Okay, so, I ranted a bit. It’s not all bad news. How do we revitalize the flagging persistent world MMO?
I want to approach it like it’s a design problem, because it kind of is. We need to know what we’re working towards. So, what makes an MMO? It’s a lot of things:
–Big, persistent world, capable of comfortably supporting 1000+ players at once.
–Character progression (levels, equipment, new abilities)
–Interesting group dynamics (often dungeons and raids)
–Customizability (in gear, appearance, progression choices, etc)
–Enjoyably repeatable content
–Setting and story that gives context to the big, persistent world
–Various forms of content, from combat to crafting to exploration to PvP
–(optional) Player interactivity in the world, the ability to leave a mark on the gameworld of some kind
Each of these have their own subcategories, things like “interesting enemies to fight” and “varied art assets” and “ways to express player fantasy”, but the above are the big ones. Without these, we don’t have a game that’s going to feel like an MMO. Design problem continues: for each one, how do we make something that feels new and appealing? Is it necessary for each one?
Big, Persistent Worlds And The Stories That Go With Them
I talked about this yesterday, and some games are skipping this entirely, but it’s key to our concept here. We want our neo-MMO to feel like, well, a world, not a game.
I want to do this by adding inconvenience. Sometimes the industry refers to this as “friction”. It’s the little things that you grumble at having to do but that, in aggregate, make things feel more real. A prime example is travel time. If you have to run for three hours to get from Qeynos to Freeport and can’t find a teleport, that is a massive inconvenience and a giant pain. It is also an adventure. It’s an adventure you skip entirely if you open up your map in Guild Wars 2 and jump from Lion’s Arch to The Grove. Convenient, yes, but doesn’t feel like a world.
Running on foot is boring, though. Hit autorun, wait. Maybe align yourself just right and go make dinner while you run. It’s boring because the stuff that’s actually worthwhile for you to do is at the other end, not in between. You probably outlevel all of the stuff in between, or you’re so far below the appropriate level that you can’t reasonably gain anything other than death. Hmm. This makes me think about player progression.
Another form of friction is decay. You see this in gear that needs repairing. Some (older) games have experience loss on death, now anathema to MMOs. Some games have skill decay– go without using a skill long enough and you get worse at it. We come back to player progression again.
A third type of friction is maintenance. If you’re hungry, you need to eat. If you’re tired, you need to rest. Resting too long is boring, though, because you’re just sitting there.
The last, most common form of friction is an economy. Things don’t always cost the same amount all the time, and you have to adapt to what objects are hotly desired or uninteresting right now. The more granular the economy, the more fragmented it is, and the more friction there is. A single, global economy for a game (or a single game server) will find an equilibrium more quickly than a different economy for every city, but traveling to different cities is a pain (friction!).
Why is all of this friction good? Because it makes the things you do meaningful. What we want in an MMO is an engine that we participate in that generates stories. All kinds of stories, from tales of heroism to new fast friendships to tragic stories of woe. We need the things we do to have meaning, so that we can generate those stories. The more friction there is, the more meaningful the small things we do are, and the more likely we are to create memories from them. I have traveled from Lion’s Arch to the Grove a hundred times, and the most comment the experience ever elicited was “ugh, this loading screen”. I can tell you ten stories about one run from Qeynos to Freeport, something I did over ten years ago, and while it’s easy to say “ugh, the bad old days, that sounds miserable”, the reality is that reaching the safety of Freeport’s walls after the effort of running cross-country as a weakling level 5 character was nothing short of magical, and is the kind of accomplishment that people would brag about.
MMOs have been reducing friction for a decade now, trying to keep up with WoW, which peels away friction to drive players towards the content they consider relevant and focus their playerbase. It used to take six months to a year to reach max level, even in WoW, and now it takes hours. Other games have followed suit, lest they be called “grindy”. In so doing, we reduce the number and types of stories we tell from things borne from our unique experiences to the crafted, scripted experiences of the game’s writers and designers. While that’s not a bad thing per se, it means that when you run out of written+designed content in a game, you’re out of stories. Your time spent in game loses context, and you’re more likely to leave.
