Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Unconventional MMORPGs

[Updated 2006/05/10]

Looking at the MMORPGs that have been tried to date, and considering the announced features of the numerous MMORPGs currently under development, there appear to be certain assumptions being made by a lot of them. When these assumptions are questioned, they're usually defended with comments like, "But we're just giving players what they say they want."

Maybe it's just me, but when I see that, what I actually hear is "But WoW is grossing $80 million a month."

Well, that's nice, but Blizzard/Vivendi have already locked up the second-mover advantage with WoW. If it's that popular, why would anyone leave it to play a game designed to be just like it?

I'd rather see some well-funded designers deliberately question the conventional wisdom. Why be satisfied with a fragment of the WoW market when you have a chance to define a new market for yourself?

If that makes any sense, then the next step is to identify the most common design assumptions. Some of them might need to be retained because they still offer value, while others can be flipped, but you can't make such analytical decisions without actually trying to identify a list of such assumptions.

So here are what I see as some of the most common assumptions currently being made by online game designers (feel free to suggest others):

  • online games must be massively multiplayer
  • design focus on play mechanics instead of on play styles
  • gameplay emphasized over depth and breadth of world
  • fantasy genre
  • hyperfocus on competitive gameplay
  • characters must "grow"
  • characters cannot die (permadeath can be avoided or isn't even possible)
  • characters must choose a class/profession
  • characters grow through increasing levels within a class
  • levels are gained by repeatedly performing simple actions ("grinding")
  • classes defined by AD&D-inspired combat roles (warrior, mage, healer, rogue)
  • gameplay designed around supporting those combat roles
  • grouping is required to access high-level "end game" content
  • non-player combatants drop loot when killed
  • value of loot drops keyed to non-player combatant level
  • NPCs don't need to be more than standalone loot bags or quest dispensers
  • gameplay takes place on a few relatively small, static land areas
  • areas are divided into even smaller "zones"
There have been MMORPGs that challenge one or two of these assumptions. Pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies allowed you to spend 250 skill points on individual abilities within some 30+ professions (instead of limiting you to one class out of just a few). Dark Age of Camelot allowed more focus on "realm vs. realm" combat than simple one-on-one PvP dueling. A Tale in the Desert emphasizes crafting and commerce over combat. Seed, although highly competitive, was non-combat. Hero's Journey will allow dual-classing. And WoW lets you solo your way to level 60 (but turns very group-oriented at that point). In most other ways, however, these MMORPGs follow many of the conventional assumptions.

EVE Online is often cited as particularly innovative because it challenges several of the standard assumptions: it's not a fantasy world; characters progress by learning skills, not by picking a class and increasing one's level in that class; skills are learned in real time, not advanced by grinding; commerce is relatively well-developed; and with some 5000 star systems, the playing field is somewhat larger than in most MMORPGs.

But while I applaud these design decisions, even EVE embraces some of the most common assumptions: it's intensely competitive (full-time PvP everywhere, and even commerce is cutthroat); only a few hundred star systems can actually be accessed by most players; star systems are relatively small zones; characters must grow by learning new skills to be able to compete with other players; and while solo play is possible, it's not rewarded.

Where's the designer who's willing to really bust out of these chains?

OK -- if this list adequately identifies some of the most common assumptions, what should we do about them? Here are some suggestions for how to rectify some (but, thankfully, not all!) of those assumptions.

Basic Gameplay:

I'd like to see gameplay designed to satisfy the different personality styles of gamers, rather than just rushing to implement the favorite gameplay mechanics of the designer. Instead of yet another game aimed at one particular personality type, we need games that respect and welcome all kinds of players.

