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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

Moving Beyond Kill 10 Fedex Princesses: Practical Steps in Building Immersion in MMOs

Posted by UnSub Friday February 27 2009 at 2:55AM
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So, after listing the 10 basic quest types seen in MMOs (and most RPGs, for that matter) I then did a slightly academic ramble about how MMO quest systems could be more immersive. However, it wasn't practical. So, let's try to rectify that (well, as much as armchair design can, anyway).

Things that can increase player immersion in a MMO include:

  • Living Worlds: Other NPCs walk around, chat to each other and look like they have a life outside of waiting for the players to show up. Animals wander, some group together in herds / flocks, some act as predators, some as prey. The sun rises and sets. Lights go on and off. It's an illusion and if a player watches long enough they'll probably break through it, but it serves well enough to suspend disbelief as the player moves through the world. Ironically, open world PvP can make a world feel more alive - you can get ganked anytime, anywhere, so even walking through a field can be an exercise in danger - but it's a little too life-and-death for most MMO players.
  • Mission Branching: Letting players choose what path to take through a mission, either by picking a certain path through the mission 'map' or by choosing via dialogue options what route they want to take. This involves developing more content (e.g. if one mission has 3 different paths, you've go to create 3 different sets of content) and eventually can lead to players disregarding certain paths that are seen to be less rewarding. However, allowing choice (and hopefully meaningful choice) makes players more involved (at least initially) in the route their character takes and, hence, more immersed in the game play.
  • Destructible Environment: Characters that can summon up living hellfire but can't even set the straw beds they find in the dungeon alight end up breaking the feel of being involved in a living world. Being able to pick up things and throw them at opponents - as some MMOs are starting to allow - or being able to break things all over the map - as some MMOs currently let you do - is a good way to make players feel consistently powerful. Obviously there has to be some limits - fully destructible environments would see players go on a path of destruction that would level the world in mere hours after launch. But being able to break more than just the bones of opponents means that players feel they can have a greater impact on the world.

The Wrecking Crew (Marvel Comics Style)

Too much destructible terrain and the player base risks turning into this guys.

  • Client-side changes: One big problem with changing the world to reflect player action is that MMOs have a huge number of players in them, so letting one player break every window in town is actually vandalism that can impact on a much wider group. However, letting some changes be handled client-side, so that only the player who does the action can see the result is a way around this - to the player who broke all the windows they have the illusion of lots of smashed glass, but to everyone else the windows look safe and intact. It's not ideal - it confuses players when they can't actually see the same things - but it can be an illusory step of making the player feel that they can interact with the world.
  • Instancing: Some players hate instancing and there are certainly issues if instancing sucks all the players out of the world and into that instanced content, but it does allow for special events to occur that can't be done elsewhere. Cutscenes that temporarily stop the play for a bit of narrative, special opponents that would otherwise be one-shotted by higher-level players, special goals that are tailored to the number of players in the instance and more - instancing can make the in-game narrative seem more personal since the content can be better shaped to suit the player.
  • 'Pull' Missions: Most quests in MMOs are pushed on you - go talk to this person, who you have to find, who then tells you want to do. However, if the character is so important, why aren't these mission givers finding you? Quest / missions should try to pull the player into them rather than pushing them onwards - have an NPC run up and beg for help from the big strong hero makes a lot more sense than the NPC standing on the street corner waiting for someone to come up to them.

Boy, these people look desparate for help, don't they?

Boy, these people look desparate for help, don't they?

  • Mission Curveballs: Most MMO missions are highly mechanical - if you are sent off to deliver a letter to the Kobold King, that's exactly what you have to do. There is no surprise in it at all. However, being given a mission to deliver a letter to the Kobold King only to find out on arrival that he's dead and you're being blamed for the assassination - a twist to the mission early on - makes the content a lot more interesting. From my experience if a MMO mission has a twist it is 1) usually very late in the mission and 2) telegraphed by the mission objectives, regardless of what the flavour text says. Surprising the player with content is one way of getting them more involved in playing the game (providing the surprise isn't too far fetched, of course).
  • Character Customisation: Personally, nothing kills my immersion in a non-realistic MMO is getting to a point where everyone looks exactly the same due to the equipment they are wearing / their presentation. I know it is realistic - mass produced armour isn't know for its fashionability - but in fantasy / sci-fi titles, magical helms / space ships come in all shapes and sizes. Being able to make my character 'mine' is a big thing in making things feel more personal to players.
  • Sensible-in-Context Quest Narratives: Nothing makes a quest feel more irrelevant than when it is completely out of context to everything else in the game. If you are strapping barbarian hero raised on the blood of slain enemies, does it really make sense to be sent out by a shepherd to find his lost sheep? Or, if you are the finest fairy floss crafter in all the land that your quest giver wants you to go out and slay an Ancient Death Dragon of Death? No. If developers are going to give players character development options then they need to provide quests / missions that suit those options, rather than just providing single streams of content for all. It probably isn't feasible for every character concept to be provided for, but enough paths to cover the basic options is a big step in the right direction.
  • Owning and Developing Real Estate: Letting players build and own their section of the world is a fantastic involvement mechanism. There is a reason that house building was so popular for UO and why The Sims is such a successful single player title.

