Designer Stephanie Shaver puts the RPG back in the MMO
A shot rings out. A woman screams. Somewhere in the office, five heads raise. A nervous moment passes as they share confused looks, their faces bathed in a soft phosphor luminescence. Across their monitors, 3D renderings of manly men in fatigues wait on dimly lit catwalks inside a dull gray chemical complex.
That's me, right there. Next to Dick Cheney, the world's worst person to have on your First Person Shooter game team. I shoot the terrorists, sure. But I also shoot the hostages. And my teammates. And the trees. And the walls. And myself.
Let me assure you that Steph with a virtual hand grenade is a frightening thing.
It's not that I don't like a good fragfest, I'm just very easily excited, a naturally twitchy person who gets even twitchier when she's playing a twitch game. It doesn't even take a twitch game to make me go nuts. I used to scream when treeform'd Druids in EverQuest would move around (a bug I think they fixed a long, long time ago). There I'd be, wandering around the forest as my Wood Elf Ranger bad self, happily butchering brownies or whatever it was I killed for experience and lewt, when suddenly a GIGANTIC TREE would cruise across my screen. Instantly I would spasm and fall out of my chair, shrieking loud enough to cause one of my then-fellow onsite gamemasters to come running in from his smoke break to make sure I wasn't having a fit. Again.
This all may seem incredibly random, but I swear I have a point about game design in here somewhere. Hang with me.
Y'see, I believe in the RPG in MMORPG. MMORPGs are not primarily twitch games. They are less about how fast you can aim and fire, and more about advancing a set of tools that you strategically employ. Sure, timing is involved -- when you aggro a creature, when you use a certain spell effect, monitoring your health and so on -- but it's not the same as an FPS or a fighting game like, say, Street Fighter or Dead or Alive 4: Whoa, Those Bosoms Sure Do Bounce a Lot.
Nor, I'd argue, should it be.
Course, that's a broad statement to make, but remember -- I'm still talking MMORPG here, not MMO. There are FPS MMOs, and that's fine and dandy if that's your cup of tea. But RPG entails something else, and much like when you sit down to read a fantasy book you expect to see a certain amount of a) magic b) dragons and c) angst-ridden elves, you don't expect an MMORPG to reward twitch skills. It's the wrong genre.
Here then are the things I think make up my ideal MMORPG. Ready?
- Simple to play may seem easy, but there are nine and sixty ways of constructing roleplaying games, and not every single one of them is right. If it seems to you like sometimes designers hate players...well, we're human, and some of us are here for good, and some of us are here for awesome. I don't think designers intentionally make games to torture people, but I do think they can get attached to the shiny ingenuity of an idea. Which is great -- if the idea is a good one. Otherwise....
- Not taxing my patience usually goes hand in hand with "simple to play", but gameplay isn't always the cause of this particular ailment. Other players -- and an inability to deal with them -- can seriously harsh my buzz when I'm playing. I especially love games that allow higher level players to gank lower level ones as they come out of character creation. And by "love" I mean "Holy canolis, what were they thinking?" Followed immediately by searching for the uninstall shortcut.
- Good social tools -- well, it's not much of an MMO if it doesn't encourage community and networking, now is it? A game that makes it impossible for me to link up with friends (when I want to play with them) or that fails to give in-game impetus to group has missed the point of the power of being online, and needs to be punished. Not that I think grouping should be forced, mind you -- as you'll see in item five, below -- but there should be reasons to group. Just as there should, ideally, be reasons to solo.
- Accomplishing something within ten minutes of play is a relatively new development in the history of MMORPGs, but it's a good shift in the game design philosophy. Yes, there should be reasons to stay in the game for hours and hours...if you want to. But sometimes I want a quick fix. Get in. Kill creatures. Get out. We all have busy lives (except you, Charlene) -- I just want to log in for a few minutes on my lunch break with my Kaylee-look-alike and mindlessly slaughter some vampire bunnies with her Ginormous Wrench of Shininess. Is that really such a bad thing?
- Solo play up to the level cap...well, all right, I admit it. I'm Batman. Sure, I'll go along with a group of others if I think they're competent or I feel like doing someone a favor, but most of the time I just like to cruise around, murder vampire bunnies, take their sweet, sweet treasure, and go about my way. While I'm doing this, I may also be terrorizing people on general chat with insane babble about cookies. And before you ask "What kind of cookies, Steph?" the answer is chocolate-orange Milanos, foo.
- Power rewarded according to time investment is what makes an MMORPG an RPG to me, and the point some people miss when they complain that RPGs don't properly reward eye-hand coordination. Yes, levels and experience are an abstraction, but they're not all that unrealistic. For example: you may not believe it from these articles, but I'm a writer in my spare time. After a hard day of slathering hot, buttery textures onto heightmaps and terrorizing the programmers, I come home, crack open Word, and spend at least three to five hours just writing. My prey is the elusive book contract, a rare spawn that I have yet to see, but who knows -- maybe someday I will. In two years of diligent, single-minded pursuit of this spawn, I have improved. I know I have. But it's only because I've put in the time, and the same is true with all my other side projects: aikido, cooking, and soapmaking (please, no Fight Club references -- I'm in enough trouble with the government already over that Dick Cheney comment).
So should RPGs (and MMORPGs) abstract the practice of time and skill with levels/ranks and experience gain? I say: Hell yeah! That's why I play RPGs, dang it! Because I'm good at them. Because my twitchiness doesn't result in four party members hitting the deck as a random spray of bullets ring out across the chemical complex. Because when it comes down to it, I'm good at choosing which vampire bunnies to bash, I'm good at selecting my skills, I'm good at advancing them, and I'm good at deciding which to use when. Otherwise, I'd be playing SimWriter or DojoTycoon or something.
Defining MMORPG fun is my passion, and something I hope will be apparent in the final gameplay of Hero's Journey. Every time I play an MMORPG, I ask myself why this genre in particular lights my fire. Is it acquiring new things? Is it the pride of gaining levels and titles? Is it the thrill of exploring new areas or gaining new quests? Is it meeting new people, calling them noobs, and then asking them if they want some cookies? Perhaps it's all of these. Perhaps it's the crack cocaine we coat the CD cases with. Who knows!
Now if you'll excuse me, I have another hour or two of writing to do....
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