Travian: A design critique

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Joined: 11 May 2005
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Location: Munich

PostPosted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 1:25 pm    Post subject: Travian: A design critique Reply with quote

For the last year or so I've been playing a browser-based strategy game called Travian. You begin with a small village, and upgrade it over time, adding new buildings and training troops. Eventually you can settle new villages, or conquer them from other players, expanding your empire. The stronger players "farm" the weak by raiding their villages for resources. Players can form alliances, which then wage war on each other. At the end phase of the game, the strongest alliances compete to see which of them can build a World Wonder first. After approximately 1 year (for a normal speed server) the game finishes, then starts again from scratch.

Although it isn't a MUD, Travian contains many similar design elements, providing a competitive multi-player real-time environment, with short and long term goals, and a strong emphasis on cooperative teamplay. I feel that the game is generally well designed, and there is a lot to learn from it from a game-design perspective. I also feel it has many flaws, some of which are pretty serious, and that there is much to be learned from that as well.

I thought I'd share my personal views of the good and bad points here, in case anyone is interested in considering how they might be applied to muds.

The good points:

Advancement: The game gives you a very good feeling of progress, as you create and upgrade buildings, train troops, settle new villages, etc. There is a strong sense of achievement in watching your villages grow and your empire expand.

Simple to use: The game is pretty easy to get started with, there's no need to read through loads of instructions (although you can make bad choices if you don't). There's now even a tutorial for newbies, guiding them through the basics.

Strategy: There is a lot of strategy involved in many parts of the game. The positioning of your villages, the way they're built (eg dedicated attack villages), etc, can all have a great impact on the game.

Addictive: This is a "good" point from a game developer's perspective. Travian is a very addictive game - in fact it remains addictive long after it ceases to be fun.

Sitters: Each player is allowed to appoint up to two other players to be their sitters. If these sitters are good, they can keep your account running while you're working, sleeping, etc. Conversely if your sitters are bad they can get you into serious pick them wisely. Sitters can be changed at any time.

Alliances: The game requires players to form alliances, and does so in a way that encourages social interaction and negotiation. This part of the game is excellently done, and really promotes the feeling of a multiplayer environment, with players working together to coordinate attacks and defences.

Short-term goals: Each week has a top 10 chart for each of attackers, defenders, climbers and raiders. At the end of the week, those on the chart receive ribbons which can be placed in their profiles. This gives players nice short-term goals and encourages competition.

Long-term goal: Near the end of the server, the NPC Natar villages arrive, and the various alliances begin the race to see who can build a World Wonder to level 100. The first alliance to do so wins the game. This gives players a nice long-term goal, even if you're just one of the little players sending food and a few troops.

Classes: There are three classes, called "tribes", each with their own pros and cons. Although the differences are pretty minor, they are sufficient to give each their own playing style.

The bad points:

Rules: Numerous rules enforced by human administrators (called "multihunters"), many of which could just as easily be enforced through code. These rules vary from server to server, and the rules on the website are often superceded by rules hidden away in the discussion forums. As such it's not uncommon for people to be banned for breaking rules they didn't know about, and which they couldn't have been expected to know about. Furthermore, some of the rules are so convoluted that even the Multihunters have different interpretations, sometimes banning people for things which other Multihunters have said are acceptable. There is also a policy of "ban first, ask questions later" which often drives away paying customers.

Combat: The combat is oversimplified, and based on pure number crunching. There are no real tactics involved, it's just a case of throwing the biggest army you can train at your enemy and hoping they don't have enough defences to stop it. There are of course fake attacks, waves, and such - but these are easily learned by anyone with even a basic level of skill, and then you're right back to the number crunching.

Micromanagement: For an experienced player, the size of an army is limited only by the amount of time it takes to train it. This means the biggest armies take literally months to build, before being wiped out in one glorious suicide attack at the end of the server. Feeding such an army requires a vast amount of micromanagement, distributing it over dozens of villages when in storage to share the burden, and requiring constant resource shifting to avoid starvation. For a long-distance attack you may need to set your alarm clock to wake you up every couple of hours so that you can keep your army fed, and you may need to keep doing that for 1-2 days while your army marches towards a far-off enemy World Wonder. Even in the early game, aggressive (which usually also means "successful") players will have far more troops than they can feed, requiring them to constantly raid other villages day and night to steal enough food to prevent starvation.

War game: Not that there's anything wrong with being a war game - it's just that Travian never really advertises itself as such. It's common for newbies join, build up their little villages, and then get ground into the dirt by a huge player just for the sheer hell of it. Considering each game lasts around a year, this means you can literally wipe out months of someone's hard work purely on a moment's whim.

The bully mentality: You beat up those weaker than yourself, and suck up to those stronger than you. The game actually rewards griefing - it's to your benefit to farm smaller players and destroy potential competition. If you don't attack that little newbie today (thus ruining his gaming experience), he may become a threat later on (and indeed this has happened on both occasions that I allowed a neighbour to carry on playing, rather than stamping on them when they were small and defenceless).

Time commitment: You have to sink a HUGE amount of time into the game to do well, otherwise you'll be wiped out or treated as a farm. In fact it's common to have two or more people sharing the same account to ensure 24 hour coverage, something a solo player simply cannot compete with. If you want to play an account on your own, you will never be a top player.

