Been quite a while since I've been active on MMORPG.com…
Spent some time over at TenTonHammer, then after a series of new MMO disappointments returned to World of Warcraft for Wrath of the Lich King pre-release patch and then release… stuck there until recently; spent a deal of time on MMO-Champion accordingly.
So why am I back to MMORPG.com? It's this blog to be honest.
Maybe I just need to vent frustrations; maybe I've broadened my perspective on the MMO industry and want to share my insight, who really knows.
I find that the MMO industry is now right back to where it was about this time last year. Everyone is waiting on the new challengers to the WoW throne.
Last year we had Age of Conan and Warhammer Online as the two main contenders. This year we've got Aion, Star Trek Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Champion online, and a host of other smaller games. *note some/many will probably be 2010 releases*
But before we can look forward to these new, potentially exciting releases we should look back and figure out what we learned from last year's challengers.
I think the biggest thing we learned from Age of Conan was a lesson we should have learned a long time ago. That lesson is that a buggy, incomplete release will forever doom a game to mediocrity and/or downright failure. I think a secondary lesson to learn is that scalability is very important. Players with big-rig high-end gaming machines want a good looking game that runs well, but not everyone has a monster system so developers shouldn't set the bar too high.
I think this failure on the part of AoC may be directly contributing to the wave of more "stylized" graphics we've seen in MMO's recently. Photorealism + massively multiplayer online is a very hard equation to add up and equal success.
I believe WAR taught us that if people want FPS-esque PvP then they'll play FPS games. WAR really is/was a good game and they did a very good job bringing players into the war effort and trying to make you care about the outcome… but the biggest problem I think they made was to eliminate any risk from the warfare. Without risk the victory is not as sweet.
It's really hard to motivate players to look beyond their own character or Guild in terms of what is important to them. A player may care if their guild loses the keep they once controlled, but do they care if another Order/Destruction guild loses a keep? Having game/server wide repercussions to the actions of players is a great idea, but the player's character has to feel the effects or it's not worth the effort for most.
Players, in general, are greedy and focused on rewards for themselves. This isn't a bad thing necessarily, but it's something developers need to pay attention to.
Being the best PvP'er on a server is one thing, but having a special Title or big shiny Axe that no one else has is what really motivates a lot of players. It's all about the e-peen and bragging rights.
In gear/level based MMO's, your accomplishments are what you can show off. Look at the forums, people always ask to link screenshots or videos or they won't believe someone did something they said they did. It's all about showing off what you have done and being able to prove how awesome you truly are.
This motivation to get better, to be the best… to look up to others who have better gear and try to get that awesome stuff for yourself is a primary motivation for many, many MMO gamers.
I think WAR did a good job at trying to motivate players to care about more then their own interests, but not enough to get them to care about their own and thus players lose motivation to log in and continue playing and trying to get better.
In terms of the future, of future MMO's on the horizon….
One thing I can say definitively is that players like options. Making a game that is JUST PvP or JUST PvE is a mistake; you essentially cut off half of your potential subscriber base.
You have to give them fairly equal attention so it doesn't feel "tacked on at the end" like WAR end-game PvE did, or PvP in many games does.
You also can't force players into doing either. If doing one gives better reward or faster advancement then the other, players will feel forced to do it, even if they don't want to, because it's the "best" way to do things.
WAR is one of the few games where you can advance completely through PvE OR through PvP, or with a combination of the two. I really hope more games follow this model.
Another piece of wisdom I can give is that most players don't like to do the same thing all the time. Grinding in an MMO is really just repetitive actions. Anything in a MMO can be a grind.
Doing quests can be a grind, running instances or raids, PvP mini-games like Battlegrounds, crafting… they can all be a grind.
At their most fundamental level MMO's are designed to be grinds. You can't spend 3-4 years making a game that will last a few days/weeks game time and expect to charge a monthly subscription to continue playing.
If MMO's had no grind, no real repetitive actions then they'd be a lot more like their single player RPG brethren. You'd play through all the content at a reasonable pace, finish the game, and be waiting for more content to be released. Unfortunately due to how much time, effort, manpower, and testing it takes to create content for an MMO, there is no way you will ever have enough content so players won't be able to burn through it faster then you can make it.
So what do you do? Stretch it out a bit… make things take a little longer then you would in a single player RPG. These include things like travel, questing, combat, everything.
