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Mark Kern: If Guild Wars 2 Changed Everything, What’s Next?

Column By Mark Kern on September 27, 2012

In my last article, I talked about the death of quest hubs and Guild Wars 2, which generated 258 comments (the geek in me wanted it to stop at a crisp 256, but alas, it was not to be). I had argued that Guild Wars 2’s more organic approach of discovering content through exploration and dynamic events, rather than being led by the nose through quests and hubs, was going to prompt a sea change in how MMOs get designed in the future. Many of you agreed, and yet many argued that Guild Wars 2 had not done enough to make the claim that it had truly reinvented the genre. So if Guild Wars 2 is still “grindy” to some, still not dynamic enough for others, then what *would* be the true next step? I think Guild Wars 2 has opened the door to a lot of fresh thinking, so let’s explore.

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I believe the key is getting out of the “zone rut.” I would love to see an MMO that explores the nature of time and not of geography. Current MMOs are grounded in fixed location. A player travels through the game location to location; encountering whatever is place there on the map by a designer. These encounters and quests are locked to that location, and the player who travels there will always encounter the same quests and mobs. The world is static. Even public quests, as introduced by Warhammer Online, were fixed to a location and repeated the same content. It was kind of like passing by an attraction at Disneyland, noticing something cool was happening and waiting to hop in on the next ride.

This is a product of the tools that are used to create current MMOs. The tools used to create content consist of a designer picking a place on the game map and dropping down creatures and crafting quests there, and then picking another point on the map and doing the same, ad infinitum. Or at least, it would be if there were enough time and budget to do so….two things which are exponentially rarer to find in games these days. Despite huge budgets for MMOs, the appetite of players for content, combined with spiraling costs of creating it, are making this approach vastly impractical.

But what if we decide to move away from geography: locations, town and fixed places in the world, and instead think of the world as a stream of time. What if the experience of playing an MMO was not rooted in where you traveled, but what happens from when you log in to the time to log out? What if events unfolded around you, instead of you having to go and find them? What if it was these events lead you along from moment to moment, instead of town to town?

Players of D&D might be more familiar with these type of adventures as wilderness or urban adventures. Current MMOs are more like dungeon crawls. In classic D&D dungeon crawls, you would by summoned by a barkeep to explore a dungeon. In that dungeon you would travel from room to room uncovering what danger or treasure lurked there until you had reached the last room, plumbed the deepest level of the dungeon, and slain the dragon. This is analogous to players traveling from zone to zone in an MMO, until they have exhausted the content and defeated the last raid boss.

In wilderness or urban adventures, the dungeon master could not possibly have the time to write out every square mile of location on the map or immense city, and so D&D DMs (dungeon masters) used other techniques to have adventures in these vast areas.  These adventures were laid out as a sequence of encounters and story events that were not tied to a specific location, but happened randomly (rolled encounters), or along a set path of events in a storyline (the Dragonlance series). Where something happened was not so important as what happened and how the players dealt with the encounter. These were by and far my favorite types of adventures in D&D, and especially good DMs could weave a complete adventure “on the fly” with just a blank city or wilderness map and sketch of plot that was largely driven by players and what they did.

Current MMO tools are not up to the task of doing this. Yet. What designers would need is a way to create an encounter, complete with mobs, treasure and story, and even set props (an encampment, a devastated area, a tornado, you name it) that was independent of the world map. The encounter happens when the players are at the right *time* of the story, or created along the fly depending on any number of factors not solely dictated by just where they were. These would be true “dynamic encounters” that differ from Guild Wars 2 in the sense that they may never appear twice in the same location and would behave differently depending on time and place. The designer would create the event, and leave it up to the game server and the player’s actions to determine when and where they occurred.

Once we have these events, we would also need to create a game master…the equivalent of the D&D dungeon master, in order to control and deliver these events to players in a way that entertains or, in the case of story, weaves the plot through player’s actions. We’ve already seen one example of this in Valve’s Left 4 Dead series. In Left 4 Dead, an AI “game director” makes sure that despite where we are in the level, the monsters and events we encounter are unique and timed for maximum dramatic impact, surprise and fun. To scale this idea to an MMO, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and thinking by designers, AI programmers and tools programmers, and it won’t happen now or overnight, but I do believe it is the future.

In the next article, I’ll lay out a little more detail about how these dynamic events might look in an MMO, and how the AI “game director” could be a new way to entertain players in online games. Stay tuned.

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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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