Monday, August 24, 2009

The One Character Fallacy

Many of the character advancement problems that we encounter in modern MMOs are caused by the one-character philosophy. Single-player RPGs adhere to this philosophy for good reason and originated it as a metaphor. As with the blind adoption of many of the other tropes of single-player RPGs, MMOs have taken this one blindly and not done adequate work to adapt it to fit the realities of massively multiplayer gaming.

The one-character philosophy exists and has persisted because of these design decisions:
  1. Player characters do not age.
  2. Player characters cannot actually die.
  3. There can only be a limited number of PCs per player.
  4. Character advancement is very time-consuming.
  5. Character advancement is almost entirely vertical.
The one-character philosophy doesn’t need to be a static emplacement in MMORPG design. There are several well-documented issues with expecting the players to stick with one character throughout their journeys:

  1. Grinds are necessary to keep players playing if they are meant to stick to one character. Developers want to milk as much play time from characters as humanly possible.
  2. Vertical character progression has to be long. This means that level barriers lie between you and having fun doing what you want in the game world.
  3. The wild swings of the nerfbat turn your favorite max level character into a useless sideshow in your favorite style of play. You’ve put 150 days of playtime into your character, but now it’s all rendered moot because the balance has tipped out of your favor.
  4. Making an alt means repeating the whole grind again!
  5. Lots of vertical progression means lots of content strewn across the game world that is only accessible to narrow groups of players at a time. 90% of the game world is useful to less than 10% of the players at a given time. Making good content is difficult and uneconomical considering the low number of total hours players will spend with that content.
  6. Max level boredom is the result of grinding your way to max level, then looking out over the desolate landscapes of useless locales and wondering “now that I’ve climbed the mountain, what do I do next?” This is less a problem is World of Warcraft, because the game is very top-heavy, but in other games this is brutal. (Warhammer)
  7. Death has to be meaningless or half of the players will run around naked, sit in town and macro all day, or become exploiters due to inhuman risk aversion.
  8. Permanent decisions are anathema because characters have to live with what might be cripplingly bad decisions for the rest of eternity unless the player wants to throw away the time spent on that character.
MMOs refuse to stick to this metaphor wholesale (aside from Darkfall and other games that force you to only play as one character on one world) when they allow alts. This allowance is the first down the road to mortal characters in MMORPGs.
Problems with perma-death:
  1. Discourages character investment.
  2. May overly reward excessive play-time.
  3. Character progression may be overly repetitive.
  4. Managing too many characters at once.
Design responses (off the top of my head):
  1. Focus on horizontal character progression.
  2. Ensure there are important activities that a character can only do when the player is offline. Characters may have to sleep for a certain amount of their lives to not face penalties. Such penalties make it optimal to play multiple characters while not necessarily making every one of them uber.
  3. Reduce vertical progression to the side-effect of good and skillful play. A 10% cap on vertical ability gain would be reasonable. Ensure that vertical progression is no longer the focus—speccing well and having a strategy for your character should be more important.
  4. You don’t need to be logged in as particular characters to perform certain actions. Perhaps web-based or otherwise out-of-game interfaces would be more effective for managing the auction house, trade goods production, and other repetitive activities that can be more effectively managed from a dedicated interface outside of the game engine.
Discarding the one-character philosophy has its own problems, but it’s impossible to fully grasp the potential of a multi-character system until it’s actually implemented, and I don’t see any games giving it an honest go yet. One-character thinking has reached its natural conclusion; we need to move on. MMOs have proven their marketability, it's time to make game mechanics that leverage the nature of an online game instead of shoe-horning single-player mechanics into multi-player games where they do not belong. I believe the one-character philosophy is one design stumbling block past which we will find much better MMOs.


Unknown said...

I've tried playing multiple alts within WoW and Eve, but one of the crippling issues is that progress is strictly compartmentalized. When I'm not playing a certain character, all progress I've accomplished with it is null and void. Currently, if I want to take full advantage of the horizontal advancement opportunities in a game, I must put all my eggs into one basket or use the characters simultaneously via multiboxing.

Perhaps some simple AI (follow, attack, carry these items, craft this item, sell these items for me etc) would help alleviate this.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

I posted an idea about 3 years ago now as a step to discard the "single character" focus of a game.

Generations of Characters

The short version is that you manage a group of related characters (a "noble house" in a fantasy-based game). Anything you do with one character can influence all characters. No need for each character to gain rep.

The other concept that I discussed is that your characters would age and go away during expansions. This allows you to do radical things with the game, even breaking "backwards compatibility". (On a related note, it'll be interesting to see how WoW deals with a massive world change but not erasing characters in the next expansion.) But, the development you've put into your group of characters would persist in some way.

Another angle to consider.

motstandet said...

