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Player Created Systems

Editorials By Nathan Knaack on April 24, 2006

Player Created Systems
Player Created, Operated and Destoryable Systems

It might be surprising to realize this late in the game of the MMORPG industry, but while making the initial sale of the box in the store is important, an online game needs to keep subscribers by continuing to captivate their interest. That is fact A. Next, it’s fairly obvious that a studio of five to fifty developers will never, ever be able to continually satiate an audience of five thousand to five million. There’s the unavoidable fact B. Put them together and what do you get? A successful, long-term MMORPG that hopes to keep the same subscribers (not just the “fresh meat” brought in by releasing the same old game on a new continent) over the course of more than a few months needs more than just the finite content that a handful of designers, artists, and programmers can create. How do you provide enough content for five million players?

How about recruiting five million developers?

Obviously, we’re not talking about bundling a license of 3-D Studio Max with every copy of Lineage 2 or working out a deal with Adobe for Photoshop to ship in the same box as Dark Age of Camelot. Not everyone is proficient with the real tools developers employ to make MMORPGs from scratch, but it’s been proven numerous times that a custom toolset can often become just as, if not more popular than the game itself. Some shining examples are the Starcraft editor and the Neverwinter Nights Aurora toolset, both of which could arguably be credited with most of the longevity those two titles enjoy. Some MMORPGs are beginning to experiment with custom toolsets, from City of Heroes/Villains base construction to the Ryzom Ring. However, this article is intentionally leaving out games such as There and Second Life, mainly because we’re still searching for interactive games, not visual chatrooms. I mean no offense to the previous two titles or companies either; they make excellent products. I’d just like to see games that offer meaningful combat as well as meaningful customization, modification of the game world, and communication.

I believe that in the future, a core ingredient in most, if not all successful MMORPGs, will be the ability for players to truly change the physical and social world around them through their actions, not just in out-of-game editing sessions. Players won’t just select pre-fab housing units and drop them into designated real estate slots; they’ll build their dwellings, shops, and bases wall-by-wall, laying out floor plans as they see fit. Assembling a vehicle won’t be restricted to choosing from a handful of models and then tweaking the internal, invisible components. Also, a group of like-minded players won’t just be a “guild” that shares a silly name and perhaps a colorful tabard; it will be a hierarchal structure with ranks, responsibilities, titles, and duties that also supports things like uniforms, position/vehicles, and official missions.

The first player-created content most MMORPGs began to feature was the organization, or guild as it is commonly called. Although most games still adhere to the primitive incarnation of the system, being just a gang of people who share a name, there are a few that have gone beyond that, most notably Eve Online with its corporation setup. In that universe, players hold positions, have different responsibilities, and may even own shares. But even as advanced as Eve Online has become in terms of player-created factions, it’s still just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s possible. It’s a step in the right direction, but I’d enjoy seeing more games move from a rank structure to a more malleable ability structure, where each person can be granted or depraved of numerous specific capabilities. This would allow player-created factions to mature into any form of group, from loose-knit bands of rebels to massive governments consisting of dozens of specific positions and duties.

Still in its infancy, player housing is becoming more and more of a hot topic among game designers, who are eager to forge a greater connection between a game world and the players that inhabit it (in this case, almost literally). Anyone can be duped by flashy advertising, but usually only people who feel a deeper connection to the game will become long-term subscribers. The main reason that advancements in player housing have been so slow is the same reason all MMORPG ideas are slow to emerge: Developers usually tip-toe into uncharted territory, and even they prefer to follow in the tip-toed footsteps of someone that’s already done it. Part of that is an honest attempt to avoid game-destroying bugs, exploits, and incompatibilities, but the much more important thing they’re worried about is the reaction of their primary customer base. Nobody wants to waste months of development time and millions of dollars on something that only 5% of the game population is going to actually use.

So here we are at the cusp between 2nd and 3rd generation MMORPGs, and here at Outside the Box, we believe that the distinction between them is going to be player-created content. Here we go! Player’s need to be able to create not only houses for themselves, but entire cities from the ground up. We’re not talking about cookie-cutter dwellings arranged on neatly-organized plots of land like in subdivisions, either. I’d like to see sprawling metropolises including a vast array of architectural styles, arrangements, roads, power grids, sewer systems, and NPC civilians. Does that sound absurd? Sim City did all of that a decade ago. In the video game industry as a whole, what’s changed since then? Not much in terms of design, but at least the graphics and multiplayer capabilities have improved, so why not just take all of that and combine it with old-school simulation and real time strategy elements? You can have your WoW and customize it, too.

