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Isphet's "The big picture" blog

I'm a "big picture" kind of guy. This is my spot to let my mind wander and theorize about the past, present, and future of the industry. The opinions contained herein are liable to change at any time.

Author: Isphet

Geography: an overly neglected aspect of world creation in MMORPGs

Posted by Isphet Monday January 12 2009 at 1:53PM
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I'm somewhat of a geography nut. I have a bunch of globes decorating my house, as well as a bunch of maps and atlases throughout my house. Everyone has "their thing" I suppose.

Something that has always drawn me to MMOs is the ability to explore. I'll spend HOURS just walking around the world, trying to see where I can get to where no one has been before. The whole idea of finding a new place or seeing something in a game for the first time is very compelling to me.

The typical conventions of recent MMO world creation are really starting to tick me off. Perfectly square zones that you can't travel out of. Many games have "global maps" that only show a portion of the world, and you can also only explore very small sections of those maps. I HATE wondering why i can't go further east in a game when I look at the map. I see land over there on the map; so why can't I go there? If I run into another invisible wall, I think I'm going to scream. And why can I swim in light blue water, but the second i get to the DARK BLUE water, suddenly  I get an "instant death" countdown timer.

When are we going to see a game that focuses more on geography and exploration? When are we going to see a game that actually has a logical, continuous, round world? A place where, if there's a tall mountain; It's not simply impassable, you just need some mountain climbing skill and supplies to climb the mountain? When traveling in a snowy, frozen tundra, shouldn't you be wearing furs, instead of  simply walking around in a slutty night elf rogue nothing outfit?

Disclaimer: I've played a lot of MMOs, but I haven't played them all. Maybe some MMO worlds are already this way, and I just haven't experienced them yet. For example, I heard that SWG might be somewhat like this, but I never played it.

A continuous, travel-logical world could be a fantastic setting for a future MMORPG. Civilization starts in a fertile, mesopotamia-type area. the civilization starts out small; the world is dangerous and unsettled; filled with all kinds of new creatures and dangers.

From there, weekly or monthly updates could occur. Small settlements begin to sprout up in logical areas. Paths and eventually roads are developed between the small settlements. Settlements and trade grows. New products are created. The frontier of civilization expands, little by little, and the dangers at the fringes slowly become more challenging.

Eventually, the entire continent is explored. Civilization begins to live on the edges of the waters, and enterprising players begin to learn the art of naval travel. Ships start out without much range, but eventually get better, and new lands are discovered. The world can eventually be circumnavigated, and new continents with dangerous, unexplored interiors, begin to be settled.

The idea is that the world is NOT simply a static place; and instead slowly grows, bit-by-bit, in small weekly patches. The original continent could be mostly explored, though some areas wouldn't be accessible until people figured out how to travel there safely: deserts or mountains for example. But most importantly, the world, and travel there-in, makes logical sense.

From a developer standpoint, once the world is created, content wouldn't be too difficult to change on a regular basis. On a given week, you might implement a new road into the game, or add a new building in a city. You might add a new settlement of goblins outside of a burgeoning settlement. It wouldn't be too out of hand to keep going. The point is; there's always something new every week for players to check out, even if it's just a small thing or two. One or two new items, one or two new buildings, one or two new creatures and/or settlements each week, and eventually you would have one hell of an awesome world. If you pull an "oops" and something is overpowered, you simply change it again the following week and make it right.

A world that makes sense, where the only boundaries are logical ones, could be a very compelling setting for an MMORPG.  Maybe it's too much to ask for from a company/development standpoint, but one can dream, can't they? In any case, I would like to see MMO developers begin to put more thought into the actual makeup of their worlds, instead of relying on conventions that leave those of us that appreciate geography and exploration longing for more.

 

The true test of an MMORPG is in the endgame.

Posted by Isphet Sunday January 11 2009 at 12:22AM
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I tend to categorize most MMORPGs into three basic categories):

 

1- an early quitter

2- a max level only game

3- a long-term game.

 

Here's a little more description of the three classes.

An early quitter is a game that you try out for fun. You might load it in, play it for a few days, and decide it's kind of fun but not worth your time. Or you might consider it awful, and play it one afternoon, and that's it. Whatever the case, you quit in short order; before you reach the maximum possible level.

