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It's Alive! (MMO Theory)

Mad science meets the MMO! Unnecessary surgery on all areas of MMORPGs, trying to turn lead into gold. Come join the fun and perform textual vivisection on the fevered rantings of a crazed mind. Find flaws, point out problems, and perfect or reject ideas.

Author: is_not_blue

Experiment 3: Shifting Terrain

Posted by is_not_blue Monday March 22 2010 at 10:01PM
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Experiment 3: Shifting Terrain
Making the Most of the Space You Have.

One quality most MMORPGs feature is the notion of points of interest surrounded by terrain. Worlds are built with towns, dungeons, quest goals, and specific locations in mind, with the intervening world typically being made up of less detailed terrain.

The level of craftsmanship in areas connecting points of interest vary from game to game. Every detail of World of Warcraft's (WoW's) regions are handcrafted, while Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) uses a fractal-based terrain generator. The end result is WoW's small, but exquisite regions, and SWG's large and organic worlds.

Despite the way in which the areas in these games are created, there remains the distinct similarity in which the large portion of the game's terrain functions: as the area a character must pass through to move from one point of interest to another. In the case of WoW, this makes for relatively small areas between points of interest that can serve to make the world seem smaller, as areas are easily memorized and cities and towns tend not to be far from one another. With SWG, the large world can seem empty and uninspired, as the terrain between points of interest is rather random and sometimes haphazardly constructed.

So what is the real problem? In both cases, the games presented may suffer from the way in which terrain is implemented. A region that can be memorized becomes boring and loses the sense of danger and mystery that many MMORPG players crave, while uninspiring terrain doesn't hold the feel of a vivid, living world.

The Challenge: Create a method to use hand-crafted terrain in a way that is unpredictable and not easily memorized. Make regions capable of having more area between points of interest without defaulting to random terrain generation.


Shifting Terrain Autopsy

As always, this description is not intended to represent a complete system. The major part of this system would be in the conception and application of a great number of variables that require something greater than speculative summary. The key phrase here is Imagine If...

MMO worlds are not nearly as large as the worlds they represent. Distances between cities and other points of interest are intended to be indicative of much larger areas. In reality, if one were to travel through a large forest without following well-laid paths, it would be possible to go the same basic route several times without covering the exact same ground more than once.

MMO worlds are intended to be huge, but the logistics of a character spending hours just moving through a forest to get somewhere is not always in the spirit of the game. Even so, there is no reason why an MMO world of the standard size cannot be used to represent the feel of that large forest, without sacrificing resources and extending distances between points of interest to ridiculous lengths.

Slice and Dice

A region using the shifting terrain system utilizes static paths and points of interest, with a tile-based terrain filling out the intervening areas. The theory is that the major points of interest and the paths connecting them remain the same, while the areas between them change to provide mystery and unpredictability, and to represent the larger game world.



Points of Interest: “Islands” of static content. These are the towns and dungeons of the region, connected by paths.

Paths: Narrow strips of static area that connect points of interest. Paths form the framework in which tiles fit.

Tiles: Large areas representing the terrain between points of interest. Tiles can be as large or small as a developer decides, but should be large enough to avoid the problem of completely random terrain.


The idea is to use tiles large enough to contain hand-crafted areas that show care and attention. These tiles are placed randomly in the framework created by the paths. At some point, the tiles are shifted, meaning they are moved to occupy new, random locations throughout the region, replacing those that were there before. Shifts could possibly occur during a maintenance period, or even on a timer while the game is up and running,

The result of the shifting terrain is a region that has anchored points of interest, but a wild and unpredictable world. Following paths will always lead to the same major landmarks, but leaving a path results in a world that is different and constantly changing.

This is not to say that an entire world would completely change in an instant. Regions, and even specific blocks of tiles, can be limited to those that belong there. In this way, the dark forest remains the dark forest, the mountains stay mountains, etc. The point is not to create chaos, but to create a symmetry between a world of beauty and craftsmanship, and one of mystery and unpredictability.

In application, the shifting terrain system would still function like most games. If it were in place in a WoW model game, the goals of many quests may be found out in the wilderness, making it impossible to simply look up the coordinates of, say, a monster's lair, or even use the memory of its location from a previous character. One would have to seek out the enemy, as well as defeat it.

Special Considerations

Tile Edges: One difficulty with the shifting terrain system is in forging tiles that overlap smoothly. In order to do this, certain aspects of tiles would probably have to extend beyond the edge of the tile proper. The edges of a hill or group of trees may extend from one tile to another, in order to provide a seamless transition. Ground textures could probably be employed to “sew” the tiles together. It may also be necessary to add small static strips to the framework between tiles that shift to cover up any gaps in the floor.

