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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 26 2013 at 1:38PM
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Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king was possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game. 

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?  I think there are a few reasons:

The rise of the console: console games, which inherited from the stand-up, coin-operated arcade game, had action combat as the primary focus.  At the same time the early computer games were making their way into the home, arcade style games such as PacMan or Galaga or Asteroids were making their way to the console.  These games did not have the up-close feel of the PC, and were meant to be played on the TV from the couch.  In contrast, the PC was an in-close, more intimate experience more conducive to “thinking games.”  The console game was all about impressive action, movement and shooting.  Later, when console style games such as Castle Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake came to the PC, you started to see a mixture of the console and PC play styles on the PC as well.  Many gamers who had previously played consoles now flocked to PC games as well, making games like Doom and Half-Life blockbuster hits.

The primacy of combat: Combat games are popular, no doubt about it.  The Call of Duty series remains one of the highest selling video games ever, and it’s been proven that game companies can reach huge player populations by making combat the primary focus of the game.  Even in games where other gameplay options are provided, combat is often the highest, if not the only, priority for the game developers to “get right.”  Many players will simply skip games that do not possess combat as the primary or sole feature.  Sure, atmosphere and story and puzzles and crafting systems are all nice to haves, but without combat, the game is a non-starter.

The push for mass audiences: Game developers, seeing the influx of the casual/console gamer to the PC game market saw an opportunity to reach vast audiences by simplifying and streamlining systems to make it friendly to the layperson.  These folks previously might not play such games due to their complex systems.  Both EverQuest and World of Warcraft saw huge increases in subscribers by targeting these new players and making the barrier to entry for an MMO extremely low.  Warcraft polished its systems so finely (and advertised the game so well, using celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner) that it made it incredibly easy to get in and get going.  The trend has continued with content targeted clearly at a younger audience (Pokemon-style pet battles and martial arts pandas).

The MMO as a casual endeavor: MMOs reached the mass audiences when many of the more difficult elements were removed.  Players wanted to just get in and out with their accomplishments, and really didn’t want to be challenged too greatly.  Playing an MMO was taking a break, sort of like knitting or playing cards, something to be done on the side.  While the MMOs certainly reserved content for “hardcore” players, they increasingly became less of a focus, as it became known that the casual gamer made up the vast majority of players.

The MMO as a multiplayer rather than a solo game: I put this last because it the most controversial and also the one most players will point to.  It is also probably the subject of a whole different article.  The idea is that “solo elements” such as puzzles and investigations do not belong in MMO games.  This I think comes from a great many perceptions about what an MMO is supposed to be, but I think the thought here is that solving mysteries is something you can only do as a solo player, perhaps because these types of games were traditionally solo adventure games for the PC.    

With these clear changes in target audience, wise from a business perspective, but perhaps distressing to the players who grew up with the games that were more immersive and challenging, it’s no surprise that “thinking elements” were pushed deep down on the development priority list.  But was the baby thrown out with the bathwater?  I think so.

Given some time – Warcraft now stands at 8 years – some of the audience wants something different.  Certainly, WoW still stands as king of the hill with over 10 million subscribers, and will continue to dominate the MMO landscape – its audience is very loyal.  The MMOs that have tried to duplicate WoW’s success with similar gameplay, have found the strategy backfiring.  Star Wars: The Old Republic started out strong but lost millions of players very quickly when it became apparent that the gameplay was too similar to WoW’s

But so far, games that have tried something different (or even something “old-school”), have almost invariably reached a smaller audience, and are quickly “punished” if they overestimate sales or their target audience.  The games that have done well are the ones who have targeted their audience well, and planned for these smaller numbers.  EVE Online, though it boasts only 200,000 subscribers has steadily grown in numbers since it was released, and continues to be a stable company, in part because it has made no effort to duplicate WoW’s sales numbers (it’s also a critically acclaimed game).  Guild Wars 2 has reached a wider audience (2 million), I think, because it made efforts to target those players who wanted an alternative to WoW, and made sure to deliver specific features those players were expecting.

But back to those once-loved features such as puzzle solving and investigations, all the “complex” content – are they moot for today’s mass audiences, no longer loved or needed?  Is simpler, combat-strategy-only the way of the future?  Or is there an audience for those thinking features that is smaller but equally relevant and profitable given audience research, targeted development and a well-planned budget?  Are investigations too “solo”-friendly in a game that is a massively multiplayer game? 

