Archive for the ‘MMO Design Theory (Armchair Design)’ Category

Unique Uniqueness is still Uniquely Unique

September 27, 2009

Barring the fact that “uniqueness” might not be a real word (it is), I’d like to briefly (for me) discuss what seems to me to be an unstoppable trend in today’s static MMO.

Ever in life are we striving to define ourselves as unique individuals. Some of us do that through things like stacking a single adjective in three different forms on top of itself in a blog title, while others do more practical things like following their dreams on a romantic vacation to Italy. The sense of identity is as important to each and every one of us as the blood flowing through our veins, if it wasn’t there then we wouldn’t be either. I think it’s important to consider how our identity transfers over into MMOs.

I bring this up because Roleplaying, at its core, is the assumption of a new identity for the sake of pleasure, and I don’t think that the static nature of MMOs today really allow for a sufficient enough expression of identity for the everyday gamer. Player housing is a step in the right direction, but everything is still stamped with the “Developer Stamp of Approval” and can only serve to represent an individual’s preference in the way they acquire and organize someone elses brainchildren.

This also overlaps into other areas such like player titles and rare gear. Every time I acquire a new piece of gear, especially one that has a rare chance to drop, I feel great. Every time I get a new title that I can show off by doing something difficult and/or obscure

The one thing that MMOs are doing right with respect to expressions of individuality is player naming and face/body customization (although this could use a lot of work to be really good, the technical whippidydoo would more than likely be expensive and time consuming). Surnames are even better because they let you develop your character on a deeper intellectual level. Now there are always problems with any system if you look at it in a context that it wasn’t intended to be viewed with, and nowhere do we see this more clearly than in characters named things like “Ibubblehearth” the paladin and “healzforfree” the cleric. The game is taken out of the context of a roleplaying game and put into the context of an MMO. I kind of made a mental leap there, but I think it’s fair to argue that MMOs aren’t necessarily designed solely as traditional RPGs so this naming “problem” isn’t really a problem at all, but rather a consequence of the social response to the genre not identifying itself strictly as a traditional RPG.

But so here I am with my legendary “First Blade of the Seventh Sun” and people now see my name as “Vulcar, Master of Elements” and I feel pretty cool. I walk into the bank at my local Wal-Mart city and I see another “First Blade” and two other mages with “Master of Elements” after their name. Any feelings of uniqueness are now shattered.

I can think of two equally legitimate ways to think about this situation:

1. Because everything in the world is static anything I can possibly acquire will inevitably be acquired by many other people. What my character looks like and is called is nothing more than a record of how good (and lucky in a lot of cases) I am at getting stuff. I’m not feeling the individuality vibe here, thinking like that makes me feel like one of a thousand mice all looking for cheese at the end of a maze, and I’m not even havin fun- I’m just hungry.

2. Individuality is expressed by which titles you choose to display and what gear you attempt to acquire. This mostly works for titles, except for the fact that some titles are invariably waycooler than others (I mean, “Wing Cutter” or “Warg-Foe”? Do you really have to ask?). But as I said, it mostlyworks for titles as long as there are plenty of them to pick from like in LOTRO. In every game there is a min/maxing feel to gear acquisition and if someone wanted to spend the time then they could rank every single piece of gear in the game for each and every one of your slots and you would always know what pieces were upgrades and what pieces were downgrades. There would be no excuse for equipping your cool looking robe if you had one that was twice as good, and once everyone that could use that twice as good robe had it you would all look the same. LOTRO also has a clothing dye and cosmetic outfit system so that you can appear to be infinitely cooler than you actually look in your poorly matching, although quite epic, gear.

I have to admit that the second option seems pretty good with those ideas implemented in LOTRO, but I didn’t write all of this just to agree with myself that there’s something out there that’s pretty darn near perfect so here it comes. What LOTRO does just isn’t good enough if you really want to give people a sense of individual uniqueness. What titles you can gain in the game make you more a part of “the group of people that did that dangerous and/or obscure thing” than “the individual that did such and such thing.” Is that bad? Not exactly, I’m sure it helps the sense of community in LOTRO sometimes because people can bond over the experience of acquiring that title, but it can’t always be about the whole. Sometimes you just have to be yourself. Even with the clothing dyes/cosmetic outfits every piece of gear has been designed by your developers, and while they may have some cool stuff you may have an idea of something that you think might look even cooler, but you’ll never see it because the developers never thought of it.

The primary argument in all of this is that for true individuality to be expressed in an MMO setting players need to be able to create content, and the world cannot remain static. Who really cares if you killed the “Grand Ogre Magi Krogg” if they could just go kill him (or a renamed but identical version of him) right now. Who really cares if you pried the fabled “Sword of a Thousand Kingdoms” from the hands of the great “War-Tyrant Balzor” if they could just go farm him for a few weeks to get the drop themselves? Your house may look nice, but I’ve seen that orc’s head in too many houses for me to think it’s cool anymore. It’s great that you’re known as the “Scourge of the Seas” but I saw twenty people yesterday known as the same thing!