Having a good MMO story isn’t just about the text in the game, it’s about creating a setting where stories can write themselves.
So, we fill up a bar until a number next to our name goes up and we do that until the numbers stop going up. We have levelled up. Basic player progression trope. It’s also a quiet death for MMOs.
You see, MMOs are supposed to be about playing with your friends. Specifically, one of your friends says “hey, this game is really neat” and you say “cool, let me try it” and you log in and you’re level 1 and hopelessly behind. You play with your friends and you take a vacation and when you get back you have to “catch up”. You started this game to play with your friend and then you can’t.
Levels in an MMO are a distillation of your entire breadth of skills and stats boiled down into a single number, that is the determining value of your character until it doesn’t go any higher, at which point it instantly becomes meaningless compared to other progression paths. It creates the “endgame”, where in every MMO, the game suddenly stops being about doing things and becomes about doing the RIGHT things, because if you’re not doing the right things you’re wasting your time.
It also separates us from players we might interact with who aren’t our immediate friends. We see someone who isn’t our level, and we shut them out of our minds. Maybe they’re much higher level than us, in a zone full of things our level. Why are they there? Are they just going to steal everything? Competition.
Let’s abolish levels. Easier said than done. What do levels get us? A concrete sense of progression, of measuring accomplishment, a way of evaluating relative strength, a simple requirement check to access certain pieces of content.
We can progress in different ways. EvE is a great example of this; a huge variety of skills to improve that increases breadth rather than depth. We can work on improving stat points individually, can work on building up skills, can work on being faster, smarter, stronger. All of these are things to do, and all of these are like mini-levels. The granularity is really helpful, here. You might have just started playing, and you’ve got 10 points in Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Charisma, and no points in any skills. Your friend might’ve been playing for six months, and have 15 points in Strength, 40 points in Agility, 25 points in Intelligence, and 30 points in Charisma, with skills in a bunch of magic and sneaky tricks. If you focus on your Strength, you can be just as good as your friend with only 5 points, and you can start to focus on Strength-based skills. Without each level being a huge jump in power, you can hang with your friend despite that friend’s six month lead in relatively short order.
Instead of levels gating content, we use a different method– reputation. People have to know and trust you to ask you to do things, so how well-known you are becomes another form of progression. We can make this granular like the economy, too. You might stick around a little in a given place because they know you and they offer you more lucrative work. It stops being about “what zone is good for level X” and more “who will give me the jobs I want, and do I want to work on being better-known somewhere new?”
When the places that are worthwhile for you to go aren’t tied to a number, the whole world suddenly feels more meaningful and more, well, like a world.
Customizability and Various Forms of Content
These go hand in hand for me, because they’re both essentially about the same thing: tailoring your MMO experience to your tastes. You want to do the things that are interesting to you in the way you want to do them, and you want to look and perform the way you’d like. Whether you want to roleplay a reknowned pastry chef who dons ninja gear and hunts villains by night or you just want to smash whatever enemies you can find with an axe that must be on fire, you want your experience to suit your tastes. If you can’t find the right beard, or an appropriate body type, or the right class, it’ll sour your experience.
The trick here is to remember that it’s about customizing the experience, NOT about trying to drive players to a given single experience. In a game, everyone works towards the same end goal. In a world, there are a lot of people having totally perpendicular experiences whose only real intersection point is that they happen to be playing the same game. Having people who are in the game you’re playing who are having a wholly different experience than you are makes your world feel bigger, and makes the choices you make as far as your experience feel more meaningful.
