Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Acceptable MMO sitting time?

In my younger days I used to spend 4-6 hours a night leveling up my MMO characters. Back then it was never a huge issue, but now I've got responsibilities and other commitments that consume large amounts of my time. It's very difficult to fit more than 1-2 hours of game play into a single sitting. For some games this is not a problem, but for others it's near impossible to actually get anywhere in the game. World of Warcraft is a prime example of an MMO that requires large amount of time in a single sitting in order to participate in certain elements of the game. If you want to do a raid with your guild, you can kiss the next 3 hours of your time goodbye. If you want to leave the raid early, you are often severely frowned upon by your team members. I used to think this was perfectly acceptable, but now I think it's just bad game design. MMOs should not force the player into large time commitments, and they certainly shouldn't punish them or their team mates for needing to leave early.

When I first started playing Left 4 Dead I was amazed at how easily the game dealt with players joining and leaving. A L4D campaign is around an hour long, and requires incredibly intense concentration in order to progress successfully. So what happens when the phone rings or your partner calls out they need a hand with the cooking? Easy, you just go AFK. The computer automatically detects your absence and the AI takes control of your character. You aren't kicked from the game, and your team mates don't suffer for your temporary loss. You can return to the game at any time and continue playing the campaign. If only such a technology existed in party oriented MMORPGs, so many problems would be solved...

If you asked me what I thought the maximum amount of time that an MMO should enforce in a single sitting, I would say one hour. If MMO designers used this number as their goal when building raids/dungeons/instances, I think we would all be better off. There should also be an automatic mechanism which compensates for the loss of a player, and prevents their team from suffering any consequences.

I should point out that this issue must not be confused with grinding. Time required in a single sitting and the amount grinding required to achieve an element of the game are two separate issues. I'll tackle the grind issue another day ;P


Thallian said...

The technology DOES exist by the way, the will to use it does not.

I think this is a great idea though. I wish one of them WOULD use it. It would fit best into a game like Champions Online I think or City of Heroes, where just keep rolling and the AI could just do basic things. Judging from how badly programmed pet AI's are in most MMO's I would say AI is not Blizzard and Turbine and Sony's strong suit.

mbp said...

On an optimistic note the AI of Guild Wars henchmen is actually pretty good and has got noticeably better that when I first started playing.

I imagine it would be quite an ask to have an AI main tank but if GW is anything to go by AI can do Healer, Decurse and DPS just fine not to mention the AI's uncanny interrupt timing.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. That's why when every 6 months or so I get the urge to play WOW again, it only lasts a few weeks. I go hard at it for a while until I hit a brick wall at level 40 - right about the point where I can't get anything achieved in a single 1-2 hour setting.

That's when I stop buying game cards and Blizzard misses my money for another 6 months or so.

Anonymous said...

Sword of the Nww World had something similar - you had 3 characters you played, but could select to do detailed management with as many or as few as you wanted.

The respawn rates of mobs were insane there, at most a few seconds, so if one wanted one could park the characters at some spot and let them fight there while doing something else...

I agree with the required max length of a session should be aimed at around 1 hour. Most of my gaming sessions are in that area. I might have muliple sessions during a day though, but game time tends to get mixed in with RL activities. A continuous sesison of 4+ hours is out of the question.

This is one reason City of Heroes/Villains works out well. Except when doing strike/task forces no-one really expects or requires you to be around for any long time. Some of the nicer SF/TFs can be completed within 2-3 hours also.

Anton said...

One of my all-time favorite games is Secret of Mana for Super Nintendo, now on Virtual Console Wii...3 player RPG, but if 1 or 2 people were playing, the other 2 characters remained and helped out. Extra players gave an advantage because the AI could only fight so well, but it was absolutely fun to be playing and then have a friend come by while you're in the middle of it, press Start, then you're playing two players. And later, if one of you had to go grab a snack, you could hop out again at any moment.

The Lego Star Wars games do this same thing, just with only 2 players.

The Lego games and Secret of Mana have been very successful, and I think this is a part of it.

The penalty could simply be a less intelligent participant and no experience or other rewards for the AI controlled people. Imagine if your friends could send their characters with you while they were at work one day, and you could go do the raid by yourself with nine friends' characters following you around!...Hm, that might be pushing it.

Crimson Starfire said...

