I want to kick this one off by venting an unrelated frustration of mine....
I HATE ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE!!!!!!
Whew, glad I got that off of my chest! In case you're wondering what that was all about, I recently took on the project to convert the first level of God of War into a 2600 ROM. Yeah, I know it won't be very much like the <cough> PS2 version, but that's kind of why I chose to do this. I wanted to see how close I could come to the spirit of the original while still operating within the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware. You'd think this would be totally easy. You'd be mistaken.
Everything on the Atari 2600 has to be done in 6507 assembly language with 4K of ROM and 128 bytes, yes BYTES, of RAM. For those of you that don't know, the 6507 only has three registers and can't multiply or divide. Visa vie, I've only been able to get the TIA (Television Interface Adapter) to draw a single chunky box on the screen and move it according the joystick input. As soon as I have an actually screenshot of the finished product to show, I'll be posting it here.
But enough of this stupidity, on with the show!
I think I may have a way to please most of the people, most of the time. Given, no solution will please everyone but I'm fairly certain that if these next ideas were implemented correctly there would be an 80% decrease in the pissing and moaning that currently infects the MMORPG community. Before I get into one of my ever annoying lists, I want to state a few recent observations that bear directly on the solution I'm about to present.
To begin with, the more people that are involved in a project, the less impact an individual can have on the project. It isn't hard, for example, to make a difference in a Football or Hockey game because there are only about 20 people on your team and 40 players on the field total. It's would be almost impossible to do the same thing if you were playing the same game on an expanded field with 100 players to a side. Even with multiple balls / pucks in play, most people would still be just standing around waiting. With the volume of goals / touchdowns being scored, no individual play or show of talent would really influence the outcome.
As another example, I play a lot of speedball at the local paintball field during the season that it's open. Speedball is a 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 CTF game, and it's not uncommon for one player to carry his team through a round or 10. In larger scenario games that involve 100 or more people and multiple objectives, it becomes very easy for me to get lost in the shuffle or just fall into a place between firefights with no idea of where to find the action. This was probably the number one complaint against Planetside from it's launch day.
So what does that tell us about MMOs? It tells us that the "living breathing world" thing is a catch-22 of averages. You can impact the world in little ways, but your overall effect on the world is minimal due to the sheer number of other players that are also impacting the world. Individual glory dies in this environment. Not saying that it can't happen, but most of us spend our entire day trying to chip away at a world where we are statistically insignificant and really don't want to be reminded of that in our recreational activities.
The next observation is that we generally hang out with people we already know. Most of the people we meet are either co-workers or relatives. Yes, we occasionally meet people while trying to find the bathroom at a concert or the movies, but for the most part, we stick to people that we already know.
Don't believe me? Then ask yourself what guilds are for. Ask yourself what multigame guilds are for. Ask yourself why few people are still playing Everquest and why fewer people are still playing UO. The answer is because people want to play (at least in co-op) with their friends. When EQ got released, people left UO and took their friends with them. When WoW was released, people left EQ and took their friends with them. Show of hands: How many people are still playing a game they're bored with because all their friends play it?
Now this changes a little bit with competitive play. When you're just out to kick ass and takes names, any opponent will do. This is why FPS deathmatches, arcade fighting games, and online sports games are so popular. It's all about individual glory and cooperation is kept to a minimum. More recent FPS games like BF2 and Quake Wars are small enough that one person can go Rambo without every acknowledging that the people he / she is playing against are anything more than really clever AI. Likewise, I can go to the local YMCA and find a game of 1-on-1 or even 3-on-3 without having to know anyone there.
With these two (three) things in mind, I've come up with some guidelines that I think will clear up most of the problems that people have with MMORPGs. These don't cover all the bases, just the most glaring problems.
- Stop designing content for groups larger than eight people. Again, most people only play with friends and family. I don't have 40+ friends and even if I did, it's highly unlikely that I could get them all together at the same time. On the other hand, if I have 10 friends then it would be fairly easy to find two or three of them to play with at any given time.
- No more level restrictions on grouping! Ever lose a friend because they were higher level than you or vice versa? Allow players to gain XP regardless of who's grouping with them and the problem goes away due to the law of averages. For instance, you're level 1 and you group with a lvl 50. You both get level appropriate XP for each kill the party makes. So the Level 50 gets full XP for the level 48 mob he just killed and you get XP that is appropriate for a level 1 that just killed a level 48 mob. This allows you powerlevel to the same range as your friends with a minimal timesink.
- Dungeons or GTFO! I could usually crank out a 10 to 20 level dungeon ,or equivalent area, for NWN in about a week. A professional MMORPG dev team should be able to add two or three such areas a week. Yes, most of these would be instances and wouldn't take the players more than a couple of hours to blow through, but you'd be missing a major factor to dismiss this idea on that basis. Current MMOs are timesinks that devour whole days of player's lives. If we design with the philosophy that players will likely play with their friends at their convenience then we can assume that two hours, every couple of days is how most will play. When we shift to this format, MMOs become more like cable TV than blatant scams for cash. You're getting new content all the time and you aren't required to play 24/7 to see it all.
Damn! Out of two basic observations we made three rules and came up with a design that is completely different from the current MMO model. Given, there are some games like this already. Guild Wars, DDO, Phantasy Star Online BB, etc., but none of these games really deliver content in the way outlined. By the time they got done making GW and DDO, the devs should have had enough art assets and solid enough design tools to just keep adding content on a weekly basis. This, IMO, would have justified the monthly subscription fee. Currently, Dungeon Runners is trying something similar but .....
And I know that about half of you reading this want to skin me alive and wear my face as a mask as you drag my flayed, yet still living body down a gravel road behind your truck for even suggesting that we shift to a model of mostly instances. That's all fine and good, but I don't think I ever stated that we needed to abandon persistent worlds altogether. I merely said that we need to redesign these worlds for smaller groups and add to them on a weekly basis. Some of the content will be instanced, that can't be helped. However, not all of it has to be. PvP zones and objectives, obviously, would benefit from being part of a persistent world. Live events would also have to be hosted in persistent areas that everyone could get too. In fact, live events have actually been done as part of periodic content in many MMORPGs.
If it takes me a week to make a two hour scenario for NWNs, think of what a dedicated team of 10 or 20 level designers could do per week. And wouldn't it be nice to not feel like you absolutely have to dedicate four hours a night to get your money's worth? As a man with a wife and full time job, I find it a lot easier to spare six hours a week than 20+.