Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What's blocking MMORPG 2.0?

Well the simple answer to this question is time and money, but I thought I'd analyze it a tad more than that. What are the major problems with the MMORPGs of today?

  • Static worlds: Player actions have very little impact on the world. Kill something and it respawns moments later.
  • Everyone is a hero: Everyone follows the same quests and story lines.
  • NPC and monster AI: It's laughable at best. Aggro bubbles? Seriously...
  • Balance: How do you make completely different classes equal in strength?
  • Grind: These will always exist but the disguises need some work.
  • Economy: When you get 10 silver for killing the same rat that respawns every 20 seconds, you know the economy will have issues.
I'm sure there a more, but that's a good enough start. So how do we solve these problems? Can they be solved? These issues aren't new, they just keep getting swept under the design rug for some reason...

  • Static worlds: Simple, make the world dynamic... case closed! Lol, I wish it were that easy. As soon as '13 year old brat' learns how to impact the world in such a way that it ruins the gaming experience of thousands of others, game over. There are many ideas floating around on how a dynamic world should work, but as yet I don't think there is a right one. Essentially the world needs to react to player actions and handle them accordingly. For every player action there needs to be an equal and opposite server reaction in order to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. This brings me to the 'world without a player' scenario, where the world is ever changing on its own. Players should only ever speed up or slow down this process. The AI technology required to do this is available today. The problem lies with cost effectively developing the AI required for a living world into a game. You need an AI eco-system, that balances its self out based on player interaction. Slowly software frameworks will emerge, but I can't see it become mainstream for 10-15 years+.

  • Everyone is a hero: In MMORPG 2.0, this simply isn't going to happen. You will have a few legendary game changing heroes, a lot of champions and a tonne of community heroes. It's not a bad thing, as motstandet excellently points out:

    "Give players the tools to influence the world and some place where they can show off. But make sure there are small pockets of communities. A hero doesn't have to be the one to throw the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom or the one to free everyone from the Matrix. He just has to be the one people tell stories about."

    So the only thing blocking this from happening is problem number 1: static worlds. Fix that and everyone can follow their own story to heroism.

  • NPC and Monster AI: I've seen CS college graduates build NPCs with better AI than you see in MMOs. I have no idea why this is the case. If I had to guess, I would say that developing AI is hard thus costs money. If they can get away with adding an aggro bubble to a monster with a trigger to attack, then they will. There is nothing stopping NPC and monster AI from improving except the game budget.

  • Balance: This unfortunately is a problem that will only slightly improve with time. Balancing a game requires constant analysis of in-game activity via logging. The balancing process can be sped up with better tools and analyzing techniques, but essentially it will always be a problem.

  • Grind: Grind is a product of repetitively executing the same activity over and over. The solution to reducing grind also lies in having a dynamic world. If you give the player a different experience each time, the grind with be less prevalent. There will always be a grind, the trick is to disguise it through variety.

  • Economy: How can a virtual world get the economy right, when the real world can't? The solution lies with getting a balance of currency generated with currency destroyed. It's hard but not impossible. I often get the feeling that this area doesn't receive the attention it deserves. There is nothing stopping games from having better economies now except neglect.
Summarizing, the only thing stopping MMORPG 2.0 is time and money (told ya). The big stepping stone is developing a truly dynamic world and that won't happen for a while. MMO companies also need to recognize that there are other areas of their game (like AI and economy) that need more attention.


Melf_Himself said...

Amen brother!

Re: the balance thing. I think that much less attention needs to be paid to data mining, and much less attention to whining forum tards. The 'noob-friendly' aspect of game balance should already be present from beta testing before the game is released.

The hard bit is the 'skilled-player-friendly' balance, where the players discover the myriad combinations of unbalanced crap that you never even thought of. For this you really need to establish a line of contact with several top guilds in the game, and preferably, you need people on the development team who completely understand the game they're developing (some seem to fall ass-over-tit into a well designed game with no apparent clue as to how they got there or how to get back there when things go bad).

Re: the grind. We can remove this if we just remove the god damned subscription business model. Without this, there is zero reason to make people grind...

spinksville said...

I'm thinking that the tank/healer/dps trilogy is another blocker. We really have to get past this.

I also think raids are a dead end, currently. If they're fun, stop limiting them to the hardcore by design.