Now letting players go off the deep end and have unrestrained power to customize would be ludicrous. Even in LOTRO you’d have too many “Llegolas Uvmrikwoods” popping up everywhere and things like “Ihaveabow letmeshowyou” would even crop up. Customized titles could be even worse, but things like designing chairs/tables and even the pattern for your wallpaper would help housing out a lot. Custom armor would help you to create the character you want other people to see you as- and, combat system allowing (maybe the biggest “if” ever), even let you create a piece of gear with stats that reflect how you want to play your character (there’s not much choice in how you play a class in most games, does anyone disagree?).

This is by no means a demand for more customization options in MMOs, but rather an exploration of how more customization options could potentially benefit the player’s experience. I just see that in their current format MMOs have an unavoidable lack of individual expression, but perhaps that is a good thing considering how much time people pour into these games already. 😛


PvPEE All Over My Game! :O

September 22, 2009

I admit, perhaps last night I was having too much fun with the title for this post, but what I have to say is actually serious. PvPEE seemed like a clever play on acronyms to mean everything from PvP to PvPE to PvE.

Now I’m hoping that you’re wondering what I mean by PvPE, because if you’re not then this paragraph will be very boring for you. As you might think, it means exactly what it looks like, Player versus Player-Environment. This is just an expression that I am creating to clearly define PvP activity that influences someone’s PvE game. A good example would be Wintergrasp in World of Warcraft, and there’s something in WAR like it too, but I don’t know enough about WAR to speak on its behalf.

The issue is mixing what I consider to be two distinctly different game types together in such a way that you create a situation for your players where they are forced to do something they never wanted to do when they bought your game.

>>>>>>I figure I should add now that I know that other people have most assuredly blogged on this topic, so feel free to link me and others to their posts in the comments.<<<<<

Shadowbane. PvP extraordinaire. Again, though, we see a relatively large PvE part in the game. Wanting to build and besiege cities, I loaded up the game I had high expectations. Then I found out that I have to grind my way up to being effective before I could think about PvP-ing. That’s not such a huge problem, but my time is limited and I can satisfy my lust for killing other peoples’ avatars much easier by loading up StarCraft/WarCraft2/3. No it’s not the same thing, but there’s fire, explosions, and death- so they kind of fall in the same category to me.

The one thing, which I think is the strongest idea on the side of the fence I’m not arguing for, is the motivation behind PvP in games with PvE. Something I’ve seen come up a long when people talk about EVE is that many pirate players would like to see high-security space become less safe, so no one can avoid their wrath. This essentially equates to, “I want to be able to take everything from everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re hiding” but I’m not saying that this mentality is a bad thing per se. In the context of a PvP game it’s okay- on another day I might even argue it’s a good thing -but in a game with PvE where players may just want to play the game and not interact with other players in a hostile manner it would be most unfortunate if those PvE players could not avoid the PvP.

I got a little distracted there, but the point was supposed to be that defeating someone, destroying their fortress, and turning their allies against them loses its flavor when there is nothing behind their character. PvE helps a PvP game to create substance for your character. When someone defeats you they not only defeat another enemy, but they are putting themselves in a superior position with respect to the time spent building the character. If everyone has spent a minimum of 24-hours creating and leveling their characters then defeating another player means that you have bested them in one small way, killing them, that has the much larger implication that you have bested their 24-hour effort to create a character.  If everyone instantly creates a max-level character and has all of the available abilities then the satisfaction for beating them has to be solely based on their defeat, and nothing else. In my opinion this show that PvE can be a vital, perhaps even essential, part of PvP play in a Roleplaying Game setting.

But so that is kind of what works against what I’m saying a little bit, it’s good stuff though- worth thinking about. However my theory and PvE helping PvP be meaningful don’t need to be mutually exclusive. The problem that I’m suggesting exists is only apparent when a game allows for exclusive focus on its PvE elements. I’m saying that if players can enjoy playing a PvE game without ever needing to be involved in PvP then any kind of PvP/PvE integration will impact the game negatively.

This article at Tobold’s mentions the important idea of how people are socialized into MMOs and that’s exactly what I’m talking about here. At level 80 WoW supports exactly two (three if you count what someone said at ixobelle’s about players that just enjoy manipulating MMO economies (more than a few are evil bastards not the most polite folk and kept me from ever getting my enchanting skill up in WoW)) types of players. PvP players and PvE players. There is some overlap- and I’m sure some people are grateful for the opportunity to shake things up a bit (I enjoyed doing BGs occasionally pre-80 (and pre-70 before this latest expansion)) when they get bored -but for the most part you do one or the other exclusively. This has a lot to do with the necessity for different types of difficult-to-obtain gear for each type of play, but that nuance is not what this post is about.

