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My thoughts on the MMO market and current game development.

This blog is mainly my opinions of current and future mmo's, what I think dev's are doing right and wrong.

Author: Pyrostasis

Open ended gameplay and character development (Part 3 of the fun missing in MMO's)

Posted by Pyrostasis Friday February 15 2008 at 4:26PM
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So far in this series I have talked about pvp, land control, and having a real enemy you despise to fight against. Today I’m going to talk about character development and endgame mechanics.

Back in the day (just typing that makes me feel old) with UO end game wasn’t even an idea, however today that’s one of the first things people ask. "What’s the end game like?" Why wasn’t it an issue? Well, mainly as the game started about 15 seconds after logging into the game, not 200 hours down the road and countless levels later.

People play games to accomplish something; they have set goals and aim towards getting there as fast as possible. MMO companies seem to have shifted their design from making their play mechanics fun from the get go, to prolonging getting to x for as long as humanly possible, while making you jump through as many hoops along the way. MMO gaming now a days seems more like an endurance match to the finish line rather than a game, and its not uncommon for someone to say "Just deal with it, every MMO has the boring part you just gotta grind through to get to X". My question to you is why?

Why not make a game where you can start right off the bat doing things that are fun, competing with other players who have been around a while, and generally just enjoying yourself from the beginning? The answer is quite simple. Why? Simple. Everquest changed everything.

EQ turned the genre from an open ended sandbox game to a linear progression item fest. Now granted, linear progression item based games have their appealing features, but only to folks who have the time and the intestinal fortitude to put up with the boring stuff long enough to get to the raiding or the pvp or whatever the "end game" is.

I think we need a change back to the basics. Drop the levels, the grind, the items and focus on content and game play. Hell, if you set up the right conditions players will even make their own content.

Its no longer about leveling to 50 so you can fight other 50's its about playing the game, which is a concept so alien to most MMO'ers nowadays that they just look at you funny when you bring the subject up.

But....but...but... if it’s not about leveling or getting the next biggest item... what do you do? Whatever you want is the answer. That’s where a lot of folks are going to just laugh at you and walk away, or just say you are an idiot.

When MMO's first released the game appealed to folks wanting to do anything or be anyone. Now the MMO market appeals to folks by saying you can be X or Y and that’s it.

When I worked at Gamestop back in high school I remember selling UO to people. My pitch went a whole lot like this:

"You really have to try this game. It’s different than anything else you have ever played. You can literally be anything you want. Let’s say you want to be a bow maker, well you go outside start chopping trees get some wood and start crafting.

What if you want to be a dragon tamer! Well, simple you go out and start making friends with little animals and work you way up, they will protect you and fight for you.

How about a thief, want to steal other folks hard work? Well you can do that as well, you just have to learn to be sneaky. Hiding quickly, distracting your opponents, or just simply carrying on a conversation long enough to get what you need!

You can also be a warrior or a mage or better yet a combination of any of the above!"

Usually by that time the customer was drooling and heading for the check out counter with a box in hand. However, that same line above would have people asking... why would I want to tame animals? What do you mean chop wood, what for? What’s the main goal?

When I explain the goal is what you make of it they laugh and walk away. Why? Well... somewhere along the lines folks decided it was more fun to be told what to do, than to do what they wanted to do.

Did the next generation lose its imagination? I love options and possibilities and it seems MMO's have lost that. You can’t make a Mage, Thief, Bowyer anymore... you can be a shaman or a warrior that’s it.

I think when you limit options and branches in your game, folks get bored and pound through content to fast. Give people tons of options and limitless customization and people stop rushing and enjoy what you have made, instead of what your working on next to keep them from being bored.

Make a game worth playing from the start.


eric_w66 writes:

I agree with the "make a game worth playing from the start." bit totally.

But I think that "sandbox"/"skill based games" are certainly not the way to do that. UO was the only choice available at its time, and it still bled customers like crazy (Trammel was born for that very reason) and when EQ1 came out, it nailed the coffin door shut.

A game built on no specific agenda (story) is ... pointless to most people. There's a lot of "Achievers" in the Bartle test, and explorers to a lesser extent.

The problem with making a "Mage/Thief/Bowyer" is exactly what happened in UO and AC1 and SW:G. Everyone found the optimal combo and *everyone* was a Mage/Thief/Bowyer" so you might as well have called it a class "Arcane Archer" or something. Macros are king in skill based games, and UO and SW:G were proof of that. If the system is so great, why was everyone running macros to skill up to the next "template of the month"? And when that was nerfed, switching to the next template using macros? I guess the game wasn't all that fun after all...