These are only a few suggestions (and some can certainly be combined for extra value), but there is plenty of scope for MMO content to be just as immersive (if not more so) than that of single player titles. Although players in MMOs might not be able to change the world as easily as a player of a solo title, there are certainly options for how MMO players can be more involved in their game world.

Now, it's completely true that pretty much all of these suggestions will fall apart over time as players see through the illusion and / or learn the optimal reward path through the game. This isn't a reason to avoid using such techniques, however - titles that suck players in early are a lot more likely to stick around than those who have no things to hook players at all.

Moving Beyond Kill 10 Fedex Princesses: Building Immersion in MMOs

Posted by UnSub Tuesday February 24 2009 at 3:45AM
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After creating a list of the different mission types available in MMOs, I was challenged to find a solution. What can be done to make MMOs feel more immersive for players?

The broad (and obvious) answer is to increase the character's involvement in the narrative of the game. This can be direct, through making missions more engaging, or indirect, by making players feel that they are part of a much bigger world (but still an important part / driving force in that world). This is most likely to be achieved through illusionary sleight of hand than through really letting the player change the world, but in the end it is what the player feels they have accomplished rather than necessarily requiring a definitive shift in the world.

First off, I believe that in order for a player to feel immersed, they have to operate in something that resembles a living world. Single player games like Grand Theft Auto and The Witcher do this by having the world move around without the actions of the player - the sun rises and sets, people walk the streets, other acts of violence occur without the player being involved. Such worlds look like they existed before the player arrived and will continue to go on after the player leaves.

Some MMOs attempt this - CoH/V's cityscapes are filled with a population who walk the streets, run away from danger, get mugged and need saving, and so on - while other MMOs with enough players (or player build structures) in an open world - WoW, EvE - can also make things seem 'lived in' for other players.

City of Heroes / Villains has civilians that walk around and do their thing, regardless of what you are up to.

City of Heroes / Villains has civilians that walk around and do their thing, regardless of what you are up to.

However, this illusion of a living world is often punctured by the actual mission contact / quest giver system. The popular MMO convention is to have the quest giver stand in one place at all times, 24/7, come rain, hail or shine. This reduces one of the key points of interactivity to a humanoid kiosk who appears to have the sole function of waiting around for a player to poke them so they can tell them about some "urgent mission". A living world would let the poor contact go to sleep, have a meal, or even perhaps attempt the quest they are trying to hand off. Yes, this would mean that players would sometimes need to track down contacts if they have to talk face-to-face, but given that most MMOs have a solid magic / ultra-science background, then it probably shouldn't be necessary to run back to the contact every time. A phone call (or equivalent) would suffice.

Secondly, having the world react (or give the illusion of reacting) to player is another big step forward in immersiveness. Going back to Asheron's Call, they had a system in place where player actions actually changed the course of the game. However, this isn't popular because it involves developing and discarding content (more work for the developers) that players following the event will never be able to get involved in. Some titles allow you to control an area / build a house, but this is a fairly minimal (if popular and problematic) impact. What is more likely is that players will be given the illusion of changing the world. For all its faults, The Matrix Online did have a long-running storyline that players felt they could get involved in (even if they couldn't change the outcome in reality).

Open instancing / phased instancing has also been used by some titles (most recently WoW) so that players will see different things once they have completed certain goals. This has some design issues - players can be separated into "before" and "after" areas, for instance, stratifying the player base - but it does give the illusion of change in the world based on player action.

Being able to actually change the world is something that can be done in single player games because it doesn't impact on anyone else. MMOs have a challenge in that department because they have a lot of players to serve and letting one player change the world would mean that the west was won probably two weeks after launch. However, something that single player games do that MMOs rarely do is to throw a narrative curveball during a quest.

