Friday, October 30, 2009

Moral Choice Beyond Good and Evil

While browsing through the Alganon website for publicly available data on the game, I was angered by the insistence on using the horrible good-evil dichotomy that has become the standard system of moral choice in games.

alganonracesThere are two factions in the game: The Asharr and the Kujix. Guess what they represent? Just pick the easiest possible dichotomy that has been used the most in videogames: Good vs. Evil. Alganon doesn’t stop there, though! It folds all of of the positive “good-aligned” traits—light, nature, heart, mind, order, obedience, and protection—into Asharr and similarly it folds the opposites into Kujix. They went all-in on this cliché. This kind of design laziness borders on the obscene. Reading about Alganon’s weak backstory brought memories of a certain AGDC session flooding back into my thoughts.

Mot and I attended a group session at AGDC ‘09 entitled “The Jesus-Hitler Problem” where we had a series of small-group discussions about how to make moral choice in games less banal and ludicrous. Everyone agreed that the good-evil dichotomy is weak, overplayed, and should be relegated to the trash heap, but few people had much to say about how to replace it. Some suggested avoiding the question all together and divorcing moral choice from game mechanics. Some suggesting having some kind of faction system in games to represent a players alignment with the wants of different important groups in the story.

gcdilemmaIt’s definitely time we ditch the good vs. evil dichotomy in games.  Both sides are stupid. No one actually ever fits into either of the sides accurately. They’re caricatures that have been dulled by overuse. (And I find it ridiculous that people don’t have a problem how MMOs imply that the moral caliber of one’s being has to do with one’s race.) We should keep moral choice as a mechanic, though, because leaving it out doesn’t encourage players to try different paths. The stakes become very low if moral choice doesn’t actually have an effect on the game world—we almost shouldn’t bother with moral choice at all in that case. Faction systems are a better idea, but don’t fit a wide range of genres.

My suggestion is that we keep moral choice, but change its gamut radically. Moral choice shouldn’t run from perfect good to perfect evil separated by a vanilla neutrality of uselessness. For moral choice to be effecting and memorable, players have to be forced to choose between two equally appealing (or equally disastrous) options. There should be a solid case for either choice being good or evil. 

Here are some dichotomies that arise in moral dilemmas; one’s beliefs on a dichotomy need not be either one or the other, there can be some degree of dithering:

  • Idealism vs. Pragmatism (Hope vs. Reason)
  • Material vs. Spiritual
  • Mercy vs. Justice
  • Need vs. Deserve
  • Impulse vs. Reason (Heart vs. Mind)
  • The Many vs. The Few
  • Authority vs. Equality
  • Self vs. Others
  • Present vs. Future
  • Certainty vs. Opportunity (Fate vs. Free Will)
  • Intent vs. Consequence
  • Unity vs. Diversity

If we profile NPCs through using their positions on these dichotomies, we can construct almost lifelike belief systems. Once we have belief systems, we can present the player with options that will either appeal to or disgust NPC groups that with which the player interacts. The tests of morality can occur relatively frequently, probing at the player’s conceptions of each of these dichotomies. Different factions react in different ways depending on how the player has behaved earlier in the game.

Through expanding the moral quandaries and removing the pretense of good vs. evil, we can create arresting moral decisions, and then have those decisions have deep-rooted effects on the way the game progresses. Such a system will be significantly more engaging, replayable, and thought provoking.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On Balance, Part 2: Ten Key Tips for Balancing

On Monday, I wrote about the fundamentals of balance. Here’s the second and final part of that discussion.

Here are ten important take-aways from Sirlin’s series on balance, but with an MMO bent. These tips cover a wide range, from ways to find imbalance to ways to quantify and fix those imbalances. I added specific MMO-related applications of some of Sirlin’s points about balancing fighting games.

Finding Imbalance through Tier Lists

  • Ask players to organize classes, character types, and abilities within each class into five tiers based on their power or usefulness in different scenarios. The highest tier should be “God”-level—these are dominant strategies—and the lowest tier should be trash-level—these are strictly dominated strategies. You want to clear out those two extremes and ensure that the other tiers are as close together as possible.
  • Tier lists can be applied to classes or abilities in MMOs, but with a caveat. Characters in typical fighting games are mutually exclusive in the context of play—a player can not be more than one character at once. But in an MMO, a character can have multiple abilities at once and those abilities can be at multiple power levels.
  • In a class-based game, it’s easy to apply the tiering system: for each role, tier the classes in their effectiveness. It’s not a disaster if a class is God-tier in one role, as long as it isn’t God-tier in too many, making it basically a dominant strategy to play that class (ala Channellers in Shadowbane). You can use tiering to roughly balance the utility of each class in different situations. It’s a good idea to make the design intentions of classes available to the player so that they don’t make a terrible decision when they choose a class that gimps them at doing what they love.

Avoid Imbalance through Preventative Design

  • Imbalances are avoided by the use of counters. Sometimes these counters are passive: Elemental damage is countered by elemental resistance; physical damage is countered by dodging, blocking, and armor. Sometimes these counters are active, like using a shield bash to interrupt a healer casting a life-saving heal spell.
  • Design counters and counters to counters. But don’t turn your game into rock-paper-scissors.  Iterative deletion of dominated strategies can be used to determine where bedrock is hit. Sometimes counters can be generally weak, but they can exist just to counterbalance a possibly exploitable mechanic.
  • Don’t become fixated on balancing at a micro-level. In a class-based game, you’re balancing class against class, not ability A against ability B. Keep this in mind—sometimes combos of a class’ abilities can make it overpowered and you’d miss that if you were focusing on micro-level ability balance.

Balance Towards Fun

  • Abilities have to be powerful. Balancing games isn’t about lining numbers up so that they sum to zero, it’s about making the game as fun as possible for as long as possible.
  • Maximize the time where both sides have a fighting chance. Always give each side a reason to fight further—there should always be something to lose worth protecting and something to gain worth taking. Be careful of runaway negative and positive feedback loops.
  • Always pull the bottom up to meet the top. This can be difficult in MMOs, but you should work very hard to avoid nerfing classes or abilities. It’s better to have a gap filled a little too much than to leave a void.
  • There should be gamist reasons why every mechanic is present in the game. There should be simulationist reasons why mechanics work as they do. The challenge is to pick the mechanics that are balanced for simulationist reasons—actually real-world systems that balance one another aren’t easy to find.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mechanic Assessment: Use-based Skill Gain

(I made a more recent post which basically replaces this one while doing a much more thorough analysis. Please read it instead of or in addition to this one.)