Rare Tiles: Some tiles may only show up on rare or random occasions, or even as the result of meeting certain requirements.

Expansions: Game expansions are a staple of MMOs, usually adding regions, and new content to older ones. Expansions in a game using the shifting terrain system could also add new tiles to existing regions, introducind locations to the mix with every shift and keeping older areas from becoming boring or outdated.


The problem of terrain and regions in an MMO is the problem of persistence. An MMO world is supposed to represent a “real” place for the characters to perpetually exist. With this burden comes the reality that even with large resources at hand, a game world is limited. Hand-crafted worlds are smaller and become memorized quickly, while more random methods of world-building result in larger, but less interesting areas. I believe the shifting terrain system is one way to conquer this problem without detracting from the persistence of the world. Points of interest always exist, but the intervening terrain has the potential to become mysterious and new with every shift.

Experiment 2: Dynamic Plot Generator

Posted by is_not_blue Wednesday August 26 2009 at 12:26AM
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Experiment 2: Dynamic Plot Generator

The Quest is the Quest!

Quests are a common feature in most every MMORPG. While some games use quests almost exclusively as a means of advancement, and others for acquisition of fame and treasures, the fact remains that these are an indispensable part of in interesting game world.

The main defining feature of quests is the concept of giving the player something to do. Quests offer a short-term goal to temper the long-term progressions in game play. Most games build quests into the areas in which they are found, creating what has been called a “theme park” feel, where central hubs of quest-giving NPCs offer tasks to be completed in the surrounding regions. The quests found here are of varying sizes, and can require anything from the slaying of a certain number of creatures, to a chain of several related quests describing an intricate and planned plot.

The major drawback of these quest hubs is the eventual deterioration of an area of play. As quests are completed, the total number available in the region diminishes until there are none left, or the character has outgrown them. Static quests go away, and as they tend to be the defining feature of a surrounding region, that area becomes a place that is seldom revisited.

Some other games have created random quest systems, usually involving pregenerated instanced environments filled with random creatures, or in some cases, the spawning of a creature in an open world zone. In general, these quests remain simplistic and repetitious, restricting variables mainly to game mechanics and eschewing any semblance of a storyline beyond a possible brief summary. This can spoil the entire idea of random content, as the basis behind the system is, presumably, to extend the enjoyment of the same content by offering several iterations of content through random variation.

Unfortunately, replacing goblins with wolves, and then wolves with orcs does not extend the concept long enough to justify many of these systems. The limited pattern of the overall structure of these quests becomes the repetitious element, dwarfing the appeal of the randomized content.

The Challenge: Create the best of both methods defined above. Design a system with the ability to generate random content containing an immersive and unique story that feels hand-crafted.


Dynamic Plot Generator Autopsy

This description is not intended to represent a complete system. The major part of the generator would be in the conception and application of a great number of variables that require something greater than speculative summary. The key phrase here is Imagine If...



For this experiment, I will be relying on a text that has become indispensable to creators and critics of stories. This book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, has spawned a slew of derivative works and concepts, and the plot generator continues in this vein.

For those of you unfamiliar with Campbell, he was a great mover and shaker in several academic disciplines throughout the mid-to-late 20th century, and is famous in literary circles for his exploration and identification of what he labeled the “monmyth.”

The idea behind the monmyth is that there is only a single story in all of human experience, which is retold eternally in different guises. While this may seem a strange and even impossible concept at first, the theory has such a solid foundation that it has become a standard base for most every tale told in the last half century. Screenplays, for example, tend to follow plot breakdowns based on Campbell's theories as a rule, and you can even find extremely specific page counts defining where certain events must happen within a screenplay for it to be acceptable.

Regardless of whether one completely agrees with Campbell's ideas or not, the point is that he created a powerful tool in the identification and structure of plot. He has constructed a sort of latticework to support nearly any concept, turning it into a complete story. While the best stories crafted with this method tend to be ones adept at concealing the individual sections beneath layers of character and story elements, for the purposes of the plot generator we'll want to keep it pretty bare-bones.


Slice and Dice

Now to tackle the individual sections. Stripped down, the pieces of the hero's journey, as identified by Campbell, include several specific divisions: Introduction, The Call, Reluctance, Voice of Wisdom, The Threshold, Tests and Allies/Enemies, Journey into the Innermost Cave, The Ordeal, Seizing the Sword, The Road Home, Resurrection, and the Return.