Stress: Because the game runs in real time, you can (and likely will) be attacked at any time. If you take the game seriously this can be extremely stressful, as whenever you're away from the computer your villages are vulnerable. There is the constant fear that your villages are being destroyed whenever you're offline, and you may find yourself setting your alarm clock for the middle of the night so that you can prepare a defence or launch a correctly timed attack.

Pay-for-perks: You purchase 'gold' with real money. Gold can be spent on a Plus account (which make gameplay easier in various ways without giving outright bonuses), and on fixed production and combat bonuses (which total up to 26 gold per week and could be viewed as a sort of pay-to-play mode). The real problem is that gold can also be used for instant building completion and resource conversion - so that the more you pay, the bigger the advantage you have over your competition.

Of particular interest to me:

Rules: It seems obvious that rules should be clear and unambiguous, but this experience has really driven home for me just how important that is.

Activity: Encouraging players to invest a lot of time will help retain their interest and draw them deeper into the game, but if they realise they need to invest more time than they're willing to spend, many of them will just give up (this is very similar to the 'grind' encountered on many muds). A middle ground needs to be reached here, I think.

Simplicity: There is definitely something to be said for simplicity. A game doesn't need to be complex to be enjoyable, although if it is too simplified it can be difficult to keep people interested.

Combat: When combat is the main focus on the game, simplifying it lowers the entry barrier, but also seems to dilute the gameplay. The challenge, once again, is in finding the right middle ground.

Competitive goals: These work surprisingly well, and the concept of short-term goals is one I definitely plan to borrow.

Griefing: This can drive away a lot of players. Actively encouraging and rewarding it seems counter-productive to a game which requires a large active playerbase.
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Location: Alberta, Canada

PostPosted: Mon Mar 16, 2009 6:39 pm    Post subject: Re: Travian: A design critique Reply with quote

KaVir wrote:
Time commitment: You have to sink a HUGE amount of time into the game to do well, otherwise you'll be wiped out or treated as a farm. In fact it's common to have two or more people sharing the same account to ensure 24 hour coverage, something a solo player simply cannot compete with. If you want to play an account on your own, you will never be a top player.

I had similar issues, though to much less of a degree than you describe, on Utopia way back when. To be a top competitor you had to be constantly checking up on the game, and endure some pretty crazy sleep schedules.

It strikes me that games like this could really benefit from the pervasiveness of text messaging. You wouldn't have to constantly monitor what's going on, just receive updates when important things happen to you (though, I am sure many players still would). It's an opportunity to keep the hardcore players slightly more sane and draw the not-so-serious players a little deeper into the game.

I'd like to use something like this for my own mud, announcing big in-game events. There has to be a way to do it through facebook or twitter.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 25, 2009 9:58 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well my last Travian server finally finished, and I must say it's something of a relief. No more getting up early every morning to check for attacks or starvation. No more setting my alarm to defend against 4am attacks. No more worry when I'm forced to leave the computer for more than a couple of hours. No more endless micromanagement. I'm a bit sad to say goodbye to my allies, but I'm glad the game is finally over and I can get my life back!

Overall I think I did pretty well, certainly well enough to demonstrate a good understanding of the game. Out of the 3466 players my best rank was 27 (down to 33 at the end), I was the 65th most successful attacker and 58th most successful defender. I won 4 of the weekly top-10 medals (rank 1 defender, rank 9 defender, rank 2 attacker, and a special one for holding a top 10 attacker and defender position in the same week). Those medals really do work well as short-term goals. My meta-alliance came second place, as our World Wonder was several hours behind the winner (there were 9 World Wonders in the race).

Something I hadn't really mentioned previously was the metagaming aspect of Travian - it's common to see alliances using propaganda campaigns to undermine rivals or gloss over their own defeats. There are also spies (people who pass on information about the alliance they belong to - or in some cases actively sabotage their alliance). Then there are those who will take it a step further, cracking passwords to sabotage rival accounts. The politics and dirty tactics can get really out of hand at times, and while some enjoy it, I personally find it a rather unpleasant aspect of the game.

It's been said that Travian is 20% skill, 20% gold and 60% time/activity - and I think that's fairly accurate as a general rule (although the value of gold is proportional to your skill and activity, while no amount of activity will compensate for an utter lack of skill). One of the common arguments in favour of the pay-for-perks model is that it allows people with money to compete with those who have time - but in Travian you need plenty of both to play competitively.

Many of the excessive activity issues of Travian could be resolved by providing more automation (in fact players can already automate many things with scripts, but these are against the rules, and can result in severe punishments). As with all games the hardcore Travian players are against any sort of major change, but it seems common for players to get burnt out and quit, which doesn't strike me as a particularly good method of customer retention.

Obviously you don't want to automate too much - the player should invest enough effort into the game that it retains their interest. But you could take away much of the "boring" (and even stressful) parts while still leaving the player with plenty to do.

As I mentioned in my first post, this very much brings to mind the "grind" issue which many muds run into. The main difference is that, with a mud, you can at least log off and get a good night's sleep!
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