From my experience with use-based skill gain systems in Oblivion, Morrowind, and Darkfall, I’ve noticed that such systems are inferior. They should be avoided in favor of other approaches to skill-based advancement (as in Fallen Earth) and class/skill hybrid systems (like the one in Final Fantasy Tactics).

First, three gamist reasons why use-based skill gain is an inferior character advancement system:

The character can only be rewarded for a much narrower set of tasks. And that set of tasks is doing whatever action the player wants to level. It’s not clear how quest (or whatever kind of achievement system you want) rewards can fit into this framework. Use-based skill gain cuts out an important part of the incentive structure. In an RPG like Dungeons and Dragons, Dogs in the Vineyard, or Mousegard, combat isn’t an end, it’s a means towards surviving a precarious scenario. There are other means, such as parley, avoidance, and escape that serve that purpose just as well. With use-based skill gain, it becomes difficult to reward the player character for accomplishing anything except easily quantifiable combat and crafting tasks. This leads to gameplay focusing on direct combat and crafting, which narrows significantly the effective and beneficial conflict resolution methods.

Use-based skill gain leads to runaway positive feedback loops that restrict character growth and ability diversity. I kill using ability A so ability A becomes more powerful so I use ability A to kill stuff. This loop generates a second-order effect on skill growth. If you only have a few abilities that are strong enough to use against mobs that drop worthwhile loot, you’re going to use those abilities frequently leading to them becoming more effective and the farming being more efficient and worthwhile. In this way, characters are stuck using the same abilities because only certain abilities are day-to-day useful. But all the abilities are on a similar scale. The Illusion and Mysticism schools of magic were like this in Oblivion: they had some nifty effects, but they were largely composed of utility spells that you would never justifiably use enough to keep the skill level competitive with your melee skills or destruction magic.

Use-based skill gain encourages and rewards exploitation, macroing, and cheating. Some skills necessarily will be used less than others. By factors of hundreds. This forces designers to balance skill advancement against use. This problem cannot be solved. Designers need to measure skill-use frequencies and balance that frequency against how difficult advancement should be. But if a player wants to level a skill, he’s going to find ways to use it more than is reasonable, throwing these calculations off and leading to imbalance. If the player wants to level his buffing abilities, he is going to cast buff spells on everyone he sees if he’s nice, but more likely he’ll cast a buff on himself, then dispell it, and repeat those two actions until he has the desired skill level. Players will always seek to find safe ways to level skills, trivializing the advancement system—developers will always be behind in preventing this kind of behavior. Exploiting and macroing becomes the only way for an honest player to keep up. Darkfall’s EU server has fallen victim to this problem. Exploitation is always the most effective way of increasing skills and it breaks the balance of skill gain.

And one simulationist reason:

Use-based skill gain doesn’t make sense from an immersion/metaphor perspective either. People do not go out and put their life in direct danger to advance from novice to super-novice at using a sword. They spend years practicing with the weapon for several hours every day. The time spent practicing far outstrips that time spent in actual life-threatening struggle. When you’re engaged in combat where life is in the balance, the amount of skill you have when combat begins determines if you live or die. You’re focused on survival, not on dinging 34 on your sword skill. Certainly you will learn from direct combat, but not even a tenth the amount you learned from training since you were the age of 10.

Use-based skill gain should be avoided for primarily these four reasons. As a mechanic, I thought it was a great idea before I played games that implemented it. Now I don’t see a reason to go with use-based skill gain over a different skill-based advancement system, such as purchasing skill levels with XP or some other broader resource.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Alganon: Not Hyped for a Reason

[PLEASE NOTE: This article was written during the first open beta phase, several months before the release in early December 2009. I have not played the game since and I probably will not touch this game in the future to update these impressions. I'm sure some issues I mention here have been resolved. Please keep in mind that the views noted here refer to an early open beta of the game. They do not necessarily represent the game as it stands now.

Regardless of that disclaimer, I would not touch this game again for any price. I wouldn't play it even if it was free. There are better MMOs at every price point--even if Alganon pulled off most of the features they promise it would barely be a competitive product.]

Alganon’s NDA is gone as of yesterday. Here are my impressions for several hours put into the open beta. I saw enough of the game after about six hours to permanently turn me off to it. Under no circumstance do I recommend you buy this game in its current state. I don’t think even if they work out the bugs it will even be worth playing because of some very lazy design work that permeates each mechanic in the game.


Here are some of Alganon’s claims (from its website). These parts of the game that led me to download the beta client:

  • “dynamic quests specifically for the character”
  • “Taming animals and controlling creatures with magic” will be important.
  • “Much of this history is available to the players through the library, but much of it must be discovered. “
  • “The game will ship with a total of two races and four classes; however, there are so many variations in skills, abilities, and specializations that the results guarantee no two characters will be alike. “
  • Crusades are player-given quests to do certain big tasks like “wipe every orc from the face of the world”
  • “our default auction system will support a number of internal tools to help determine the current market price for merchandise, as well as demand.”
  • “Actions are what characters carry out during game play, such as a special attack or a tradeskill, etc. Abilities represent a point-based distribution system allowing the character to focus on specific class-based specialties. Skills are the underlying methods of growth in utilizing certain areas of class-based focus, such as a character's skill in swords, or a specific profession. Studies are the core support base for all other systems, allowing characters to grow over time at the same rate as all other players.”
  • Players collect information and contribute it somehow to the library. Seems like some kind of in-game wiki/thottbot. Also a way for spreading achievements.
  • A complex faction system. “Each character will have the ability to enhance or lower their standings with these different groups, races, and organizations. A character's standing with a faction can affect many things including what items, they can purchase, what areas they can enter, and what creatures are hostile. “


This game is awful.

  • Interface blatantly copies WoW’s. Where it is different, it is worse.
  • Lots of graphical and interface lag.
  • Graphics are ugly. Worse than WoW—even if you play WoW on medium quality settings and this game on ultra.
  • Everything is half-assed. I don’t see any signs of polish.
  • Character creator was slow and ugly. Characters look ugly. Changing how a character looks often doesn’t seem to have any effect on how he actually looks. Character creation is worse than WoW.
  • “Abilities” are actually a dumbed down copy of the talents from WoW. They’re available from level one. It’s really exciting to get a talent that grants me 1% cost decrease on a skill when I’m level one.
  • Abilities reference actions that I don’t actually have. I can buy abilities to improve actions I’ve never seen.
  • “Studies” are a time-based skill advancement system like EVE’s. It just gives you bonuses to stuff for having played longer. Because we’re in a level-based game system, it’s nothing but a reward for subscribing to the game for longer than everyone else. Who knows if it’ll help casual players catch up because character level probably completely trivializes any effect the studies have.
  • REALLY long initial loading times. I have a solid-state harddrive, a core i7 processor, and six gigs of RAM. Are they kidding me?
  • Quests are all of the “kill 10 bugs” variety. I was given one quest that was a “find this thing and pick it up” but the thing was nowhere—it just did not exist in the world. And even if I did find it, I wouldn’t have known to interact with it because the interface is so weak.