Thallian said...

spinks has a point. I think what you said about NPC and Monster AI is close to the mark but really its just lack of vision and desire that is blocking that, because it would take me any many of the graduates in my CS classes like 1 month of work to make a neat AI. that's just one person for one month. To come up with an OK AI, it'd take a couple days. By OK I mean a ton better than agro bubbles but not too too smart, using fuzzy logic and all that. Lack of desire to change is rooted too deep in management for this to be an issue yet. Until people expect it, it won't happen. And people expect pretty graphics and big worlds right now so that's where they spend their money.

motstandet said...

Spellborn's AI is commendable. Melee mobs will block you from reaching caster mobs. Caster mobs will drop snaring effects and run back. I also heard that if the NPCs notice that you are healing one target, they will switch to a player you are not healing.

Darkfall uses Quake bots for their mob AI.

There is comfort is predictablity and recognizing patterns in behavior. I have a feeling this plays a very large role in why not many MMO developers have shifted from the AI standard fare. Players can easily determine what mobs will do, and they enjoy possessing that knowledge.

That's not to say that they wouldn't enjoy a more sophisticated AI even more.

Tesh said...

Nice article. I'll come back with more, but for now, I'll recommend a read of this article:


Stephen said...

You might be interested in what Trion World Network is doing. And yes, I work for the company. :)

Read this current interview for a good overview:


Feel free to get in contact if you'd like to learn more - I'm Senior Community Manager there.

Melf_Himself said...

I think that a lot of current MMO players really just want a no-challenge experience, as challenge gets in the way of their voracious loot consumption. That's another thing holding AI back. Remove the grind, and then challenge becomes a much bigger part of the reason to play.

Spellborn's AI sounds great! I heard they are... going through some financial difficulties :/

Stephen: I read the interview with your CEO. I still don't quite understand what the server-side vs client-side thing is. He says that "Traditional MMORPGs are still client-computed"... which is not true. The client only gives input as to the actions of the player's character, everything else is done server-side (else chaos would ensue).

Of course, CEO's typically use a lot of marketing speak. Is there a more "plain language" synopsis of this stuff somewhere?

Tesh said...

Melf, that's why I really wish that the gameplay itself would be the reward, not an endless chase for the loot drops. It changes the whole attitude of the playerbase, and I think, for the worse.

Anonymous said...

Hey Melf, check out http://www.telaratribune.com - one of the posters there has done a series of "what we know" videos that do a great job of explaining what Heroes of Telara is all about.

Crimson Starfire said...

Re balance: I agree with you although data mining is still crucially important. Setting up contacts to the top guilds is a great idea, but you need to remember that 'the assassin won't tell you his methods unless he stands to lose something of great worth'.

Re grind: I used to think the subscription model was the main cause of grind, but I've come to realise that grind equals re-use of content, which equals lower development costs. The sub model is still a problem, the ultimate problem is low game budgets.

I actually don't think that the tank/healer/dps trilogy is a problem. It doesn't matter how hybrid you make the classes, players will still go down one path further than the others. Those three base classes are something that I think will never change, and doesn't need to. It's the ease and ability to shift your position on the class triangle that's important (i.e. free repsecs, multi-classing etc).

Raids are just a method to insert repeatable instanced content. Dynamic worlds should eliminate the need for these (hopefully).

Yup, and its the fact that people are so used to aggro bubbles and accept them, that we have a problem moving forward. How do you know to ask for a titanium sword, when you and everyone else has only ever used a copper one?

I'd love to see monster AI that was as unpredictable as another player. Might be a bit rough on the server, but that's a hardware boundary that can be overcome.

Thanks for the link, it's a great article. I agree, MMOs are stagnant at the moment because designers aren't thinking outside the square. It's a bit disappointing really. If I had the power to play god to a fantasy world, I guarantee you that I could think of a few better things than a WoW clone!

Thanks for the link. I had no idea that Trion even existed. If what they say is true, then it sounds like someone in the industry finally has their head screwed on straight. You definitely have my attention now.

Melf_Himself said...

Nice quote Crimson, I'll have to remember that ;)

"Those three base classes are something that I think will never change, and doesn't need to"

Dude, we may just have to get a blogger's divorce over that one. Holy trinity? Really? Sigh.

