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.

8 comments:

Garumoo said...

I've mused about making long distance travel continue while offline. I still think that idea has merit.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

LotRO allows "swift travel" between some points. Problem is there's usually a cost: higher price or part of a faction grind usually required. To me, the slow travel feels more like a punishment than the swift-travel feels like a reward.

The reason why the you have "boring stuff" like travel time in games is two-fold:

1. World size. Bigger is better, and having to spend 15 minutes traveling means the world is bigger than if you merely spend 2 minutes traveling. One complaint about heavily instanced worlds like Guild Wars is that the world feels smaller. A bit of travel time also give some downtime to the player to go to the bathroom, etc. and for some people can enhance immersion.

2. Money. Under a subscription model, the longer it takes you to play, the longer you play and the longer you pay. Honestly, though, I don't think this is a conscious thought for most developers. But, there may be someone out there plotting for this reason. The alternative is to make a lot of expensive content.

Green Armadillo said...

@Psychochild: I hate AFK travel, but I actually like LOTRO's system. You can't swift travel to your CURRENT quest hub, but, in the more recent zones anyway, you can usually swift travel to the PREVIOUS hub. The travel system only really breaks when you have to slow travel across multiple zones (which, in fairness, depends a bit on the usefulness of your race and class).

@evizaer: In my view (won't waste more space elaborating unless you want me to), the overwhelming majority of the post-WoW MMORPG market spends some or all of their gaming time in short sessions (an hour or less). It's just not feasible to tell someone that they have to sign on for three separate short sessions to "pay for" the one session that's going to be fun. Your alternative still isn't perfect - the player gets that rare unexpected treat of an entire night of uninterrupted gaming (spouse and/or kids are out of the house) discovers that they actually have more fun on the short session nights because the boring stuff happens while they're not logged in.

Here's a model that might work:
The last time I played FFXI (I want to say 2006ish), there really wasn't anything you could do with a short session. You could dink around town crafting or buying vendor items and listing them on the broker to see if anyone would buy em for a 10x markup, or you could risk exp loss trying to travel somewhere else. If you actually wanted to gain exp, you needed a group, and, if you could even find one in your hour session, they'd be pissed at you for leaving after such a short time. In a small, group-oriented server community, that could cripple your reputation. By contrast, FFXIV is apparently featuring some sort of system where solo or small groups can teleport into a quick mission customized for the number of players.

It's possible that you can arrange it so the core game works on the 4:1 model, or the 2+2:1 model, but still have an alternative for players to do in short sessiosn (or perhaps DURING the otherwise un-attended portions of the game). Of course, then your new challenge is making sure you don't get a Warhammer scenario situation, where people just spend all their time on the instanced content and then complain that it gets boring and leave.

evizaer said...

@Brian

I addressed both of your points.

1. I suggested keeping travel time, but making travel happen when the player is logged of (or allow the player to do something else productive in-game while they travel--perhaps log into an alt, manage their bank, line up crafting jobs). There would be locations in the game where the player can spend a few hour-long sessions consecutively, certainly, but the game wouldn't be designed for five-hour sessions to be mandatory or even most efficient.

My travel idea is similar to the concept of going to a big quest hub and doing quests for three hours (a bunch of 5-20 minute-long quests), then deciding you want to go somewhere else tomorrow. You queue up the safe travel and log off for the night. Tomorrow morning you're at the next quest hub ready to rock.

2. I'm not saying that the player should have less total time in the game, I'm suggesting streamlining the time they ARE in-game so they can have more fun per hour logged in. I'm asking for the elimination of trivial downtimes so that real content (probably dynamic or generated for whatever group you have) can be substituted--I'm not suggesting stripped the boring and leaving gaping voids.

syncaine said...

I think a slight modification to EVE's travel system would work. You can go offline, and you travel at X rate. If you are in-game, you travel at X+50% rate. That way, traveling is still a decision rather than a few clicks and pop, you are there, but there is still SOME benefit to being 'active' while you travel. To expand this, their should be complimentary activities (setting up a vendor remotely, doing something related to craft, whatever) you can do while you travel. Plus you are still online and hopefully interactng with guild mates or other players, adding your two cents to a living world.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green said...

evizaer wrote:
I addressed both of your points.

Yes, but there's some subtlety here that I think you're missing. Having to travel online, even if you go AFK, means the player has witnessed the time it takes to travel the huge landscape. Doing it while offline doesn't give the player the same sense of scale.

A game actually does what you suggested, but even better: A Tale in the Desert allows you to actually "store up" offline time to travel once you get online. They also did something interesting where you can take a "drug" to increase your offline travel time, but at the cost of an increasing chance to permanently die.

syncaine wrote:
I think a slight modification to EVE's travel system would work. You can go offline, and you travel at X rate. If you are in-game, you travel at X+50% rate.

The problem, especially in EVE's case, is how safe offline travel is. In a non-combat game like ATitD, offline travel time is fine. In EVE, you either have the problem of if offline travel is safe. If it is safe, then people will just use offline travel all the time except in extreme conditions. If it's not safe, you have the possibility of people logging back on to big losses and upset they weren't there to "do something". Tough situation.

Tesh said...

"Doing it while offline doesn't give the player the same sense of scale."

This is only important if the player gives a murloc's scale about the scale. Some just want to get where they are headed and play *there*. There are even game mechanics built on this; the "teleport" classes like WoW Mages. I've read (perhaps apocryphal) stories about some EQ classes that were in demand almost entirely based on their ability to move teammates around the world. (I call that bad design, incidentally, but it shows the demand for quick travel.)

I'm generally a fan of taking the road not taken, and exploring off the beaten track. Travel doesn't bother me all that much because I find joy in the journey. I actively look for places to go that are out of the way.

That said, if I'm in a rush (or have become bored with grinding in an area), I don't want to have to deal with long travel times. I LOVE the way Guild Wars handles it. You can "whisk" to any hub you've been to before almost instantly, but you can still take the long walk if you want to. (And some interesting locations are naturally off the beaten track.) It's not perfect, but it lets me explore if I want to, or *get on* with things and move ahead if I want to.

Even I, the nutter who loves to go to obscure places and take pictures, appreciating the worldbuilding and scale, want to just zip around sometimes. It's part and parcel of a constrained playing schedule. When a game doesn't respect my time (usually in an effort to make me respect the game world or suck away subscription dollars), I'm not inclined to continue my participation or patronage.

evizaer said...

Tesh nails it.

In an open-world/dynamic world game, travel needs to take time sot that armies can't instantly spawn anywhere in the world and completely ruin the logistical challenges that make the game non-trivial. If the travel does take time, but it's time that the player isn't actually in-game staring at their screen, the same effect is accomplished without boring the player. If that happens at the expense of immersion, I think I'll trade a few ounces of immersion for 15 minutes of fun. (That's a reason why DDO has blossomed. That game is all fun and little-to-no immersion. When you put it at the right price, people really like it.)