I couldn’t suffer through this game long enough to see all of the promises in action (if they even exist in the game). From what I’ve seen, I feel confident saying that almost every promise is a WoW feature relabeled or a copy-pasted feature from another game that doesn’t particularly fit.

This game tries to directly compete with WoW, and it will never win. I’ll be surprised if it lives for very long in the market, considering it has just about nothing in the way of innovation worth noting. It would take way too much work to make this game fun, but even if it does get cleaned up, it doesn’t stand a chance against WoW in the theme-park market.

If you’re going to release a theme-park MMO these days, it must be solid from day one. Even if a game is very much hyped, it will suffer from a rapid drop off after about a month. For an obscure and un-hyped game like Alganon, I don’t see a way for it to succeed in this market. It has no hype and it doesn’t deliver.

Alganon is a great example of how to make an MMO that has no chance of success: it copies without perfecting, it adds without improving.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On Balance, Part 1: Strategy and Depth

Everyone at all interested in game design should read Sirlin’s series of posts on balance. He brings up just about every important facet of balance relevant to games in general. He uses mainly examples from fighting games to illustrate his points—they work great as examples of the concepts he discusses.

In this post, I’m going to summarize many of concepts Sirlin illustrates (you should definitely read his articles if you have the time). Balance is a critical concept in MMOs and certainly merits a post on this blog.


A strategy is a planned set of actions. Every game has a strategy-space that consists of every possible strategy the game permits.


Some strategies are better than others. The best strategies dominate all other strategies. A strategy is dominant if it is always the best strategy to choose regardless of the state of the game—an expert in the game would always choose that strategy regardless of his opponent’s decisions and the expert would always win.

A strictly dominant strategy is always the best to choose. A strictly dominated strategy is never the best to choose.

There are different layers of strategy. In theme-park MMOs, there are character growth strategies specific to each class (the specific talent builds for a feral druid, a prot warrior) as well as in-combat strategies (a DPS rotation for a hunter or an aggro control plan for a tank). The order in which you complete quests is also a strategy. Each of these layers have different goals and optimizing one may necessitate choosing suboptimal strategies in others. MMOs are fun because there are a lot of strategies that allow us to succeed—success is almost guaranteed—so we almost always feel like we’re being smart players by choosing good strategies, even if our strategies are far from optimal.

Darkfall is a unique example of the strategy paradigm of character growth being turned on its head in an MMO. Any character, as of October ‘09, can max out every skill in the game. Every character is expected to be able to effective perform every role as the game is played now. Most MMOs necessitate character growth strategies that are essentially time-independent, because there is usually some limit to the character’s growth that is set by its class or a skill cap—character growth strategies focus on the character optimizing for a desired role when it reaches the limit of its growth. In Darkfall, all growth strategies are rendered moot in the long run. Every character is exactly the same given a several month span of time. The strategies that matter for Darkfall in its current for are those that optimize the instantaneous power of a character at all points in its life. This problem is significantly harder to solve, but it tends to be less interesting than endgame minmaxing. (There probably can only be one optimal growth strategy in Darkfall.)


Depth is the result of there being enough viable strategies for the number of possible strategic permutations to outstrip the player’s capacity to experiment with many of them in a reasonable amount of time. This results in an evolving metagame where certain combinations become popular.

Depth is, at its root, the result of asking a player to solve variations on a problem that is very difficult to solve. It’s not obvious to the player at any level what strategy will net him the best results, so players will try out many different strategies against many other strategies in search of optimal solutions.


For instance, assessing mid-game positioning in chess can be a monumental task as the number of possible moves grows significantly as the board opens up. Calculating the value of positioning vs material is a monumental task. Usually there is not enough time to come to a definite valuation, if one is possible. Chess has a lot of depth in that you can play it many times without seeing identical mid-game positions, so not only is piece valuation and position valuation a hard problem, it’s rarely the same between games. Different players put different weight on different ways of evaluating board position and material; the metagame of chess has been evolving for at least four hundred years and most players still struggle to gain a grasp on evaluating board positions and possible moves.

MMOs currently lack depth. The problems that a player must face when he sits down to play are severely limited in difficulty. Modern MMOs are mostly built to tickle players with rewards and those rewards are their primary motivation for continued play. If game systems had enough depth to rival the reward addiction, MMOs would be able to get over the Kosterian Curve of rapid adoption followed by devastating desertion.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Accountability is the Currency of Dynamic Worlds

Theme-park MMOs are consequence-free zones—unless you get into the kind of behavior that is against the TOS, but even then the worst punishment is being kicked off the game.  It’s not a problem that theme-parks don’t have serious consequences for player character actions within the game mechanics because no character has an impact on the world. Regardless of what you do (barring some very rare GM-run events) the same mobs will continue to spawn in the same places and the same quests will be done by different people without interruption.

As soon as you give the player the ability to take actions that have far-reaching impact on the experiences of other players, you need to instill a conception of consequence in the player’s mind or face a blight of sociopaths actively ruining the game.

The basic building blocks of dynamic worlds are the actions of the players as they interact with one another and the environment. These actions have meaning in that they change the behaviors or capabilities the environment—both the simulated world and the players that inhabit it. Players need to have feedback from the environment as they interact so that they can learn the rules of interaction and the extent of their own capabilities.

Feedback can be supplied in two ways: in that the players sees what effect his actions have on the world, and in that the player sees how he should feel about that effect.

All games give feedback in the first form. You push on a crate and it moves in the direction you pushed. Simple feedback like this teaches you how to interact with your environment and helps you construct a mental image of tools you can use in further problem-solving endeavors. These rules tend to be too simple in MMOs and this feedback is too minimal, but this feedback’s existence provides the underpinnings for the second kind of feedback.