I won't get into descriptions of these divisions, as the streamlined groupings below are more pertinent to the discussion.

As you can see, most quests (especially randomized ones) in MMOs tend to fall quite a bit short of an actual plot. Hopefully the dynamic plot system will offer a solution to this. First, we need to adapt the concept of a full plot, from introduction to the return, to fit a persistent world. The player is already familiar with the world and the hero prior to the quest, for example, so the introduction would be a little unnecessary.

The concept of reluctance is a bit more difficult to deal with. According to theory, it is an imperative part of a plot, because the character must make a choice to take up the mantle, and just going with the flow and doing as you're told is not as much a heroic choice as it is apathetic. This, at its core, is actually a role playing point, so I feel any attempt at creating a mechanic for it would not only be awkward, but in the end impede game enjoyment. A player's character is a sort of sacred ground, and the game should never tell players how their representatives in the game world act or feel. Besides, the plot to be employed in the quest can be seen as simply a smaller piece of a much larger epic, and as such, the reluctance may have occurred somewhere in the character's past.

This still leaves us with several steps to deal with, all of which are pretty solid for integration into a virtual environment.



1: Call

2: Advice

3: Threshold

4a: Tests

4b: Allies/Enemies

5: Innermost Cave

6: Ordeal

7: Seizing the Sword

8: Road Home

9: Return

Now that we have the framework, we need to define what is going on with each step.

The Call: Here the character receives the quest, and decides whether or not to accept it. As randomly generated quests would be in response to a series of parameters decided upon before the actual creation of the quest, the player has some idea of the difficulty level and type of adventure that will be created. Because of this, the call can be nice and simplistic, speaking in less mechanical terms and allowing for the use of standardized conversation templates.

Advice: This is where the character receives more specific details about the journey to be undertaken. Where The Call would be the village chief telling the character that the children of the village have all been kidnapped by raiders, The Advice would be an old hermit explaining where the raiders operate out of, and possibly even why they do it.

Threshold: This is where the character steps from one world to another, moving from safety and security to danger and the unknown. Here, possibly, the character's exploration of the raider's camp leads him to encounter the leader, a dark priest who turns out to be far too powerful, subduing the character who is then taken to another place and imprisoned to be interrogated later.

Tests/Allies and Enemies: Here is the main buildup. In plot terms, this is where the character overcomes obstacles and meets allies, all of which teaches the lessons that will be needed to confront the final enemy later, in The Ordeal. Here the character befriends a guard who is suffering from a crisis of conscience, and convinces him to unlock the door. Together they work their way out of the dungeon. Once outside, after much fighting, the character realizes that the prison in which he was kept is in the crumbling basement of an ancient building on the outskirts of a ruined city, in the center of which is an ancient black temple that still stands, oozing with some dark miasma.

The character pursues and overcomes the captain of the guard, who is identified by the character's new companion. After defeating the captain, he gives the skinny on the fact that the leader of the raiders is the high priest of some dark and ancient god, and that he intends to sacrifice all the captured children in exchange for the favor of his deity. The character also learns that the priest's great power comes from a holy relic he wears around his neck.

Innermost Cave: In this section, the character delves into the lion's den, so to speak. Continuing the example, the character enters the black temple and makes his way past all the obstacles and minions, to the altar where the priest is about to begin his sacrifices.

Ordeal: The great challenge to be overcome. This is the big test. In game terms, the boss fight (if there is one) goes here. It could just as easily be another trial. In the Lord of the Rings series, Frodo's final struggle to release the ring is his Ordeal. In the example plot, the guard-turned-ally rushes forward and takes the brunt of the priest's mystic assault, sundering the holy relic before falling to the ground dead. The guard's sacrifice has evened the field of play for combat, and the character overcomes the enemy and wins the prize.

Seizing the Sword: The character learns the critical secret, retrieves the stolen item, or obtains the sacred heirloom armor that was the original point of the quest. In the example plot, the character frees the captured children. This is normally where most quests end in MMOs, but there is much more to a plot than simply overcoming the arch-villain.

Road Home: Vengeful forces seek the character. He may have overcome the great challenge, but there is still danger in the world, and it must be dealt with. Great escape, chase scenes, and hacking through an army of angry minions are all possibilities for the road home. In the example plot, the character's defeat of the priest has displeased his god, whose anger manifests as an earthquake that begins to collapse the temple. The character must escape in time or be crushed.

Return: The final leg of the journey, where the character returns triumphant, with greater knowledge and experience. Rewards are received and props are given. Nachos are enjoyed by all.



