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Adventures in Atys

A MMO veteran of the last decade returns to an older, lesser-known game for one more look. Join me as I explore Ryzom's Atys from a fresh perspective and shed some light on this unique game.

Author: Jianyu

The Trouble with Progression

Posted by Jianyu Thursday January 28 2010 at 2:30AM
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Today began quietly as I settled into my room after classes and booted up my computer. The first question on my mind was "How is Ryzom going to surprise me next?". Being a rhetorical question, I had to settle on my back-up: "What do I want to do today?". There is something to be said about the implications of that question, particularly applied to the MMO genre, but I'll get into that later.

Before the play can begin, the stage must be set, so allow me to recount today's Adventure in Atys by lifting the curtain on a serene summer night. The dank air carries with it the sounds of the jungle: the low growling of a slumbering ragus - her belly stuffed with her day's hunt; and the faint fluttering of winged seeds as they drift carelessly to the ground. Boisterous chirping rises from unseen insects beneath the thick mist, and beyond the swaying trees and the canopies above is the sky: a deep ocean of indigo littered with the lights of distant worlds, all dwarfed by a near and familiar planet.

This vivid image of Atys may be hard to grasp by those who have never visited the living planet, but I am certain those who have experienced it for themselves will agree: the preceding paragraph describes the sights and sounds of Atys far more accurately than any screenshot could.

Its a shame that so many of the people who brought Ryzom to life are no longer working on it. The level of detail birthed by the vision and inspiration of the game's developers is at worst astounding. To play the game and embrace the concepts that drive it means to open your eyes to more than just the numbers that define how strong you are. It means to begin to notice the world around you, to see tiny elements of ambiance everywhere you look - things you wouldn't ever think are important to a video game, but add such vibrancy and life that to be without them suddenly leaves you wanting. It is impossible to turn your camera anywhere on Atys and not notice this. It could be the birds flying in the sky, or insects crawling on the ground. The clicking croaks of pond frogs signals you towards a colorful family jumping its way in and out of the mud; sound cues are just as important, and everything in the game produces some sort of sound.

If you have a surround sound system, you're in for a fantastic experience.

Having taken a moment to appreciate the atmosphere, I proceeded to begin working on my swordsmanship. Not long into the hunt however I suddenly had a change of plans. After a brief period of correspondence through mail, I caught reader and new player Rikutatus online. Unlike yours truly, Riku chose to begin his life on the mainland in the desert region, home to the Fyros. Though we were separated by great distance and even greater beasts, luck came in the form of generous members of Phaedra's Tears (Joneyentee, Thaella, and yesterday's Tyneetryk - featured above - among them) who were planning a trek from the forests to the jungles, which would pass through the desert and pick up Rikutatus on the way.

Rikutatis poses for the blog

Eager to get to spend more time with other homins I anxiously awaited word of their arrival, upon which receiving I quickly teleported to Zora to greet everyone. After settling in and making pacts with the local Kami and Karavan shrines, discussion turned to what the trekking team would tackle next. The decision was made to make a return trip to the desert, allowing me the opportunity to finally explore another ecosystem.

After a long but relatively predator-free journey to the jungle outskirts, we came upon the cave that led to Fyros territory. The first thing I noticed after crossing through was that the desert is very, very bright.

The difference between the environments was so distinct that I had to let my eyes adjust. Having done just that, we set out to cross the dunes...

...we saw fascinating new creatures...

...and ran beside gorgeous vistas...

...and as the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, there stood our destination. Beyond the hill, nestled in the shadow of the cliff rests Pyr, capital city of the Fyros civlization.

After a brief respite and some conversation in the streets of the city, Rikutatis and I bid farewell to our guides, and Ryzom further broke away from what I have come to expect as the norm in MMORPGs.

I would ask my readers who play more conventional MMORPGs such as WoW. EQ2, or LoTRO, in particular those who have max level characters and have been playing for at least this long, to think back on the last 3 or 4 months. In that period of time, how often have you thought about going into forgotten newbie zones and giving players just starting out a set of upgrades, some money, and offered to escort them halfway across the continent to meet their friends? How often have you seen or heard of other players doing that?