The second kind of feedback is less common in MMOs. Usually single-player games have NPCs that will react to the player’s actions by interacting with the player differently. The way NPCs react to the player suggests how the player should feel about what they are doing in the world. If the player is behaving badly (in a particular social context), NPCs react with shock, horror, and derision towards the player—the player is supposed to feel this about his actions and adjust them. Because NPCs in MMOs are generally worthless cardboard cutout quest-givers, their reactions have no importance to the player—even though through executing the quest-givers will, the player has interacted with the world in the only way possible in the game, the player doesn’t care about the NPC and skips through quest text. NPCs are just tools used to move forward, to get to the endgame and do the real business the game brags about, be it raiding or PvP.

When the player interacts with other players as his main means of playing the game, either through direct interaction or through effecting a cohabitated world, the tools required to show the player how he should feel about his actions are altered beyond recognition. No longer are NPCs the central focus of the game—players have to make moral judgments about other players. The quality of those judgments has an impact on how much fun each player has.

Through making moral judgments, players establish de facto tribal societies. Once in the context of a society, players behave in regimented, sensible ways while relating to others in their society. The player who acts out will be stripped of his status within the society and will not be able to take advantage of the facilities that society provides, so players are incentivized to conform and contribute. The relations built through this socialization keep players hooked into the game world and happy. PvP is contextualized into society versus society warfare, not meaningless and random killing.

Accountability is at the center of the social and moral systems that form the backbone of player-driven, dynamic worlds. Developers have to provide tools to allow players to hold one another accountable for their actions. Developers need to build tools to track the behaviors of players and reveal important details to other players in appropriate places, building a framework for players to establish crucial trust relationships. By giving players the power to avoid untrustworthy or uncooperative agents, developers can give their players a world where actions have meaningful consequence without the world falling apart into a chaotic mass of criminality and complexity.

Accountability is the social currency of dynamic world MMOs. In order for a player-driven dynamic world to succeed, mechanics must facilitate accountability.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Terrible Idea: “It gets good at level 25!”

(It’s time to liven up this blog with some invective. As I read around the blogosphere, I’m often struck by the sheer idiocy of some of the sentiments expressed. The “Terrible Idea” articles will be a series of brief pieces where I yell at people who I think are representing opinions deleterious to the spirit of the MMORPG revolution. Beware that my expressions will be strong.)

My leisure time is valuable to me. If you’re going to give me a game and tell me that I have to play it for thirty hours before I have an honest shot at having some fun, I have better ways to spend my time.

Bootae has it right in this paragraph from his Aion review.

There are 2 key areas that an MMO developer needs to get right. Those being both the starting and end game experience. Your first hours in a new MMO need to grab you by the short and curlies, make you love the experience and drive you forwards towards the level cap. It needs to be good enough that we ignore any mid level grind, our subs happily staying active all the way until end game. (Bootae)

If I don’t see redeeming qualities within the first two to ten hours of gameplay, I’m shelving your game—and probably shelving it for good. I don’t think this is unreasonable whatsoever. If a game doesn’t respect my time enough to give me some of its patented fun content at a relatively early phase, I am not going to respect that game back. I certainly won’t re-up a subscription for a game that doesn’t respect me as a gamer.

“How can you have a valid opinion of an MMO without reaching max level and playing end-game?”

If my opinion isn’t as valid as some crazy grind-happy weeaboo who has spent four hundred hours killing aroused mushrooms, I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not a professional journalist. My opinions are biased towards a certain set of playstyles that are made remarkably clear if you read even the last five posts on this blog. I don’t need to suffer through forty hours of crap to know that a game isn’t worth my time. If it’s not worth my time now and it isn’t worth my time after a few more hours, I have better games that i can play. Even if my opinion is not “objective”, it’s still valuable. I value my time highly and so should you—I don’t put up with this garbage and neither should you.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Design Goal: Kill the Boring

When you’re playing a character in a huge 3D world, you want to go to wherever the interesting stuff is happening so that you can have fun. Yes, it’s a trivially true statement, but it lies at the center of many debates in MMO design.

The obvious design decision is to make players walk or ride or float on clouds or fly with their wings (sometimes) through every foot of the world. They have to do this manually, because if they aren’t logged in and staring blankly at their computer screens, bad things must happen.

Bad things must happen, right? Obviously this is the case because no MMORPG allows you to AFK travel. Hell, few MMORPGs allow you to do much aside from various guises of waiting around  (watching progress bars, walking on a safe road, riding on a gryphon, watching your character auto-attack an enemy to death). But what bad things would happen if you let your players skip the boring parts of their character’s lives?

If we’re going to follow the industry-wide pattern of streamlining MMO gameplay, we should take the obvious but oft-overlooked step of allowing the players to be offline or AFK during as many boring or trivial tasks as possible.

EVE Online lets you queue up manufacturing tasks and log off or do something else while they complete. This is an important step towards automation, but a small one. EVE’s mechanics are based around largely non-interactive fundamental activities: combat involves a lot of waiting and gathering is almost entirely non-interactive. In most combat and gathering activities, less than one-third of the player’s time is spent interacting with the game—and those interactions may not actually involve making interesting decisions.

MMOs will be more fun to play if as many boring parts as possible are stream-lined out of gameplay. Keep travel time appropriate so the world can be big, keep production time appropriate so items can have meaning, but don’t make the player pay for this by making them stare at the screen needlessly.

When you’re addicted to an activity, the most intense moments are usually when you desperately want to fulfill the addiction, not when you’re sating your urge. By that logic, it superficially seems that having a lot of dead time your MMO is justifiable. But if we extend the logic further, we have no answer to the question “why must players be logged at all while their character does mundane and boring tasks?” The more time a player spends bored or disinterested in a game, the more boring the game appears. But if being bored in-game is optional (and actually sub-optimal), players won’t stay in your game to be bored—they’ll stick around to do what’s fun and they’ll only remember that your game is fun.

What would you prefer? Four hours spent in-game where only one is spent having fun, or two hours spent in-game where one is spent having fun? MMOs these days lean towards the 1-in-4 ratio.

So why don’t we ditch the boring stuff?

This suggestion is not one that can be implemented with little change to the theme-park model. It requires a rethinking of how MMORPGs engage players. But if the average player is going to put in 1,000 hours of play time, I’d rather have those hours in concentrated bursts of fun lasting around one hour, not in five-hour slogs.

Friday, October 16, 2009

DDO: Yes.

(This post is quite long compared to the stuff I’ve been putting up recently. If you’re short on time, skip to the bottom and read the three primary reasons. In short: I like DDO. I find it fun.)

I have played through 5 levels of an elf rogue and two levels of a human bard. I played with a friend through all these levels, never once having a group larger than the two of us. We picked builds that complimented one another so we could take on level-appropriate content and not feel handicapped. We play for an hour-and-a-half to three hours a night, and we’ve been playing since October 1st.

