Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cooperative Play in MMORPGs

These MMORPG things need more cooperative play options.

Of course that's a tricky thing to do. What the heck do we mean by "cooperative" play, anyway? Everybody knows what competitive play is like, but how do you implement the alternative? Worse, how does a designer offer cooperative play if doing so will be used by two players just to level each other up or gain money or loot rewards by playing like bots?

First, I think it's important to recognize that just as there are different levels of competition -- tactical, operational, strategic -- there are different levels of cooperation.

Combo moves are one type of tactical cooperation that's starting to get some attention. (The MMORPG Hero's Journey from Simutronics, for example, will be offering this feature.) Something similar could probably be designed for crafting by a clever designer, or even for socializing.

But what about operational and strategic cooperation? I can't think of any MMORPG that has even considered such features, much less implemented them. That would be a game that would definitely get my attention.

Second, regarding how to encourage cooperation generally, I feel pretty strongly that the ubercompetitive nature of most MMORPGs is driven by their fundamental design as zero-sum games.

Most MMORPGs are built as "lands" on some individual world, or as a few planets... and that's all there is. Those are the only places you can be. Which means that any game that allows players to compete for places are zero-sum games -- you just fight over the same patch of ground over and over and over again because that's all you can do.

A non-zero sum game takes that pressure off by offering an alternative. Instead of competing for scarce resources, players can choose to add to the total number of resources through exploration and discovery. In effect, they can compete by cooperating to see who can add more resources to the game world the fastest.

Very few gameworlds offer a non-zero-sum game. The only such game I can think of that's actually running currently is EVE Online. It's still highly competitive, however. Because the number of star systems, while relatively large (~5000), is still fairly low compared to the number of players, and because maintaining security in these player-run systems is a full-time job, players compete fiercely to keep what they've been able to wrest from tough NPCs.

An even more non-zero-sum game is currently being developed, called Infinity: The Quest for Earth. Although I disagree with some of the design decisions being made, there's one that I agree with wholeheartedly. (In fact, it's something I wanted to do myself before I ever even heard of Infinity.) Namely, Infinity's playing field will consist of literally billions of procedurally-generated worlds.

With that many worlds, it will take years before players are able to explore (much less exploit) even a fraction of them. And that should be enough to take the pressure off players to compete over every square inch of known ground, enabling cooperation as a viable way to play the game.

So where are the other persistent online games that offer both strategic and non-zero-sum play? Why expect cooperative play to emerge if the game isn't designed to encourage and reward such play?