Fri Feb 15 2008 4:48PM Report
Pyrostasis writes:

Well there are definitely things to be said about combinations that people run. War mages in AC1 and Dex monkeys in UO, but thats a bad design choice by the designers... not a flaw in the game.

If bob makes mages hurl nukes, everyone will of course play mages. If you balance game play and give 10 VERY good choices, then players have to pick and choose instead of picking the one good one.

As for macroing... that same argument can be used for folks who bot in level based games. You will always have folks wanting the easiest and quickest way to do whatever they want, its your job to make the game balanced and compelling for all.

Fri Feb 15 2008 5:03PM Report
Evilsam writes:

Very good post.I agree 90%

Fri Feb 15 2008 5:33PM Report
ext1 writes:

to eric_w66:

You are wrong, well partly anyway. 

Not everyone did that in those games. Not everyone was 'combat-centric', which is the gyst of the OPs post in some respects.  Sure there were some that used macros for crafting and such, but that was mainly to just automate the process.   I didn't play UO, so I can't speak for that.  I did play EQ when it came out and then on to games like AO, and then onto SWG. 

SWG had something for everyone. 

Combat?  take your pick: PvE or PvP...something for all. 

Crafting?  plenty of options for that. 

Economic dabbling?  there was a whole market for you to play in. 

Socializing and RPing?  Tons of aspects for that in play

Want to hunt with friends then go dance the night away and socialize before returning home and attempting to craft that top-notch stat item you have been gathering resources for from the environment as well as the trade terminals?  - you can do can do all of that.

Then if that gets boring, guess what?  You can trade it all in and start a path on something completely different!  All of these different people had to rely on eachother in some form or another...the interdependency was marvelous. 


Not EVERYONE is about combat combat combat, pvp pvp pvp...unfortunately that seems to be what companies spend too much time listening to these days is the "gimme gimme fast fast" crowd.  Sadly these tend to be a lot of the same people that burn out a game after 6 months and leave.  The die hard fans of a game are the ones rarely served, or only tended to as an afterthought.


Games like UO, and SWG, with thier "do as you want" approach, and skill based instead of level based grindfests had tremendous success....why other companies don't emulate that I have no idea.  It seems everyone just wants to capture that "drool cup-grind grind *ding*- grind grind *ding* - yay i win I reached the end"  crowd.



Fri Feb 15 2008 5:38PM Report
Pyrostasis writes:


Games that had other options than just go and kill x till you ding.

You could play UO for years and never have to kill a single creature. THATS what we are missing, fleshed out non-combat and INTERESTING combat skills.

Fri Feb 15 2008 6:11PM Report
eric_w66 writes:

EQ1/DAOC/EQ2/Vanguard/LOTRO/WoW/FFXI/PotBS had something for everyone. 

[i]Combat?  take your pick: PvE or PvP...something for all. 

Crafting?  plenty of options for that. 

Economic dabbling?  there was a whole market for you to play in. 

Socializing and RPing?  Tons of aspects for that in play[/i]

None of those things are specific to sandbox games.

Fri Feb 15 2008 7:44PM Report
Pyrostasis writes:

EQ1 had pve, but it was a massive level grind. Crafting was incredibly basic. PvP was a joke.

DAOC had great pvp, horrible pve, horrible crafting.

EQ2 GREAT crafting, great pve, horrible pvp.

Vanguard Crafting wasnt bad... pve fairly good...pvp a joke.

LOTRO limited pvp, decent crafting, GREAT pve.

etc etc.

However they are all rather limited and linear. Eve, UO, and to some extent AC were open ended sandbox games that folks can play for years.

Do the games you mentioned have fun aspects? Yes. Are they open ended and fun from the get go with massive character customization? No.

Fri Feb 15 2008 7:59PM Report
eric_w66 writes:

They have the same "open"ness as the sandbox. You can keep playing EQ1, heck, more people do that than UO and AC1 combined. :) No one makes you grind levels. Etc.

You can play any of these games forever. I have to ask "What's the point?" however? Eve? Control some "space"? Build more ships? Is that a reason to play? UO? Grind even more skills with macros? Farm your gear again? AC1? Same thing. "Wander vast open areas with randomly placed mob camps".... that's not a good enough reason to play in a sandbox game to me.

And I don't see picking a template of the month out of a possible 2-3 choices as massive customization ;)...

Fri Feb 15 2008 9:56PM Report
Pyrostasis writes:

But see thats were your wrong eric, they dont have the same openness. Your restricted to a class. That class can only do what that class can do, you cant make your own class, you can mix and match.

