Behind the Design: Perception

By Chris 'Joppa' Perkins, 11.14.18

I’ve always been intrigued by story-telling in video games, especially in MMOs. The MMO genre, with its perpetual nature, lends itself quite well to creating open-ended possibilities and experiences for players to engage at their own pace, in their own ways and to their own ends. But as far as the genre has come in providing that experience, is it possible to improve on the formula? Or to put it more clearly, can you design a Quest/Story system that leads to true discoveries and therefore promotes genuine adventure? We believe the answer is yes and we hope to achieve it through the Perception system.



The Inspiration

The trend of most modern MMOs is to deliver story and quest content to players in a highly linear and directive way. The familiar format generally goes something like: travel to new area, find the hub within the new area where quests are dispensed and gather them all, follow minimap to various quest objectives and do as many as possible in one run before returning back for the grand turn-in. Then do the follow-up quests or move to the next new area and repeat. This rhythm has become synonymous with “the best way to level” and even pre-raid item progression, given that players are often able to go from level 1 to max level using the gear they acquire through quest-leveling alone.

But this formula has also conditioned players to see the game world in a very different way. The grand worlds MMO players inhabit have become less things to be explored for the sake of adventure and discovery. Instead, they have become more like the line connecting two points on a map - if the points are all that matter then the only good line is a short one! And if the points are already determined for me and shown to me, what am I actually discovering? Many of you are familiar with this experience and the mindset it creates, as was I.

The inspiration for the Perception system actually came when I was on a trip into one of the major cities of an MMO I was playing a few years back. I couldn’t tell you why I was in the city, but for some reason my objective-based mentality lifted long enough for me to feel the urge to explore a bit without a destination in mind. So I took my eyes off the minimap and started looking at the world. I let the sights and sounds lead me and they brought me to a part of the city I had never been before.

"...I took my eyes off the minimap

and started looking at the world."

When I got there, I looked up above me and saw a captivating sight: a network of beautiful, mechanized, metallic constellations that spanned the entire ceiling. They were intricately detailed and fascinating to watch - I spent several minutes running to different parts of the massive room to take it all in. And then a desire hit me, a strong sense that just by rite of being here at this moment I wanted to engage with what I was seeing. The art and level design had done their jobs beautifully - the sight had become an experience and I naturally wanted to engage with what I had found, to know what it was… to know why it was.

Then I remembered… I don’t have a quest for this. After spending a few minutes looking around for quest-givers, I realized there was nothing more I could do here except look at it. A familiar disappointment and boredom set in, my eyes returned to the minimap and I left.

But a seed of an idea was planted under those constellations: there has to be a way to design a quest system that allows for these moments of discovery. A system that gives players tools to find something when they feel like looking, not when they’re told to. A system that could begin to unfold the what and the why of those constellations simply because a player found it and wanted to know more.

"A system that gives players tools to find something

when they feel like looking, not when they're told to."

And to be truly immersive and expansive, the system would need to work with simple, mundane things as much as it did with grand points of interest. To make the game world feel like more than a line connecting two points, players need to always know that just over that little hill or around that tree could be a discovery that makes it worth looking.

This is what inspired the Perception system - a moment of disappointment mingled with the whisper of a better way. And now, that whisper has grown into the grand idea of how we plan to handle quest and story content in Pantheon.

We're not ready to spill every bean on this system just yet, but I want to take this opportunity to do two things:

    • Shed a bit more light on the core mechanics Perception is built around.

    • Answer several recurring questions the community has been asking about Perception.


Mechanics: The Skills

Perception is the measure of a character’s ability to notice detail and discern deeper meaning within the various people, places and things they encounter on their journey. To do so, Perception utilizes a combination of two skills: Insight and Investigate.

Insight

Perception’s passive skill. Insight represents the innate chance (in addition to required flagging in certain cases) that a character will notice something in the environment.

Investigate

Perception’s active skill. Investigate can be used at will to attempt to notice something. Using Investigate will give you a slightly higher chance to notice something in the case your Insight skill is not high enough to notice on its own. However, when Insight does catch something, players will use Investigate to dig further into the clues they have been given.