DDO is an extremely gamist MMO. it’s the most gamist MMO I’ve ever played.

You walk around a city populated by plenty of NPCs as well as a subsection of the online players on your server. I’ve seen two cities so far: Korthos, the starter town, and Stormreach, the main city. Every single quest zone is an instance just for you and your party. There are special wilderness instances that don’t have one difficulty setting, but every other zone has a selectable difficulty setting that’s either solo, normal, hard, or elite. There are some solo-only quests and some group-only quests. You’re expected to repeat quests to unlock higher difficulty levels and eventually beat the elite version.

I went through that brief introduction because it’s important to realize just how staged this game is. There is no open world. In no sense is this game massive. But it’s fun to play, so I continue to play it.

Below, I’ve outlined eleven reasons why DDO is fun for me.

Character Creation and Growth

  • There are a myriad of viable builds. Eleven unique classes each have at least two or three viable builds. That’s more viable ways to play than just about any comparable theme-park MMO on the market today. And these classes are not carbon-copies of one-another. Later in the game you get to choose between class-specific paragon paths that allow you to further customize your character’s play.
  • Your character will have unique capabilities from day 1, and these abilities can be unique even among level 1 characters of your class—you don’t need to wait for five or more levels to enable your full class.
  • Multi-classing increases character diversity significantly. You can take a maximum of twenty total character levels, but you can take each one of those levels in any class you’d like. Taking a couple levels in a secondary class can dramatically increase your character’s effectiveness if you build the character correctly.
  • Racial modifiers and boons have a noticeable impact on how a character plays. Any race can take any class, though some are better for some classes than others. In general, I am under the impression that each race is viable or optimal for several classes depending on how you want to build your character. It’s not always obvious which race to take, though your decision is significant.


  • Magic item diversity, finally! From level one, there are a wide variety of magical items. Some of these have “Clickies”, or abilities that can be hotkeyed and are once-per-rest.
  • The itemization rewards paying attention to what kinds of enemies you’re fighting against. The game lets you put together a surprisingly large number (more than 10, I think) weapon groups that you can hotkey to allow the quick changing of weapons and shields.


  • It’s free to play. My judgment of the game is positively impacted because I’m getting my money’s worth. I’ve enjoyed the game enough to keep playing and I won’t feel like I’ve wasted money if I quit. I actually plan on buying access to a premium race, another character slot, and perhaps a premium class. I’m paying what I as much as I want to support the game, so I’ll definitely be happy with the amount I decide to spend.
  • Multiple difficulty levels for content throughout the game. If you’re going to make a gamist game, you should make sure that players are motivated by gamist goals. Giving your players multiple tiers of challenge in just about every quest means that players will willingly repeat content several times and not consider it a grind. Playing more difficult content can be outright more fun.


  • You can collide with party members and enemies. This means that positioning is crucial and being able to move effectively in combat is critical.
  • No circle strafing! When your character is moving, he has a fairly significant penalty to hit (roughly 20%).
  • Tactics are fluid but important. There isn’t only one way to beat each boss or group of enemies. You can use different skills an spells in different combinations to accomplish any kill in a variety of ways. There’s such a diversity of abilities in this game that the tactical options are vast.

Eleven reasons? Well, if you pressed me, I could whittle it down to three primary reasons:

  1. It’s a gamist game and it doesn’t try to dress itself up otherwise. You’re on rails and it’s clear you are, but if you don’t cheat by looking up every quest online (which you really shouldn’t have to), you’re going to have fun through just playing the game. Difficulty levels on quest lead to a fun push to play the game better.
  2. Creating and growing a character is full of tough decisions between multiple appealing options. Throughout, I feel like a child in a candy store. So many appealing options and nowhere near the time to indulge in them all. That’s a great feeling.
  3. Combat doesn’t require a slide-rules and amphetamines, but it does require players to read situations and react appropriately in order to succeed. There’s enough challenge in combat to keep me interested. You have to play each class differently to a further extent than you do in most MMOs. The game is not about hammering your spell rotation, it’s about positioning, timing, and awareness.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What I’m Playing in October

Here’s a quick look at what I’m playing. I’m not playing as many games as I was this time last month, so this’ll be brief.

Dungeons and Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited.


D&D 3.5 edition has a certain charm—it’s a complex, deep role-playing system that doesn’t have the gamist sheen and gloss of 4th edition. DDO uses the 3rd edition rules as a basis for all aspects of gameplay. Directly harnessing D&D rules leads to a deep character creation process that’s actually quite fun. Planning out character builds is enjoyable in itself, but the dungeons aren’t as distinct as I’d like, though I can have fun for an hour or two a night without getting burnt out or bored.

In the future I’ll be writing a to-the-point pseudo-review of DDO in a similar style to my Aion pseudo-review.



Procedurally generated levels make this platformer very replayable and obscenely difficult. It’s a fun game to load up and play for ten minutes during spare moments.

Red Faction: Guerrilla


I’ve put four hours into this game and I’m having a great time. It’s a fun open-world FPS. Fully destructible buildings lead to unique, evolving combat scenarios. Enemy AI is good enough to make the game fun, though there are some gaping flaws (they’ll outright refuse to flank me around a building for no apparent reason). Sometimes buildings will stay up even after all support beams except for one are knocked out; Sometimes they’ll fall down realistically. The fact that I can drive a dumptruck through a building, literally ripping the building apart, and come out the other side never ceases to be awesome.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Put Newbies in the Best Possible Community

For big MMOs that cater to all the myriad playstyles, let’s ditch arbitrary server selection and instead come up with a model that works based on preferred styles of play.

Timmy likes PvE, Jimmy likes crafting, Joan likes PvP, Edward likes crafting but hates PvP, Dave thinks that PvE is a waste of time but loves to participate in the PvP and economy. Out of these five players, zero of them can make a meaningful decision about what server to join when they’ve first logged into a modern MMO. PvP-flag indicators do far too little to help people decide where to settle if flagging is even implemented—most games don’t bother—and roleplaying designations have even less meaning. Given only a list of server names there’s no way to make a meaningful decision of what server to join—a decision that can make or break a player’s in-game experience.

Let’s find ways to make server choice work better for the new player.

If the player has friends already in-game on their first log-in, let them provide the names of their friend’s characters and/or what guild their friends are in, and the player will be shuttled over to the appropriate server.

