How science and player habits shaped WildStar's Paths

WildStar isn't the only MMO that's being shaped around the feedback of the genre's consumers — but it has a more direct manifestation of that philosophy than any of its peers can claim.

The genre, in general is becoming faster, with hotbar-laden interfaces and standstill combat being ushered out by MMOs like Neverwinter and Guild Wars 2. Fantasy trappings, which contributed to a stylistic homogeneity (with a few exceptions) during the MMO's rise to relevance have become far less pervasive. Developers of these sorts of online games are adapting to gaps in the market, to player demand. Carbine Studios is no different; a fact that's evident in WildStar's rich and unique world, fast-paced fighting and — most of all — its dedicated Path content.

The philosophy behind WildStar's Path system has been well explored by the developer. Essentially, it groups players into four categories based on the habits that MMO players typically foster:

  1. The Soldier, for the type of player who spends most of their time seeking out the biggest, most rewarding fights
  2. The Settler, for the player who likes building and shaping their world while helping their fellow players
  3. The Scientist, for collection-obsessed players who dig into the lore of their games
  4. The Explorer, for the players who like to see every square inch of the worlds they inhabit

Players choose those Paths alongside the class of their character. While the latter falls into the traditional concept of character archetypes, determining abilities and roles in groups, Paths don't really fit under that (or any) umbrella. They offer players content tailored to their habits on top of more standard MMO fare. Dynamic quests will be assigned based on your Path, tasking Soldiers, for example, with fighting off waves of enemies in an impromptu Horde quest. Settler quests involve boosting the armaments and defenses of entire outposts. Explorers have to climb the highest trees, and navigate tricky, trap-lined tunnels. Scientists have to observe dangerous wildlife without getting killed in the process.

The quests feel perfectly layered on top of the game's universal content which, on its own, still comes in overwhelming quantities. After entering a new area, your quest log will be full-to-brim with objectives varying between monster hunting, platforming, resource collecting, trap disarming, stunt jumping, objective-defending and other tasks of similar disparity. Path content is supplemental to that mix, ensuring that you'll never spend too much time traveling without doing some adventuring in transit.

The team at Carbine has had plenty of opportunities to observe player habits for themselves, to conceptualize and shape the different paths on offer. But the core tenets of the paths — the categories that players fall into — were actually devised more than a decade ago, with the creation of the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology.

Diagram

The Bartle Test, created in 2000 by programmers Erwin Andreasen and Brandon Downey based on a 1996 report by researcher Richard Bartle, also groups players into four categories based on how they play games. The symmetry between the test and WildStar's Paths are fairly evident, with the test theorizing that game players could be categorized as:

  1. Killers, who play games for the competition and adversarial relationships with their peers
  2. Socializers, who prefer to work together with and correspond with other players
  3. Achievers, who play games to accumulate measurable in-game progress or scores
  4. Explorers, players who are driven by a sense of virtual discovery

"That was the starting point, the genesis for the idea, and then we took it pretty far from there," Carbine senior content designer David Marsh told Polygon in a recent interview. "Obviously we're not trying to pigeonhole all of our players, we're not forcing them into one category exclusively. The gameplay for each isn't exclusively oriented into one specific Bartle type, but that's where it initially came from. The question was, what kind of interactions could be used to deliver that sort of gameplay?"

The link between the Explorer path and Bartle type is simple enough, Marsh explained. To tailor that Path content, WildStar would need lots of things to explore — precarious vertical paths, challenging platforming segments and so on. The Socializer is a bit less obvious; its counterpart is the Settler, whose in-game creations are all meant to provide benefits for other players and the in-game community at large.

"The idea was to have players do things in the game world cooperatively with other players," Marsh said. "That's why, you'll notice, all of the Settler mechanics are designed around things you build for other people. There's nothing for Settlers that's focused on just me."

The Achiever was adapted into the Scientist — another less-than-obvious translation, though players with a penchant for filling out catalogs and collecting lore and data will find countless opportunities to do so down this Path. The Killer was another difficult idea to manifest, as players on the Soldier Path couldn't have unrestricted rights to slaughter everyone in sight.

Engineer_classdrop_03

"Obviously, we didn't intend to just make a game where you could go around griefing other players, which is one of the ideas behind Soldier," Marsh said. "Competition, which is the other idea behind the Killer archetype, is sort of implemented already in the form of PvP and raid progression, where you're raiding to get items, and so on. So what we decided to do there was focus on combat, so the Soldier is a more combat oriented path."

To avoid alienating players who fall equally into multiple categories, each Path will feature mission types that more closely resemble the interests of other Bartle types. Scientists will find themselves creating buffs for their allies. Soldiers will be tasked with navigating dangerous environments while running rescue missions. Explorers will find themselves embroiled in fights with the natives during their traversal. Settlers will have to do a fair bit of collecting to build certain settlements. The content for each Path is actually quite diverse, though each Path certainly skews towards one particular habit.

The idea of codifying those different ideas into actual, mechanical systems gave Carbine a lot of creative opportunity, Marsh said, but those came with their own respective pitfalls to avoid.

"There were a lot of gameplay ideas thrown around for Paths," Marsh said. "There were multiple brainstorms of different types. At one point there were only going to be three Paths. At one point there was a discussion of making five Paths, and so on. We weren't slavishly following the Bartle system, because there were a lot of concepts.

"We wanted to make sure that players didn't run out of content."

"As to why we don't have, for example, a PvP path that focuses on killing other players, that was because the game is not excessively PvP oriented," he added. "Things that everyone equally needs access to, things that would unbalance the rest of the game if we gave you a Path for them, were left alone. We were very careful to ensure that Path implementation wouldn't interfere with class balance or the game's economy. So you won't see the Path that's making lots of money, because then anyone who wanted to make a lot of money would have to pick that Path."

Carbine also went to great lengths to make sure that the Path content and class features never got in each other's way. There's not path/class combination that works better than any other — classes determine who your character is, while paths determine what they do. That's not to say that there aren't popular combinations; during my time in the beta, I've seen more Warrior/Soldiers and Engineer/Scientists than I can count.

"I think it's because people naturally identify those things with one another," Marsh said. "It's not that we necessarily designed them to have special advantages if you take Engineer and Scientist, because you don't. But because it fits together so naturally, it works for a themed character."

Ultimately, Paths are a major part of one of the design pillars for Carbine: They want WildStar's players to never have a shortage of things to do.

"We wanted to make sure that players didn't run out of content," Marsh said. "That's a common complaint with many MMOs, that they're too light on it. We're loading it up."

WildStar launches in Spring 2014 for Windows PCs. Sign-ups for the game's ongoing closed beta test are still open for new registrants.

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