Posts archived in design


Worth Watching

Raph has a link to one of his newest Keynotes on his blog.

This one is particularly good.

I’ve written more than my fair share here in the past about various MMO designs. Unfortunately, as I’ve bent my mind to the issue and kept an ear to the ground I become increasingly concerned. Chiefly, I’m concerned that the audience to which I can market, is not the audience for which I design.

At various times I may have mentioned that my background in online multi-user worlds is from MUSHes. A MUSH is a fundamentally social thing, and I’ve only even connected to a handful that had combat mechanics. I was simply never interested in MUD style game play, running around collecting gear and killing monsters. In the offline realm, sure I enjoy spending an hour or two on Diablo II every once in a blue moon, but for the most part rouge-likes and dungeon crawls simply aren’t where my heart is.

For many people, their first great MMO would be Evercrack, Ultima Online, Second Life, or World of Warcraft. But for me the first brush was Neveron, an empire management game based in the Battletech universe. The featured a primarily player driven economy, players fought for land which had the chance of granting them resources, they would research the ability to build better weapons and units, and above all players formed their own political landscape. I think it’s fairly easy to see why my current go to game is EVE Online.

But as I’ve designed, theorized and listened, I’ve consistently found certain detriments. I for one want an ever changing world, but by and large most people don’t. They would like change on their schedule, they would like to experience all the events and all the content at their leisure. So far, I’ve found it impossible to reconcile change that matters, with change people want. Oh, I could probably take the teeth and the meat out of change and give the players “I can’t believe it’s not change” and I’m sure some arbitrarily large number of people would be happy, but I won’t make that game. That game doesn’t interest me in the slightest, and the player’s reactions to that game are equally uninteresting. (Unless they uniformly hate it, then I might be interested.)

Secondly, I’m not in the mood to play to everyone’s masturbatory instincts. No, I’m not talking about titillation, I’m talking about instant gratification. I’m all for relatively high rates of feedback, but not this silly structure of ‘ding’ you’re better. Rewards should be commensurate with effort, talent and time. A patient and intelligent investment of one of those three should always reap greater rewards than simply bashing your head against the wall until someone gives you a gold star for effort. This is one of my main problems with the MUD style, the concept of Mobs that aren’t actually trying to win.

But most of all, societal interactions being important seems to be the rift that simply shouldn’t be. What is it that makes people think banning Goonswarm and the like for being assholes is a “wrong way” of dealing with them. Griefers are as bad, if not worse, of a problem as gold farmers, but our rules for dealing with them are practically non-existent. But in a greater sense, why are the social realities of an MMO the very last on the list of priorities. Guild management tools, chat tools, social environments, these all come out as the red headed step children of the MMO world. Even starting areas are completely ludicrous. Rather than beginning players in major population centers where they are guaranteed to see, meet, and interact with other players, they are instead positioned in the middle of fuckallistan. Anyone joining after the initial rush will be lucky to see another living soul after hours of wandering.

All of this has got me thinking about making games with significantly more limited multiplayer options. After all, a Thursday night group of 4-8 people can certainly have fun playing a persistent world game without the need for a thousand other assholes. But then, there is the alone together factor that tells me they also wouldn’t be interested in investing regular time into something without having those other thousand assholes around to pointedly ignore. Perhaps someday I’ll find my perfect answer, but for now, I’m more just frustrated than anything.

EVE doesn’t work because it’s open PvP. EVE works because it has a complex socioeconomic simulation to offset that PvP, creating a world with a balanced variety of activities along the bartle types. Just thought I’d share.

And possibly your hands!

Okay, so I come to you, my heavily limited readership, with a very specific request. I need footage of someone playing WoW, Tabula Rasa, EQ2, Lineage 2, or whatever it is you play. STOP, let me get a bit more specific.

I need footage of your hands while you play even more than I need the screen itself. If you use any macros, please write down what you use and what it does, the same goes for UI mods. If at any point over the course of filming you want to do something and realize you can’t, write it down or say it out loud. As far as length goes, try and grab a typical game session, whatever you define as a typical game session.

Try and compress the footage if you can, divX is always playable, but pretty much anything will work. Veoh is generally considered a good hosting site for long or high res videos, so I highly recommend it for our purposes.

Once you have the footage somewhere it can be accessed, simply send me an email at sara.pickell at gmail dot com with the link or post it as a comment here. If it’s two months out and you happen upon this post, please send it to me anyways.

Thanks in advance,
Sara Pickell.

Richard Bartle wrote his treatise on MUD player types back in ’96. His assertions have been rightfully questioned and we have generally found them to not be a robust enough platform for player motivation. They do have another purpose for which they need only minor tweaks however. Activity types.

