Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Five Ways MMORPGs Can Be Fixed

Tom Chick, over at fidgit.com, put together a very interesting list of his "Five reasons MMOs are broken." He concludes by saying, "MMOs have failed me and I have no idea how they can get me back into their good graces."

Like Tom, I also feel that the MMOGs available today (and most of the ones known to be in development) have failed me. He mentions some of the reasons why I feel that way; I have others. (*cough*balance of content for different playstyles*cough*)

But before I launch into my own suggested "solutions," I'd like to express the optimistic view that this journey to discover new frontiers in online game design is worth making. These online game things have only been around for a few years now; we have only just dipped our toes into the ocean of possibilities awaiting us.

This is because online games, in addition to having rules of play, can be worlds. There are certainly going to be limits to the size and depth of a gameworld -- in a commercial game particularly, time and budget are always constraints. But in terms of creative expression, there are no limits. Designers of MMOGs get to create entire universes!

In which case, how can we reasonably assert that the few online games created so far have already exhausted all the possibilities?

I go into this in more detail (and offer a visual guide to what hasn't been tried yet) in my essay, "It's All Been Done? No Way!" Recommended reading if you need a fast way to get to sleep. :)

So with that said, let's get to the five problems that the author sees in MMOGs (or, more accurately, MMORPGs) today.

5) The problem: subscription fees

What needs to be done to fix it: The subscription fee is brilliant, insidious, and tremendously effective. It is single-handedly responsible for the immense success of MMOs. I have no idea how to overcome that sort of fiscal momentum. I have no answers here.
I think the tremendous success of paying the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month for unlimited play time is a pretty good clue that this revenue model is not a problem requiring a solution.

To the extent that it forces game developers to be creative in finding gameplay that's so much fun that it discourages subscribers from canceling their accounts... how is that a bad thing?

4) The problem: aggro

What needs to be done to fix it: Search me. Someone hurry and invent a new gameplay model that doesn't rely on aggro.
I've agreed with this one before. As pure gameplay it's not inherently evil. But as an attempt to model interestingly aggressive conflict resolution methods, "aggro" is a cheap hack applied to avoid implementing environmental depth.

A sufficiently complex environment creates opportunities for competitive success that don't require abitrary and artificial gimmicks like "pulling" and "taunting," not to mention having to jam the entire play experience into a few stovepiped classes based entirely on bizarrely restrictive roles like "tank" and "DPS." The fact that some people mistake this stuff for actual tactical gameplay does not mean that MMORPG developers must mindlessly copy these tropes in every single game from now unto eternity.

3) The problem: button lock

What needs to be done to fix it: Can someone replace all the math with action? Is there some way to do this? Is it even possible? Or should I just stick to Diablo?
See above re: environmental depth. Button-mashing is not, never has been, and never will be "tactics." And the problem with button-mashing isn't that it involves math -- it's that the mathematical calculations are being applied to the intersection of character-inherent "special moves" instead of to how each character interacts with functional elements of their local environment.

So I conclude that MMORPGs won't support interesting tactical gameplay until their developers abandon this belief that cheap game-rule gimmicks are an adequate substitute for environmental depth. For example, an environment whose features are selected to highlight visibility and detection would enable stealthy play as a viable alternative to the silly special-move-spamming slapfights that pass for "combat" in today's MMORPGs.

Bottom line: spending the time to build a gameworld with a broad spectrum of environmental phenomena that can be detected, created, and countered by characters will reduce mindless button-mashing intended to game some mathematical calculation in favor of action that rewards perceptiveness, adaptability and creativity.

2) The problem: static worlds

What needs to be done to fix it: Beats me. You can't very well have evil get vanquished by the first hero to come along. Is this just an innate problem by virtue of the word "massively" in the genre?
Actually... yes. I think it is. Fairness mandates that everyone have exactly the same opportunity to enjoy exactly the same content. Most MMORPG developers interpret that requirement by implementing the "respawn" mechanic.