A max level only game is a game that you play until your character hits maximum level, then quit shortly thereafter. The main problem with this category of games is a broken or dis-interesting endgame. My personal examples of this category (you may or may not agree) are: Age of Conan (PvR is teh suck), Dark Age of Camelot (too much zerg and not enough skill in open RvR), EQ2 (got to 80 but my friends mostly left for Age of Conan) and Warhammer Online (broken fortress seiges, final endgame unplayable.) I played each of these games to the maximum level, then played for a few weeks and decided that I didn't have anything fun, new, or interesting to do, so I put them down. You can say about this class "the journey is worth taking, but the destination is not up to par."

A long-term game is the rare breed that manages to keep you interested for a long time, even well after you reach maximum level. For example, with me, EQ1 and Warcraft were both long-term games for me. I played the end game of each for quite a while, because both were interesting and managed to have challenging endgames that made me come back for more.

----tangent on---

I have to say; I'm not an alt guy. I can't stand leveling multiple characters. The reason is that once I play a game with a character; I've experienced the majority of the game. I don't care in WHICH WAY I experience a game's entirety of content that I find interesting, I just care about the experience, the journey, the first time through. Extra times through the same story, the same quests, etc, feels more like busy-work to me than fun.

---tangent off---

From a developer's point of view, they all want to make the game that keeps people playing forever; a long while after the endgame. The ultimate goal is a sustained community that continues to feed 15 bucks a month into the company coffers (as well as provide a great game to the community, of course. usually.)

So what goes wrong, exactly, with so many endgames? Why is a good endgame so elusive? Honestly, that's a different blog for a different time, and If I can REALLY answer that question in a blog, I should be working for a game developer somewhere. I'm going to gloss over this question for now until a later date.

All I know is the true test of an MMO is in the endgame. If a developer gets their endgame right; they get their game right. That's where the true money and dedication from the community rolls in.

I don't put a lot of stock into the "levelling up" portion of an MMORPG. That portion of the game is pretty much set in stone in appropriate length for most American gamers. If you hit max level in a month or less, the game is "too easy." if it takes more than 6 months to hit max level, it's "a grindfest." The majority of MMO gamers seem to stick to this mantra rather religiously. Levelling up is usually a fun 2-3 month adventure in MMOs; but developers aren't going for three-monthers, they want sustained players.

------

Enter the wildcard: the "sandbox" game. In these games, there doesn't seem to be a max level. You can play for years and not "max out" your avatar in-game. For those of you that have played EVE, that's a good example of a sandbox game. Another example is most likely going to be the upcoming game Darkfall, though I am merely speaking through conjecture as I have not yet been able to play the game, which is currently in a closed-beta.

I like the idea of a sandbox game. It's open, and you play the parts that you like; there are many different ways to play them. You aren't pidhgeon-holed by classes, specific skills, and levels. There are a few problems with EVE for me, though: the travel time (space is like.. mostly that: space, man. Lots of autopilot all over the place), and PvP in the low security sectors. The game has been out for 5 years or so now; and there are people much further along than I in the game. It would take me months and months just to get to a place in the game where I would be considered worthy of being another player's roadkill the second i go to an unsecured sector. I just feel a little too far behind the curve on that game to make it fun, since I picked it up so late. It's kind of too bad, in spite of the extreme learning curve in the game, it looks like one hell of a game to me. Just thinking about the depth of that game makes me want to try it out again anyways, in spite of the issues i have with it.

Darkfall will be a similar experience I would imagine, but of course in a different, fantasy setting. And of course, in this case, I will be getting in at the outset of the game, letting me be more competitive. I'm really looking forward to the experience once it comes out. If it's implemented properly, it's going to be completely awesome for a long time. Because, there's no level wall/transition to endgame at the end of the experience.

Kind of an interesting concept, actually: Very often, when you finally level a chaacter to max level in a standard MMO, the endgame is a completely different game than the game you played to get to the maximum level in the first place. That's got to change people's conception of the game and throw more than a few players off. Again, probably a different blog topic, but a sandbox style game would avoid that possibly awkward and "player-pissing-off" transition.

Anyways, hopefully, you can agree that the true test of an MMORPG is in the endgame. Let's hope that developers can improve their track records for endgames; as most of the current generation MMOs are sorely lacking in that department.