The Witcher uses this mission giver in a way MMOs haven't to date.

The Witcher uses this mission giver in a way MMOs haven't to date.

For instance, a curveball in The Witcher is *SPOILER* that the Detective you speak to in town has been murdered and replaced by the very mage you are trying to track down! There are a number of ways of finding this out, including finding the body of the real detective in a crypt that is entirely unrelated to your overall quest *END SPOILER*. In short, to make you think you are going down one path - doing quests for one purpose - and finding out things in another quest, making it so that what you discover and experience is more important than the actual objective. Most MMO quests are thimble deep - kill ten rats means kill ten rats. The mechanical means dictate a very direct (and basic) pathway. However, if when killing rat #6 he begged for life and promised to show you a great treasure if you spared him... well, that is something different. Add in some branching paths - kill the rat or see what his treasure is - to let the player make the choice, giving them greater control and you've already started down the path to greater immersion in the game. You don't have to think if you kill ten rats. You do have to think if you are asked to make a choice, or if things don't go in the way that you expect.

Admittedly it it all an illusion - things are fixed between a set number of options, regardless of what the player does - but it is that illusion that is lacking from a lot of MMOs. Set in a static world, the player is left to run the ever unchanging, unsubtle content with no difference from one character to the next. Without doubt, this is the true killer of immersiveness in MMOs. We'll never be able to get away from the basic ten quests I've outlined, but they can certainly be used in more interesting ways than they have to date.

UPDATE: Added in a few extra things about 3 hours after originally posting - had to post the entry or lose it at the time!

Kill 10 Fedex Princesses: The 10 Basic Types of MMO Quests

Posted by UnSub Tuesday February 17 2009 at 3:39AM
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One common complaint around MMOs is that the quests are all the same. You start off doing one or two types of quests and, by the endgame, you might be doing the same kinds of quests but on a larger scale. The reason behind this isn't that MMO developers are uncreative with their question design, it's because there really are only a small number of quest types that can be created, regardless of window dressing. Much like The Hero with A Thousand Faces boils down centuries of human storytelling to show that a lot of common structures exist, MMO quest design is limited by the small number of tasks you can assign players.

These quest types are:

  1. Kill X of Y: You have to defeat a certain number of the same opponent. This starts out as Kill Ten Rats and ends up at Kill 250 Elder Rat Gods.
  2. Kill [Named] Y: Some mob has gotten tough enough to earn itself a name. You are to assassinate it for rising above its station.
  3. Delivery (aka Fedex): The quest giver wants something delivered to someone else. In a time of magic or ultra-tech science, the best way of getting it there is to give it to some wandering adventurer and have them deliver it in person.
  4. Collect X of Y: A character is tasked with finding a certain number of objects of a certain type to continue the quest. This starts out as Collect 10 Rat Droppings and ends up at Collect 100 Elder Rat God Droppings. Sometimes it involves collecting the organs of creatures you kill e.g. collect 10 Rat Noses - please note that not every Rat will have a nose to collect.
  5. Escort: Lead another NPC from point A to point B. There will always be complications, especially if the NPC decides that they'd rather run straight through the most dangerous part of the zone, insulting its inhabitants and frequently get stuck on rocks / logs / their own shoes.
  6. Locate: A particular individiual, item or location needs to be found. Sometimes they will be marked on the map, which defies logic since they are already located, but is a lot more fun than wandering aimlessly looking for them / it, only to find out they were / it was around the corner from the quest giver the whole time.
  7. Defend: Defend an NPC, item or place for a fixed period of time against waves of attackers. These kinds of quests often guarantee that players are forced into one location for the entire time until the quest is complete; it also sees them get very aggravated when they fail the mission on the last wave.
  8. Interact: Slightly different to Locate in that the specified NPC / item needs to be activated by the player as part of the mission requirement. This means it involves at least one extra click. Most puzzle-solving quests (i.e. put the pillars in the right spots, align the coloured pegs, etc) are Interact quests.
  9. Craftskills: In order to complete the mission something needs to be crafted by the player (or developed by some kind of craftskill). Every now and again the mission designers remember there are other systems in their MMO outside of combat and movement and drop one of these in.
  10. Reach Achievement X: The quest is to reach a certain achievement, such as a particular level or craftskill rank or even earn a particular achievement before you can continue. Usually this is used as a gating mechanism - the contact won't even talk to you before you reach this particular achievement - but sometimes the quest itself states what achievement you have to get to before continuing.

