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Justin Webb: Nobody Wants to be the Janitor on the Death Star

Column By Justin Webb on March 16, 2010

I wrote a bit yesterday about R.A. Salvatore’s talk at GDC. A portion of his talk was about player death and the teasing of the Well of Souls feature. However, Bob also had a lot to say about making players feel like heroes. Since he created one of fantasy’s most enduring heroes, he assuredly knows what he’s talking about.

A lot of Bob’s talk centered around heroic events that he experienced as a player in Everquest. He gave one hilarious anecdote concerning a well-timed use of Supernova in the Estate of Unrest during a twink run that had a lot of the old timers in the audience mumbling in agreement and stroking their beards.

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He put forward the argument that a harsh death penalty; a big hard-to-navigate world; challenging content; and a bunch of good friends can all help lead to a world where “heroic moments” can occur. And that it is absolutely vital for the player to feel like a hero when playing a game.

He’s absolutely right. But perhaps not for the reasons he supplied.

One of the problems MMOs have in this regard is that they are full of lots of other players all trying to be heroes too. When everyone is a hero, it can be difficult to feel like your contributions matter. And especially hard to stand out and feel like you are a badass – there’s always someone who’s a bigger badass than you are.

So what kinds of thing can developers do to help players feel like they are heroes? And, conversely, what things can ruin the experience and make you feel like a cog in the machine?

While I understand that performing mundane tasks early on can help forge a sense of progression when contrasted with events that may happen at higher level, there really is no excuse in this day and age for making players “kill 10 rats”, or any other combination of barnyard animals. It’s become a cliché (and a great MMO blog). But there’s no surer way of making players groan than throwing seemingly harmless animals at them in a starter area.

Sure, I guess that Conan himself started out small, but exterminating rats in a basement or delivering pies and/or mail around town does not make anyone feel like a badass. Let’s not do this anymore. It’s embarrassing.

Okay, so what should we be killing at level 1? Well, it doesn’t have to be rats. The bigger/meaner the monster, the more the player feels like a badass when he kills it. For example, the first public quest in Empire Chapter 1 of WAR culminates with the player taking down a chaos giant. The giant isn’t just hanging out at a nearby barn waiting to be murdered. He’s pissed. He arrives by smashing a pathway through the forest, trees falling around him as he makes his way toward the players. The ground rumbles as he approaches. The thing is though, he’s fairly easy to take down. But when you kill him for the first time, potentially at level 1, you feel like a badass. We can all argue about the implementation of PQs in WAR and whether they work well on a low-pop world, but that Chaos Giant experience is visceral and exciting in a way that killing 20 worms in the Feerott never will be. Let’s do more of this please.

Conversely, in LotRO, hobbit players get to encounter a Ring Wraith during the starter instance. However, you don’t get to kill it. You just get scared a bit.

Most MMOs have combat that is designed to make players kill monsters one-on-one. This helps in system balancing and in defining the metabolism of combat, but can end up feeling a bit dull when grinding. Often in these games, if the player subsequently attracts the attention of a second or third monster, the player must run away or quickly become dead. Despite the old adage, it sucks having to run away.

When I kill one rat, I don’t feel like a hero. However, if I kill a dozen rats at once, I feel like more of a badass. One-versus-many combat isn’t anything new – the City of Heroes franchise has combat that involves killing multiple monsters at once. So too does Tera, a new action-MMO by Bluehole Studios, which got its first US showing at GDC.

In Tera, lots of the monsters exist as groups, often with one main monster accompanied by up to a dozen or so smaller minions. Each “pull” has the player fighting against a crowd of monsters. Each member of the monster mob also communicates with the others – special overhead icons show when they are talking to each other. While, difficulty-wise, it’s no harder than killing a monster one-on-on in, say, WoW, killing twelve monsters simultaneously in one encounter in Tera feels great. It’s like being in a Kung Fu movie. It feels epic.

Another way to kill the sense of the heroic is to set the action in a mundane environment. When Star Wars Galaxies first came out, much attention was based on its Jedi mechanic. While a few select players managed to eventually become Jedi, most players ended up leading a fairly humdrum life, dancing in cantinas or hunting small furry things, essentially doing jobs that somewhat mirrored normal everyday activities. Don’t get me wrong, SWG is an awesome game with arguably the best crafting and housing systems in living memory. However, if I’m playing in the Star Wars universe, I want to be piloting the Death Star, not cleaning out its restrooms. For players wanting to feel like heroes, SWG at launch was hard going.

Another way to make players feel like heroes is to get them involved in epic storytelling. If players feel like their actions directly impact the world, they are more likely to feel heroic. In most games, if you kill the baddie, he respawns a few minutes later. You didn’t really achieve anything by killing him. He’s still there to be the baddie for the next group of adventurers who happen by. The awesome phasing mechanic in Wrath of the Lich King helps to overcome this lack of persistence. It allows players to see changes in the world that they helped cause, making them feel like they are molding the world through their actions.

Clearly, some of the examples I’ve mentioned above have been used facetiously – they’re all great games overall. However, as an industry, we could do a better job at making players feel like heroes instead of rodent exterminators. To the forums!

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