Also, population doesnt always mean its the cats meow. WoW is the biggest game ever, and there are tons of us that cant stomach it. Is it the best MMO on the market? Commercially yes. However, MMO's have a rather wide base and there are plenty of niche games out there. Im talking about my niche game.

As for whats the point. Well... whats the point in watching 12 seasons of 24? Whats the point of watching a 4th season of prison break? Its the same thing... your making your own story.

Controlling space in eve isnt as bland as you make it out to be. You ask someone who has taken a area of space from another alliance and they will tell you epic tales of conquest. They will be able to tell you detailed accounts of individual battles and how they effected their virtual world.

Thats the key difference there, being able to change the world. In EVE and Shadowbane you can do that. In UO and AC it was land control... but it was completely player run not game controlled.

Sandbox games arent for everyone, apparently you enjoy the linear path. Nothing wrong with that.

Fri Feb 15 2008 10:20PM Report
Litchfield writes:

let us pray to the mmog gods for teh release of Darkfall.

Fri Feb 15 2008 11:09PM Report
eric_w66 writes:

without respeccing, the sandbox would be the same deal pyro. So, if the devs were "mean", they'd lock you into the skills you learned (sorta like real life).

To duplicate that on any game with classes, all I have to do is log on an alt... and I do. I don't waste time with futile combos however. I don't raise  up archery on my paladin in EQ1 because it isn't useful to him. If I wanted to be a good archer, I log in my ranger. If want to be good at tossing fireballs, my wizard or druid, etc.

Same choice, more classes, more diversity.

Fri Feb 15 2008 11:50PM Report
Pyrostasis writes:

Well that depends on the game. EvE online for instance there are no caps on your skills, so in essence you can be anything and everything.

GRanted UO had a skill cap of 700 points, but their you could change skills simply by stopping one and begin using another.

AC was the only skill based game that you had to respec and it was only 50% skill based and 50% level based.

Sat Feb 16 2008 12:24AM Report
FlyingSquid writes:

Well pyro I like the post and I read through it hard, theres a few things that need explaining why UO wasn't the hit it was when EQ launched.  The fact of the matter was at this time in gaming history when UO poked up it head, we need to remember the gaming community was just that, hardcore gamers or people who enjoyed, loved to play console games, normally deemed as geeks and nerds by those standards that day.  The same goes for the D&D crowd who sat and played tabletop, fantasy games with dice and props.  UO was just as you said as open as it possibly could be, anything was possible within the bounds the programmers would allow us to go, to the hardcore gamers now that was like a kid in a candy store cause now its like all those books and D&D lore you could put to life anyway you fit.

Now when EQ came out, a new crowd came in and made more of gaming community then anyone would thought, it was just the geeks and the nerds there was some people who were curious to this "online" like play where they can interact with anyone.  Now for this crowd, some may have never played a game in their life cept for super mario bros on the old nes, EQ gave them a direction, a story and a progression.  UO did not offer these things, it was more like "Well here's your game, do what you want".  A lot of people were confused at UO just because of this factor.

The fact of the matter is the gaming explosion is what we have to blame for the dumbed down type of mmos we are getting thrown at us.  No longer is there a thing as a nerd or a geek that term was phased out when WoW made its explosion, it is now socially exceptable to play games without getting picked on and called a looser, everyone and their mom plays games now its no longer a forbidden pleasure the chains are unleashed.

Basically put developers went in a new direction, they now had people coming in from all angles from the burst of EQ that may have never played or played very little gaming.  This linear progression proved to be the perfect model for this type of audience, it gave them a goal to do something within the game.

The world of mmos was never the same again and still isnt, we have our share of developers that go the extra mile for something unique, but what do they get out of it?  A low community and small subscriber base.  It has only been the linear progression games that achieve any strata of record breaking numbers, the generation still wants this it's been proving with the WoW explosion.  So you can't blame the devs for taking that direction since it is the most wanted.

In the end my friend it is the mmo community as a whole that still wants these type of games and its the hardcore players who wants a piece of the newest technology/gaming model to appear.  As time passes linear progression will die, but first technology has to evolve and the younger mmo community has to grow tired of the current trend they have set, once these two lock in place it'll be a whole new era of MMOs and we will see things we never thought was possible.