So why is the PvP/PvE mix, like in WoW, bad? Before I mentioned the socialization of MMO players into a game, and Tobold’s article focuses on poor group dynamics while leveling leading to clueless players at level 80 that don’t know what’s going on or how to play their class. Even worse is a player that has done nothing but leveling and PvP so they actually have fairly decent gear but no experience in a group. You see this because your game has two distinct purposes, to provide a meaningful PvP environment and a meaningful PvE environment, and each type of environment requires a distinct type of socialization.

The two types of socialization don’t mix very well all the time. As I mentioned before, having a PvP player join your group for difficult instances and raids can be PvE-suicide. This is not anywhere near a judgement on all PvP players, even though I haven’t had good experiences with PvP players that did not have strong PvE roots, it is simply a statement of risk. I remember joining a practice arena in WoW and I was ridiculed for not having better PvP gear by my ally, and it was because I really did bring him down just because my gear wasn’t made for PvP.

This is another idea I’ve seen floating around a lot, so I can’t really pin it on one person with a link, but the idea that MMOs are trying to be too much to everyone is a core part of what I’m trying to say. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to get to this, but this is what I think is the most important part of all this:

PvP-focused design partitions players into factions that are incapable of cooperating in a PvE setting. This leads to a split world and player base. In WoW you can only do half of the available quests, visit half of the available towns, and play with half of the available players in PvE. Besides the fact that this makes any PvE content (aside from the few neutral factions and instances) worth only half of what it could be worth, it creates a rift between players so that you further stress the inherent flaws of the system (lack of healers/tanks gets worse when you have to pull group members from a player base of half the size (every server is different in its proportions, but I’m using the ideal because that is another nuance that is not relevant here)).

In EverQuest (Let the constant referencing continue) there was a sense of reality in the faction system. If you picked an evil race then the other evil races got along pretty well with you and the good guys wanted to rip your heart out. It’s the same way with the PvP-focused design of WoW and WAR except that there are no exceptions, your primary faction standings are static. In EverQuest if you were a Dark Elf, Troll, Ogre, or even an Iksar (the race despised by all) then you could work your way into the hearts of the Wood Elves if you spent enough time killing their foes. Who wouldn’t love the guy that dealt a serious blow to your foe, and while doing so alienated himself from his own people? That gave the game a sense of lore, but without the NPC rigidity a PvP-focused system requires. Grouping was also not restricted by faction. If you want to kill some nasty baddies why shouldn’t that funny looking Ogre be able to help you out? Just because you’re an Elf means you’re automatically too racist to associate with other peoples? Clearly he isn’t so bad if he wants the same thing you do for the world (that is to rid the land of more seriously bad guys).

PvP is, not surprisingly, focused on putting players in a position to kill each other. Often when you implement a PvP focus into your game you destroy some key elements of PvE that keep it engaging and versatile. Being cut off from half of the players on your server is never fun when you can’t find a group as a tank and their groups have an excess of healers, and there’s really no need for this division- except to perpetuate the PvP mindest of “us against them.” The worst part, to me, is having PvE content limited by PvP activity. In Wintergrasp in WoW you have to win a large PvP battle every two hours to be able to access one of the level 80 raids. For PvE players that have no interest in PvP this is either forcing them to rely on the whim of their faction’s PvP players or do something they don’t want to do in order to access content.

WoW’s cutscene where Highlord Bolvar Fordragon (By far my favorite Human in the game :() dies when he challenges Arthas showed a brief moment of cooperation between the factions in the interactions between two important NPCs, but that cooperation has never been realized for the players. I think that this is wrong, and that the PvP focus of WoW destroys what could be a much more engaging PvE game. I’m not WoW-hating, mind you, I simply believe that any game that has a focus on PvE (Not even exclusively! PvP can be present!)should be static-faction-free to keep PvE play engaging and free of the taint of PvP influence.

Virtual World(tm) vs. MMORPG (they ARE different and I’ll tell you why)

March 28, 2009

When we pick up a RTS game we know to expect a game where we have to think strategically while events occur in real time. Everything else is subject to the designers whim. Generally we collect resources to create an army and then attempt to dominate others through military superiority. It’s all pretty cut and dry. When we look at RPGs, however, there are no clear cut lines of what we should expect. Fable, Oblivion, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo, Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect are all extremely successful RPGs that really have very little in common (although when I was watching Fallout 3 for the first time I could be heard saying things like, “I know how to do this! Of course you can block with melee weapons, this is Oblivion in space!!!” thanks Bethesda :D).