However, Bartle gave each one certain connotations in terms of how they interacted with players, the world, or each other, for my purpose we will be tossing those out wholesale. For instance, a killer activity is any activity in which the player kills another player while an achiever activity is any activity in which the player is put in direct competition with their peers. As you can see there can and in fact must be some overlap. However I would also like to add one more group before we begin, creators. Creators are most directly related to crafters, but can also be player housing, armor painting, or pet raising.

So why go through all of this, well primarily to better understand the current MMOs on the market. This group of activity types is fairly limited, but it still covers the vast majority of what we want to go into. First I’ll take a quick look at some of the games I have played well enough to comment on.

WoW is the obvious starting point to any MMO discussion so I thought I would go ahead and get it out of the way. What I have seen from WoW is that they are the epitome of mainstream, streamlined, generalist, easy and shallow. Probably one of the most amazing facets of WoW is that they actually did manage to strike an incredible balance of everything but killing, and then worked that in later. WoW’s fundamental mechanic, grind to x so you grind faster, gave it a very single minded purpose without distractions, and built on the corner stone of achievement game play. Exploration was given slight xp bonuses as well as slightly out of the way quest givers allowed explorers in while not fracturing game play focus at all. Social elements were added in the forms of instances and dungeons again feeding back into the main achievement style and finally creation was an alternate form of advancement as well as adding certain buffs. Killing, while existent didn’t receive it’s real focus until battlegrounds and even after addition was polished and demolished until it became as easy and focused as the rest of game play.

WoW is not, however, by any means a perfect game. Not even for achievers. The problem that WoW has, which will not effect their bottom line but certainly does effect a large portion of their player base is that they gave up a great deal of depth to make access particularly easy. There isn’t enough to explore nor enough of a reward for doing so to keep focused explorers engaged, there aren’t enough social tools nor enough reason to connect to please fundamentally social players, creators are required to hit their highest possible levels before they see any real use and even then have to compete with hundreds of others on their server if they are lucky enough to have so little competition. The killers don’t get to feel as though they’ve done serious damage, and achievers are faced with the brutal reality that their greatest achievements were well and truly worthless.

To add insult to injury, it only really takes you wanting more of any one activity to make the game start to feel hollow to you, and most people who are reading this blog are fairly far into multiple groups.

EVE may seem to be the opposite far extreme, but I would posit that it is really not. It’s done something very similar to WoW in fact. They took a corner stone of killer activities and built the entire game around it, keeping the activities in check and focused back into that. What they did very differently however was they exchanged ease of access for depth. An explorer can spend an entire career in EVE and not see it all, and certain types of exploring are very very profitable. Creation in EVE, in terms of crafting, is very well designed and thought out. Creation activities in EVE carry a certain amount of gravitas with them as well, since they have a direct effect on the capabilities of the killers. Achievers aren’t given so much a set of activities as they are a form of expression and they make use of it to the full extent. Best off all in terms of achievement, whether it’s piloting a titan or getting a 6:1 Kill/Death Ratio it is all dependent on your own skill making the achievements worthwhile.

Social tools are probably where EVE has consistently fallen shortest. Despite their excellent community the number of purely social constructs in EVE has remained relatively low. I believe this is a large part of why so many players are looking forward to Ambulation, it will be a chance to better explore the social side of the game. It may also be a chance to explore the social side of creation.

Of course EVE paid a heavy price for all this, their barrier to entry is at least exponentially higher than WoW’s. While they certainly maintain an excellent player base they don’t stand any significant chance of breaking the multi-million subscriber barrier in the next few years.

I could go on with Guild Wars or Tabula Rasa, but for now I’d rather focus on how we can use this when making MMOs. What exactly are these measurements useful for?

A good starting point would be cornerstones. Both of the examples I used above created a focus within their game that is truly inescapable. No matter what you are doing in WoW it’s to achieve the next macguffin and no matter what you are doing in EVE it is built on/funded by the frozen corpses of dead player characters. In TR it’s actually about exploring, but it’s an exploration of the lore and literature rather than a literal exploration. Guild Wars is built schizophrenically around exploring or killing while neither incorporates more than a cursory creation mechanic but both contain fairly robust social and achievement mechanics.

Another take away is that MMOGs are, presently, lagging far behind in the social component. There are more than enough meta game tools to sate player’s appetites, but we could still do with a certain grouping of advancements. In game message boards are a very good example, I have seen only one usage of these, however. Any sci-fi MMO can leverage these to the benefit of RPers and much the entire player base. Fantasy games can have an option to disable the menu to increase immersion, but they can still benefit from these as well. If you add on a program such as PlayXpert (PXP) you may find that players become more socially engaged with your game as friendships grown in game are fluently translated to out of game and vice-versa.

As much as I know I have certainly missed more activity types or have shoe horned them into these, they have worked reasonably well as a group of quick and dirty metrics from my perspective. Perhaps most importantly, since I am not a scholar and am simply trying to state what I have seen with a relatively broad brush, they should be judged as a speedy and stylized way of expressing the complex relations of players and activities and not as a comprehensive list or set of metrics.