Each step aids in defining variables that would be necessary to plug into standardized texts. Quests become sort of mad-libbed statements, with NPCs altering their responses and actions depending on the current mission. In the example plot, the system would have happened to come up with:

Goal: Children (Kidnapped) (Retrieve)

Advisor: Old Hermit

Enemy Type: Raider Faction (Camp X)

Cave: Dark Temple (Collapse)

Ordeal: High Priest (Dark God)

Secret: Holy Relic (Destroy) (Secret)

Tests: Prison Escape, Guard Captain (Secret)

Ally: Guard (Enemy Becomes Friend) (Free) (Sacrifice)

Aftermath: Earthquake (Environment Destruction) (Dark God) (Race Against Time)

While this is obviously an incredibly simplistic sampling of the variables included in plot generation, and nowhere near what would be required to plug it into an actual system within an MMO, I think it gets the basic point across.


Special Considerations:

Integration: This system is by no means meant to replace static quests. Rather, it is intended as a method to keep content alive and interesting for much longer than is normally possible. With the extreme number of variations in plot, the adaptability of dynamically-generated content to every style of play, and the ease with which new content can be added into the system, the plot generator becomes an optimal choice as an addition to any MMORPG without stepping on the toes of static quests.

Application: This system would take quite a bit of effort to tweak and iron out. Every game region and NPC involved would probably have to be given their own personal flourishes to avoid generic repetition of phrases, and while basic associative qualities would make most awkward quest variable combinations impossible, there would still be the odd silly quest result to be rooted out.

Despite the extreme effort that would be necessary to actually make a system like this one function, it is also important to weigh work against the amount of content created. If the plot generator requires the same effort as the creation of, say, five theme-park style zones and 1,000 related quests, then it is well worth the effort, because the system is infinitely more malleable than any number of zones, and would be hard pressed to actually run out of unique quests. A system like this is inherently more adaptable to new added content as well, and can just as easily be used by developers to produce static quests in a much quicker fashion by manually selecting variables, and then altering specifics to fit their needs.

Mechanics: Instanced areas would probably be the best choice for the divisions beyond the Threshold step. This would require standard terrain sets that would be encountered multiple times, but I believe the existence of a plot and the extreme variance in goals and required activities would rectify the problems normally associated with repetition of environment.



All in all, I think that this possibility is a solid direction for any quest system. While static quests are fine, one must keep in mind that a plot generation system offers a much greater range and variety. The major problem with current random quest systems is their impersonal nature and emphasis on extremely simplistic steps and tasks for completion. With a plot-based generator, random quests turn into full stories that grant a sense of accomplishment rather than resulting in a day spent shopping for animal parts direct from the source.



Next Entry: Experiment 3--Shifting Terrain

Experiment 1: The Rumor System

Posted by is_not_blue Monday August 24 2009 at 7:14AM
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Experiment 1: The Rumor System

(Alternate Item Acquisition Scheme)

Items and the ways in which players acquire them are a major cornerstone of many MMORPGs. Monsters and quests are often sought out for the loot they grant, and guilds of players raid huge dungeons for a chance of gaining rare and powerful equipment. This experiment discusses a common controversy involving items and offers a possible solution.

The Play Style Problem:
Conflicts arising from opportunity and exclusivity are some key issues with items in MMORPGs.

Opportunity: Often, specific items are only available through limited or restricting methods. Raiders get one item, while PvP aficionados are offered others. Players may find themselves feeling pressed into unappealing activities simply for the material rewards.

While getting players to try new things is important, a system that supports placing material rewards over the desire for an entertaining game experience may, in the end, be self-defeating. The draw of rare items is a static desire, while enjoyment of the game tends fluctuate with content and time.

Exclusivity: Items have an undeniable dual purpose. The more obvious role of an item is its functionality, aiding in making a character more powerful or capable in some way, sprucing up their house, or simply making them look different. Rare items are also badges of achievement. Like a player's level, items can represent the effort and skill expended to gain them. This aids in the longevity of a game by adding goals with visual proof of attainment (much the same function as titles in many MMOs).

As an important aspect of MMORPGs, the perception of exclusivity must be maintained. It increases player motivation and provides them with options in the form of goals and direction. The crux of this aspect of an item, however, is the perception of exclusivity, not the item itself. It is not so much what the item is, but where it came from and the amount of effort involved in its acquisition.

The Challenge: The system must increase opportunity while maintaining exclusivity. Items are to be accessible to all play styles, but exclusive in terms of origin and effort.


Rumor System Autopsy:

Summary: The Rumor System is an alternate method of acquiring items. In essence, it involves the addition of a middleman between standard sources of items and the player.