You also repeat a lot. Same mobs with different skins, same kill/fetch quests with different flavor text and slight variations on directives.
It's a necessary evil. In order to create an MMO with no grinding, no repetition or time sinks that would STILL give the months and months of game time to warrant a monthly subscription cost… you'd have to have the largest, most talented team ever assembled for video game production, infinite technological and financial resources, and it'd STILL take years to make...
But it's SO much of a risk to enter into the volatile market that is MMO gaming, it would be nearly impossible to find financing/production support for something that large given the high rate of failure in the MMO industry.
The smart developers use tricks and enough "unique" content thrown in between the grindy elements in order to keep you paying and playing. They also heavily rely on the "carrot on a stick" game play tactic to always push you to keep going to upgrade that +1 sword of greatness to the new, spiffy, shinier +2.
In order to beat WoW you have to do what WoW does, the way WoW does it, but do it better and do more of it. You also have to do a few things WoW does not do.
You can make it so you can level from 1 to X through only PvP, but you can't take away the end-game PvE dungeons/raids in order to do it.
The problem a lot of games have is that they try to be the "not WoW." They try to do things differently then WoW does it to attract the players who are tired of WoW, but what they fail to realize is that sometimes… and yes I'm quoting Scubs…
"You find that thing you hate ends up being the thing you miss the most when it's gone."
To put it more bluntly: players may be bored of the WoW way, but they are comfortable with it.
Many jaded MMO'ers, like myself, turn away from WoW to look for what WoW is missing, and we have been able to find it in other games… but those games end up missing the things that WoW did very well that we enjoyed about it.
Yes, what I'm eluding to is the "perfect" MMO. The MMO that would have everything any MMO player would want but be free of all the things they don't like about MMOs.
But how do you define perfection in terms of a MMO? In truth, you can't.
What you CAN do is give players choices.
This is why successful, popular MMO's always have different server types; whether it's PvP, PvE, or Roleplaying etc. etc. the more choices the better.
Using the same content, the same world, the same quests, and the same game systems, but simply changing some of the rules that govern how the player interacts with these systems is a very cost effective and profoundly successful way to increase the reach of your target audience and thusly subscriber base.
How many more people would play WoW if they opened up a FFA PvP server? If they opened up a "hardcore" PvP rule set with experience loss and item loss? It'd completely change the game economy, making crafted items a much hotter commodity. Even vendor bought items would become the new "base" and the value of even green items would skyrocket. Epics would be rare and highly coveted. Players would completely rethink their tactics.
Obviously is not as cut and dry as that, a game needs to be designed from the ground up to be compatible (with rule set changes) with as wide a variety of server types as possible. You probably couldn't just add a hardcore PvP server to WoW without completely changing a great number of game systems, and thus why they haven't/won't because it's not cost effective.
The game has to be built from the ground up with all the potential server types you are going to use already firmly in place so all the game systems are compatible, it's just some of the governing rules of interaction that change.
Developers of future MMO's need to keep their eyes open if they want to create the next blockbuster. Otherwise if you build a game for a niche all you are going to get is a niche.
This is just a single example in a much larger and much more complex web of reasons and rationale to bring a new direction, a next generation of MMO design philosophy.
So what would I do?
Well, without going in too many specifics…
And this is already incredibly long post, to any who have made it this far you are a saint for your patience and determination.
1. PvP is a very hot topic. You have to have PvP in ample amount for those who want it, but it has to be completely voluntary / optional for those who don't want it. The best way to do this is making two separate yet equal paths similar to how WAR did/does it on their Core (normal) server types.
2. PvE should be all about choice. You have to break up the monotony by giving players different ways and means to enjoy PvE content. Standard MMO quests, public events/quests, ample quantity of instanced dungeons, open world dungeons for grinding. The key here is that you will always have repetitive content, but what you need to do is pace it and space it out between different varieties of content so the player is never stuck doing the same thing for too long if they don't want to.
3. Crafting needs to be important and separate. Just as you separate PvP and PvE, crafting needs to be a separate yet equal affair. An hour spent gathering/harvesting materials and crafting should equal the same gain to your character as an hour of PvE content or hour of PvP content would be. You cannot throw crafting in as a side component to PvE adventuring. Separate but equal.