The important thing they all share in common is a story. (Fable doesn’t have levels… right?) If you take away the story you don’t have a game. Regardless of how little story you actually want to digest, it’s there and at the steering wheel the entire time. The “open ended” vs “run through my trench” debate is probably alive and well every time developers begin work on a new RPG, but the bottom line is that if players aren’t guided- at least at some point -by the story(ies) the developers have crafted then there will be no sense of direction for the game.  Roleplaying games put you into a specific role, and specific setting, and guide your character along a path of personal development that, hopefully, is enjoyable as much for its own sake as for the development of the story.

The appeal of a Virtual World(tm) is in creating your own role, and having the settings available to create your own story. Mass Effect is a great example of an RPG leaning towards Virtual World status (albeit a single-player version), but its RPG roots hold it fast in the main storyline. No matter what you do there is only one set of motivations and major events that progress and complete the story, while the open endedness gives you the freedom of not running down a trench you will always find yourself eventually returning to it. In a virtual world there are storylines, of course (without them it’d be pretty boring, in a truly living and brealing world many opportunities for heroism, bravery, deception, and destruction are readily available), but without a central plot your character (the role  you are assuming as an adventurer) is free to go about their business and “live life” however they wish.

We do like those large story elements in our Virtual Worlds, Epic Quests in EverQuest is a good example of interesting and exciting storyline that enriches the game, but having the game driven by a single storyline is a nono.

So we have two distinct breeds of MMOGames, MMOVirtualWorlds (what the blogs I read generally wish existed) and MMORPGs (WoW) that hold fast to their single-player roots and are essential created of a central story, where your only freedom is to select your character and distract yourself until you jump back into the trench that is the focus. They don’t need to be all story-focused, however, they can just be focused on loosely related events- enough to give you some semblance of a story -but at their heart be a video game where you want to level your character and crush bad guys.

Virtual worlds have some kind of magestic ideal to live up to as lands of adventure where the story is uncertain, while MMORPGs are games with a definitive story in mind.

Regardless of the designer’s intentions a lot of times we end up with games that become their own community, and where the community might not be focused on what the designers intended. Surely WoW is a great game, but is it a great MMORPG? I think we can all definitively say it is NOT a virtual world, and I don’t believe the developers would ever tell you they tried to make it so.

Kicking a Dead Horse: Expansions Should be Stand-Alone Games (WoW’s “Hero Classes” proves my point)

March 28, 2009

Although this may be common sense to a lot of you, I just figured out my problem with joining new MMOs after they’ve had time to become well established. Expansions are just a re-release of the original game in a much smaller setting. Because it’s easy to use I’ll pick on WoW, but lots of MMOs have this problem.

In WoW: The Burning Crusade once you stepped through the Dark Portal your chances of ever returning to Kalimdor or Azeroth are little to none. The entire world is now completely new because the new content is the only content that means anything anymore. This is pretty fun, my old character in a brand new world! The problem comes in with new players, who have to solo through all of the old content (usually 50 levels for the first expansion, WoW is on 70 levels of “old” stuff though) to reach the populated zones and instances that people are actually playing in.

We’ve all seen it, there’s no use denying it, the old world empties out after an expansion. This is actually 100% okay if everyone is close enough in level (58 in WoW) to access the new content (with respect to The Burning Crusade) but there are inevitably people who are behind. Even if they’re not playing to level swiftly they will have even LESS opportunity than normal to experience any kind of grouping before they’ve “caught up” with everyone else.

Joining the MMO, however, becomes very problematic. I would love to go back to EQ and piddle around with the raiding frenzy it’s become, but there’s NO way I an catch up- it’s just too much to grind alone! (not to mention soloing is pretty hard, even if I were willing). The response is shortening the pre-expansion levels because developers know that if new players (or just new characters) have to do the old grind from 1-60 alone when no one is around it will become a significant deterrent to continued play (and pay! :D).

Hero class(es… but not yet) in WoW prove my point. With the exception that you are only rewarded with the ability to play the class after reaching a certain level (basically playing through most of the original content), the consequences of starting at level 55 let the player effectively skip the entire original game to help them catch up faster. They could make Deathknights make that slow progression up, but who wants to waste their time doing that when you could start at 55!?

I’m not saying they shouldn’t do what they’re doing with hero classes, but maybe they should just drop the fancy name and call it “just another class” and make every class start at 55 regardless. That would let everyone experience the new game together (although now I suppose it would have to be level 65 to work like that) because that’s what an expansion really is. As far as the capped players are concerned when an expansion comes out the previous world ceases to exist except as a vehicle to revist some nostalgic locations and grind up more characters to the new game.