Many of the game mechanics in Chronicles of Elyria are designed to appeal to a slightly older audience. The problem with the older audience is they tend to be people who've got careers, children, spouses, responsibilities, or other similarly pesky things that take away their computer time.
As a result of their busy lives, our target audience is often unable to compete with those who have more free time to spend in-game and are branded as less 'hardcore' or committed than others. To be fair, that isn't just limited to an older audience, but applies to anyone who has limited game-time. Label aside, this creates a real dichotomy for us, as we're trying to develop a game that appeals to an audience that feels like they can't get the most of out of an MMORPG due to their restricted schedules.
With Chronicles of Elyria, we've attempted to address this problem in a couple of different ways. One of the ways is by making sure people with different amounts of free time are still able to play together in an equitable and rewarding way.
Before we talk about our solution, let's take a moment to look at the problem in a slightly different way. Any time you play a game solo it's possible to choose your encounters and set your difficulty based on what you're comfortable with. If you think about your favorite dungeon crawler or hack 'n slash you know what I mean. You just set the difficulty of the dungeon or encounters to suit your particular tolerance and away you go. You naturally find the right challenge and so you get the most enjoyment possible from your successes and failures.
The problem comes about when you try and play with friends who have more or less free time than you do. Whoever has the freest time is forced to sit passively by and wait for the other to sign on, or inevitably advances more quickly, making it difficult to play together.
Going back to the previous example of your favorite dungeon crawler, whenever one person is a higher level than the other, one of two things happens. Either the higher level person is forced to play down to the level of their weaker ally, quickly getting bored, or the lower level person is forced to walk around in a higher level area trying not to get one-shotted while they're carried. Again, getting bored.
Regardless of which happens, someone isn't enjoying themselves to the full extent possible from a shared experience.
In Chronicles of Elyria we've addressed this problem through a new mechanic we call Bolstering. Bolstering is that feeling you get when hanging out with people who are better than you and challenge you to do your best work. You naturally rise to the occasion and quickly find a place within the circle that allows you to play an active role.
In terms of game mechanics, Bolstering is what happens any time you're partied up with members of your in-game family. While bolstered, most of your character attributes (except Stamina) are elevated to a level that is equitable with those in your family with you.
It's important to note that only Stamina is raised to the maximum of everyone else in the family-party. The rest of the attributes are brought up to a level that is equitable with everyone else's maximum. Let me give you an example. Please note, these values are on a scale of 1 to 10 for reference purposes and don't correspond with actual values.
Let's say that a member of your family that plays a lot has the following stats:
That's a total of 52 attribute points.
As you can see from above, this character is incredibly strong and fast, and is very resilient. He's also focused and persuasive. On the other hand, he doesn't have a strong willpower or awareness and is neither a good leader nor particularly intuitive.
You don't play as often, but you'd like to play with your friend. Here's your stats before partying with him:
That's a total of 45 attribute points.
As you can see, you play a more willful character who's also got a higher reason score. You're also much more intuitive and a bit stronger of a leader.
When you group up with one another, your Stamina is automatically raised to his (we take the highest in the party) to ensure that the party can travel together without having to stop and take breaks based on the weakest link. This raises your Stamina from 5 to 8, increasing your Stamina by 3 and raising your total attributes from 45 to 48.
Next, we take the attributes of the person with the highest total attributes and we sort them in reverse order, excluding Stamina. This gives us:
10, 9, 7, 6, 5, 4, 2, 1
After that we sort your attributes in reverse order from highest to lowest and apply deltas until we get to a total maximum attribute score on-par with theirs.
Will, Reason, Focus, Intuition, Persuasion, Leadership, Agility, and Strength.
When we apply the deltas we end up with:
That's a total of 52 attribute points.
Notice now that you are as willful as he is strong, and you are as reasonable as he is agile. While your stats aren't the same, and you maintain a different distribution, you can rest assured that you're as good at doing what you do as he is at doing what he does. So now you can effectively play together.
One thing I should point out is that Bolstering doesn't change the number of skills you have available to you. It only makes you better at the skills you do have. Learning new skills is a different mechanic.
The other thing I should make sure to highlight is that Bolstering only works with in-game family members. It doesn't work with guilds, dynasties, etc... This prevents people from going around Bolstering everyone, as it only effects those people they likely know in real-life. It also creates an additional disadvantage for Wards, as they have nobody to Bolster them.
