Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't call your new game an MMO

If you promote a game as being an MMO, there are certain expectations from a certain highly vocal group on the internet. I think of this group as "MMO trolls", but they have also been referred to as "WoW tourists" (ironically by one of the most outspoke WoW tourists around).

The expectations that this group has of your game are simple to predict:

All features will be the same as in World of Warcraft

If deviations from this expectation are found, they will be frowned upon. It doesn't matter if you're hyping a particular feature as your greatest gift to the MMO genre, if the MMO trolls feel that the particular feature would make the game less like WoW, they will say that it's not a *real* MMO, and you should possibly expect the sky to come crashing down because the end may well be nigh.

So, don't hype your game as a *real* MMO. Don't hype it as an MMO at all. It only serves to attract people who have some bizarre set of anti-game-design rules that they seem to think anything with that moniker should adhere to.

Secret bonus comment: If you reply saying "How else can the company obtain $15/month from the players??" then you are a WoW tourist, I don't expect you to understand.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The logging off problem

In the real world, people don't just suddenly disappear because some divine being on a higher plane decides to log off!? So how can we replicate the real world in games when users can log off at any time, or worse have their connection drop? The ability to leave the game at any time isn't just a problem with game realism, it can also cause many issues with group centric activities like raiding and PvP. How much does it suck when your healer or tank drops?

One thing that I have yet to see done in an MMORPG, is the ability to include other players as the objectives to your quest. For example, you receive this quest:

"Find 'Melf Himself' and give him this package."

or better yet:

"Assassinate 'Melf Himself'"

On a side note, it would be funny if your assassination target also had you as their target. It would be pre-ordained PvP with a PvE quest like twist. Something for everyone :P

Upon accepting the quest, you are blocked from talking to the person who is your quest objective. You are also blocked from using the their name in chat. The only way you can find the other person is to talk to NPCs and ask if they saw them recently:

"Yes I saw 'Melf Himself' pass through here only 2 minutes ago. If you hurry, you might catch him at the Blacksmith."

How cool would that be? Oh yeah... logging off problem... What happens if the other person logs off?

Now we discuss a possible solution. Why not have your character become an NPC when you log off? It could wander around and become one of the town folk, or even a henchmen (if you were in a raid or something). No matter what happened to your character while you were logged off, its status would always be the same the next time you logged in. The only thing that would potentially change, is the location of where you last left it. I think it would actually be kinda cool, as you would be surprised every time you logged in.

This would also open up the possibility of 'day jobs', like in city of heroes, except your character actually performs the job as an NPC. Player housing would also become more important, because your NPC character would actually have to live there.

In summary, we need some way to handle the logging off problem, especially with moving toward a dynamic type world. Having having a connection drop or a player rage quit during a group centric activity can really inconvenience other people. It also steals away from the realism of the world a bit. Solve the problem and our online lives become just that little bit easier. ;)

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.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Important MMO elements to me

I recently got asked a question by evizaer about what elements would make a good MMO for me. Unfortunately I couldn't fit that answer into anything less than a thesis, so I took a look at the excellent example provided by evizaer and decided to follow suit:

Ten points:
  • Emphasis on horizontal progression
    Some vertical progression is fine, but the game should be based on your ability to use your skills at the right time, rather than being significantly more powerful because of level and/or items.

  • World without a player
    The virtual world and all it's NPCs/Monster should exist and interact with one another as if the player wasn't even there. The player's impact on the world should always be minimal. Events should be occurring all the time which are optional but reward the player for participation.

  • Minimal static questing
    NPCs can still provide quests, but they should lead to events. If two teams have the same quest, the team that gets there first and completes it gets the reward.

  • Carrot and stick society
    Want to kill a peasant? The villages will attack and arrest you. If you break down a door to a house, expect to pay or suffer the consequences. If no one sees or hears you do it, expect to get away with it.

  • Destructive and constructive environments
    Want to burn a house? Can do. The villages will rebuild it. Want to cut down a tree? No probs, but some dyad will regrow it. Just be careful not to set the forest on fire on your first day ;)

  • Death is bad
    You don't necessary have to lose your character completely upon death, but the consequence should be enough to piss you off for the next ten minutes.

  • Difficulty through strategy
    The goblins aren't hard to kill because of their level, they are hard because the sneak up behind you an attack in numbers. Each enemy should have different attack strategies. It's good to feel 'hunted' sometimes.

  • Spawning and movement
    You should never see someone appear out of no-where. Spawning should happen out of sight of players. Enemies should not be glued to areas, they should move around and perform believable tasks.

  • Aggro
    Forget aggro bubbles. If something hears or see you, then it reacts accordingly. They might ignore, observe, flee, hide, attack or call for re-enforcements. Also if an enemy is losing the battle, surrender and fleeing is an option.

  • Players must be able to feel safe
    PvP should be kept to certain areas. This may be an arena or the 'borderlands' etc.
Some more general points:
  • Convenience vs Immersion
    MMOs should appeal to both the casual and hardcore audience, with minimum sacrifice to immersion. Its great to be able to teleport everywhere, but unless 'teleportation' is apart of the story somehow, the game loses a bit of it's immersion. Same goes for bears dropping gold and bastard swords. It's nice to get such drops off wild animals, but it makes no sense what so ever. There needs to be a balance between player convenience and game immersion.

  • Realism vs Fun
    A truly realistic virtual world, would be no fun. The game need to be a game, but with elements of realism. A good game will have found a balance.

  • Solo vs Grouping
    The game must cater for both. Grouping should be rewarded to encourage community involvement, but solo players should not be penalized.
I realise that a lot of the elements listed hear are wishful thinking with today's technology, but lets not forget that MMOs in general were once a wishful thought ;)