I'm not asking this sarcastically, I am in fact genuinely interested to know because in my experience, the level of overall community interaction in Ryzom seems far and above anything I've experienced since EverQuest 1. Its such a jarring change in attitude that it begs the question: why?

There are very likely tens or hundreds of possible answers to that, but the one I would like to explore is, as you may have already guessed, progression-oriented gameplay. Not that there is anything wrong with progression, mind you. I have no intention of demonizing this type of game design, and in fact I often embrace it. Regardless of your position however, it is an undeniable fact that the core design of your game will influence every other element no matter how convoluted, player behaviors certainly included amongst them.

I'm personally very fond of progression in the right circumstances. To offer you some perspective, I hold the realm first level 80 Death Knight achievement on my server in WoW. In Age of Conan, I out-leveled the collector's edition experience bonus ring before I could even claim it once obtaining the box after head start. I then proceeded to reach level 80 (the game's level cap for those unfamiliar) before the end of that first calendar week. More recently with the launch of Aion, I spent nearly a week, sleep-deprived, straight grinding until I hit level which point I finally passed out and if I recall correctly, ran myself off the edge of the abyss with my face.

The point is that I am a relatively hardcore "no-lifer" when it comes to a progression game that I can commit to. If the game is about competition and shiny carrot after shiny carrot to prove just how much extra free time I have, you can bet I'm there with the best of them, and somewhere above-average if not.

Now, the thing about progression is that everything hinges on having another level to gain, another hurdle to jump, another boss to kill, or another piece of loot to farm. Inherently this isn't a bad thing. If anything, its quite clearly one of the most popular forms of gameplay. Its employed by a very significant portion of single player games and is part of what has made World of Warcraft the massive success that it is.

The problem lies in the fact that while progression gameplay makes for really engaging single player games, MMORPGs require a bit more maintenance. There's nothing to complain about with a single player progression-oriented RPG (most japanese RPGs would be considered progression-based, whereas a game like Oblivion is not) unless you generally dislike the style. You get started, you're given progressively more challenging goals, you accomplish those goals, and are rewarded with progressively better equipment / skills until you eventually complete all the available content and subsequently beat the game. The end result is a satisfied gamer who then looks for the next game to occupy their time, and thus the process repeats.

Now lets look at progression in an MMORPG. A player creates his or her character, a process that for most games should give players some sense of freedom and choice. Having decided what their new online persona will be, the player enters the game for the first time. They are immediately beset by questgivers offering them specific tasks which upon completion reward them with experience and often improved equipment. The equation is simple, the player feels that he or she is accomplishing something, and continues to follow this path which offers increasingly difficult tasks with increasingly better rewards.

Eventually our player discovers instanced dungeons. The dungeons present a similar formula in a different package: complete the challenges (bosses), be rewarded (loot/experience). This is where our problems begin: once our player realizes that s/he has obtained or exhausted every meaningful reward, there is no longer any need to complete the challenge. As more and more players reach this same point, the dungeon sees less and less use. Eventually it is forgotten and left unused (save for the occasional alt-gearing), and the development time and expenses used to build the challenge begin to go to waste.

Meanwhile our player has made his/her way to the level cap, and is ready to begin raiding. Now the rewards don't involve experience, and are instead focused solely on loot and, in some cases, bragging rights. Making new raids isn't cheap, and it isn't fast. Because so much time must go into making these raids function, the developers must extend the amount of time before the player exhausts a raid's rewards, which most often comes in the form of loot tables. Now instead of 3 or 4 runs of an instance before getting all the gear, the player finds that s/he is often not getting a single drop in an entire run, and if s/he's lucky enough to see such a drop, there's still the matter of winning the roll (or bid).

