Thursday, October 4, 2007

Solo and Group Gameplay in a Star Trek MMORPG

Originally Posted by CINC-UFPForces-Cardassia:
Is it preferable to you to see many starships in a given area, providing a sense of the "realness" of Starfleet? Is it better for the universe to be busy, rather than empty? And from a technical perspective, if you prefer the latter, is it more preferable for the game to use heavy instancing to create that sense of isolation - in balance with all the inherent drawbacks that instancing can create?
This is a great question.

For once, the answer actually seems pretty simple. Instancing is primarily a way to minimize spawn camping, killstealing, and similar pathologies that spring from designing a MMOG to be loot-centric. But if Star Trek Online is designed to be about things other than how much loot one can accumulate in the shortest amount of time, then instancing becomes a lot less useful/necessary.

(Note that even if all player characters belong to the same Starfleet faction, that doesn't mean there won't be competition among players and player groups. There will be Achievers in a Star Trek MMORPG just like any other MMOG, and Achievers will always find a way to keep score. They'll find ways to compete against each other. But as long as the score markers aren't cumulative things like loot or money, then instancing as a way to minimize competitive interference is still not necessary.)

Finally, on the general question of how a massively multiplayer game should "feel"... absolutely it is better for the areas in a game that are supposed to feel crowded to be busy with players. SWG was the most fun by far the first few months after it launched, because that's when every city was buzzing with activity. It was tremendously exciting; there were people all around you having fun; it made you want to join in.

But it should be noted that there's a fine line to walk here. Yes, it's good for places that should plausibly be full of activity to appear to have lots of people doing things. But too many players in one place is likely to conjure up the Lag Monster, and that's not conducive to fun. (This is something that tends to happen over time in MMORPGs with active player economies -- players eventually cluster in one or two locations because they are where buyers and sellers learn that each other can be found. That tendency needs to be fought with ongoing design tweaks to avoid lag in some places and ghost towns everywhere else.)

On the other hand, not everyone wants to be surrounded by other people all the time. Some -- like me -- want to be able to explore strange new worlds, to be able to discover places (and objects, and processes) that ten thousand other people haven't already rummaged through and posted on a Star Trek Online wiki somewhere. So in addition to crowded places, there need to be empty places. There need to be opportunities (for those who want them) to get away from the crowd.

So I'm in full agreement that ST:O will score a win by setting up multiple places that players will, over the long term, want to congregate... as long as not too many people congregate there, and as long as there are quiet, empty places as well.