Yeah the technology has been around since the early days of gaming, but it has yet to really make it into the MMORPG scene. I envision that the way it would work is that if the player went AFK, the computer would do it's best to play as the character until the player returned. It wouldn't be as useful as a real player, but it would better than nothing. To prevent players from abusing it, you could make it so they didn't gain XP or loot while AFK.

In Guild War's case, if a player left, their character would simply become a henchmen and would be controllable by the leader of the party. I think the AI in GW would handle this with no problems at all.

I didn't know you went back to WoW? What were you thinking?? ;P

WoW is really poorly designed for the casual gamer. It has a lot of good aspects, but if you can only devote 1 - 2 hours per sitting (like me), then you might as well forget about even trying to reach end game. Which is unfortunate, because all the cool stuff is at end game. Again, but game design.

I actually think that it's unhealthy to spent more than 1 - 2 playing an MMO in one sitting. I found City of Heroes to be very friendly to the casual player. The average instance time was around 30-40 mins (depending on difficulty and number of players), which meant that you could log on, play an instance and then take a break and come back to it some time later. If you wanted to go hardcore and play continuously, it allowed for that too. CoH is a very well designed game, it's just a shame the PvP is a little average.

Dude!!! Secret of Mana is also one of my all time favorites as well. That game was so far ahead of it's time. It's still great to play even now.

I agree about the penalty system, I think it would work very well. Not sure about lending your char out to a mate to use as a henchy. I guess it could work, but it would need some careful design planning.

Melf_Himself said...

Totally agree with the 1 hour thing.

I think it's also important to have a minimum sitting time as well. Like, in Guild Wars I knew I could play an entire RA match if I had about a spare 3 minutes, and get a decent run in if I had 15 minutes. Dividing things up into chunks (short matches) where you can leave after each one is great.

Left 4 Dead does a similar thing. I could play for just 10 minutes if I wanted to (one side making it through one map). Although, I rarely do, as I am usually far too addicted to eating face at that point to log off :p

Rich said...

flasks in WoW are being trimmed down to one hour durations. The cost of making new flasks will be the exact same as they are, but will produce 2x 1hr pots. I wouldn't be surprised to see more and more dungeons have "winged" sections, where you can bang a wing out, call it a night, and come back later to finish it out.

As we grow up, family (our own now, not our parents') becomes more constraining, and being able to chuck 5 hours into the fireplace isn't viable. I think eventually the genre will move to a system where the toon comes geared, and we just run the dungeons to go through the motions... but it's still a good ways off.

Tesh said...

Secret of Mana is a good example... and a fantastic game. It's one of the few that I don't regret paying full price for.

Ix, I'm with you there... but wouldn't that almost take us back to CounterStrike territory? An MMO with no "leveling" game, just an "elder/end game" would allow for just that sort of "pop-in raiding" without the whole grind of actually playing through the world might be perfect for some players, but it would be a very different animal.

(And I'm on the other end of the spectrum; I'm not a fan of leveling, but the raiding "end game" has no appeal whatsoever for me.)

Anyway, that's tangential, though interesting.

Great article, CS, and I wholly agree that games cannot assume that the bulk of players will be sinking several hours in a sitting. I'd definitely design for 1 hour max, and probably even peg the ideal at around 15-20 minutes. People can always string these "sessions" together if they have the time, but it doesn't work the other way around (taking bites out of a 6 hour session).

Melf_Himself said...

"I think eventually the genre will move to a system where the toon comes geared, and we just run the dungeons to go through the motions... but it's still a good ways off."

Mmmm that would be ideal.

However, as all good RPG addicts, I likes me my vertical progression too when the rewards are coming in thick and fast. For that, I think vertical progression WITHIN a play session is handy.

Comparable to, say, the way Defense of the Ancients played out. Or old school pen and paper games where you find that spear and magic helmet (bonus points if you ID that reference) and now you can pwn the dungeon. Or Left 4 Dead when you start off with basic weapons and discover better ones and power-ups if you search for them. Or even morale abilities in Warhammer (I'd like to see a tech tree with those, where you get a new choice every couple minutes). Etc, etc.

The point is, there's heaps of ways of giving characters temporary power boosts that don't need to carry over to the next dungeon (because if they do, that results in gear grind, and facing level 28 PIGS, and stuff like that).