Friday, March 19, 2010

Macro- and Micromanagement in MMORPGs

MMORPG characters require attention to micro—you have to tell your character what to attack and with what abilities all the time, even if the task is trivial. This constant interaction keeps people in touch with their characters at a basic level. If these trivial small actions were streamlined away or automated, the player loses his sense of identity with his character. The player feels like she is the character because of all these small routine actions—if the player didn’t have to do these actions, that direct attachment to the character disappears; the player will feel like a detached watcher or manager of their characters instead. This could potentially be devastating to a game that focuses on the player identifying with her character over a long span of time, as themepark MMOs do through their one-character focus and permalife mechanics.

Many players find the macromanagement in MMOs to be appealing: setting up a guild and coordinating reward gathering procedures. They do mundane tasks in service to higher goals—the ends here justify the means to these players. Grinding isn’t a problem in this context. The grind glues the fun macro-elements of the game together.

MMORPGs fail when the macro doesn’t sufficiently glue together the micro. On the other side of the spectrum, shooters focus solely on micro and often have no macro-level functionality. One match is a self-contained unit of play in most shooters. Only recently have we seen MMORPG mechanics like vertical advancement and unlockables build meaningful macromanagement into the shooter space.

Themepark MMORPGs that can’t have interesting combat (and most of them can’t) should focus on making the macro fun. Give players plenty of social options, a great guild interface, customizable characters both in look and capability. The micro-level can safely be dedicated to keeping player-character attachment strong, while the macro-level houses the broader “fun”—social interaction and higher-level activities give meaning to the themepark MMORPG.

One example of this macro/micro split is permadeath in themepark MMORPGs. Permadeath is implicitly built into themeparks at the macro-level. Guilds and groups organically form and disband. Social organizations and practical gaming organizations live and die—and we can easily tell that it’s happening.

In the sense that a character is an notional society of cells (though it’s not modeled, that’s how we understand organic beings), MMORPG micro and macro are self-similar and seem to be fractal in nature. Though the game doesn’t model the ongoing fight against entropy in the living organisms of the world, natural processes of organization and disintegration act on in-game societies to produce the macro-level effect without the micro-level effect being necessary. Players bring this to the game through merely playing it.

Themepark MMORPG design can improve by designers being conscious of of the micro/macro distinction and how important it is to the life of the game.


Anonymous said...

Lets leave four dimentional energy occilations and entropy out of gamedesign discussions please :D

What are your intentions for writing this article? For all I know you could intent on advocating new ways of making or improving games or simply whitewash current bad game designs decisions.

What I am about to write here is either a result of a misunderstanding, or my knee jerk reaction to what I perceive as gamedesign without intention or vision.

The way I force myself to interpret this text, is that 'by doing' (actions, micro, macro) one is familiarizing oneself with their character, and that MMORPG's would work well, when the micro and macro 'by doing' actions are contrasted but also working together.

Or that a MMORPG would sort of fail when the 'by doing' of either micro or marco is non existant.

So a grind perceived as either micro or macro, would make sense only so far as 'the grind' has a higher purpose, and only then when separated from the micro 'by doing' actions. But then again, this grind as such have always been like this perhaps? A stalling of time until you can get to do something more advanced.

"Themepark MMORPGs that can’t have interesting combat (and most of them can’t) should focus on making the macro fun."

I doubt this easy conclusion is helpful for creating games in general. The way I imagine that would work is to achieve a sort of lowest common denominator of fun, which I suspect would apply more as an afterthought than intended ideas for a gamedesign. I imagine it would work, as if one realized that one has designed a boring game and then wanted explore ways to make it somewhat fun none the less. What I dislike about what I sketched up here, would be the lack of intentions and lack of vision for a gamedesign.

I am now reminded of my time with Eve online, which sort of has a lot of macro level stuff compared to the split second ship combat. I see an obvious danger here in trivializing the micro part of gaming, for the simple reason that, when 1-2-3 years have passed, the shortcomings at the micro level imo will make the macro level meaningless, in so far as one detest the game. So I quit Eve after logging almost a year of accumulated game time on one account. Detesting the simplistic combat and unflinching attitude of ccp to obviously disregard any real innovation on the micro level. So imo Eve online fall in between a Themepark MMO and a truly great MMO.

Or, I could say that I think there will be a similarity between a superficial themepark MMO and anyones 'dream MMO', where innovation over time is important, to iron out and improve upon the gamedesign.

The yellow earplugs on the table here raised my appetite for a split second as I noticed them in the corner of my eyes, perhaps I should go eat some food or candy now. :)

"Themepark MMORPG design can improve by designers being conscious of of the micro/macro distinction and how important it is to the life of the game."

Oh, I want to agree with that. Why didn't you state this in the beginning of the text? :)

Kenny said...

