Thursday, June 25, 2009

Are Persistent Worlds Too Persistent?

In my quest to come up with ideas that work well together for the next generation of MMO (revolutionary instead of evolutionary), I’ve hit upon a stumbling block. It turns out that having your character always be in the 3d world of the game causes a lot of developer and artist time to go into trivial elements of world-building, as well as causing players to waste a lot of their time.

I know this is hard to swallow considering it’s one of the base tenets of the MMORPG genre, but perhaps we don’t need to keep characters in the same 3d world all the time.

The 3d world is responsible for a lot of boredom. Think of how many hours you’ve spent travelling around the world uneventfully, yet you could not be AFK because you had to guide your character through various simple obstacles. Sure, there are times when travel is exciting, like when you’re trying to sneak through a higher level zone to get to some city, but most of the times it’s either boring or annoying. You might as well queue up your travel operation and have it take slightly longer than it would if done manually (in order to dodge enemies and such), but allow you to be AFK. In a 100% persistent 3D world, you would not be able to pull this off, but if you give up the ghost, suddenly players aren’t complaining about travel times.

If you eliminated most of the useless expanses of nothing and purely cosmetic terrain and structures that constitute the majority of the space in MMORPGs, you eliminate the need for a lot of graphics to be loaded on the client-side. You also reduce the amount of graphics the artists for the game need to make. And, even better, the graphics that you do see can have more time and effort spent on their perfection. Imagine if just the cities and major towns in MMORPGs were replaced by a good interface for their services—so much lag would be eliminated and so many entirely cosmetic pieces of art would not need to be loaded into your client or made by the artists. And you would save time, too, because you wouldn’t be stomping around the place looking for the goddamned reagent vendor who is hiding underneath a rock along some obscure road down which you have no other reason to travel.

I suggest we take a close look at what we actually get out of forcing characters to be in a 3D world for their entire game experience. Perhaps we can make better games if we give up this ghost, and perhaps we can do it in less time.


motstandet said...

From a gameplay/mechanics standpoint, a 3D world doesn't add too much unless there are ways to take advantage of all the dimensions. Positional Tactics. FPS don't work too well in 2D, which is why the genre exploded with the onset of 3D worlds (I'd even say it was the pioneer). I can't really think of an MMO which increased the gameplay depth by supporting positional tactics in 3 dimensions. Maybe Darkfall on occasion?

Explorer types are going to be upset with no massive world to explore. Some players might say it breaks "immersion", whatever that term means.

From a business perspective (which is important when you are trying to at least support the game), graphics sell. This isn't something to be overlooked. Sure seasoned gamers who are looking for innovative features are going to ultimately be attracted to the game play, but graphics lure a lot of people. Think about Aion and how many people are going to play it because of the CryEngine. Cool effects and massive world structures set off this mystery emotion and tickle our brains. People like shiny objects.

evizaer said...

Graphics don't sell MMORPGs. I've read that there's little-to-no correlation between graphic quality (aside from extremely poor graphics) and an MMORPG's success. The features of the game and hype have more to do with sales. Do you have any facts to back up your assertion that graphics are so important?

Presentation, on the other hand, might be a big factor though it does involve graphics to some extent.

motstandet said...

Think about SW The Old Republic, Mortal Online, any FF game, even StarCraft 2. What does the public know first about all these announced titles? Their graphics. Marketing releases intro movies, flashy in-game footage, and press releases ridden with "Havok", "Crytek", and "Unreal" for a reason. The very first selling point on Aion's website ( is "Explore the Stunning World of Aion". That's not a coincidence.

It's hard to find straight up data on this sort of thing because there is no control. But I did find a talk by Jason Rubin at the 2003 GDC. He is claiming that VGs can no longer sell on graphics alone because the preceived quality increase in graphics is proportionally shrinking. He admits that his studio's business practice has been to "create fun titles that are graphically superior to the competition".

In a BBC article about the presentation, there is a quote, "'Graphics was a key focus for Jak and Daxter,' said Mr Rubin. 'The gameplay was a little short but graphically it stunned and it sold 2.75 million copies worldwide.'" (The author accidently calls the guy James instead of Jason

Obviously graphics will not RETAIN players; I never claimed that it did. But graphics ATTRACT players, not all, but enough that studios emphasize the graphics in their games.

Why did Sony spend time upgrading graphically outdated sections of EverQuest? Why do WoW players ask for a graphics overhaul every expansion?

timedout said...

I think its less about graphics and more about the sensation of vastness. You don't even have to explore it, but damn it you could if you wanted to! So you can have 2d elements in an MMO, but if the player feels constrained (doesn't feel like they can wander and explore) then its a lost cause. Could this be balanced with 2d maps/world travel/whatever? Sure. It would need to be carefully analyzed, however.