Richard Bartle's four player types -- Killers, Achievers, Explorers, and Socializers (from his "Players Who Suit MUDs" essay) -- would be a great place to start in designing a truly inclusive game. Or you could craft your gameplay around David Keirsey's four temperaments -- Artisans, Guardians, Rationals, and Idealists (which I believe are the larger-scale version of Bartle's player types). Or you could use the Myers-Briggs model, or the Big Five model, or Dr. John M. Oldham's fourteen styles derived from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by psychiatrists, or some other model of personality. But it's time for games to be designed based on the real-world differences between people (which eliminates scientifically bogus "models" of personality such as astrology, enneagrams, and blood type) instead of targeting only one type of gamer. Why ignore other potential paying customers?

One goal of designing for playstyle must be to achieve an equal balance between competitive and cooperative gameplay. Currently "cooperative" means "group combat," but that's only cooperation to achieve a competitive end. Cooperative play is worthwhile in and of itself, and game designers ought to create features that reward it accordingly.

As a concrete suggestion for how to accomplish this, I advocate designing features that are balanced equally between combat, commerce, exploration, and social gameplay.

By all means, design a great combat game... but be determined to create an equally great commercial game, and consciously design both of these systems to please gamers who enjoy full-tilt-boogie competition.

At the same time, cooperation as found in exploratory and social gameplay should also be rewarded in equal measure. Let the explorers enjoy discovering new places, as well as the hidden rules that govern how the game world works. (But don't offer accumulatable rewards for doing so, or you'll just turn exploration into another Achiever system.) And take the time to welcome social gamers with lots of story-driven content that lets them imagine themselves to be the people they'd like to be.

Build great gameplay for competitive people who want to "play in" online games. And build richly detailed worlds for cooperative people who want to "live in" online games. And let your gameplay and world designs build on one another to the advantage of both.

In short, every system in the game should be consciously designed to support one or more of the four major gameplay modes. And all four modes should be consciously designed as mutually supporting pillars of the entire game, working together to form a single coherent structure.

I believe that's how you wind up with a product that's both distinctly memorable and commercially successful.

Gameplay Specifics:

  • hybrid ability system
Stop forcing everyone into a rigid class system. Instead, key in-game abilities to both individual skills and skill groups (careers/professions/classes), and allow players to decide which approach is right for their character.

Any skills can be chosen, and any career track (or none) can be chosen, but it's OK if some skills are more useful in certain careers. Let players choose the skills they want, then let the skills they've picked define their careers... or not. If I enjoy playing a cowboy whose skills are all taken from the "diplomacy" column, why force me to take cowboy skills or shove me into a Diplomat class?

(Concerning minmaxing, you're never going to get away from that entirely. Achievers and some the Explorers will always go for optimal efficiency. But you don't minimize this by abstracting abilities into rigid classes -- that just concentrates the problem. Instead, the goal should be to make sure every ability has both an advantage and a cost. If abilities only have advantages, many players will load up on the "most" advantageous abilities. But if abilities also carry costs, then because different players will count costs differently, they'll choose different abilities. As long as abilities are balanced for power -- and combinations of abilities are carefully tested! -- there should be less tendency to cluster around a few skills.)

  • no character levels
Stop thinking that characters have to "grow." When I've asked people why they say they like character growth as a feature, most have replied with something like, "Because gamers expect it." But that's not an answer; that's a rationalization, and it deserves to be challenged.

Give players lots of options when creating characters... and then let them play those characters. You should be fully ready to play as soon as you're done creating a character. With complete characters, there's no need to spend days or weeks or months grinding to get to the high-end content -- it's all high-end content. Some of it might be harder than others, but that's an opportunity to reward ingenuity and promote cooperative play.

(An alternative approach might be to offer more character levels to those players who care most about public markers of accomplishment -- the Achievers -- and fewer or no levels to players who are less concerned with "being the best" or "having the most". The Achievers will still wind up with grinding, but at least your other players won't be wedged into that gameplay as well.)

  • permadeath
Player characters are hard to kill, but if your character dies you just create a new character and jump right back into the action. (Allowing possessions to be "willed" to the next incarnation is an obvious response to the objection that uber loot would take the place of levels in a no-advancement game.)