When an experienced player signs up for your MMO, give them a list of playstyles and ask them to rank them on a hate-dislike-neutral-like-love continuum (or have the player rank the playstyles from most preferred to least). With responses to five or ten such questions, you can gather enough information about the player to put him or her in a server with people with whom he or she will actually enjoy playing.

For inexperienced players, ask them questions about what kind of activities they would want to do in game with language that is newbie friendly. “Do you want to make the weapons that your friends use as they charge into battle?” instead of “Do you like crafting?”

Use this information to put people on servers where they can easily meet like-minded people and have fun. This doesn’t mean segregating all the various playstyles, it means integrating them where they are compatible and separating them when they are incompatible. If someone really hates getting ganked, don’t put them on a PvP server. If someone wants to craft and doesn’t mind PvP, put them on a server with other crafters—or put them on a PvP server that’s short on crafters.

A small amount of time spent gathering player preferences can lead to huge dividends when players find friends faster and get hooked sooner. There’s no reason to make player’s fire meaningful decision in game be a blind decision.

EDIT: Dblade, in the comments, suggested a better alternative to a Q&A with the new player. He suggests a Oblivion-like tutorial that allows the player to show their play-style through actual play. I think this is a great idea, though it can't sufficiently judge if the player likes PvP and crafting. A tutorial where the game learns the player's preferences coupled with a few simple questions before the player dives into the full game will greatly increase the chance of the player dropping into a community in which he'll want to take part.

Monday, October 12, 2009

LoL Beta Keys, round 2

We've happened upon several more League of Legends beta invites. There are quite a few more this time around, so don't be shy.

If you'd like an invite, write about in a post on your favorite gaming forum or on your blog. Send me an email at joercasey at gmail with a link to your post, and you'll get a key while supplies last.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Massively Meditative Online Games

Longasc tells me that I don’t “get” Aion. If you examine my last post in isolation, it’s easy to shrug off my criticism of Aion as coming from someone who doesn’t understand the appeal of the game. My comments might appear to be similar to the kind of comments a sports-indifferent person would make towards a Madden game.

I do “get” Aion. And I “get” theme-park and grind-fest MMOs. I know what the appeal is and I have enjoyed the style of gameplay in the past. I’ve been playing DDO and genuinely enjoying the game—DDO typifies the theme-park style of play as well as any game. I’ve played and genuinely enjoyed first-generation MMOs that rely on grinds. I didn’t stop playing Aion because I didn’t understand the point of playing the game, I stopped playing because I don’t think it’s a fun game to play. If a game’s not fun, it’s not worth my time.

There are four reasons why people play games past where they’re having fun:

  1. Completionism. Some players enjoy finishing games and achieving all there is to achieve, regardless of grinds, frustration, and a general lack of fun.
  2. Meditation. When a game is sufficiently easy and grants a constant, pleasant stream of ego-ticklers, you can fall into a meditative state of relaxed play where you’re not having fun, but you are mechanically engaged in a way that allows your mind to rest. In the movie Layer Cake, one character tells another that he enjoys disassembling and reassembling his pistol without looking—he claims the mechanical activity allows his body to be occupied so that his mind can be freed. This is meditation.
  3. It’s better to play a game that occupies you than to be bored otherwise. Some players play because otherwise they wouldn’t know what to do with their time—they’d be bored otherwise, so they chose to do something that at least will occupy their time. The minor social and mechanical rewards are enough of a prod that they don’t forget about the game, so they keep logging in.
  4. It’s better to play a game with friends, even if it’s not fun, than to play any game alone. Social and casual players will play where their friends are because playing the game is secondary to sharing an experience with their friends.

Although, in the past, I’ve tried (and sometimes enjoyed briefly) playing games because of the first two reasons, I currently fit none of these descriptions. I don’t play games past the point at which they’ve stopped being fun. I get far less satisfaction from having finished a game than from enjoying the game’s content; I have other meditative hobbies (I play drums and write); I have other activities to occupy my time while not gaming and not working; I don’t tend to make friends that share my taste in games—I haven’t been able to find an MMO that has been enough fun to keep me around so long that I could find a guild with which to fall in love.

I play games to reach a flow state and have an enjoyable and memorable experience.


Most MMOs are at best in the “Control” section of this skill vs. challenge graph. In the “control” state, I have relatively high skill and the game is built for moderately-skilled players, so I can experiment with impunity and have some fun. Aion is in the “Relaxation” state for most of its players, but for me it sits firmly in the “Boredom” state. It’s not because I’m mediocre, but because the game doesn’t allow me to be much better than some arbitrary point that happens to fall within the boredom octant of my personal state graph.

I play games to get into the “Flow” state. When I started playing MMOs, I found it easy to get into the flow state because the challenge was high compared to my skill and knowledge of the games—I was innocent and the game worlds were full of magnificent mysteries that intrigued me. Now I see straight through every challenge presented in a typical play session of an MMO, so games like Aion have sunk from Flow or Arousal down to Boredom, Relaxation, and, ultimately, Apathy. If I don’t see myself having a chance at reaching the flow state in a game, I will not waste my time with it. There are always better games out there waiting to be found; there’s no reason to squander my time with mediocrity.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Aion: No.

After about 10 days of playing Aion for 2-4 hours a day, I’ve decided it’s a waste of time and money.

  • The world feels claustrophobic. No sense of exploration whatsoever. The world doesn’t feel big, open, and full of interesting nuggets to discover. It feels small, and cramped.
  • There is one leveling path. No fun for alts. I can’t go through the early levels the few times I need to see a few different classes’ capabilities. I’m not going through the mediocre starting content more than twice. After the first time I never wanted to see it again.
  • Leveling is slow. Whether you’re grinding mobs or turning in quests that forced you to grind mobs, leveling starts to drag. I find myself not wanting to log on because I’ll just be grinding the same boring tasks yet again with no variation.
  • The game is a combination of naked grinds. Grind quests. Grind mobs. Grind tradeskills. Nothing innovative or even particularly fun there. Unless, of course, your a masochistic EQ nostalgiac. In that case, I pity you. This world is nowhere near good enough to make mob grinding seem anything but a trivial treadmill of meaninglessness.
  • Combat is boring in the early levels. This game expects me to fight thousands of monsters over the course of 30-40 hours without any real strategic thinking or skill needed. Awful. It might have a chance at not completely sucking if there was ANY significant character customization or gear selection prior to level 20.
  • Crafting is always boring. Once you’ve got the mats, click a couple of times and you’re waiting for your work to finish. For hours. No thanks. This is doubly bad because you can use the “work order” system to completely trivialize leveling crafting. The designers literally are telling players that this is just a matter of spending 20 hours waiting for progress bars to fill.
  • Character creation is all flash. You can customize your character’s looks to a very pleasing extent. Too bad you can’t actually customize your characters capabilities in the game at all. Aside from picking your class, you have zero character build decisions to make and maybe one or two gear decisions to make in the first 40 to 60 hours of gameplay.
  • It’s clearly not made for this market. The world is so odd—and I’m not saying that in a positive way. It’s like Ryzom decided to take all of the character out its world, then spend a few orders of magnitude more on texturing. The interface is also quite strange at times; it’s like they tried their hardest to westernize the game, but no matter how hard they tried they couldn’t find a word for four-sided circle.
  • Flight is a flighty novelty. Awesome! I can fly! WHEEE—oh wait, why am I hitting an invisible wall? Oh. I can’t fly in this zone. And I can’t fly in this one either. So, for no apparent reason I can’t fly in most of the zones I have access to? Great innovation, guys.