My final argument: there are many teams who work together to solve mysteries every day – just watch any episode of Law & Order.  The recent ARG (alternate reality game) for The Secret World had people all over the globe on the forums working to solve pieces of a larger puzzle.  These kinds of scenarios, not only belong in an MMO, but are a long-neglected element that drive a more immersive and fascinating world.

Do Today’s MMOs Have Too Many Convenience Features?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 19 2013 at 11:10AM
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One of the comments on my last blog got me thinking about how many of the features we take for granted in today’s MMO were not so common in early games in the genre.  In the same way technology has made huge changes in real life, those same kinds of convenience features have appeared in the MMO—to the point where these features are expected, and a game is considered deficient if they aren’t included.  Here are a handful of them – will talk about the pros and cons further on:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: Queue up in any location, be paired with a dungeon group and be teleported immediately to the dungeon.  Once the dungeon is complete, you are teleported conveniently back to the city.
  • Automated PvP arenas: Queue up in any location, be teleported to the PvP battleground, complete the fight, then be conveniently teleported back to your starting point.
  • World banks: All banks throughout the world are linked, so that an item stored in a bank halfway around the world is conveniently available in the closest city bank
  • Automated auction house: place an item in the auction house, set a price, and come back to your mailbox later to see if it sold, and collect your money
  • World postboxes: mail an item to any character, and pick up the item at any conveniently located box
  •  Linked waypoints: Fly or teleport yourself across the map for a small fee.  Instant or expedited travel.
  • Hearth/home stones: Teleport yourself to the inn or common location where you have set your stone
  • Automated bank deposits: Click on an item in inventory, and have it immediately sent to the bank to clear up bag space

I’ll be the first to say I have used and appreciated all these features.  Getting into a dungeon group quickly can be great fun, especially when I have a limited amount of time to play.  Setting and forgetting an auction house item, then coming back to cash in later makes selling stuff a snap.  Getting at my stuff in the bank where I am adventuring makes it easy to guarantee I have the right supplies for the local challenges.

But have we thought at all about the costs of these conveniences?    I expect not, since we rarely think about the cost of convenience in real life either.  “Smart phones?  Of course you need one!”  It’s especially easy in a computer game, where, you have a foundation of technology overlaying a fantasy setting.  But here are some things to think about, especially in a rustic or medieval setting, where many things were not convenient:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: If I am automatically being teleported to the dungeon, why would I ever want to see the actual dungeon location?  Is there anything interesting about the approach to it?  Any lore or items or NPCs in local villages I might find that could help in completing it?  Why would I worry about any contextual story surrounding this dungeon if it just becomes a self-contained entity?  And since I am being paired with strangers, why would I talk to any of them?  In fact, I rarely do, since the group is there to blow through the dungeon at the fastest possible pace, and gets impatient at any slowing down to check out story or lore.  They are there to defeat the boss, get their loot and get out.
  • Automated PvP: Again, battlegrounds may have some place in the lore, but it becomes extraneous as the teams teleport into the free-floating, isolated zone, run the match and then leave.  The setting, objectives and reasons for fighting become irrelevant, really.  Now, one real exception I’ve seen to this is Warcraft’s Wintergrasp, which is a large zone actually open on the map.
  • World Banks/Post Office: Making all storage conveniently accessible makes planning for travel unnecessary.  So an area that might be considered a remote, challenging area of adventure is made immediately less so, since you can simply zip over to the bank and resupply without any forethought.  In fact, it makes the largeness and variation in the world rather irrelevant since it’s always an instant teleport to and from a supply area.  A vast world suddenly becomes small and trifling.
  • Automated Action House: The convenience of selling items at the AH makes it unnecessary to do any trading with other players, unless they are close friends, creating yet another reason for less social interaction within a supposedly social game genre.  And if you just want to quickly get rid of items, just stop at one of the many static NPCs around the world.
  • Linked Waypoints and Mounts: Easy enough to miss the entire world if all you are doing is riding the subway. 

So, just to clarify, I am not a Luddite trying to abolish all forms of convenience in life.  I really do like my iPhone.  But in a fantasy/medieval/post-apocalypse/rustic setting where smart phones or FedEx are not available, and where magic, I believe, should not be a 1:1 replacement for technology, I think we are losing some of the flavor we come to these games for in the first place.  That said, I’m not even recommending a complete removal of said features, but rather thinking about them in a way that makes the game more immersive, promote more interaction, and even more importantly, fun.