While I agree with your conclusion here's a thought:

"The player feels like she is the character because of all these small routine actions—if the player didn’t have to do these actions, that direct attachment to the character disappears; the player will feel like a detached watcher or manager of their characters instead."

Why automating some micromanagement would automatically detach players from their characters? I think it should be quite the contrary, if you do it smart it would forge stronger connection between player and avatar. Of course, implementing things smart is the keyword here. But imagine if you could, say, define how your character behaves in certain (obviously non-contest) situations - seeing my avatar doing what I want on the screen without I haveing to take a direct action, that in turn would make me nod in joy that it is ME on the screen.

Once again, non-combat of course.

Logan said...

kenny makes an interesting point.. it makes me think of Little Big Planet, where the d-pad controlled the facial expression of your sack-person... i'd like to see that taken a bit further and make it so that you can change your expression with a few simple keypresses and then when you interact with NPCs you get slightly different responses depending on whatever mood your character is in.

so if your character is in a chatty mood then the quest giver might have more to tell you about the quest he's giving you... but if you're in an angry mood he might just be real short and to the point and try to get you on your way as quickly as possible... something simple like that i think would add a lot more to the feeling that you ARE your character.

additionally, if you see people running around with certain expressions, you can tell a little bit about their playstyle.. if they're mad all the time then they're probably more into getting things done and not real social players... but if their expression is happy then you know that they're more interested in reading all the quest text and are probably more social... so players can tell just by looking at other players a little bit about them personally...

it's a system i've thought about for my own MMO... but it seems like it would take a lot of time and effort and i don't know if the value of the result is worth it... but it's definitely worth thinking about.

evizaer said...

Anon: My point is that there's a distinction between macro and micro-level play in MMORPGs. The configuration of these two kinds of play give rise to the unique addictiveness of the genre: lots of simple and easily done micro-level actions aggregated into macro-level rewards and social interaction.

Kenny: There is still a clear separation between player and character there, and that is a step away from player investment. Even if it doesn't bother you, you haven't shown that it wouldn't effect most people--I think it would. The way that MMORPGs are designed focuses on this character bonding. Why else would you spend thousands of hours playing one character?

Anonymous said...

I would like to sort of know or get a clue as to what degree the game designers like *insert any company* "are" aware of what we could call levels of gameplay.

And it would annoy me if these people would decline to acknowledge an awareness of these things. Because, they they cannot acknowledge the basic stuff, whatever they might be said to be, then the devs are imo free to dictate the reality they see fit, in regard to past, present and future development of their game.

And I think it would be unreasonable for them to claim, that their game would be less immersive or less valuable to people, if they were to acknowledge certain pros and cons about their gamedesign, with "levels of gameplay" in mind. Because people aren't stupid and as time and novelties pass by, I think they should come to terms with the perceptions that the gamers have.

Anonymous said...

Massively has an article on The Secret World, and I got the impression that the article did not invoke confidence in the gameplay. With simple expressions about how players are going to feel heroic, and that the "combat focus" are linked to.. lol.. 'strafing'.

What the hell does 'strafing' mean? Running around in circles to wear down an opponent like in Age Of Conan?

What seemed like a nice thing though was the notion of 'exploration'. Still, that reminds me of playing Mass Effect 2. Story would end up interesting, but flying around and probing planets just killed my interest one planet at a time with this micro level stuff.

Imo, games should simply make sense. Developers should aim at that. Make it simple or complex, but tune it and tweak the game so that the end result is acceptable.

Kenny said...

@Evi: "The way that MMORPGs are designed focuses on this character bonding."

No. It only focuses on herding players into some OCD'esque mental state where they feel obliged to do said micromanagement. It can only do that because the only meaningful way to interact with/in the world is whacking things.

This has nothing to do with bonding or personification. It is simply and purely the time invested into a character and the willinglessness (ahem lol) to repeat said action.

This is anything but bonding, and the only proof you need is to talk to players who never played pen&paper rpg's and listen to their "reasoning". At the very best they bond not with distinct characters but with some all encompassing idea of "being the hero of the world".

Kenny said...

err... What I meant to say is that most have no concept of being or even playing a character - how could they if there is a single pair of railroads to follow regardless of what they really want to do?

"I want to play a happy person" - go whack things.

"I want to be a mad evil bastard" - go whack things.

"I want to pick yellow flowers for my pink pony under the rainbow" - sorry, no good, but you can go whack things.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and I think this opens up for a reasonable cynic thoughts where one wonder what is the purpose of the game beyond going around whacking things.

I wonder if the whole game experience then can be thought of as suspect, where the very reason for playing is put to question. And one might very well accuse the developers for mixing their need to cash in on a game, and whaterver they think they are doing, having designed and released a game.

Perhaps they should be honest simply name their games "Play a game!".