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Dev Journal by Jessica Mulligan

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Jessica Mulligan explains player controlled content in Ryzom Ring

Editor's Note: The following is a developer journal authored by Jessica Mulligan of Nevrax. It explains player-controlled content in the Ryzom Ring expansion of their game. This is an English-language exclusive.

It is all about the players making a difference, isn’t it?

For years, players of massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs) have been asking – nay, begging – for the ability to actually affect the story and landscape of an MMO world. They want to make a difference by building and running quests, populating new maps with buildings and NPCs and missions, build out Guild spaces with more than just a pre-fab house, have a chance at having their stories integrated into the world’s overall story arc. In short, players want to have some control of how the world is shaped, grows and changes.

Damn near every online game already has these tools in some form; they just restrict them to the developers by making sure that only developers can use them. Sure, some tools require more knowledge to use than the average gamer possesses, such as using a scripting language, but many tools can be easily handed off to players with some simple modifications. Now, that list might look like a lot, but is that really so much to ask for, when most of the tools are already built?

Apparently. What players have been stuck with for the last twenty years is an endless series of mostly static worlds, where the most dramatic change they can effect is to place a house on the terrain somewhere. If you’re lucky, maybe you can buy and place a vendor to sell goods. And as far as having an impact on the storyline… “Take this to Jake the Innkeeper in Foobarville. He will give you a reward. Thank you for your service to Whocaresville. King EatMe will be grateful.” Woo hoo! I’m getting a contact high just thinking about it.

I suppose I shouldn’t be so harsh. For all that they’ve been around for 26+ years, MMOs didn’t really take off big until eight years ago; we are still young as an industry. One should expect a certain amount of calcification to set in before new blood comes along and reinvigorates the industry.

Figure 1: A player browses the various maps and environments in the Ryzom Ring Alpha test.

But… what if things were different? What if a player could actually use an MMO’s world-building and mission-building tools to add new lands and quests? What if Guilds could not just place a house on the game map, but actually populate a new map with the buildings, NPCs and creatures they want there for their private Guild “ranch”? What if the players were given the opportunity to contribute to the backstory and the world, not only as designers, but with a full suite of game master commands to lead groups on those adventures? The collective intelligence and creativity of thousands of players is an order of magnitude or more greater than one small team of developers; what might we see if the player’s have a chance to collaborate with the designers?

Hold on to your hats; we’re about to find out.

Figure 2: A tester modifies an NPC he has placed on a Ryzom Ring map.

Nevrax’s Saga of Ryzom is currently testing the Ryzom Ring, an expansion pack that contains the first phase of these player content tools. With the help of our Saga of Ryzom players, we’re fine-tuning a basic feature set of point-and-click, drag-and-drop tools. When launched in about three months, these tools will allow players to do much of what I described earlier in this article. Any of those features that are not included at launch will be added via regular updates and patches throughout 2006, in consultation with our player base.

Figure 3: Placing creatures on the Ring Alpha test scenario map and then grouping them to move and fight together.

Anyone wanting more detailed information on the design and dungeon-master capabilities of the Ring is urged to check out the articles at http://www.ryzom-ring.com/. What I want to concentrate on is: Just what can happen to the industry here? Will the player-driven content tools of the Ryzom Ring change MMOs as an industry and, if so, how?

    As I noted at the beginning of this article, MMO players have been asking for these tools for a long while. Now that they are going to get them for one modest-sized game, what will be the response from other publishers?

    I mean, think about it: Whether the Ring effort is wildly successful or not, the lid has been lifted and the worms are crawling out. Will other MMOs follow suit or will they continue to leave their heads in the sand and give Nevrax an open field?

    If history is any judge, the Ring concept will be ignored by other developers and publishers for years and Nevrax will be ceded an open field (and in case you were wondering, that’s why I don’t mind mentioning that point in an open article).

    Sure, we have development plans for the Ring so we can stay one step ahead of competition well beyond the launch (although the details will almost certainly change when the players tell us what enhancements they want first). In any sane industry, we’d expect the Big Guys to come roaring out with player tools of their own, just as fast as they could build them. In a sane industry, we’d be worrying about near-instant competition from well-funded, existing publishers who are afraid of a paradigm shift and being left behind.

    We’re not all that worried about it, though. We’ve been in this industry long enough to know that we’ll probably raise not even a single eyebrow among those worthies. We’re not the flavor of the month, like WoW, nor a significant near-peer, such as EQII. Other publishers may be racking their brains to make their games more like WoW but, much as we’d like it to happen, no corporate execs are stomping into their underling’s offices and screaming, “Our MMO needs to be more like Ryzom!”

    No, we’re pretty sure our peers in the industry are going to ignore us.

    Figure 4: The tester adds a building to his small outpost in the Ring Alpha test.

    That is sad and short-sighted. The next great leap for MMOs, if we’re ever going to get them out of the hard-core rut we’ve been in for, well, forever, is to open them up and let the players have some control. We have to get out of this incredibly arrogant mind-set of “Hey, we’re professionals; don’t try this at home, kids!” and understand our own limitations. Teams of fifteen to sixty or more developers may be a big box of ideas, but it is still a box. In that kind of closed ecosystem, inbreeding of ideas is assured.

    And that goes double for online role-playing games. All you have to do is look at the current massive online RPGs to understand that point. We’re stuck in the model of a handful of designers trying to create ever more content for a small subset of hard-core players, who eat that content long before we can make the next drop. As an industry, we can never catch up, the content will always be consumed faster than we can make it and our ideas for that content just get more and more inbreed as time goes on.

    In other words, with our current mold, we’re locked into a death spiral.

    And that is why the Ring is different.

    We’re breaking the mold that says “Only developers may make content” and making a new mold. One that says it is OK for players to have access to the game libraries of creatures, NPCs, buildings and objects to build something new, different… heck, maybe something wildly different. Rather than be scared about it, we’re awed by the coolness of it.

    Maybe some of those player scenarios and maps won’t be something we recognize as part of the world of Ryzom; big deal. And sure, there will always be the occasional jerk who wants to build PenisLand or design a map to make a racist statement or exhibit some other kind of unreasonable behavior. No sweat; we’ll deal with them as we find them or they are reported to us.

    The important thing is: For the first time, players will finally have a meaningful choice in this matter.

So, there you are: Why the Ryzom Ring makes a difference, maybe a huge difference, in how online RPGs are played today and how they are going to evolve over the next few years.

I only wish it was this date in 2010; I want to see how this all comes out, :D.

Figure 5: You Are Here. What would you do with a blank Ryzom Ring map and plenty of possibility?

- Jessica Mulligan, Executive Producer, Nevrax

Thank you to Jessica for writing this.

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