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Mark Kern: The War Against Down Time

Column By Mark Kern on June 13, 2014

Last week I wrote about the loss of class interaction and dependency as one reason for weakened socialization in modern MMOs. This week I want to discuss another big factor in the decline of social MMOs, the war against downtime.

I deliberately use the phrase “war against downtime” because, as MMO developers, we really worked hard to eliminate downtime from the genre. There was a time when MMOs and MUDs included a lot of, well, nothing much happening. In Everquest, players had to sit and medicate to regain mana for minutes. In games like Gemstone (a MUD on GEnie and later AOL), you didn’t gain levels until you sat near lay-lines of power and reflected on your past experience as you waited for your xp to slowly convert to actual levels. You could easily spend 5-30 minutes in downtime between bouts of monster killing and questing.

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To be honest, I never designed a game with downtime, and I’m unsure about the historical reasons for its presence in early MMO design. When we started WoW, we just said “downtime is bad and keeps you from playing the game” and worked to eliminate it in all ways possible. We eliminated any need to sit still and wait to regain health or mana, and we streamlined the game so that you could just chain quests together rapidly. Our one attempt to bring back some form of “hey, you should slow down,” was rest xp, which was originally designed as a way to penalize hard core players from playing continuously and also to act as “catch up” code for less driven players to keep better pace with their l33t friends. But this just moved (if it worked at all) downtime to an offline mode not an online activity.

But it became clear, after years of streamlining MMO gameplay, that we lost something when we eliminated downtime. While we had gained access to a much larger pool of players who didn’t have time for “useless” downtime, we lost a huge amount of socialization in MMOs. Downtime was boring, and players filled the time with real conversation, getting to know each other, trading tips and planning strategy together. Its the social aspect that made downtime a fun way to get to meet new people and form lasting friendships. The Internet was not so extensive or pervasive back then, so if you wanted to learn more about the game, you had to spend time talking to other players.

MMOs today are a blur of quest hopping. Combat is fast, leveling is fast, healing is near instant and so is mana regen. There is simply no time to talk to anyone, let alone stop and have a real conversation on a regular basis. There are no central players hangouts anymore, pubs are empty, and cities just silent monuments to auction houses and banks where people are buried in UI screens instead of talking to each other.  

Combined with enhanced solo-abililty and reduction of class interdependence (see my previous article), we have created massively single player games. We’ve reduced social ties so much that we’ve made our games disposable as soon as the content is gone. If you haven’t made deep friendships on one MMO, its much easier to jump onto the next one as soon as it comes along.

I’m not so naive, nor are my glasses tinted rosy enough, to think that we can bring back downtime as it used to be and expect players to enjoy it. But I think we do have to address the loss of socialization in MMOs. Not just because its bad for business to have players hop from game to game, but because those of us who experienced downtime can really value how special it was to play some of those earlier MMOs. I still miss people I’ve gamed with in the past in these bygone MMOs, while I can’t even remember the names of people I’ve only just grouped with in Wildstar.

Next week, lets talk about some ideas for getting the multiplayer and social aspect back into MMOs. Can we make downtime fun and slow enough to allow for rich social interaction? Can we bring back some form of class interdependency without breaking solo-ability? Will any of this make MMOs better, and bring back some of the special feelings which made the genre so compelling? I don’t have all the answers, but we can get the ball rolling together.

 

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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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