So a few what-if’s: 

What if, instead of throwing groups together and teleporting them directly to a dungeon, there were a bulletin board where groups could post what and when they are planning to do in-game, and who they are looking to find to help them with the task?  You could set meeting places at a village close to the dungeon, so that characters can make their way there and then actually have a chance to interact as they travel to the dungeon entrance.

What if bulletin boards had both a Groups Looking for Individuals section and an Individuals Looking for Groups section with contact information so that players could reach out prior to the meetup?  All the kinds of vetting (and bickering and fighting) that take place within a teleported PUG could be taken care of up front, to ensure the individuals and groups are suitably matched for the task at hand.

What if there was value in exploring the villages and area near the dungeon as a group, so that when actually going in, you had valuable information and items that would make it easier to succeed?  What if you could learn about the mobs and bosses and treasures and puzzles of the dungeon through interacting with the actual environment instead of looking it up on Google?

What if there were trade bulletin boards as well, where you could advertise items you wished to sell, and you could trade them face-to-face in-game instead of through automation?  Perhaps there’s a great incentive to sell things in person rather than the automated auction house – no auction house fee, better margin, items that are too rare and valuable to be sold automatically. 

What if there was a true, player-run marketplace where you could find rare, custom-made items you couldn’t find any other way?  What if you could actually haggle?  What if you could be swindled?   What if there were player run auction houses?  There is much fun to be had on the marketplace as in fighting the monsters if there were a system in place to support it. 

What if there were a network of post offices and banks instead of a world bank?  So once you visit (in-person) a bank in another city, you can open an account.  But you have to actively send items to that branch to have it available locally.  And with post offices, you’d send an item to a specific location, so that it’s necessary to think about where people are within the world, bringing back the idea that the world is a moving and dynamic place.  This might actually involve some interaction with other players, too, so that you’d be sure to send items to the locations where it makes sense for them.  And if you are exploring a new territory, you’d need to decide what to carry with you from your home city.

What if there were fewer and more expensive waypoints?  What if flying mounts were incredibly hard to obtain?  Would it really be that horrible to take travel back into consideration in these game worlds?  This is the one I think most players would rebel hardest against, but even WoW has removed flying mounts in their latest expansion until level 90 with the stated goal of getting players to experience the world again.  What if using a waypoint was expensive magically and using one was a rare privilege? 

The idea with all of these convenience replacers is not to punish players.  Rather, it is to bring back experiencing the vastness of the world at hand.  This would of course, mean that developers (and players, if we’re talking player created content) would need to fill that world with plenty of interesting items along the way, but that’s an article for another day.  What say you?  In this modern day of technology, should we forget about bringing “difficulty” back to MMOs?  Or have we lost something along the way?

Is it Possible to Build a Combat-Optional MMO?

Posted by Ortwig Sunday January 6 2013 at 2:46PM
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The whole Newtown tragedy got me thinking a bit recently regarding the combat-centric emphasis of most video games.  I won’t get into a discussion here about whether combat should be eliminated from games or not – I think it’s probably unrealistic at worst, and undesirable at best.  There have been many articles about it before as well, so just Google it and come up with a myriad of them.

Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed are the games people first scrutinize (or blame) when these tragedies arise, but combat in games go back to very aborignal games – you could say RiskGalaga, or even PacMan had something of a “combat” focus – you were certainly fighting an adversary, and conflict is certainly necessary in any form of literature, and even art in general.  Combat versus monsters or dragons is a bit more acceptable, since they aren’t “real” in the sense that other people are—again, more reasons why Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto are the ones that get the most attention.

But is there a way to present a more balanced view of the world in MMOs, the one genre of games that tried hardest to create a virtual world?  Some might say a game without combat would be boring, and there are undoubtedly many gamers who would not play any game where combat was not the prime focus.  But would they play if it was optional?  If they could participate in the conflict the way they normally do, but if there were non-combat roles in the game as well?

Without going over into the whole themepark vs. sandbox debate ( and yes, I know that Ultima Online did this), here’s a few character occupations that I could see being valid in an MMO, though I can see players differing sharply on how “fun” it would be to play them.  These occupations are the backbone of the world, the primary suppliers to the armies and cities and villages and adventures, and are considered critical to a civilization.

