Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The MMORPG Revolution (The 10 Points)

I think Syncaine’s got it right in his recent post. MMOs suck as games. As I’ve pointed out before, their mechanics don’t work together with their stories to produce a complete, self-sustaining package. The mechanics lead to the most efficient styles of gameplay being tedious time sinks. Social pressure can keep people playing MMOs for only so long before they completely burn out on the barely-sufficient mechanics and leave. Even the alternatives to theme-park MMOs are weak because they still require from the player a lot of tedious, boring work.

I don’t think these obstacles can be surmounted by evolution—we need revolution. We need games to try whole new styles of immersion, character advancement, combat, crafting, harvesting, and just about everything else.

Below I present you my 10 points for the re-envisaging of MMORPG. I will spend more time going over each of these points and suggesting ways to implement them. A few games have accomplished one or two of these, but I’ve yet to see a game include more than half of them.

The Ten Points:
  1. Severely limit vertical character progression. A character should not be inherently more powerful the longer he spends playing the game. A character should be more powerful if the player plans its ability use better or plays the game better.

  2. Focus on horizontal character progression. More abilities that are of relatively equal power become available as characters progress.

  3. Foster non-combat professions and give players meaningful content that doesn’t involve fighting.

  4. Do not force players into PvP. But reward players for doing it—if it’s a higher risk activity, it should be more rewarding.

  5. Death needs to have meaning. The obsession with single-character play has to end. It yields too much investment in one character which leads to severe risk aversion.

  6. Cut down on the role of chance. We can create sophisticated, innovative, strategically deep combat mechanics, we don’t have to rely on random number generators to provide spice in MMORPGs.

  7. When a player is in-game, he should be doing something meaningful. Gameplay has to have effects, even if they are small, on both other characters and the player’s character. These effects build a story and a living world which reward intelligent action and planning.

  8. Let the players make the story. The world can have a rich history that rewards thorough reading, but the present needs to be in control of the players. They need to have the power to make game-level stories happen and to record them in a way that is publicly viewable.

  9. Encourage community-building behavior. Reward players for being in groups, guilds, and factions. Give groups experience bonuses, better item drops, and other perks for participating in the social part of the game. If a game encourages socialization, it more quickly engenders social responsibility in its players—this binds players and keeps them playing the game.

  10. Focus on the player’s in-game experience. If you give the player a rich world, rewarding actions to undertake, and well-constructed game mechanics, your game can still fail. It’s crucial that you present the game to the player with the utmost care. The game has to allow the player to plan and make intelligent decisions: the player must be presented with appropriate information, well laid-out and easy to read and understand.


Tesh said...

Nice list. I'd suggest an addition as an extension of your last note: Make the world dynamic, and make the players the prime movers of the game world, the actors who make things happen, rather than passive rats in a dev-designed maze.

Also, stop trying to tell stories with MMOs, start creating interesting stages and tools for players to tell their own stories.

Green Armadillo said...

"More abilities that are of relatively equal power become available as characters progress."

If there's anything we've seen from the modern combat-centric class-based MMORPG, it's that this is more difficult than it sounds. First off, you get less and less likely at succeeding on the "relatively equal" front as you add more abilities. Even if we threw enough money at that problem to fix it, though, you run into the verb limit.

I'd guesstimate that 90+% of the spells and abilities in WoW can be reduced, in some way shape or form, to either damaging enemies or healing/preventing/reducing the damage they do to you. This doesn't fundamentally change if you add classes capable of diplomacy, crafting items with which to bribe the enemy, or sneaking/hacking their way past the enemy outright. An encounter happens, the player has to win a minigame (combat in most current MMORPG's), and they collect whatever the reward is (exp - and I'm surpised you're keeping that particular convention in a game based on horizontal progression - gold, access to the next encounter, whatever).

Also, it's going to be tough to come up with an intimidating death penalty in the context of horizontal progression. Taking away some of the players' horizontally acquired abilities/perks is meaningless if they can get by just fine with the mostly equivalent ones they have left - they will simply learn not to value these things, since they are temporary and unnecessary. You could penalize players in time - either by kicking them off the server for a bit, or perma-death deleting their characters and forcing them to spend 30 minutes re-rolling and releveling (I'm imagining a DOTA-like leveling curve here, where you'd be at the cap again quickly). The problem there is largely the same - either the penality is too small to make players fear it, or it is large enough to encourage the type of risk aversion that you're trying to avoid.

motstandet said...

"Death needs to have meaning. The obsession with single-character play has to end. It yields too much investment in one character which leads to severe risk aversion."

I'm not sure I'm with you on that one. If you are threatening to take away a player's character, wouldn't he be more careful and risk aversive? And from a social aspect (as it seems to be all the craze around the MMO blogosphere today), destroying an avatar isn't going to be healthy for the player's persona.

Tesh said...

motstandet, you'd need a way to maintain *player* progress while being able to shuck the *avatar*. Wiqd and I bandied about some ideas like generational mechanics (which Psychochild also wrote about). Ultimately, though, it felt like too much contortion to get avatar death in there, without much payoff. I think that the desire to kill avatars is meant to give their life meaning, but more often than not, it's just annoying as a *game* mechanic.

motstandet said...

My FFXI character had "meaning". And I'll claim the reason to be that my entire time in Vana'diel was accompanied by this character. I'm less attached to my WoW characters simply because I have so many of them (although I feel stronger ties to my old school raiding Warlock).