4. Exploration should count for something. You can't call running from point A to point B because some NPC told you so exploration, even if you've never been to point B before. There has to be motivation to explore off the beaten path and make your own adventures rather then quest-directed linear paths.
a. As an example – NPC in town tells you to find an old man wandering the mountains because he has a quest for you. Most players who can't find him will simply cheat and ask another player or look it up on a website. So instead you don't make the NPC in town give a quest, or say anything about the old man. If the player is off in the mountains and happen to find the old man, they can get a quest from him.
What's the difference? You can't ask another player where the old man is or look up where the old man is if you don't know that the old man exists until you stumble upon him exploring. Sure, someone will post it on a website after they find him but how is the player going to find that entry on some webpage if they aren't looking for it in the first place? A step by step guide may tell you the old man is there, but you won't be google searching "old man in mountains" if you don't know there is one.
b. Take the design time to throw in large, cool, and fun exploration areas that have nothing to do with a quest. Put a multi-level dungeon out in the open world players can crawl through with no objectives or quests other then the ones they themselves set. Reward players for finding these things and exploring them completely. Again, you could find out about it through word of mouth or from a guide but you won't be googling "multi-level open world dungeon in zone X" until you stumble across it or someone tells you it's there.
5. Customization is key. The days where you could give players a few choices of head/face/hair and call it good are long gone. Item/gear/appearance customization in-game via LOTRO or EQ2 should be the new norm. Gear sets for looks, "hidden" gear sets for stats.
6. Scalability is also key. If you are building a game for the PC that you want a lot of people to play, you have to make your engine/client scalable down to the lowest common denominator and up to the highest. Period. If you are making a massively multiplayer online game you have to take population into consideration, in terms of content design, layout, and graphics, spawn rates. etc. etc.
Also you also need to take play styles into consideration in terms of scalability. Some people like to solo, some don't. Some like very large groups but some like smaller, more tight-knit groups. You have to make content and game systems that scale for these different demographics.
7. Make players feel powerful. This is a RPG after all. One of the core fundamentals of the RPG experience in the minds of many gamers is a progression in their character(s). Not only must you give them this in stats, but in appearance as well. How it is done depends greatly on the IP but it is important for players to feel as if they are continuously progressing, that they are never "stuck" and as they progress they are becoming more powerful.
You have to give players something to build up to, but something they feel is obtainable. You have to make them envious of players more advanced then they themselves but you have to make sure those echelons of power are within their reach.
What is equally as important as the once the player reaches the top echelons, the highest level then there still needs to be ways in which to advance. Socially, politically, and/or financially in addition to the basic RPG tenants of better gear and more power.
This is why games have put in achievements and titles and special rewards for players that reach the top and continue to reach higher.
8. Finally, and most importantly, is that you have to determine what players will be spending most of their time doing and make that thing fun. If this were a driving game where you spend most of the time driving, you have to make sure the driving is fun.
The ultimate reference to this is the Halo franchise. Halo didn't really do anything too crazy or innovative but what it DID do it take the basic formula of a FPS game, shooting and fighting with/killing enemies and they refined it and perfected it and made it more engaging. Every battle is a little or grand exercise in strategy and reinforcing those basic FPS qualities and molding it into something that is greater then the sum of its parts. The Halo series is so successful because in very few other games it's no where near as fun to walk into a room full of bad guys and blow them away. Period.
For MMO's if your focus is combat you have to make sure that the combat is fun and engaging. If crafting is a focus you have to make it fun and interesting. PvP has to be engaging and exciting if that's your focus.
If you expect players to spend countless hours and days killing monsters, you have to make sure killing monsters is a lot of fun and doesn't get old or boring. There have been a lot of ways developers have tried this. From elaborate combo and triggering systems ala WOW or EQ/WAR or action packed "twitch" controls like AOC, all that matters is that it's fun and varied enough to do for hours at a time.
If you've survived reading this for this long I applaud you.
To some it all up…
The point of all this is that you can't build a MMORPG around a gimmick. You have to build it around a solid core of fundamental properties and those fundamentals have to be good. The gimmicks only add flavor and can be good for marketing to use as a selling point, but if you don't have the fundamentals that players expect you won't keep their loyalty and their subscriptions.
Too many new MMOs are trying to be the "not WOW" when WOW is the fundamentals refined and perfected. The new blockbuster will be made by whoever realizes that the only way players will leave their comfort zone game is if the new one is just as comfortable and familiar, yet corrects the problems their previous MMO had and gives them a little extra on the side too.
Thanks for reading and please leave your comments, but in a mature and thought out fashion please.