Sat Feb 16 2008 12:39AM Report
eric_w66 writes:

Its hard to beat a good story ;) When I did D&D and all the other PnP games I played, we always had a story driving us. Sure we could do anything we wanted, but the story would go on without us, usually with disasterous results for the characters or the world :). If the GM just lets wander around and gave us no direction like UO or SW:G, it'd have been incredibly boring. That's probably the biggest reason sandbox games aren't more popular. There's .... nothing going on to interest the average gamer. Nothing to "do", even when you can "do" everything. That "everything" has severe limits in MMO's however, where it doesn't in PnP (for instance, if I wanted to dig a mine in a D&D game, I could. Can't do that in any MMO. Some let me plop a piece of machinery onto a place, but to actually change the terrain? Nope. Or how about being stuck in a room... in D&D, could always use mage spells to get out (if high enough), and if that doesn't work, just bash down a wall :).


Sat Feb 16 2008 2:34AM Report
eric_w66 writes:

Ergh, typing at 2:30am is bad.... "If the GM just lets US wander around...."

Sat Feb 16 2008 2:35AM Report
Jester238 writes:

I think both Pyro and Eric have a point. I personally prefer the open endedness of games like UO and SWG pre-CU. That said, it's clear that the market is hot for linear games, so linear games are what's being made. I think both can be fun as well. I think even more important then changing whether a game is linear or not is changing the mechanics. The EQ/WoW/VG/PotBS gameplay system, where you auto attack, click little buttons for skills and spells, then rest, is tired. I look forward to a game like Darkfall, but I look forward more to a game like Age of Conan, which to me looks to be linear and level based, but with a new and interesting approach to that type of game. Also, in regards to PnP rpgs, I ran very open campaigns for my Star Wars RPG players, and they loved it. I had a basic story built in, but they really enjoyed flying around in their spaceship and exploring. Granted it took more work on my part, but it was worth it, cause they really enjoyed it. In the end we all like to play what we like to play, so why shouldn't there be options? I know I enjoy linear games as well as open ones, hell, I play FFXI at the moment, and thats as linear as it gets :p

Sat Feb 16 2008 9:23AM Report
FlyingSquid writes:

Actaully FFXI is not linear at all, you are getting the wrong impression here.  Linear mmos are the type where you pick a class and stuck with it throughout the entire game.  FFXI you can be anything you want at any period of time with the same character that's what did and still makes FFXI great, it just gets boring after you level ur 5th job to 75 at least thats the time I left for good, but none the less its still a great an inventive mmo at that time with a unique class system that broke the mold.  It's sandboxed as all hell with limits.

Sat Feb 16 2008 10:12AM Report
Cursedsei writes:

Honestly, the only games I've played are WoW, RO, and a few others. I currently enjoy WoW, but I understand what you are saying. As a ret pally, its hard to get a group, because in general, alot of people, especially raids, dont see a DPS Paladin as a good choice, and rather have a healadin, or at the last, tankadin.

The game developers arent always responsible for making a class too linear, its also the community and what they start demanding. I honestly enjoy playing as a retribution specced paladin, i dont like being the 'meat-shield' for the group and only hit to keep aggro, or stare at bars and click FoL or whatever. Yes the skills are linear, but are augmented by the talent choices you make, and soon the inscription profession in WotLK will further this.

I've never played FFXI, its too much of a grind to me, and group play isnt exactly something I want to do every time I log onto that game. I've watched my friend, and he spent more time in groups than anything.

If we make a game too open-ended, and thus a sandbox, people wont have motivation, they wont know what to do. With a Linear-styled game, there's a climax at the end, and the players know it. Take BC as an example, people could look foreward to fighting their way up to Illidan, and now Kil'jaedin.

What would be best, is a combination of the two styles. An open-ended sandbox-styled game with regular events to drive players to compete agaisnt each other to complete them.

Have a big bad dragon appear one day, and take control of an entire area. Before you can reach him, you have to take on quests to build a base near said forest, and weaken defenses of said dragon. Then, in the climax of the event, a large-scaled raid rushes into the heart of said forest to take on the dragon, while smaller groups work to hold off the dragon's reinforcements as they assualt said base.

Now, I understand that you cant have something like this occur all the time, it would get dull, which is another issue. I didnt think much into that idea, but, the idea of the server having to team up and work together to take down one epic boss sounds fun to me, because you know that the bit of work you could do helps overall.

Dungeon Runners right now is the only game I can think of that is both open-ended, and linear-styled as it gets. You choose between three classes, but that choice doesnt limit you to them, it just affects what skills you start with, and your equipment. You can make a warrior, and start buying mage and ranger skills. There is a limit to how many skills you can have equiped at one time, and passive skills need to actually be assigned to the same bar as the active skills in order to work, which further limits. But, it gives you a chance to play around and alter the skills to your liking, finding that balance you like.