Back to the need of good graphics though: I feel that if you don't meet at least status quo the game does get dismissed out of hand. Otherwise, I highly doubt that the best graphics are the major drawing point of games.

Joe said...

If zoning into a town means just bringing up a full screen interface to interact with all of the towns perks, why bother having a town. Might as well make it just another option and remove towns from the game. Oh yea, and if you want to grab a quest just have another option to grab quests whenever you feel like it...

What I'm getting at is these aspects are part of the game. Hanging out in town with all other players make you feel like you are playing an MMO. If you didn't have that all you would have is chat and individual parties. Seems alot like how diablo 2.

evizaer said...

If you designed an MMORPG around not forcing the player to have a character in a 3D world at all times, it wouldn't be anywhere near as awkward as you imagine it, Joe.

EVE does not keep you in the 3D world throughout your play session and I don't seen reams of complaints--it's all about how you design the game to leverage such capacities.

Games suffer when they just slap new ideas on top of old design. If the game isn't adjusted to fully take advantage and incorporate new or different design ideas, it's not going to work.

Dblade said...

I don't think you can strip away much though. If towns are just a menu screen, people won't hang out in them, and you'll need gathering places for them. Plus, it gives the game a cheap feel, no one wants to travel to a new city to just see a static 2d screen.

If you are concerned about that route, you may not want to make a full MMO after all, just lobbies and instanced fights.

evizaer said...

I don't think the stations in EVE give the game a cheap feel. I don't need to have my pilot walking around in a useless area "hanging out" in order to feel immersed or to make the game feel well-polished.

I think it would be a problem if it was inconsistent, or if the town interface was at much lower production quality than the rest of the game.

Perhaps there's not much that can be stripped if you try to keep the basics of the game the same. It was a good thought experiment, I though, and I've enjoyed reading the comments.

Psychochild said...

Oh, boy. Lots to comment on here.

FPSes started out 2D. Wolfenstein 3D and the more successful DOOM were both played in an essentially 2D world. DOOM was able to fake it a bit by having height, but it was a trick of perception. There was no aiming vertically, and you couldn't have one hallway above or below another.

City of Heroes used 3D pretty well. They had flying powers, and you could use that to get out of range of most bad guys. Of course, most had guns and just shot at you if you were flying.

Graphics matter, but mostly in attracting people to a game. As motstandet points out, the first thing big companies talk about is how pretty their games will be. The first thing most people look at in a game is the screenshots. Yes, some people will play an "ugly" game, but rarely will the pick it up out of the blue; nostalgia or friends already playing a game will compensate for less-than-stellar graphics.

As for eliminating the graphics from towns, etc. there are games that already do that. Web-based games are all menus and data, no lush 3D world. They're relatively popular, but they are different animals than the 3D type of games that we generally talk about. One thing that you really notice about web games is that the setting and window dressing are often meaningless. One silly free game went so far as to just have you manipulating a database directly.

I think the part you miss if you go with a menu instead of a 3D space is the feeling of being in an alternate world. Some people like too lose themselves in a new setting. In LotRO, for example, I might not like having to run all around Bree when I want to do crafting, then vault some stuff, then go to the auction house, but it gives me a feeling of being there. It gives me a chance to run into other people. Just popping up a menu drops me out of the "being in a world" mindset and reminds me that I'm merely playing a game. That's fine for some people, but I hesitate to say one size fits all here.

My thoughts.

evizaer said...

Graphics, yes. Presentation, though, is also important and is often disregarded in discussions like this. If you present the game well and the graphics suit the presentation and are consistent, I think even below-average graphics can almost go unnoticed, or will not be a breaking point. If the presentation is consistent, well-done, and flavorful (i.e. it is distinctive to the game while still being highly usable) I think the immersion cost can be partially recouped.

I think there is some distance between the browser-based games where the mechanics are bared for all to see and are all that thereis to see, and fully-3D MMORPGs where everything is coated in fluff and 3D shininess. I'd like to explore that gap and see what can be done--I'm doing it with the design I'm working on at the moment and your feedback has helped me keep my plans from being too ridiculous.

As an aside: Psychochild, you bring a lot to the table here and your comments are as good as I thought they'd be if not better. I want to thank you for kicking ass over here--showing me how little I know and providing some experienced perspective. I really appreciate it.

Other commenters have given some insight, as well, and the discussions that have occurred on this blog over the course of the first two weeks of its existence have taught me a good bit. I'm throwing out some crazy-ish ideas and you guys are batting them back at me with good critique--this is exactly what I wanted for the blog.