somewhere in the 30-35 star range would have worked nicely; it would remove a lot of the luck and frustration involved in getting the two existing badges.

Moving on, each of the two individual badges is also problematic. The first requires you to accumulate 400 fame on a single character (after you reach level 20, the XP you would have gained is converted into fame instead; you can also gain fame by completing quests, dungeons, and so forth). In and of itself, this is certainly entirely reasonable; for instance, one can easily imagine a badge for getting 400,000 points in survival mode in an ordinary single-player shooter, and this is pretty much comparable. Unfortunately, the way that fame works in Realm of the Mad God is kind of strange. Up to approximately 240 fame, fame accumulates at a quite reasonable rate -- you can probably reach that threshold with a level 20 character with an hour or so of playing around in low-risk areas. Above 240, though, the rate at which you gain fame slows dramatically, so that even if you start hanging out in extremely dangerous areas (which, of course, increases the odds that you'll get killed and have to start all over again), it will take you many hours to reach 400 base fame; I never got particularly close to this threshold, because dying after putting in such a large time investment got very frustrating.

However, when you die (which is when the game actually awards you your fame), your character receives additional bonuses for accomplishing various achievements during your lifetime. Most of these achievements, however, you won't get just by playing the game ordinarily; there are a few, such as the accuracy bonus, but most of them are for doing unusual things (such as not killing any cubes). If you do know that they exist (which generally means looking them up in a FAQ) and are willing to do them (which generally just makes the game slightly more tedious), however, they're pretty easy to get, and you can accumulate enough so that the bonuses can easily double your fame earned. So, at this point Greg's principle #4 applies: given a choice between earning 400 fame naturally, which takes forever and is by no means an easy task, or looking up the multipliers, grinding a character to 200 fame quickly but tediously in such a way as to get these multipliers, and then deliberately dying, the choice is pretty easy. Unfortunately, it's just not a choice which results in a particularly enjoyable gameplay experience.

The second badge (which is, at the moment of writing this, the 8th-least earned badge on Kongregate, and for good reason) requires a player to complete a certain number of dungeons. At the outset, it originally required all 9 dungeons in the game at the time (a 10th has since been added), but after player outcry, this number was lowered to the current 7. Even at that threshold, though, it is a beastly hard badge. Dungeons are periodically dropped by monsters, and you (and anyone else nearby) can enter them and try to conquer the challenges within. There are a few relatively easy dungeons which can be handled by inexperienced players, but not enough to reach that number of 7 -- in order to get the hard badge, you are going to have to traverse some very difficult dungeons (the most difficult dungeon can easily kill even a very well-equipped and potioned level 20 character in an eyeblink). And the problem with the dungeons is that they make the trial and error process of learning even more difficult -- when these dungeons can kill even tough, experienced characters quickly, you'll naturally want to be quick on the escape-to-safety button. But the problem is, once you flee, it may be a long time before you get a chance again; while the lower-level dungeons are easy to drop, some of the high-level dungeons are extremely rare, and you could easily play for a substantial amount of time before getting the chance next. (Apparently, when dungeons were first introduced, they dropped as keys, and then the player with the key could use the key in a populated area, thus making it easier to find dungeons that you were looking for. However, this was changed at some point before I started playing -- I don't know which situation was in effect when the badges were introduced -- which means that finding dungeons, or players to help you with a dungeon, is now much more difficult.)

The other problem with dungeons are the multiplayer dynamics. Some of the dungeons (especially the mid-level dungeons) tend to drop in areas where there aren't generally a lot of people around, so unless you have a highly organized group ready to help out at the drop of a hat (I didn't), you'll have to do these dungeons solo (which is certainly doable, but especially for the mid-level dungeons can make for a pretty tedious experience). On the other hand, some of the dungeons drop in very heavily-populated areas, so if you can manage to find them (which is usually the hard part), there'll be plenty of people. So it's easy in that case to just hang back and let the more experienced people do the hard work, if all you want to do is get the badge. The worst is, of course, if you find a rare, difficult dungeon but there's no one else around to come in with you; in that case, you may have to watch your opportunity go by, as dungeons only remain open for a very limited amount of time. None of these really results in an ideally fun situation, though.

(As a sidenote, one pitfall in designing badges for MMO-type games presents itself here. While Greg and rawismojo, the current Kongregate badge makers, generally try to play through games before badging them, the extreme time demands of many MMOs make this rather impractical. As a result, they'll naturally solicit advice from the current players of the game. This has two drawbacks, however: first, you'll naturally be getting the most enthustiastic players of the game, so they may enjoy things that the majority of the Kongregate population won't; and second, since they're the most experienced players, they'll tend to underestimate the difficulty of tasks. As discussed above, many things in Realm of the Mad God become easy when you've accumulated enough experience, but to a new player starting out, they can be quite difficult. Even simply reaching level 20 on a character, which is pretty much a formality for an experienced player, is quite the challenge for a first-time player. So the fact that even the hardcore players thought that a badge requirement was too difficult was quite unusual, and should say something about how tricky this badge is!)

Anyway, behind it all, there is a lot of fun to be had in Realm of the Mad God, and I don't want this post to give the impression that I hated every minute I spent playing the game. But it did have enough frustrating moments that I can't say I had unalloyed enjoyment, either. And unfortunately, the badges definitely came down on the side of exacerbating the frustration. I think there's a lot of potential, but neither the game nor the badges quite reached that potential in the end.

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