Now, im gonna go play WoW on one of my many alts til 2.4 comes out :P

Sat Feb 16 2008 1:23PM Report
Owyn writes:

I think part of what we are getting at here is finding ways to get MMOGs "off the rails".  A lot of recent games feel rather like a roller coaster ride.  That's not quite precise - you generally DO have a few options as you travel, but it's still an image that comes to mind.

Somehow, we want to make MMOGs more about the journey, and less about that distant destination.

Partly, unfortunately, I think you are looking at differences in players.  I have a theory that if you have a GM running two tabletop RPG games - same module, same game - one group having 5 intense roleplayers and one hack and slasher, and the other group having 5 hack and slashers and one roleplayer, that you will end up with a very roleplay intense game in the first group and a very hack and slash intense game in the latter one.

As the playerbase has opened up to include the non-RPG crowd, it has simply overwhelmed the people interested in playing the game with the raw numbers of people whose focus is BEATING the game.

Most MMOG players today didn't come here from tabletop RPGs and MUDs.  They came here from console games and singleplayer PC games - all of which are really focused around beating the game.  Your goal is to kill that last boss, or solve that last puzzle, or whatever.  There is gameplay, and then a final scene, and then you put the game aside and buy or rent another one.

And these players have invaded the MMOG-verse in massive numbers.  The players who want to enjoy playing the game are still around - and if you could toss enough of them into almost any game on the market to constitute a majority, you would likely end up with a feel much like old guard UO.  This still happens from time to time, mostly by chance.

But by and large, the raw numbers of "win the game" focused players simply overwhelm the "play the game" folks, and through their interactions create the feel of that game.

I'm not sure there really IS a mass market solution; it would require re-educating people about what games CAN be on a massive level, and is likely impossible.  What might work would be for a dev team to recognize that there is a decent market for "play the game" folks, and create a game that is heavily marketed in that direction.  The more you market a game as "open ended! do what you want! freedom to explore our virtual fantasy world! no end game!", the less the "win the game" players will be interested in playing it.  And while you would lose a HUGE segment of the market, you might be able to gain very strong loyalty from the people who you targeted so well.

Sun Feb 17 2008 3:09AM Report
Hyperboy01 writes:

At least in games like "Tabula Rasa" the classes make sense and you don't start with any particular class. Then, when you start to level you get the option of beginning to specialize and then to further specialize... You can continue to develop your basic tree or go further into your spec. That is the same way life goes, and I think it is more realistic and closer to this sandboxing that has been referred to. Much more open ended then other choices and you are able to combine the skills of many of the classes (although at a greater point debit then your main spec).

Sun Feb 17 2008 4:15AM Report
AKBandito writes:

I gotta agree with the whole "end game" / "raiding" notion..

raiding seems to be standard nowadays, hell i wouldn't even call it raiding, 25ppl, ..?????!@?@. thats not a raid, thats a few groups getting

together to kill easy stuff.

The initial "raiding", was to kill stuff that wasn't meant to be killed, or be extremely difficult, raiding now is just a wrongly used term for ppl to describe "end game", and any true MMO, wont have an endgame..

also while im at it, may aswell try enlighten ppl on another incorrectly used term,  -> "beta testing".. PPL you are not beta testing,.. ffs.

You are PLAY TESTING, BETA testing is what programmers do....


Sun Feb 17 2008 5:12AM Report
Meltdown writes:

You guys are ridiculous. UO had grinding just like every other game. How many hours were YOU at the Bone Wall? How many hours fighting Earth Elementals after the Wall was patched? How many hours of sheep pummeling on you for parrying? How many hours of farming for gold?

All I just said was "How many hours was your grind?"

I do agree with the open-ended-ness though. I played a game like DDO for a short while after EQ2 and WoW and I loved the fact that I could make my rogue for traps/stealth or for dmg or whatever. Granted, DDO had limited choices compared to UO, but it made me remember how much I liked having choice.

Maybe thats what games need to focus on. The players ability to choose as their characters develop. Right now it just feels like characters just progress, none of them develop.

Sun Feb 17 2008 10:00AM Report
Manifold writes:

It's all about Fluff, game companies are always sacrificing fluff for gameplay because what they remember about UO was the PvP and Full Loot, but what made UO great was the Fluff. You could hang out and RP in pubs getting drunk, make art, and even write books. It's the little things like that, that make the world come alive and once the world is alive, people will live in it.

Yes games need solid backbones of good combat, but the fluff is the skin and organs, without them you've got nothing. I completly agree, give it all up front and then let the players craft their own experience from the vast array of tools provided them.

The greatest MMO will be the one that gives the players the tools to create their own experience.

Fri Nov 27 2009 12:17PM Report writes:
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