  • Merchant/trader: travels from city to city with virtual commodities that are in short demand, and/or fulfills orders for goods from players not willing to invest time in crafting or on the auction house.  Much room for specialization in goods here or alternatively a jack of all trades that carries a bit of everything – optional to the player.  Often hires adventurers or soldiers for protection!
  • Crafter: collects recipes and materials, either in the real world or from traders, then crafts custom items; everything from weapons to potions to food, to materials for building
  • Builder: Specializes in building home or structures, possibly to specification.  It would require open zones in the world where building was allowed, and that could be made permanent (unless destroyed)
  • Diplomat: Help build alliances between clans, villages, cities and—at advanced stages—even nations.  This would require a full political system, and possibly the freedom for players to create their own factions, as opposed to the 2 or 3 pre-made factions that come with most MMOs.
  • Farmer/Fisher/Hunter/Gatherer/Woodsman: Tills land and raises animals for food, hauls fish or hunts game and sells it on the open market.  Find previous herbs that can made into healing potions or powerful magics.  Again, all these occupations feed into the economy, which is completely player owned and run.
  • Scholar: Seeker of arcane knowledge, these are the ones who find the recipes that other occupations make use of.  Research ancient scrolls, read through histories of the world, hire adventurers to return dusty tomes that contain powerful magics.  And sell that knowledge for ungodly prices.
  • Entertainer/Bard: Learn music and play and instrument in the local taverns for money, juggle in the city square, tell stories to children (and their parents) , play a character in a stageplay
  • Sailor: These are the navigators of the world and their services are needed by traders and armies alike.

I suppose the most avid combat players might forego such a game, but there would be occupations for these as well:

  • Adventurer/Hero: These are the standard roles we already see, the dungeon crawler, the explorer, the freelancer, the odd-jobber, the investigator.  They will be paid for their services catch as catch can, but also will draw on the services of the non-combat occupations.
  • Soldier: These are always involved in campaigns or missions for the nation or city.  Local militia all the way up to full scale armies and navies.
  • Guard/City Protection/Sherriff: These are the protectors of the various villages and cities, and work to keep marketplaces safe.  They might be hired to protect caravan as they travel from city to city
  • Brigand/Outlaw (PvP): Of course with so many riches in the world, there will be those who seek to steal them and kill witnesses.   
  • Bounty Hunters (PvP): If the game is to allow open world PvP, or even flagged PvP, there will be those who hurt innocents along the road, and there will be those who work to bring them down.  Special abilities that help them in the conflict against outlaws.
  • Arch Villain: Become the bad guy, and raise your own horde of monsters and supporters.  Bring down armies, raze villages, and create your own evil empire.

Those whose focus on combat is the sole reason for playing might balk at being around non-combat types, at least initially.  But my argument is that increased freedom, variety and specialization as opposed to wrapping up specializations in a catch all “class” will bring about a more interesting world, and one with more longevity.  But how to do it?  So many MMOs are level and class-based.

It means, I believe, moving to a skill-based system that has a vast pool of abilities and specialization that aren’t necessarily balanced across occupations.  They are merely different.  A character with a high degree of skill in baking will not compare in any way to one with a high skill in swordfighting. And even a character with a high skill in bow & arrow will not compare well in close combat with that swordfighter, though he might be vastly overpowered in a long-distance match.  It means dropping our inherent need to make sure every character is balanced and equal as they progress.   That swordfighter will never be able to bake as nice a cake either, unless he drops the sword and takes up the oven.

Much will also depend on the character honing and maintaining his or her skill as well.  If you are spending time on baking, your aren’t fighting and your skill with the sword might get a bit rusty until you pick it up again.

Of course, many will say at this point that I am describing a “sandbox” MMO, and that’s partly true.  But I think part of the thought process here means getting away from these religious definitions that have arisen in game design discussions.  There’s nothing in the things I am describing here preventing the addition of a rich thread of story in the world, or a powerful backstory and setting, or even developer-created events and quests.  These are things that the “themepark” worlds still bring to the table, and should not necessarily be thrown out wholesale.

What are your thoughts?  What else could be done to bring back freedom and variety to the MMO virtual world?  Does providing non-combat options bring some much-needed balance to the gaming experience, or is it foolish to downplay the conflict in video games?