The extended usefulness of the raid also manifests itself in lockout timers. While these accomplish the goal of limiting the amount of gear any player can obtain in a given period and reduces the influx of these things into the game, these also hinder the player. Because progression also means that while challenges become harder and loot improves, older content becomes increasingly irrelevant, players will eventually reach a point where the only reason they have to run this older content is either for the fun of it (a problem I will broach shortly), or to help friends. This means that there is a void that must be filled when not raiding, and this void is very often comparatively larger than the amount of time the player actually spends raiding each week.

Still, the game is about progression. Eventually that new raid will open up, and in order to experience it, our player needs the gear from the current raid. So the months go by and our player keeps at it, but the raid never changes. The loot might, and maybe the raid members, but the actual content is the same every time through. Eventually it becomes predictable, boring even. By the time the player has exhausted the loot table, s/he's long exhausted the fun factor, and the raid becomes all carrot and no stick.

Sure the new raid brings new challenges and new gear, but the pattern will ultimately repeat because Content = Time(Money + Resources), and in a genre that lacks definitive endings content is king.

In a game like Ryzom content comes from the design of the world itself. Player interactions are content, exploration is content. crafting is content, and even though the game may not see as many regular updates or as large updates as mainstream MMOs, the content is so cyclical and continues to feed into itself and everything else that it really doesn't matter. Despite how few substantial updates as the game has seen, a large number of players have been playing for years - some since the very beginning. Comparatively, imagine playing World of Warcraft for 5 years without ever having a new raid or dungeon added. Doesn't sound too fun, does it?

That is because progression content is finite. Its all about reaching a goal for the purpose of being able to work towards another goal, ever higher up a ladder that you're climbing faster than is tall because C=T(M+R). Is the new content fun? Sure. Does it keep the game fresh? For the most part, yes. Is it sustainable? At the expense of a lot of other things. Even if you're a casual player who will never reach that point of exhaustion, think about all of the development resources that could go into making your game experience so much more enriching with small details like those in tonight's introductory paragraph.

More importantly, getting back to my earlier question, lets think about the impact this has on player behavior and community growth. When everything hinges on progression, suddenly players need to watch out for themselves and their immediate circle. The game becomes less about interaction and more about "How can I get myself to the next point in progression?". Pressure is placed on the players to spend their time specifically focused on these goals.

Rather than stopping to ask "What can I do today?" the question becomes "What should I do today?", and suddenly the freedom and choice is gone. Its all about climbing to the top of that ladder.

Without these sorts of pressures and pidgeon-holing, players in Ryzom can spend more time doing what they want to do rather than what they need to do. Suddenly it no longer matters that the game has hunting/gathering mechanics instead of questing, because its no longer a grind, its an experience. One that changes every day because all of the game's weight is placed on the immersion and the interaction.

I truly think the industry could benefit from creating a delineation between Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games, and Massively Multiplayer Online Virtual Worlds.

Having thoroughly crammed your heads, I'll conclude tonight by taking things down a notch.

At the end of the evening Rikutatis and I, both being roleplayers, decided to take our first plunge into our character concepts. Both being Zoraï and devout followers of Ma-Duk (who for those that do not know is Ryzom's equivalent of Avatar's Eywa), it was only natural that we would end up discussing our theism at a Kami sanctuary.

Venturing out into the jungle we came upon our destination and sat ourselves to meditate. It was around this time that a yubo wandered up to me and plopped itself at my feet. For the entire duration we were there (a bit over 2 hours) the yubo stayed by my side. It was a totally unexpected and considering the subject of the roleplay, perfectly suited event.

What is even more astonishing however is that after saying our good nights and going our separate ways, the yubo continued to follow me!

It followed me far beyond its normal territory all the way back to the city and continued to stay with me for some time before finally losing interest. While it isn't abnormal for creatures to come up and inspect players, I've never seen or heard of one that didn't immediately run away after doing so. I'm not sure if it was because I was RP-walking rather than my usual run, or because I had unequipped my weapons and made myself less threatening, but needless to say it was a very awesome experience.

It was testament to exactly what Ryzom represents, and why it has given me the inspiration and passion to write this blog.

Ma-Duk Watches Over Us