If characters' existence in the game world becomes more temporal either because they die of old age or perish in battle, regardless if they are part of a family, players are not going to be as attached. E.g. I had a back story for all my WoW characters, making them all related to each other some how, and I still view them as tokens in the game rather than as extensions of myself.

Any reason to have permadeath in a game can be achieved through some other, less damaging mechanic. Unless what you are designing isn't a game at all, but just a model to see how pawns in the system react to stimuli.

motstandet said...

I don't think I explained my points well enough.

If characters' existence in the game world becomes more temporal, more fleeting, such that the player makes more characters, then that player will be less attached to each of them. The more characters the player has, the less devotion and attention he will give each of them.

If this permadeath mechanic is simply to punish the player for a series of incorrect choices (i.e. losing in combat), then I feel you can punish the player in less disruptive ways. Say you were allowed to pass on knowledge to your offspring so that your next character had some percentage of your now-dead character's progression. Wouldn't this be the exact same thing as losing experience? Or losing a multi-million ISK ship? You lost some progression (not all) and continue playing. But instead of seeing a familiar avatar and recognizing your character, you now have to make a new one. That's the perfect excuse to quit the game, imo.

Tesh said...

Aye, when I go looking for avatar "meaning", it's because I've had a hand in controlling their destiny. I've gone as far as saying that full class, race faction and spec change (to use the WoW model) would *help* that, since I could play as a single avatar for as long as I'd like and still see all of the content. When I have to play with an alt to see everything the game has to offer, I lose attachment to any one of them.

As interesting as death can be to instill a sense of consequence, I don't think that it's really well advised in a genre where you're trying to build attachment (and addiction). Now, whether or not you really *should* be getting people hooked is a different question...

Longasc said...

This sounds very good. Be aware of the dangers of horizontal progression though, Guild Wars got swamped by too many skills with too few that are actually worthwhile, for example.

I think you should take a look at Tesh's and Wiqd's ideas about "death". There needs to be a way how it can be done so that it is not too annoying, but chars will have to die - eternal life and progression are the bane of MMOs and always end in powercreep.

I also think items/gear should decay and need repairs over time, this could also be connected to crafting and the economy.

Tesh said...

Indeed, Longasc, item and gear "death" is integral to any solid economy, as a way to combat inflation. I'd not noted before the obvious parallels... I must be getting tired. ;)

evizaer said...

Mot: There are some tabletop roleplaying games (like cyberpunk and Cthulu) that require a lot more investment in a character than modern MMOs do. In those games, characters can get killed for the most arbitrary and ridiculous reasons. People still play and love those games. They understand that the risk of death is part of the game and they view the deaths of their characters not as reasons to quit the game, but as the sources of stories they tell their friends and ways to advance the story their creating and experiencing.

Permadeath does not mean "you lose a character every day." It would be reasonable for characters in high risk professions to die within a real-time month or two (which may be years of game time). A crafter or politician, unless they are in a high risk area or suffer extraordinary circumstances, may last 6 months or more, living a full life in game time and dying at a reasonable time. It makes sense that warriors die younger than smiths or politicians and I don't think players will have trouble living with that.

The game can also give players an estimation of their character's life span and make that a part of character creation. You can increase your character's chances of living longer (or increase their age at death) but it will cost your character some vertical progression, or perhaps a character who is destined to be shorter-lived would get a boost to their rewards.

As long as the game is transparent about character lifespans and the possibility of death, players will learn to adapt and may even enjoy the game more for it.

motstandet said...

Months ago, when I first brought up permadeath, I used it as a mechanic to destroy and spawn new factions. The player had a choice in killing his character. If he didn't want to it, then he didn't have to. The only way to destroy an NPC faction was to sacrifice the life of your character to defeat the final boss. Doing so granted the player with the privilege of creating his own NPC faction (with the player at the helm, controlling the general actions of the faction).

Maybe I'll repost that article here.

Tesh said...

That would be interesting. I like that it's a conscious choice with significant repercussions, rather than an "ah, bollocks, we wiped, time to grind up a new character".

Skuldar said...

How about a death system which would use the economy as its vertical progression. AKA, you basically set up a warrior family, the actual vertical progression isn't much but it would be very gear-centric. The equipment that you were able to attain on your warrior is then passed to its offspring.

I personally think when to comes to MMO life spans some of it is going to be based on luck. In most MMOs you have to understand there are actually two different games fighting one another. One is the MAX level players, these guys will hit max level quickly and want content given to them at the top. Then there are the Smell the roses players, they want content from beginning to end, usually will make more chars and will have multiple chars during the leveling process. With this there are the other separators, PUG v. Guildies, Social v. Loner, ect. There has to be a balance if you want to appeal to the most market share.

You could do the 'remort' system. Have max level chars be able to restart in a different class, while taking some aspects of their previous class. This though would create a certain amount of super powered low levels, but it does create a lot of help in quests but destroys the economy (everything low level becomes crazy expensive) for the low players.

I think point 3 is by far the best. Most games throw in some sort of crafting system almost as an after thought. There doesn't have to be just crafting, if you could have progression in a solo friendly situation outside of combat (extremely important if you don't want to allow solo combat leveling...).

Most MMOs come down to the satisfaction of the need of progression. Each time a person gets on they want to feel that they have progressed, and to keep them coming back, you'll want them to be thinking about what the 'next step' is.