Thursday, June 11, 2009

Changing the Fundamental Game Layers

Modern video games have layers. Raph Koster spoke of this at Penny Arcade in a guest article about a year and a half ago.

Games are made out of smaller games – turtles all the way down, until you hit the game that is so trivial and stupid it isn't deserving of the name. In an MMO, we nest games pretty deep, because some games are short-term and some are long-term. In something like WoW, the smallest games are things like “hit Heal on time.” Then you get ‘kill the foozle,” and above that “kill a hell of a lot of foozles” and above that “make yourself stronger by picking the right gear” and in some cases “make your guild stronger” and so on.

The top layers are typically the most complex, building on games in lower levels. At the bottom, we have the purest and simplest games around. This is very evident in MMOs, but it also applies to other games as well.

Take Team Fortress 2 for example. At the top, there are longer-term games such as: win the round.
  • How do we win rounds? Complete the map objectives.
  • How do we complete the objectives? Stand at the capture points.
  • How do we get to the capture points? Construct an attack plan.
  • What is this attack plan? Use a certain route.
  • Why choose this route? There are no Sentry Guns.
  • Who is accompanying us on the route? Player X, Y, and Z.
  • I am player X, how do I help? Shoot, heal, bombard, etc.
  • How do I shoot/heal/bombard? Whack-a-mole.

In a FPS, aiming is a very fundamental mechanic. The muscle reflexes needed to click the target quickly and precisely are a player skill. But the choices of whom to shoot and when to shoot are the game. What are the trade offs if I shoot the Heavy instead of the Medic? If I spend 4 out of 4 rockets just suppressing the enemy, what are my choices when a Scout flanks me?

MMORPG mechanics and games are starting to wear thin. Either fundamental mechanics need to change or the layers on top of these mechanics need to change. Darkfall attempted to change the mechanics, borrowing a very well known idea: FPS aiming. Unfortunately, I'm not too sure it worked out. The restrictive field of view severely stifles play. If you notice, FPS are usually confined to corridors, narrow passages, or linear progression areas. The player always knows which way is "forward". In MMORPGs and Darkfall in particular, the world is open. There is no "forward". For the relatively short time I played the game, I would always find myself strafe-walking, making sure to cover a wider angle than the 90 degrees given by the first-person perspective. This didn't create a "thrilling" atmosphere; it was a nuisance.

I'm not saying that the sandbox MMORPG is flawed or that Darkfall is a bad game. I simply don't think the FPS mechanic works in an open-world MMORPG. Had they used an over-the-shoulder mechanic or a further back 3rd person camera like in Spellborn, then I think the low level gameplay in Darkfall would be more enjoyable.

I want to start changing these bottom layers in MMORPGs and questioning the layers MMORPG players take for granted. What are other ways we can declare targets? Why is it that we need to declare a target at all (aiming with a cross hair is still saying: I want to target something)? What are ways other than levels and skill numbers where we can progress? How else can we differentiate players?

After the core is defined, then the upper levels can begin to take shape. It's important to build a singular design where each layer synergizes with all the other layers. A Find-and-Replace isn't going to cut it. If you swap the top levels, you end up with WoW clones. If you swap the bottom levels, you end up with uncomfortable Darkfall-esque play sessions.

No longer will I accept mediocre games, distracted by the lure of a persistent community and cooperative play.

1 comment:

Tesh said...

Wiqd has some good ideas for altering those turtles... sometimes radically. He doesn't write much any more, but there are some great articles in his archives:

I agree, the underlying assumptions of what makes MMO design (the DIKU grind, Pavlovian treadmills, combat-centric vertical progress) are way past their "use by" date.