But what does "same" mean? Exactly the same in every inherent respect? Or just the same kind of content?

If being able to experience the same kind of content is (in some cases) acceptable, then one solution to static worlds is to rethink how content is generated. Rather than hardcoding every piece of content to specifically reference some existing physical object within the game world, developers could try instead to create "fill-in-the-blanks" content. Content that references a specific NPC could instead reference any appropriate NPC, allowing NPCs who have different qualities and goals to come and go. Rather than specifying particular objects as targets of quests/missions, different objects from one specific class of objects could be permitted as targets of a mission, allowing many players to have a highly similar but still distinct play experience.

In effect, a fill-in-the-blanks approach would allow some aspects of a massively shared world to change over time while preserving the general actions defined in each piece of quest content.

Another -- and possibly better -- solution to the problem of a massively multiplayer gameworld that doesn't change: give up. Stop trying to allow multiple people to share the unchanging assets of a gameworld. Switch to making massively single-player games, whose worlds can and should change over time depending the actions of the player's character and the NPCs in that world.

I explore the possibilities of this option in my "Living World" essay, also guaranteed to cure insomnia.

1) The problem: you can't play with the people you want to play with

What needs to be done to fix it: Something. Anything. For pete's sake, if I can't play with my friends, I'm just going to go mess around with horde mode in Gears of War 2.
I think this is not quite as bad a problem as the author makes it out to be, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if playing with friends could be made easier.

One possibility may be found in the gradual transition away from hardcore games to games with a more casual set of rules. More granular gameplay makes it easier for friends to drop in and drop out with a minimum of negative consequences.

Another possibility, albeit one much more difficult to contemplate or implement, might come from a greater level of integration among all MMORPGs. Imagine if one game-building system were to completely dominate all MMORPG development -- in that case, it might be possible to design every game on the same foundation, making it relatively much easier to jump between gameworlds. That way if you're playing Game A but your friends are over on Game B, it's quick and easy for you to join them.

There could be some severe creative problems in that kind of environment. I'm not convinced it would be a good thing to have One Platform To Rule Them All, and I certainly don't want to see one company controlling the means of (game) production. But maybe that's what it would take to lower the perceived barriers to friends playing with friends.


To sum up, I'd say all of these perceived problems with MMORPGs are symptoms of a more systemic disease, which is that their designers are much, much too focused on providing Achiever-oriented play to the exclusion of other content. The "play" in these games is wrapped almost entirely around formal rules enshrining zero-sum competitive/acquisitive economics. In other words, they're mostly about "winning" by killing others and taking their stuff.

It should be noted: there is nothing inherently wrong with Achiever-oriented play! The only problem with it is the degree to which this one playstyle is permitted to overwhelm every other possible kind of fun. At best, narrative and exploration play get implemented as mere support systems for combat and object-collection. But without treating those other playstyles as worthy of actual content, attracting other kinds of gamers and creating a healthy diversity of player types within a gameworld, the fun of the competitive/acquisitive style of play gets concentrated down into mere grinding: fun for a while, but eventually stale.

Aggro, button lock, static worlds, and content so hardcore that it's necessary to schedule one's fun time... all these things are typical of highly Achieverish designs. If they're perceived as problems, they can't be fixed by going after them piecemeal. They are -- and they need to be understood as -- part of an overall pattern of design. And the solution to them is to change the pattern. It's to stop making yet more excessively-Achieverish gameworlds, and instead design gameworlds to have a broader appeal by offering richer physical and emotional environments, creating a gameworld with a far better balance of gameplay opportunities for more potential players.

To put it another way, most of the things that Tom Chick describes as problems are artifacts -- side-effects -- of focusing the design of MMORPGs too much on the hands of players, and not enough on their hearts and minds. When developers finally decide to change that pattern, then the problems mentioned here will begin to recede...

...to be replaced with other problems. :) But that's just how it goes when trying to make any system in which lots of people can interact in relative anonymity. There is no perfect solution for imperfect human beings.

Which is probably just as well.

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