Mechanics: The Pings

The Perception System will utilize a thematic window within Pantheon’s user interface. When certain conditions are met, the game environment will send short, cryptic messages to this window as clues for the player to read. We generally refer to these messages as ‘Perception Pings’, which can be grouped into one of three types:

1. Lore Ping

Lore Pings reveal information about, or the hidden meaning within a Point of Interest (PoI), a nearby object, individual, or a wide variety of details in the surrounding environment.

    a. Example messaging: “Interesting statue…”

    b. Players may choose to Investigate after receiving a Lore Ping for the chance of uncovering additional backstory or environmental details as a reward.

        • Example of initial Lore Ping: “Bones are scattered everywhere…”

        • Example of using Investigate after initial Lore Ping: “Skulls appear human and are brutally damaged…”

    c. Lore Pings will often lead into Storylines, either immediately or down the road.

2. Storylines

Perception-based quests are called Storylines.

    a. When a Lore Ping is able to initiate a Storyline, it will present the player with three options:

        • Accept: If a player accepts the Storyline, the quest will begin and the Perception System will continue hinting at what to do, where to go, what to look for or who to talk to next.

        • Disregard: If a player disregards the Storyline, the Perception messages related to that Storyline will cease and the Storyline will be unavailable.

        • Consider: If a player chooses to consider the Storyline, it will reset the Lore Ping with a slight cooldown before the player can trigger it again. This will give the player time to think before they decide to accept or disregard.


3. Character Pings

As your skills in Perception grow, Class-specific insights will begin to present themselves.

    a. Character Pings will typically be triggered on Class alone, but at times will vary based on your particular Race.

    b. Example Class messaging: “Trusting him won’t be easy…” (Rogue) or “Powerful magic is at work here…” (Wizard) or “That scratching - a small animal must be nearby…” (Ranger)


Perception Q&A

1. What has been the most challenging part of developing this system?

The most challenging part has always been creating the many layers of variation needed to keep the experience of using Perception fresh and different from player to player. In order to keep spoiler sites from ruining all the fun, or at least delay that as much as possible, there needs to be several layers of variance that can affect the outcome of each Perception trigger. I won’t spoil all of the tricks, but here’s an idea of some of the flagging we’ll be using to create this variance:

    • The basic flags will be Race, Class, Level, and Faction

    • From there, we will use flags like: Has killed NPC X, Has Looted Item Y, Has Traveled to Location Z, Currently Day/Night, etc.

Using this degree of variance with player flagging, we can create content that is generally accessible to all players that choose to engage with Perception, as well as content that is significantly harder to uncover, which can lead to some valuable secrets!

2. Do you see Perception content being required for certain aspects of progression? I.e. Would I need to trigger Perception to find a hidden passage that leads to a Boss or Raid zone?

No. While Perception may afford its practitioners certain personal advantages, it is intended to enhance content for the general player base, not block it - much like Crafting.

3. Can players turn off the Perception System temporarily? How will it work after you've found a specific Perception trigger? Can you ever go back and get the same Perception Ping?

We plan to provide an option to “turn off” Perception should the players want to temporarily avoid triggering any Perception Pings until the player turns it back on. Once you find a Perception Ping, you will not be able to trigger it again unless there is more information to unlock from it. If you find you are able to trigger the same Perception Ping more than once, it is because your Perception skills are not yet high enough to glean all of the information from that Perception Ping. The other exception is in the case of Storylines and the Consider option (see above). In that case, you would be able to trigger the same Perception Ping again at a later time.

Additionally, when you initiate the Perception System on your character, you will receive a Tome of Keeping. In that Tome, much of the information you gather through Perception Pings and Storylines will be kept for you to refer to later.

4. Will increasing your Perception skills only allow you to find new Perception content or is it possible to unlock more from the Perception triggers you’ve found?

Increasing your Perception skills will do both - see my response to question 3.

5. Will we ever know how many Perception triggers are in a zone and how many we have found? Will there be a way to know if we have found them all?

Your Tome of Keeping will keep a record of the Perception Pings and Storylines you’ve found. Whether we will reveal any information regarding the whereabouts or the total number is something we will evaluate with more testing as we get closer to launch.

6. Will weather, climate, day/night cycle affect when certain Perception Pings are able to be found?

Yes indeed!

A Taste of Things to Come

We hope this first installment of Behind the Design has been insightful. As you can see, our goal with this section of the Newsletter is to give you a deeper look at the inspiration behind our game systems and the mechanics that make them tick. Until next month, onward and upward!