With all of the above said, with each new feature we add we have to make sure there are checks and balances in place. Unfortunately, while the above mechanic succeeds in adding a significant boon to people who play with real-life friends (regardless of “level” difference), it also de-values the time spent online, as you can simply have one person play a lot, and Bolster everyone else.
So we now have to create a counter-mechanic to encourage people to be online and active as much as possible. Why? Because this is a living, breathing world and the more people are online, the more they're able to contribute to and be a part of the ongoing story. When people are online completing tasks, gaining achievements, and participating in the story they're creating content for others and making the world a richer place to live.
So how do you both keep Bolstering and still encourage people to be online whenever possible? Easy - Story Points!
Story Points (SP) are a post-launch currency awarded to players for being active and online. Put plainly, Story Points are awarded for anything that would lead to skill advancement or an achievement that you accomplish while logged on (not your OPC). This is true whether that be through completing tasks and important quests, by playing an active role in a growing economy, or by doing something noteworthy.
By granting Story Points it allows us to reward players who are contributing to the story without otherwise penalizing those who can’t play as much.
Another note about Story Points is that they are awarded in larger amount based on a character’s reputation or fame. Why? Because completing achievements and being productive in the world is more dangerous when one is a Count, Duke, King, or Legendary champion.
The amount of SP received by higher level reputation and fame is multiplied by the same multiplier as spirit lost for deaths. So “Unknown” people get a fixed amount of Story Points for achievements and completing tasks that advance their skills, while Renowned individuals get 8x the amount of SP, Exalted get 16x, and Legendary characters get a full 32x the amount of Story Points.
But why would these Story Points encourage people to be online? Because the currency can be spent in-between lifetimes in order to improve their lot in life during their next lifetime. Also… they can lead to free game-play.
It’s a well-known fact that “time is money.” Why? Because we can always spend our time making money. Of course, time we spend making money is time we can’t spend doing other things, and vice-versa. This is never more true than when talking about MMORPGs.
From the dawn of the MMO until now players have been rewarded for being online. This has ranged from a character’s obvious lack of ability to advance if the player isn’t online, all the way to the presence of daily quests which reward people with resources and items for signing in every day. Clearly, MMOs are designed and targeted toward people that have a lot of free time (and potentially less money), and not toward people with less free time (and potentially more money).
But we’ve already established that time and money are both resources that can be traded. So what we’d really like is some system of conversion that allowed people to play the game regardless of where they fell on the spectrum of Time vs. Money. That is, people who had a lot of time should have the same opportunity to play as someone who has more money. But what currency could we use to support the conversion? I know! Story Points!
In Chronicles of Elyria, the Story Points you earn while playing can be traded in between lifetimes in order to buy Sparks of Life. This is what we call the “Earn-to-play” model of funding. Now, we’re not the first to do this. There’s been a couple other games that have done something similar. But, as far as we know we’re the first to use a currency that rewards people for participating in the story, and as far as we know we’re the first do this that doesn’t use a subscription model.
But why would we do such a thing? If our business model is to charge people for Sparks of Life, why would we introduce a way for people to play without buying a Spark? The answer is straight forward. Because some people have a lot of time to invest in the game, but not much money. When they spend time in the game trading, completing achievements and interacting with the story they add content and value to the world and make it a better, more interesting place for others. In short, they’re paying us in other ways. We want such people in the world. We’re even willing to trade people a Spark of Life for it.
Before we close out I wanted to make one final note. One of the challenges we face with our business model and reputation system is that characters in higher levels of fame/reputation suffer more spirit loss (and thus have less gameplay time) than those with less fame. We did that because it adds a necessary element of risk to the more powerful positions and it also encourages continuity of the story. If a King dies, it should have significant impact on the world.
The problem is that it could result in people with a higher disposable income being more willing to take risks and take on positions of power in the game that someone with a lower income. That’s one of the reasons we made it so people with higher levels of fame receive more Story Points for doing similar actions as someone with lower fame.
It means that while a Legendary character may die 32x faster than an Unknown character, they also receive Story Points (and a free Spark of Life) 32x faster. So if a character would normally have lived a full year if not for their fame, then when they die they’ll have accumulated enough Story Points that they can buy the next Spark of Life for free. So a King who dies after 3-4 months may have to start over with a new life, but it won’t cost them any more than the same $30-$60 per year as everyone else.
In this design journal we took a look at Bolstering and Earn-to-Play funding - two methods we’re using to create equality between players. When all is said and done we want Chronicles of Elyria to be a game that’s accessible to everyone, whether they enjoy playing alone or with friends, whether they play every day or only on weekends, or whether their stage in life finds them with more money or more time.