Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Non-Combat Content in MMORPGs

I don't know about anyone else, but speaking personally, I'm tired of playing defense on the subject of non-combat gameplay design. I'm tired of game designers treating the development of any gameplay other than killing as though it's stealing time from more commercially viable content.

Cooperative, constructive, creative gameplay has a valid role in MMORPGs. Those of us who value this kind of gameplay have repeatedly explained why we like it, why it's good for online communities, and why current and upcoming MMORPGs need more of it. We have explained multiple times that we want non-combat features not to replace combat gameplay, but to stand alongside it so that they mutually enhance each other for an entertainment experience that's more satisfying to more potential subscribers. We have bent over backwards to reassure emotive destructogamers that their preferred "kill it before it dies and take its stuff" gameplay content will not suffer from the inclusion of a few non-combat systems that are deep enough to be interesting.

Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep allowing ourselves to be put on the defensive about the value of a style of gameplay that is at least as valid as competitive, destructive, offensive gameplay, as though refraining from killing everything in sight was somehow abnormal behavior?

Enough. It's time for game designers to justify their monomaniacal focus on combat gameplay to the near-total exclusion of other, less destructive forms of entertainment.

There's an old story of an experienced engineer who was brought in as a consultant to figure out why a multimillion-dollar pump wasn't working properly. The engineer walked around the pump for a few minutes, rapped it with his knuckles in a few places, then took out a pencil and marked a small spot about halfway up and said, "Put a pressure fitting there."

His bill: $20,000.

When the pump owners protested this fee for a few minutes' worth of his time, the engineer sent them an itemized list of charges:

Making a pencil mark: $1
Knowing where to put the mark: $19,999
They paid the bill.

The point of this story is that practical abilities -- like making pencil marks, or being really good at decapitating orcs -- don't have much value by themselves. They're mostly useful when they are thoughtfully applied based on knowledge and wisdom about a problem space.

So why in the world should being a really good killer in a MMORPG be the highest-valued ability? Why shouldn't the brawn take orders from the brains?

Why shouldn't combat exist as one tool among many for problem-solving, rather than being the primary mode through which a gameworld's content can be experienced? Why shouldn't killing be the "alternate advancement" mode that's available for those who are too impatient to solve problems by some other means than brute force?

Why in the world should a MMORPG with serious aspirations of being a AAA title focus most or all of its character classes on combat gameplay? How is that design perspective going to attract the people who are utterly turned off by today's MMORPGs whose controlling design assumption is that "fun" == the rapid and showy extermination of all forms of life?

Why should a MMORPG designer who cares about artistic success be satisfied with making a game that is obsessed with combat to the point that the story -- the "RPG" part of the game's description -- is treated like an irritation?

Why should any game designer who cares about long-term commercial success be satisfied with making a game that appeals only to today's destruction-oriented core gamers when that group constitutes only a fraction of the total possible audience, and when its members leave a game (i.e., quit paying for it) far sooner than the more community-oriented gamers who prefer non-combat content?

Game designers -- you've got a lot of explaining to do. What will it take for you to start making online games that treat non-combat content as a success factor instead of as a necessary evil?

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