So after playing Aion for 20-30 hours, I’m done. We’ve seen this before. Novelty is seductive at first but turns out to be a nagging hag not worth the shoes she walked in on. I’m done with theme-park pay-to-play MMOs. I’ve yet to find one that is worth my money. I’m not going to spend my money in the future if the game isn’t obviously a significant departure worth supporting.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Defining Moderate Simulationism

Simulationism does not mean blind reproduction of real-world processes in a game. I have a more nuanced and objective definition of simulationism. Using this conception, we can better understand what I mean by moderate simulationism.

My approach to moderate simulationism is based on a managerial technique employed to some success among Japanese automakers and subsequently many businesses worldwide: The Five Whys.

Take a look at the high-level mechanics in a game and ask “why”—“why does this work?” or “why did this happen?” After drilling down through consecutive “why”s, you reach a point where you have no other answer but “because the devs say so.” This is the point at which there is no further game-level reasoning: you must step out of the rules themselves to answer this “why.” I call this jump to metagame reasoning a “bottom”. It’s the end of whys that are useful to the player when they’re playing the game. Each time you have a successful answer to a “why” question in a chain, the why-level for the mechanic increases by one.

Gamist systems tend towards metagame reasons taking control almost instantly. The rules in a pure gamist system exist primarily because of metagame reasons—all of the rules do, high and low abstraction layers alike. The perfect simulationist game would allow this chain of whys to proceed all the way until you reach the point you would say “well… I don’t know!” in real life.

In virtual world design (which is the primary concern of just about every single MMO) pure gamist systems fail because the game rules become too arbitrary for the players to suspend disbelief and become immersed in the world. The immersion loss is too great to justify the marginal balance improvements a pure gamist system ensures. Pure gamist virtual worlds do exist, though, in the form modern MMORPGs. There are no pure simulationist MMOs because pure simulationist systems are impossible to implement. Limitations on computing power doom pure simulation. Even if the computing power limitations disappeared, thorough simulations routinely become too complex to program and too complex to play. We don’t even have the means to interact with a computer accurately enough for a simulation of such depth to be feasibly usable.

What, then, is moderate simulationism?

Start with a living virtual world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate simulation of some subset of the real world, but it should be a virtual world that sustains its own operation but changes as different agents interact with it. These agents should be AIs to start. Once you have a self-altering world, you define a set of interaction points at which the player can touch the game world—these interaction points manifest in the player character and its capabilities in RPGs. The way that the player character can interact with the world depends on the parameters of the simulation and the natural conditions that arose as the world evolved under the influence of AI agents. The why-levels of most of the key aspects of the game world will now be significantly deeper than they are in modern theme-park (and even further, sandbox) MMOs, but there is still a bedrock of world design principles that are safely below the why-level of the real world.

(Props go to Tales of the Rampant Coyote’s article on making magic less mundane which helped me to better understand the core of simulationism.)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Path to the MMO Revolution

Bloggers prattle on about mainstream, big money, big staff, mass-market MMOs. Only there is the stagnation so brutal and the gameplay so monotonous, yet the money is so huge.

But MMOs will not be redefined in this grand marketplace of titans. MMOs will be reiterated—progress has slowed. Now it is no more than a telephone game between big development houses. What developers misinterpret from WoW will guide the changes in the AAA MMO industry, not the visions of luminaries.

When there is (at least the perception of) big money available but a large and risky initial investment is required, market participants will aim to minimize all other risks. World of Warcraft has shown the market the revenue potential of MMOs, but, in the process, it has kicked risk-aversion into a high gear. Investors see WoW’s success and think that only WoW can be so successful, so they should reiterate WoW to capture equivalent numbers. The more deviation from the WoW formula, the more risk. This has slowed MMO evolution to a crawl. WoW is so big, so polished, and so old that other MMOs who aim to duplicate WoW’s success in a high-investment, high-risk environment will inevitably fail.

If you think it’s feasible to compete directly against a game that has 300,000 man-hours  invested (high quality man-hours by some of the best MMO designers and programmers in the industry) and has already captured the market, I have a bridge in Alaska to sell you. It ends abruptly in the Behring Strait. Maybe you’ll be on Deadliest Catch.

How can new devs combat the million-ton behemoth? By being more agile and keeping their eyes open. It also helps to stay as far away from the towering King-Kong-standing-on-King-Kong-in-a-Hitler-disguise as possible.

Agility means being small and quick. Through limiting the scope of projects, experimentation can take root. Developers can rapidly iterate on projects with small scopes, trying new features and honing old ones in the fraction of the time required by a towering monolithic AAA title. Project complexity rises exponentially with respect to the number of modules that must interact. Keep the number of modules small and you can make fairly radical changes without worry about the entire game turning into a flaming pile of debris. This small-and-sharp model for project design can be applied to each module in a game as well. When developers recognize the functional boundaries key modules, they can manage the complexity of module interoperation more efficiently.

Keeping your eyes open ensures that you don’t fall into the traps into which your predecessors tumbled headlong. Communicate with your community. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. If you find you’re promising something you can’t deliver, let people know. Keep everyone informed and keep them excited. Pay attention to the design of other MMOs. Play other people’s games—and, more importantly, play your own game. Don’t add features that aren’t important. Make sure you’ve got one guy who has wrapped his head around the design trajectory of the game and the goals of the design. Make sure you’ve got someone who has their head fully wrapped around the lore. Make sure you’ve got a programmer that understands the architecture of the modules inside-and-out and can direct the general construction of the game. Etcetera.