  • more power carries more responsibility
If making a character more powerful is an end unto itself, your competitive game will always devolve into a sad, Hobbesian, looking-out-for-number-one ProgressQuest.

Power should never come for free. Tactical-level players should be responsible only for themselves and their own pleasure, but the price of this should be having to take orders from other players. Strategic-level players should give orders and be rewarded according to how fun they make the game for other players.

  • progression through careers not mandatory
Players should be free to choose whether they want to advance to higher levels of power and responsibility. If you enjoy strategic gameplay, you should be able to do the things that are necessary to advance to that role. But if you prefer tactical gameplay, you shouldn't be penalized for wanting to continue playing in that role. A reward that forces you to change the kind of game you enjoy playing isn't a reward at all.

  • mix of solo careers and grouping careers
Some careers, such as combat, reward grouping and offer specific roles. Other careers, such as prospecting or scouting, reward independent play and place less emphasis (or none at all) on career advancement.

  • less emphasis on loot
Equating "rewards" with "loot" turns a game into an Achiever-specific game. Achievers care about accumulating things, so some amount of loot is worth offering. But it can't be allowed to take over the game or you'll drive away other kinds of players.

If you really want to attract other kinds of players, you'll expend some effort to think about what those other players want and how to give it to them for doing what they enjoy.

  • less emphasis on combat
Combat is a major feature of most MMORPGs, and for that reason alone it can't be ignored. It can also be fun for almost any kind of player, if implemented well. Combat is a reasonable thing to have in a MMORPG, and it should be included and done well.

But it shouldn't take over! Making an entire game revolve around how fast and how often players can kill every living thing in sight sharply limits that game's value -- I believe there are a lot of potential gamers who are turned off by the way so many MMORPGs exclusively reward constant destruction.

Give combat its place in the game. But give commerce and exploration and socialization their places as well, and don't turn those gameplay modes into mere support classes for combat. Balanced gameplay is more fun.

  • content
No single developer will ever win the content race. Because a game will have vastly more players than developers (you hope!), players will always consume content faster than you can provide it.

So trying to crank out enough content by yourself is a losing proposition. Instead, consider some or all of the following ways to provide content:

Each of these approaches has plusses and minuses, but a game that uses all of them to best advantage will be able to earn a reputation as always having the freshest content... and in a consumer world that values constant novelty, that's a big deal.

  • massively single-player?
Finally, and most way-out of all, why do we assume that massively multiplayer game worlds have to have other people in them all the time?

Spore (now pushed back to April [September] of 2007) is said to be not so much massively multi-player as "massively single-player." Interaction with other players will exist, but it will be much less direct than in traditional MMORPGs. Your game universe still be in contact with others, but you won't be seeing avatars of other gamers inside your game world while you're playing.

That's got both good and bad consequences. For players who really like interacting (constructively or destructively) with other human beings, something useful is lost when other people aren't in the game. On the other hand, players who are less social or who hate having to put up with griefers can limit and control their interactions. On the gripping hand, other players are what make virtual worlds dynamic; without them changing and defining the character of the game world, it's really hard to make the world feel alive. Oblivion has done so to some degree, but only to the point of entering the "uncanny valley" where behavior seems bizarre because it's almost-but-not-quite-plausible.

Maybe it's time for an online game to push on this assumption and see what gives.

Obviously not all of these suggestions will be palatable to everyone. I believe that if you designed a game that implemented many of them together, the resulting mixture would be not only distinctive in a field full of WoW-clones, but highly satisfying to a lot of gamers. (Read: financially successful.)

Some reasonably well-heeled developer needs to take up the challenge of questioning these assumptions and do something different. It doesn't have to be radically different (although that would be interesting). It just needs to be different enough to prove that trying to copy WoW isn't the only path to commercial and artistic success. A healthy MMORPG industry needs someone to take a few risks.

Or am I wrong, and making another conventional class-based fantasy combat game is good enough?

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