That is a very nice article, Brian.

I'm warming up to the idea of the generation mechanic to handle permadeath (can we call it semi-death?). We can even weave it into crafting: if players know certain technologies about the world, then they are going to teach the next generation that knowledge. I imagine teaching would be in a community structure--a guild--where there is a school or library. Those buildings can be destroyed by enemy factions, and that knowledge can be lost. Unless those still alive rewrite the books and rebuild the structures before they die.

evizaer said...


I read that article a while ago and it was part of the reason why I wanted to assemble justifications for moving towards a similar model to what you suggest. I have my own perma-death related ideas as well that I think are a bit less awkward than your generational mechanics seem to be (the issues brought up in the comments about losing characters at expansions and how that timing can be awkward for any number of reasons).

The paradigm shift seems necessary. It bothers me that not a single MMO seems to be moving in this direction and at least experimenting. I Guess with such a large amount of money needed to make such a game, publishers and financeers are not happy to throw their money as a project that is testing a new road in such a dramatic fashion--it's just too risky in the current economic situation.

Tesh said...

Evizaer, I'd argue that the investor risk aversion that leads to design clones is something that bears special attention in a bad economy. People with little money to spend won't try half a dozen different "me too" games, they will stick with what they know. (The sub model aids and abets this, by erecting a barrier to entry to new games, and a heavy stickiness to those who have already spent their month's money and want to see it put to good use.)

Wiqd and I bandied about some generational mechanics as well. It's about the only permadeath mechanic that I can get behind, actually. You don't want to create significant losses *for the player*, but you can still radically alter *the avatar's* life.

Melf_Himself said...

I'd plug my idea to solve the multiple character problem, but you have disabled pasting into the comments field. Lol/sigh. Anyway, go search my blog for the word 'playable' (I'm sure I've plugged this idea to you before).

Anyway, in general another less extreme way to solve the one-character problem is to have your class be dictated by the items you use. Exactly as in Eve where I can be a fighter pilot or drive a massive battlecruiser and still be on the same character. Except of course you adopt it for the setting you're using... i.e. while using a sword and armor I have warrior skills available, while using a robe and staff I get mage skills, etc.

evizaer said...

Playable NPCs? Yeah. I've read that article before. I think it would never work with the assumption that players will behave as the character they inhabit should behave. It will turn into a nightmare of defining exactly what a player can do with a given character--and players will always beat you at that game.

Pasting does work, btw--I just did it myself and had no issue.

Dblade said...

Mabinogi tackled this. The way it works is that you can rebirth your character back to level 1 once a week paid, or once every three weeks if played smart for free.

What happens is your base stats get reset to a level one, but you keep any additions to stats that came with the skills you level up during the grind, and you keep the skill levels as well. So instead of a grind to cap, you grind to the highest level you can, and when it gets dull you rebirth to level 1, and start from the top with a stronger level 1. You choose when you want to once you reach a certain age, or when it slows down too much.

Like my main character has combat mastery at level 6. I rebirth, I keep that skill at level 6, and all the stats that skill adds with each level gets applied to my level 1, making me pretty powerful. Because I'm level 1 though, I can level much easier and by level 20, I'm at combat mastery level 5. Or I can choose to work on other skills, and advance that way.

Essentially it lets you become a much more powerful newbie, with almost all the fast levelling a newbie has. But you can also stop and level to a higher level (cap is 100 or maybe more, no idea) once you feel your skill advancement is good enough and you want to increase your total level.

evizaer said...

That is "tackling" this issue in the simplest and least profound way possible. I can think of at least one game (Ragnarok Online) that has a similar system. It doesn't do much to solve the problems I've outlined in the post. It just elongates the grind further for the benefit of reusing content. You still only play one character, in essence, though over multiple consecutive "lives".

Dblade said...

but the grind will always exist, it's a result of normal gameplay. I mean, you talk about horizontal development, but, developing your character is the grind, unless its a pure time-based system. EVE without ISK.

I just don't see how permadeath and multiple characters add value to that. Either way past a certain point in time you are level 1 again, with or withour benefits. You still need to level up till you reach your death point, and you still advance, be it a character or a family.

Like I can imagine a game where you die at age 30, about 3 months of realtime play. At age 20, you need to look for either a player or npc to "marry" to have a kid, and the last 10 years have a minigame of raising the kid to influence his stats or something. But that would ultimately make the game about raising a kid, and once you did it, the game gets pointless. Raising a kid will not differ much beyond that, and the only thing that would keep people playing is if you made unique live events start and complete every three months.

I mean, if you have any progression-like your kids get stronger over time because of the parents dna, or your guild hall gets stronger as you bank gold, it's still a grind. You still can "cap" your character because you can only so much before you die and restart.