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Fair Game: MMO Design and Mickey’s 10 Commandments

Column By Lisa Jonte on March 22, 2013

MMOs are like theme parks. No, not just “theme park” MMOs, even sandbox MMOs are like real world theme parks. However we, or our characters, move through them, MMOs are encapsulated worlds created to give people a temporary escape from day-to-day reality.

Today I write an open letter to game companies, using Disney’s famous, Mickey’s 10 Commandments as a template for game creation and continuation; in hopes that the wisdom of the undisputed leader in theme park design might inspire them to greater heights.

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1. Know Your Audience

This might be seen as the trickiest part of game design, because how can you know who will be playing before a game is released? But even if you don’t know for sure who your audience will be, you do know who you’re gearing up for. (And if you don’t, you have bigger problems than this article can possibly address.)

The real trick to knowing your audience, is not stopping once the game is out of beta; tastes change and with them audiences change. Evolving with those changes can mean the difference between an MMO having a long and vibrant tenure, or being an expensively produced flash in the pan.

2. Wear Your Guest's Shoes

If the people behind the game don’t play it, they why are they there? This doesn’t just apply to developers and coders, but to artists, writers and pretty much everyone in the corporate food chain. Everyone, from the front desk receptionist to the execs down the hall should be required to play the game at least once per week. You don’t have to like the game or gaming in general, but you should have a solid grasp of what it is you have a part in producing.

This isn’t just a nicety for the sake of PR, it’s practical. Different daily occupations bring different perspectives to problem solving, and it may be that the person with the solution to that nagging problem the devs can’t figure out, is the one changing the toner.

3. Organize the Flow of People and Ideas

One of the more irritating parts of certain games is the ridiculous amount of back and forth between distant locations. While I realize that having all quests in a particular area magically align is bad storytelling, there’s no reason to fling players across your virtual creation for one set of items, only to send them back again on the second leg of the quest.

Constant travel is just another grind, and grinding is tedious, and tedium is the opposite of what games are supposed to be about.

4. Create a Weenie

PvE should be about more than just quest destinations. Give people reasons to explore that magnificent world you’ve created. Give them things to discover. What about hidden PvP instances, housing locations or even whole towns with special merchants selling unusual gear? Places that can be marked on a player’s map, but can only be found by exploring?

5. Communicate With Visual Literacy

Know what you’re putting into your game and why. Visual cues are part of storytelling, and even a sandbox MMO makes use of storytelling.

If, for example, your world is covered in ice, then everything in that world needs to reinforce that, and not just the look of the NPCs. Merchants need to sell cold weather gear. PCs dressed out of season should be told off by NPCs.

6. Avoid Overload

Your game can have all the complexity and layers and awesomeness ever created, but that doesn’t mean I need to hear about it all at the same damn time.

For Pete’s sake, give people time to walk around and figure out the basics. Your fourfold, flux-capacious, hyperattenuated battle system may be the best idea since the self-making sandwich, but I don’t need to hear about all its particulars in one go. And I certainly don’t need to hear about it while the system is shouting at me about the crafting system, the leveling system, the guild system and how much crap I can buy I from the cash shop.

Seriously, people, leave some things for me to discover tomorrow and the next day. Now, take your foot off the gas and try the decaf.

7. Tell One Story at a Time

Again, even sandbox games use storytelling, and those stories would be a whole lot more effective if players were allowed to finish one before being shunted into another. A quest log stuffed with OMGURGENT storylines is the narrative equivalent of the overload in commandment six.

As with dating, there’s a reason why you shouldn’t vomit out your game’s whole life story your first time out; it reeks of desperation. That alone will scare off more gamers (not to mention dates) than any amount of grinding ever could.

8. Avoid Contradiction

Decide what your game is (and what it isn’t) and stick with that. Evolving based on a changing player base is not the same thing as trying to be all things to all gamers. If your genre is horror, be horrifying.

As with the visual literacy of commandment five, everything in your game should reinforce what the game is. So if your genre is set in a dystopian, fairytale, retro-future, there shouldn’t be any quests involving wild west saloons, or mech suits.

9. For Every Ounce of Treatment Provide a Ton of Fun

What makes your MMO the one that gamers should want to play? Moreover, what makes your MMO the one that players should want to spend their limited cash on? Think about that. And if the only answer you can come up with involves another iteration of ‘kill ten rats’, think again.

10. Keep it Up

Remember Caesar, thou art mortal. The best, most innovative game in the world is nothing if no one can play for five minutes without a glitch popping up. Having a regularly assigned maintenance crew to take care of issues as they crop up is just good business. And having server outages and massive downtime during launch is inexcusable. (You know who you are.)

There is more to this whole MMO thing than getting players. It’s keeping those players that matters.

And now, a few responses to last column’s comment thread:

Mykell said:  “That would never happen to me. I'M different.”

Of course you are, sweetie. Which is why we’ll all be crashing at your house when you’re rich and famous.

Hellteron said:  “Nice to see you around here. Greetings from Spain.”

Is that who I think it is?  :D

Until next time, may your escort missions be few and your drops plentiful.

Hot dog cart image: By Detroit Publishing Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Lisa Jonte / Mother, writer, artist, editor. One time (print and web) comics creator, and former editor of the fem-centric GirlAMatic.com; now a secretive and hermit-like prose writer, (and not so secretive nor hermit-like blogger.) A gamer since way back, (no, seriously, waaaay back) her collection of gaming paraphernalia is older than most game store clerks.

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