(I think this just about covers it - please let me know if I've forgotten any.)

There are certain twists that can be added to these - you have a time limit, it is a combination of things (Kill 10 Ubermensch and Collect 10 copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Escort Sir Deathwish to Point Unexplored and then Defend him for 10 minutes), it can be for solo players or require a group. But these are the basic quest types.

How they become interesting is how they are presented and what happens along the way. After all The Lord of the Rings can be broken down to "Deliver the One Ring to Mount Doom", but there is a lot more to the story than that. Unfortunately for most MMOs the quest objective becomes the point, not the motivator, for the narrative at hand.

EDIT: Added in Craftskills as a quest type (about 6 hours after originally posting).

EDIT 2: Added in Reach Achievement X as a quest type and added a bit about puzzle-solving quests to Interact (about 18 hours after originally posting).

The Twelve Trials of UnSub: Ryzom

Posted by UnSub Monday February 16 2009 at 7:47AM
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I've been falling behind in these; other games have taken the place of free (or near-free) trials. With Ryzom recently transitioning to a pay-to-lay model under its latest owners, now seemed like a good time to check this MMO out.

Pity I didn't make it past my first few minutes out of the tutorial. Or even finish the tutorial itself, for that matter.

ADHD Summary: Despite having a number of nice design approaches, the ultimate grind of a sandbox turns me off this game.

Ryzom is something interesting by virtue of being something different. It is meant to be a more realistic world than many seen in MMOs, with animals flocking together, predators eating carnivores and a generally 'different' fantasy setting available to play in. There are four player races - three human-like races and one in a mask. I picked the masked race and have to admit the mask customisation (namely 'how pointy do you want it to be and what pattern?') was a nice touch.

Have boxing gloves, will beat up the local wildlife.

Have boxing gloves, will beat up the local wildlife.

The tutorial sets out to teach you the four different experience paths available in Ryzom - Fight, Magic, Crafting and Harvesting. Each system is an entirely different XP path, so that if you fight a creature using magic and combat weapons, you'll gain both magic and fight XP. Crafting items often requires you to harvest materials you find in the environment, so you can gain harvest XP while going on a crafting session. It's nice to see (at the early stages, anyway) these four systems being equal.

The tutorial sends you off to four different places to learn each of these systems and initially this is fun. But it doesn't take long for a rather extensive grind to kick in. Really, if you feel you are grinding out the tutorial, things are very wrong in design-land.

The crafting tutorial sends you out to gather mushrooms from a creature that sets off an area-effect poison when it dies as well as not always dropping the mushrooms - between having to rest between fighting mobs that didn't drop what I needed and generally feeling uninspired, I gave up on this task. A mission given by the combat tutor was worse: go off and defeat multiple opponents who were all much stronger than you could get in the tutorial. Perhaps this was meant to inspire me to team up; all it did was drive me to other missions. The harvest tutor sent me off to only gather Fine quality ingredients from a certain location that were 'hidden' and required my character to wait about 12 seconds for every search, the majority of which turned up empty handed.

I gave up on the tutorial, went to the starting village for my race, then looked at the initial quests for the area. They were a bunch of crafting, harvesting and combat quests I couldn't do, plus delivery quests for characters I couldn't find. Bye bye, Ryzom.

Ryzom gets some points from me for looking different to everything else out there.

Ryzom gets some points from me for looking different to everything else out there.

This is a real pity, because Ryzom does have some excellent features. The skill customisation functionality is fantastic, where you can build your own skills out of options and costs (which have to balance out, so that adding extra accuracy to an attack will mean you have to add an additional stamina cost or even a hitpoint cost). Even early on I could see how flexible such a system could be. In crafting, you'd actually add this to your base skill, not your item, so that everything you produced would have this bonus(es). The outputs of crafting also depended on the materials you had to put in, so that the same pair of boots would have different stats depending on what materials you used in each location of the item.

Those are some pretty big shoulderpads. Not WoW big, but still pretty big.

Those are some pretty big shoulderpads. Not WoW big, but still pretty big.

The look of Ryzom is also distinctive - although not blessed with the latest graphics, the graphical and location styling is not a copy of yet another fantasy game, which has to stand for something. A large number of things can be displayed on the screen at once, as herds of creatures pass by or flock together - Ryzom does a good job of looking like a pseudo-world, rather than mobs just aggressively loitering in place waiting for death-by-player.