Enjoyably Repeatable Content and Player Interactivity in the World
Two things that I also think go together. Enjoyably repeatable content is stuff you don’t mind doing over and over again. Maybe it’s fighting, maybe it’s crafting, maybe it’s exploring the world. Maybe you just like the feel of movement so you run back and forth or in circles, just enjoying how the controls feel. Player Interactivity in the World is when you can make a change in the world that affects not just you, but players around you. If you build a house somewhere, and it stays there when you log out and other people wander by, that’s player interactivity. The two go together because they’re about what you’re doing, moment to moment.
Devs like to talk about moment-to-moment gameplay because it’s one of the smallest units of play. A common sentiment is “if it’s not fun for thirty seconds, it won’t be fun for thirty hours”, and oftentimes this is true. From my perspective, this comes down to verbs. MMOs have very few verbs. There’s Use the Interface, there’s Move, there’s Chat, there’s Interact, and there’s Fight. Using the interface is when you shop at stores, or go through your inventory, or check your character pane. You’re not playing the game at that point, your looking at the UI. Move is straightforward, it’s how you walk or jump or fly around the world. Chat is similar, it’s you communicating with other players or NPCs. Interact is when you walk up and click some object in the world, to collect it, or turn it on, or off, or change something about it (usually for a quest). Fight is the one you do the most.
A big problem with MMOs is that only one of these is developed enough to be fun: Fight. Certain games (City of Heroes) make Move fun as well, and WoW accomplished fun movement simply by being far more responsive than any of its predecessors. That still leaves several verbs that aren’t fun, and we can improve that.
We also want our verbs to reflect our progression. If your Strength and Agility determine both your combat stats and your movement stats, you can alter those values to make a slow but brawny character who fights like a mack truck, or a fast, speedy character who jumps around and dodges. These are different, and should both be fun. Consider a really simple example. A big, beefy tank moves and turns more slowly than a dodgy thief type. If the two fight, the tank might take out the thief in one blow, but the thief can keep moving and avoid attacks. By making movement variable and tying movement abilities with stats and character skills, you get an experience that’s more varied and more fun, and once again, feels more meaningful. Varied, interesting movement adds a dimension to play that goes beyond “don’t stand in the fire” and can make stories by itself.
This also applies to travel– we can have different forms of travel with different strengths and weaknesses that make our verbs more fun. Walking from city to city along safe roads might not be interesting, but driving a speeding stagecoach and trying not to drive off cliffs between the two cities is much more fun.
Making the individual moments interesting and varied gives you good reason to repeat them, either to improve your performance or to try a different method. In an MMO, where you might play for months or years, the power of variability and being able to try different things is huge.
Interesting Group Dynamics
A touchy subject for a bunch of people. The key to satisfying group content is putting a group of players in a situation where they have to rely on each other for specific, direct interactions. It’s why role systems are so effective and functional– a role provides a set of specific, direct interactions that you can provide to your party while your party provides what you lack to you.
It’s this byplay that divides weak and strong group content in MMOs. Some of the worst MMO group content I’ve played was a result of a lack of solid, functional group roles; the experience just became a senseless free-for-all or some extremely fiddly interactions with badly-messaged abilities that might or might not interact with one another.
Content that requires a group adds a sense of scale to the game, that there are things bigger than just one player that are worth pursuing and satisfying to overcome.
Putting It All Together
A revitalized persistent world MMO is going to need friction to make actions meaningful and to bring players together. It’s going to need a wide breadth of player progression with relatively shallow depth, to both lessen the gap between players and allow them to play with one another and provide a greater variance of experience, lending more replayability to the content. It needs player verbs, and each verb needs to be independently interesting. It will need well-defined and compelling group dynamics, to give the game a sense of scale in encounter to go with the scale of the world.
It’s going to draw a lot of the old-school concepts and pass them through the lessons learned over the last decade, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I don’t know if we’ll ever see it, or if we did, if anyone would actually play it, but I think that’s where persistent world MMOs have to go if they’re going to play to their strengths and survive. They need to become highly customizable settings in which players have experiences that yield unique stories. That’s where we go from here. It’ll look weird, but hopefully good.