Before getting to the specifics, it should be noted that this is not intended to replace all methods of obtaining items. Player crafting, for example, is an invaluable part of a game's economy, and the rumor system is meant to integrate with these more traditional concepts.



Rumors and Rumored Items: A rumor is an item, or item-like object. Rumors represent the potential for a character to obtain a specific item, listed in the rumor's description. The player selects a rumor to follow by equipping it as the character's current rumored item.

Rumormongering: A style of crafting used to produce and copy rumors.

Rumor Points (RP): Points representing progress towards attaining rumored items. While a rumor is equipped, the character's actions are seen as being motivated (at least in part) by the search for the rumored item. A kidnapped noble rescued by the character may award experience points, but the noble's heirloom locket also contains a scrap of paper that gives a clue about the rumored item, also bestowing rumor points.

In general, RP is gained any time a character earns experience (or would traditionally earn experience for systems without levels). Possible sources include defeating creatures, completing quests, or even as rewards for PvP games.

Rumor Progress: A number, progress bar, or percentage listed on the rumor, representing the amount of RP the character has earned versus the total necessary to acquire the rumored item.



Rare Item Rumors: Rumors for rare items have a special quality that creates a “rumor fragment” when used. A rare item rumor may only be used to create one fragment. The rumor fragment can then be used as a crafting component by a rumormonger to create another rumor for the same item. The crafted version of rare item rumors have a higher rumor point requirement to complete. Additionally, the final item acquired through the two versions of the rumor may have different visual qualities (color, texture, etc.), allowing the source to be easily distinguishable and retaining rare item exclusivity.

Example-- Rare Item Rumors and Bosses: Fights against extremely powerful creatures are a source of rare items in many MMORPGs, and one of the areas where exclusivity becomes a major factor.

These powerful creatures are normally only conquerable by large and organized groups of people. Under the rumor system, these “boss” creatures would drop rumors instead of rare items. Defeating boss encounters provide characters with huge amounts of RP, and possibly even consumable items that bestow RP when used. This is to aid in maintaining the ratio of effort and difficulty versus reward, allowing those who engage in more strenuous activities to reap larger benefits.

Rate of Rumor Point Gain: Like all other systems in an MMORPG, rumor point rates are a balancing act. Different sources should provide points at a ratio proportional to the difficulty and time spent. Continuing with the example of bosses, these fights would grant amounts of RP that would allow players to earn high point cost items rather quickly. As an extreme counterpoint, solo players who spend only a few hours a week playing the game may find themselves faced with the prospect of working on a crafted rare item rumor from a high-level boss source for a long period of time before finishing (possibly months, depending on the rarity and source).

This may seem extreme at first glance, but the point of the rumor system is to provide access to items that would have previously been unattainable to alternate play styles, without diminishing the exclusivity of the item or the effort required to obtain it. The RP needed to finish the rumor simply becomes a measurement of effort. More simplistic or passive methods of obtaining rumor points demand a greater amount of time to finish than more aggressive and involved ones.


Extra Considerations:
Quest Reward Satisfaction: One benefit of the rumor system is the potential to completely remove the need for pre-generated rewards from quest lines and other similar activities. Equipped rumors provide the ultimate material goal for character activities, allowing players to set their own rewards rather than being forced to select from a small list of things that may or may not ever be used.

Speculation on Rumormongering: Rumormongering as a craft is not simply there to deal with rare item rumors. The practitioners of this craft can produce their own rumors, possibly even re-usable ones, utilizing pre-existing items as a template. As an example of this, imagine an alchemist producing a flask of healing potion. A rumormonger then buys the flask from the alchemist and uses it in the production of a rumor. The produced rumor has, say, 10 uses, meaning that a character can equip the rumor and begin receiving RP towards earning a healing potion, which he can do 10 times before the rumor disappears.


If done correctly, I think the rumor system has the potential to satisfy players of all styles. Raiding guilds, for example, would still gain rare items in the form of rumors, which they could then finish more quickly than others. Non raiders would be able to obtain these items, but would have to put in an effort reflecting the item's rarity and general worth. Everybody works and everybody wins. No hand-outs, but the ability to decide your own method, or methods, of progress.

So, for those of you who actually managed to stay awake through all the blood and gore, what say you?

Is it viable, or should we be rallying the town-folk and lighting the torches?

What would you change, add or remove?

How would you handle the rumor system in a PvP-centric game?

Who invented the nacho?


Next Entry: Experiment 2--The Dynamic Plot Generator