Other big plus for Ryzom is the Ring of Ryzom - a separate system where players can craft their own scenarios. Scenario-building was pretty easy for a beginner to get a hold on - my amateur-hour fumblings produced a small village where two groups of opposing forces would come in and fight for my entertainment - but apparently also contain a lot of depth so that complex situations can be planned out. Player-made content is, in my opinion, a way of the future for MMOs, so it was good to see a title like Ryzom with such functionality (although I think its separate-ness from the true game probably hurt its true value).

One final thing - Ryzom's community is very good and friendly to newbs. I asked a few questions and got answers back quickly. (Of course, I didn't go around spamming how WoW was the greatest MMO evah, so those who do might find their Ryzom community experience a bit different.)

Without doubt, Ryzom is a niche title. It's a sandbox that tries a number of different things, all related to letting a player customise their character's advancement and abilities. It's player-made content facilties are very good and a step in the right direction. But the action play experience during the tutorial was anything but fun. It was a grind to get through and in no way made me want to fork out money to play this game. My understanding is that the tutorial is actually a bad representation of the Ryzom experience. Be that as it may, I'm not willing to pay any money to find out.

Fallen Earth: A House of Valentine's Day Cards

Posted by UnSub Thursday February 12 2009 at 2:48AM
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Okay, so I may have been a bit mean to Fallen Earth (FE) in the past. But I think their latest promotion is excellent.

If you have an FE forum account you can go through a very simple path to send someone an FE Valentine's Day cards. Every 1 in 10 Valentine's Day cards will include a beta key so that there is a chance the recipient of the card will be able to get into the FE beta test.

It's a brilliant promotion that will see people (after sending every one of their personal email accounts a VD card) send out invites to friends on the chance they'll get in. Even if they don't get in, it's a good way to raise the profile of FE among a wider group of gamers. 

Also excellent is that the process is easy to do and the card image itself fits with FE's genre / theme quite nicely. So, well done to FE for that one.

Fallen Earth Valentine's Day Card: Love means never having to say "That's gross!".


The End of Hellgate: London - Servers Won't Come Back After Maintenance

Posted by UnSub Saturday February 7 2009 at 11:04AM
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One week ago Hellgate: London (HGL) died.

Or rather: it's US / European servers have been shut down as HanbitSoft - the current owners of the title - has indicated they will continue developing the title for other markets. Which might see the US / Europe servers restart. Or not. Things really aren't clear.

What is certain is that HGL shut down those US / EU servers. One of the few reactions to this shut down was this blog that revealed the pearl of some players not knowing that HGL was shutting down. Okay, I can get if you didn't play HGL you might be confused about what was going on, but for those people actively playing the title, how could they have not known that HGL was shutting down (which suggests that, even right now, there could be players currently trying to log into the HGL servers and wondering what is going on)?

It's this kind of information that must make MMO customer service people weep.

Warhammer Online vs. Age of Conan: One Quarter Out, WAR Leads In Race to the Bottom

Posted by UnSub Tuesday February 3 2009 at 11:56PM
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EA has just announced the subscription figures for Warhammer Online (WAR) one quarter post-launch. In the midst of news about financial losses, people getting pink skips and titles being cancelled came the news that WAR has 300 000 paying subscribers at the end of December 2008, roughly 3 months after launch.

This is a huge decline. The original EA reports trumpeted that 1.5 million WAR boxes were sold to retailers. On the back of this, 1.2 million boxes were sold to players of whom 800 000 activated accounts. In three months it has gone from 800 000 active subscribers to 300 000 subscribers (and who the heck knows what is going on with the 400 000 boxes bought but not activated). Comparing launch to December 2008, WAR has seen active subscription numbers decline by 62.5%.

Woah. Mark Jacobs promises he'll say something about those numbers if he's allowed to but it would have to be an epic amount of spin. We live in hope.

Now, let's compare these figures to Age of Conan (AoC), the other hugely disappointing MMO launched last year. Over 1 million boxes were shipped to retailers (the total number over the first quarter post launch was 1.2 million) of which 800 000 were purchased. Around 700 000 AoC accounts were activated at launch but again, at roughly a quarter of a year post-launch, active subscription numbers were 415 000. Comparing launch to about August 2008, this is a decline of active subscriber numbers of about 59.3%.

For both titles, retention rates obviously suck for the first three months of their existence. However, WAR's suck a bit more off a higher number of activated accounts and also because more was spent developing WAR than AoC.