Re: grind... The easy way to test your hypothesis is to compare MMO's to games that don't have subscriptions. These games don't have grind. So why do MMO's have grind? Single player games could just as easily re-use content in the same way.

Crimson Starfire said...

Whats to divorce me about? You can't change the base classes. A rock will always be a rock. Scissors will be scissors and paper, paper. The best you can do is make it as easy as possible for a player to transition between the base classes. This could be in the form of hybrids, multi-classing, or even clever respecing. If you spend 50 hours+ leveling a healer and then suddenly decide you want to be DPS, there shouldn't a penalty involved. Free range movement between the triangle of Healer, DPS and Tank should be what MMO 2.0 provides. Not an alternative to the base classes, which is what I took Spinks to be talking about.

Re grind: Single player games only need to cater for around 20 hours of play. MMOs need to be for 100s of hours. Hence the re-use.

Melf_Himself said...

Think about Guild Wars - the core of the PvP game is certainly rock/paper/scissors. In this case we could call Warriors rock, Monks paper and Mesmers scissors.

But is this tank/healer/dps? No - warriors do all the DPS but they also have the highest armor. Monks do heal, but mostly they prot instead. And mesmers don't fit into the 'holy trinity' standard at all.

So, removing holy trinity = win as far as gameplay is concerned imo.

Yes, of course being able to change classes and be immediately competitive is part of the ideal system as well. But this has nothing to do with the stale, tactically devoid gameplay given by a traditional 'holy trinity' system.

Re grind: First of all, single player RPG's re-use content a lot. There's alternate difficulty levels, alternate classes to choose, and alternate paths in the storyline. All these involve re-use of content, but in a way that the player still finds engaging. This gives them far more than 20 hours of gameplay.

Secondly - why do you think it is that MMO's "need" to cater for hundreds of hours of play? 'Tis because of the subscription model my friend. Otherwise they could just *not* enslave their players, and let them piss off and enjoy other games like non-MMO's do.

motstandet said...

Most games are repetitive. The differences between a FPS point-and-click and an MMO point-and-click are the journey to mastery (you become a master of EQ-esque targeting in about 5 mins; compared to aiming in a FPS which could take months), and the ends of the act.

In MMOs, the means are often drastically different than the ends. You repeat daily quests because you want wealth. You repeat dungeon crawls because you want better gear. In a non-MMO, typically the means is an ends in itself. You play Tower Defense to get better at playing TD. You play Power Stone 2 to get better at Power Stone 2.

Grinding is a repetitive task which is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a different end.

Melf_Himself said...

Yes, a shitty end :)

adingworld said...

@Melf: What I think they mean for HoT when talking about server-side games, is pretty much thin client vs thicj client. Today's MMOs have thick clients in a client-server architecture.

With thin clients you have very stupid clients - nothing more than display and input pretty much. This would likely also require more bandwidth than current games. There is mentioning of different types of clients/terminals (PCs, console, mobile phones etc), which will be easier to create if they are thin.

The holy trinity and the current mob AI and combat goes hand in hand. The current stupid mob AI is there to support holy trinity type of grouping and combat.
Make mob AI smarter/different and you can throw out holy trinity, because it will have lost its meaning.

Mob AI has not changed because developers do not know how to do that; but since it ties together with class/job/archetype and group mechanics, it is a much bigger thing to change.

The challenge is also not so much to make mobs smart enough, but to find the balance where they are not too stupid to make it immediately boring, but still allow the player to win 90% of the time.

If there would be an equal chance between mob and player to win, then players will consider it too difficult - no one wants to die every second fight.

I think it was Asheron's Call (or Asheron's Call 2) that made some mobs too smart; they wiped the floor with the players and they had to change it.

Chris F said...

I think you keep seeing the same right now, because games coming out now started development 3-4 years ago when there was (still) only one way of thinking (developed 10 years ago). Make wow with guns, make wow with fishing poles, whatever. Those are the new and upcoming titles.

Question is - 4 years from now, will they still be the same?

(I am afraid for the answer).

Crimson Starfire said...

Yeah, the biggest issue at the moment with MMOs is the lead time from design to build. Obviously it's an iterative process, but the core design is decided 5 years before the game is built. As a software engineer, I'd love to offer my help in improving the process. Essentially the graphical part of the game needs to be independent of the game engine, and the engine needs to be highly flexible. Not easy to do, but I get the feeling that most companies don't even try.