Staying away from the Space King Kong Nazi Ape means do not try to directly compete with WoW. Find new mechanics and perfect them. Make a different game. Don’t be afraid to genre-bend, but don’t let genre-related marketing drive design. Don’t make a game that is a reflection of a game already considered fun; Make a fun game.

The games that act on the prerogatives set forward in this post will comprise the MMO revolution. The generation of MMOs that starts the revolution will be smaller games than we’re used to in the MMO field. They will be released early and patched often. They will evolve into fun games elaboratively. There will be no Great Leap Forward, but instead a series of rapid, modest steps. It’s easier to walk up a mountain than it is to leap to the top of it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Private Stores currently fail in Aion

The Private Store feature in Aion is equivalent to the Bazaar system in FFXI and no doubt a few other player-merchant systems in other MMORPGs. Players select items in their inventories, associate prices with those items, and click Start. Now they are their own traveling salesman.

Except they can't move. In Aion, once they open their store, they pull out a magical stool from thin air and plop their tuchuses down. Roaming merchant is not a valid playstyle. "Well that's ok," you might say, "Players can set up shop while they go AFK for a few hours."

Except they can't AFK for longer than 30 minutes. Originally, players who were AFK for a set amount of time (I'm going to guess 30 minutes, but it could have been 60), were disconnected from the server. Nothing new here. Players who had set up a Private Store were immune from this AFK timer. This makes sense--how else would player merchants make any money?

With all the AFK merchants on the server, queue times began to rise, and clever players realized they could set up a mock Private Store to bypass the AFK timer should they need to AFK for a bit. Now NCSoft had legitimate player merchants and players who were taking advantage of the Store mechanic. They decided to extend the AFK timer to Private Stores. "Let them put their goods on the AH then, and spend their time adventuring," you exclaim.

Except characters only have 10 slots on the "Broker", AKA Auction House. So one of the reasons to limit AH slots is to get players to use the Private Stores. But who wants to actively sit at their computer, watching all the Kinah spam bots? Not I.

I can't really say what the causality is: there is some limitation to having unlimited slots on the AH so players were given the Private Store; or the Private Store was an original feature and AH slots were limited in order to facilitate its use. However, I do know that the Store is in the game in order to let players participate more in the economy. That is one of its functions.

Its other function is to provide buyers access to goods in otherwise remote locations (assuming someone has set up a PS in that location). I can't tell you how much Gil I made setting up next to BCNM fights. Nor can I tell you how glad I am to find players selling what I needed outside BCNM fights. Would those merchants sit at those instance portals, staring at the wall all night long? I wouldn't.

Going back a bit to the "unable to move" attribute of the Private Store, another function emerged from the Bazaars in FFXI. I'm assuming it was not intended, and I'm assuming it wouldn't have surfaced if players were always stationary. The Bazaar acted as a trophy rack. High level crafters would show off their High-Quality synths (Aion also has a HQ-centric craft economy; I'm sure I'll write about that once everyone starts bitching about it). Players could show off rare gear they couldn't equip on their current job, or rare items they found that didn't have a market. Showing off is an important aspect of any persistent social game.

Another quirky detail is that price per item is not displayed to the buyer. E.g. if a player wanted to sell 14 Pigs Feet, at 675 Kinah per foot, then the customer sees a stack of 14 Pigs Feet for 9450 Kinah. If a customer wanted to know the PPU, he must shift-right click to break the stack, type in 1, and look at the price of the single foot in the Shopping Cart. That is a HUGE barrier to entry for a buyer. To combat this piss-poor UI, I've been putting up singles right next to stacks. But I run the risk of someone buying my "For Display Only" item.

You also have to right-click on players, select View Store, and run up to them to view their wares. It's very time consuming to survey all merchants.

The only "good" features of the system are: item layout is preserved (as far as I can tell), and a custom message appears above your head when you are selling. I guess I could put the PPU in the message... maybe advertise at 100 Kinah less and chalk up the difference to hidden fees...

Friday, October 2, 2009

Make the path of least resistance more fun.

If you let players design their content, they will not design it to be the most fun. They will design the content so that they can accomplish their goals as easily as possible. This dooms open PvP games set entirely in traditional purely persistent shared worlds.

My philosophy of design is to make the path of least resistance into the path of most fun. There doesn’t always need to be an easy way out of every situation that yields positive results for the player, but if the player is optimizing for the easy way out, which players usually do, they should find their optimization leading them towards engaging with game systems in intended ways designed to be fun.

In a typical open PvP MMO, players can pick and choose their engagements so that they very rarely have to fight a superior enemy. This means that players hunting alone are going to get ganked by roving bands of players who risk nothing in the engagement. Rarely will there be a scenario where players on each side of an engagement assess the situation as being even enough that unpredictability of the outcome leads to a willingness to take the risk on an even-strength enemy. The result of this kind of behavior: most engagements are routine for one side and frustrating for the other.

Discontent stirs regarding PvP as pageantry, as well. Players who seek alternate worlds where consequences can be devastating and rewards significant abhor scenarios and “battlegrounds” preened and molded particularly for the delight of theme-park goers.

There must be some middle-ground between meaningless risk-reward scenarios and largely uneventful, often-frustrating open world PvP.

The most obvious solution is to restrict the actions that players can take in the game world. This doesn’t mean adding even more hyper-gamist rules to an already rule-riddled mess. It means limiting the parts of the world in which the game allows direct player interaction so that each interactive simulation can be very good, very fun, and very convincing. Only interactively simulate the fun stuff—allow the player to only participate in the simulation of what players want to do in their character’s shoes. The game world and AI can handle the mundane stuff. If the player needs to control the mundane stuff, let her give the AI goals and then go and do something fun with another character or *gasp* let the player play another game instead of getting burnt out from playing your game too much.

My primary issue with modern MMOs is that they encourage players to put four hours or more into the game per day, and out of those four hours less than one hour is spent doing what’s fun. It’d be better for both players and devs if games were made that can be lots of fun for 30 minutes a night out of 45 minutes played. If I’m going to get 1,000 hours of total game time out of your target audience, I’d prefer to get those 1,000 hours at one hour per day instead of five hours per day—especially when that one hour will not lag behind the five-hour session in terms of time spent having fun.

(In a later post I’ll get into the specifics of how to do what I suggest here. This is a basic precept on which I’m designing my own MMO. I intend to make the design completely public—I don’t care if someone steals my ideas. I don’t have the time and resources to make the MMO I’d want to. I’d rather play the game of my dreams than have it sit in a word doc on my desktop.)