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Gameplay Versatility

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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Gameplay Versatility

Why are MMORPGs almost universally based on combat? Aside from a few rare exceptions, the vast majority of games, online and offline, are centered around, or at least focused on, battle. Perhaps it has something to do with games being an escape from reality, which makes sense considering that your average gamer isn’t a secret agent, mythical warrior, or space cowboy (despite any costumes worn at conventions), thus they do not encounter life-or-death combat on a daily basis. To further enforce the “escapism” explanation for video game violence, one could consider the fact that the average gamer isn’t having much sex, either, which almost entirely explains the industry’s almost disturbing fascination with anatomically exaggerated female characters. If we make the assumption that video games are an escape from reality for predominately 12-25 year old males, it’s easy to understand why we see so much combat and cleavage. You’d think by now more game development companies would have realized that, as recent studies suggest, a full 40% of the gamer population is female. No wonder they’re not as wildly attracted to FPS and RPG titles as males are. As a male gamer, would you play a game that traded battle and boobs for meaningful relationship conversations and large, strategically-located bulges on all the pants for male avatars?

Now that we understand why video games are what they are, the question now becomes: “Does it have to be that way, and if not, what else could they be?” In discussing MMORPG versatility, we must accept the same industry disposition, then ask the same question. How can MMORPGs expand in terms of allowable and rewarding gameplay options, yet still maintain the exciting and diverse combat options to hold the attention of the current community? If combat is the box, there’s a huge world of options floating around outside of it that has only briefly been touched upon. A Tale in the Desert deservers much credit for challenging the industry paradigm, as well as There, Second Life, and Puzzle Pirates. In continued mourning of what it once was, the original release of Star Wars Galaxies also incorporated a wide variety of non-combat activities, and in the same vein, so did Ultima Online. We’re talking about activities that have nothing to do with battle here, so the ability to craft healing potions out of herbs doesn’t count, because that’s something directly related to combat.

An issue directly tied to gameplay versatility is PvE and PvP, but not in just the combat sense. Games that depend on PvE (environment) design usually put little stock in character interaction. Why would you bother to forge a relationship with a talented crafter when you could drop a few gold coins or credits and develop the skill yourself in a few hours? Why would you pay someone to transport goods for you when it’s cheaper and easier to pay 100% reliable NPCs or just do it yourself? A game that truly embraces versatility needs to point the players at and to each other to fulfill most of their needs. Need to get across the ocean? Then you need to pay for a ride, or stow away, a ship that was built by player crafters, is crewed by player sailors, and if it’s attacked, it could be by player pirates. If you’re being chased by hungry gankers, you need to seek shelter in a player-built and operated city, perhaps reporting your ordeal to the player-run law enforcement.

Another opportunity that few MMORPGs have capitalized on is the concept of in-game recreation. That is to say, when your mythical warrior or space cowboy has some down time between epic duels and harrowing interstellar wars, there’s very little to do besides recover from the last battle and/or prepare for the next. What if your fantasy character could participate in a friendly, soccer-like game in the castle courtyard? How about a space station bar with a dartboard? Final Fantasy XI has a great little feature in its in-game card game, which many people enjoy, but why have so few other MMORPGs made use of in-game recreation? Where are the ballgames, races (in vehicles or on foot), contests of strength, speed, and wit? Why is it that, barring a very few exceptions, the only way to compete with other characters in MMORPGs is by dishing out damage at each other?

Something else I’d very much like to see in more MMORPGs is the ability to advance a character in purely social attributes. Not everyone wants to be a sword-wielding, spaceship-flying, combat bad-ass. Even in games that allow players to be merchants, politicians, entertainers, or spies, they almost universally require some amount of combat experience in order to gain higher, non-combat powers. The age-old inconsistency of having to kill orcs to become a better helmet crafter still infects most MMORPGs. Not every wealthy merchant is a battle-hardened soldier, and not every well-connected diplomat is a spacefighter jockey, but according to most online games, that’s the status quo. I yearn for a game that lets me put all of my efforts into social advancement, forging relationships with NPCs and players alike that mature over the course of my character’s career into potent alliances that allow me to wield power (in a relative sense) at least on par with other players that spend their time developing combat prowess. If my buddy UberWarrior is able to complete a quest or obtain a rare item by killing a fierce dragon, then my UberSocial character, assuming he’s about as old and well-traveled as my buddy’s character, should be able to complete the same quest or win that rare item through the use of his own specialized powers.

For this week, let’s try our hand at coming up with some options for gameplay versatility, completely non-combat situations, abilities, and goals that would give players something to do in the downtime between battles, but also provide entirely new career paths for players that are disinterested in hacking apart fellow players and/or mindless NPCs. What kinds of characters would exist and how would they advance in a game that included, but did not require combat? How should quests be written to allow multiple solutions with multiple processes? This isn’t just wishful thinking from the peanut gallery either; there’s an entire population of gamers out there that don’t quite fit into the 15-25 year old male yearning for mock combat. Imagine the guild a 45-year-old human resources director could run if he didn’t need top-notch FPS twitch skills just to advance high enough to gain the ability to start one. Think of the role-playing opportunities of a clan that only recruits female players, and is actually an enormous superpower instead of just a handful of the game’s relatively rare women. Lastly, to entice any game developers that might be reading, think of the additional profit potential of making slight modifications to your game that could potentially double (or more) the subscription base. A little gameplay versatility could go a long way to improving most MMORPGs’ initial draw, longevity, and thus overall earnings.

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Nathan Knaack