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Column #3: The Future

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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The Future of MMORPGs: From tomorrow on – All bets are off

Editor's Note: Each week, Nathan Knaack brings us an insiders look at the MMORPG industry in his weekly column. This article is the final essay in a three part look at the past, present and future of MMORPGs. You can read his thoughts on the past here and the present here. Now, onto the future!

Most people would fill the entire “future” section of an essay like this with a blueprint rundown of their perfect, or “dream” MMORPG. I’m just going to list the bullet points of features that game designers really need to take a look at if they hope to compete in tomorrow’s market, because the first game that comes along that truly incorporates all of the following ideas is going to dominate the MMORPG industry. These aren’t fantastical, far-fetched Ideas I personally conjured up either; they’re the kinds of ideas that have been bouncing around the player community for years now, ranted about and demanded but never properly included in an existing MMORPG. For the sake of what little sanity most developers have left, after working legendarily long hours, usually under absurd deadlines, I’ll start with the simplest and/or most straightforward topics.

One word: Immersion. Other than the number of players involved, the biggest difference between a regular computer RPG and an MMORPG is the replayability factor. Nobody plays Fallout, Knights of the Old Republic, or Baldur’s Gate for four hours a day, five or six days a week, over the course of three years. The obvious reason is that those games are designed to be played through once, but maybe half a dozen times if you decide to try it using a different character or method. Unfortunately, the same design mentality went into almost all of the modern MMORPGs on the market. Most architecture and geography is static, meaning that no mater how many times you nail that little wooden shack with your super rocket launcher, it’s never going to budge. An MMORPG might seem completely immersive your first time through (just like Fallout, KoTR, and BG all did), but when you log in for the hundredth time a few months later, seeing the exact same towns, hills, dungeons, grazing horses, floating space stations, and NPCs locked into their paths spoils the immersion.

In hopes of producing a remedy for this visual stagnation, perhaps a bit more attention should be given to subtle environmental effects and structures to break up the monotony of persistence. When people say one of the reasons they enjoy MMORPGs over other games is because they like “returning to the same world and picking up where they left off,” they don’t literally mean logging back into Norrath v1.999.999 and seeing everything exactly the way it was since the game’s launch half a decade earlier. One great way to break up the same old visual routine is by implementing player-created structures, allowing people to build their own settlements. Other ideas include seasonal changes, dynamic NPCs, and a shift towards more FPS-based controls. Seasonal changes should incorporate visual weather effects, then subtle changes to the environment, such as color changes in the trees, a light dusting of snow on the ground, and rotation of which animals spawn in each area. To achieve dynamic NPCs, they simply need to be categorized and identified by their positions, not their names. For example, if the blacksmith of Town A is referred to as “John,” then every time he is killed, he mysteriously respawns. If NPCs are tracked by their title, then given a random name and appearance, immersion is satisfied as well as all of the players that require that NPC for services or quests. If John the blacksmith of Town A is killed, the next NPC that spawns there is given a random name, appearance, race, and equipment, yet still performs all of the duties of the blacksmith. The person who last killed the blacksmith using his longbow might be surprised to find that the next blacksmith isn’t a helpless NPC without a ranged weapon to fight back with, but a much more powerful sharpshooter with a heavy crossbow, simply because that’s how the random stats were arranged!

Moving towards classic FPS controls (with a first person camera) will help improve immersion almost subliminally. The next time you get a chance to get together in a group and play games, take a few minutes and watch the people you’re with. Watch them play an MMORPG; they sit still, usually move only the mouse unless they’re chatting, and generally have a look on their face like they’re waiting for something to happen. Then watch someone play an FPS. They move in their seats they’re so immersed; they duck, flinch with sudden explosions, and, on occasion, even reflexively lean to one side as though moving in their chair will help them peer around a corner on the 2-D TV screen. It sounds like a lot of work for a pretty small benefit to immersion, but that’s the way immersion works: It’s a compilation of several tiny effects that stack up into the general believability of the world.

Another way to really help immerse players in an online environment, and not just a massive game of dueling calculators, is by making as much of the mathematics of the game as invisible as possible. What’s the fun in knowing that your sword does 23.7 damage per second? Where is the risk (and thrill) in running into a battle where you can see every other character and monster’s level right over their head? If someone asks you how skilled of a safecracker you are, doesn’t it sound strange to reply “95 points?” By pushing all of the game mechanics behind the curtain, a game can trick players into role-playing. Revising the above three examples: After a few hours of fighting, you start to notice that goblins you used to kill in five or six hits go down in one or two; you must be improving! You can barely contain your excitement when you charge into a battlefield filled with opponents of unknown abilities, with your peers marveling at your courage. Someone asks how talented of a safecracker you are, to which you casually reply, “Remember that heist two weeks ago when the king’s vault was broken into and his ring stolen? That was me.” You might think that you really enjoy being able to tweak your character 0.1 point of damage per second at a time, knowing exactly what level your opponents are, and tracking your skill progress in handy numerals, but these are the little pieces that stack up against immersion.

If you ever read MMORPG forums, you’ll immediately notice people lamenting the loss of role-playing from current titles. Why don’t people ever gather in the tavern to share stories, setup dramatic confrontations between heroes and villains, or go on espionage missions to infiltrate enemy territory? To answer the last part first, espionage isn’t possible in any game where your character’s name is tacked above his head in bright, glowing letters that glare through underbrush, brighten every shadow, and appear handily on a list of players in the local area. Why do MMORPG players rarely experience dramatic role-playing encounters? That one’s simple: because they’re too busy grinding levels so they can keep up with everyone else. If you spend an hour developing a friendship with another online player, all of the buddies you already had are now two or three levels higher than you and hanging out in a zone you’re not strong enough to visit. Eve Online offered half of an answer to this dilemma with its time-based advancement, but what the system offers in terms of allowing people to experience the game however they like instead of having to focus on grinding, it almost completely negates by alienating potential players who feel slighted that all of their conscious efforts at certain skills improve them no faster than someone who set their skill training, then logged off and went to bed. Other problems arise with such a system as well, like the fact that a new player in Eve Online will never, ever catch up to an existing player that’s still active. That mathematical impossibility is perhaps the game’s greatest turn-off outside of most people not enjoying the “you are a ship, not a person” visual gameplay style. All of these negative things to say about Eve Online, and the funny part is that I consider it by far the best MMORPG on the market today. That, in essence, clearly illustrates the core problem with the industry.

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Nathan Knaack