Something we learned last week from City of Heroes/Villains is that character customization goes a long, long way towards forging a deeper connection between the player and the world around them. What other games can boast “people watching,” or just sitting around to see what other characters look like, as an enjoyable pastime? Isn’t it a sign that so many people say the best (sometimes even the only good) part of the game is character creation, with its statistical and visual diversity? Imagine if the CoH/V level of character creation detail could be applied to player housing, vehicles, factions, and individual items? What if your speeder bike could look as different from the rest as your Star Wars Galaxies character does? What if your battle cruiser was as unique as your Eve Online head shot?

Once we have the advanced visual customization of player-created content, we need to address statistical uniqueness. There’s little point to allowing everyone to make their swords look wildly different if they’re all going to do the same damage, cost the same amount, and attack at the same rate. Then again, we need something much more capable than choosing between high damage/slow attack, medium damage/medium attack, and low damage/fast attack. How about being able to change ten aspects of a sword, from weight and balance to sharpness and material? What if a hover car had twenty traits you could modify, from speed and handling to maximum altitude and fuel capacity? I don’t want the same rifle as every other guy on the battlefield; I want a nice scope on mine, but one friend might opt for an expanded clip and shoulder stock, while yet another buddy switches to a belt-fed, tripod setup.

As for housing, I would expect that to be just as diverse, but hopefully even more. We’ve moved beyond The Sims and Barbie Playhouse models; housing isn’t just a matter of picking out colors and furniture. I’d like my house, space station, or castle to actually serve a purpose, preferably several functions actually. How about housing that has the capacity, or maybe even the necessity of attracting NPCs? It doesn’t matter how many dragons he’s slain, one hero can’t build a castle by himself. Even if he had all of the proper laborers, engineers, and support staff to build that castle, it certainly wouldn’t be done overnight, either. I’d love to see massive battles where guilds defend their works in progress or where galactic empires defend their half-constructed space stations.

As with the natural order of things, building player housing is only half of the equation. We must also consider what it takes to destroy them. Nobody wants to invest a huge chunk of their personal wealth into something that a random griefer can undo in a few seconds with a basic torch. Then again, I find indestructible player housing to be just as ridiculous as games with no death penalties. At some stage of the game, it becomes pointless to build and defend something if nothing can destroy or conquer it. We see the exact same thing in games where you don’t lose anything for dying; people don’t stick around for long after they’ve been everywhere and done everything. Thus destroying a player-made structure should be possible, but require the focused attention of several other players, along with the proper equipment, time, and expense. Reducing a castle to rubble should require siege weaponry, massively expensive and fragile machines that can only be operated by a team of players. The heart of the equation is that it should require just as much, maybe even more players, resources, and time to destroy player-created content as it takes to build it.

A great idea would be to link the separation of main and regular characters with those who can build/destroy player housing and those who cannot. In much the same way that it alleviates the concern of wandering bands of immortal lesser characters permanently murdering the main characters, it would also prevent hordes of regulars from tearing down the hard work of main characters who are genuinely interested in improving the game world with their contributions.

What about using NPCs to not only build and operate, but also defend your structures? Guards to patrol the walls, sentries doing laps in fighter ships, and security guards doing the rounds; these wouldn’t just serve as money sinks. This is the stuff of epic stories, too. Aragorn doesn’t just fight epic villains, not every encounter in the neutral zone is with Captain Picard’s arch nemesis, and Batman always has to fight through a horde of goons before he gets his hands on the Joker (That’s four for four on the Caped Crusader references now, I’m on a roll. At this point, I’m thinking it isn’t so much that I have a Batman obsession as it is the fact that he makes a great metaphor and correlation to so many other things). Wouldn’t it be great to return to your castle after a hard day of slaying the undead to have all of your NPC workers, guards, and followers greet you with healing spells, replenish your stamina with a feast, and update you on construction projects, how many enemies (player and NPC) were fended off, and what all of your neighbors are up to?

Let’s avoid getting into the discussion of whether or not MMORPGs need player created content this week, because there certainly is a demand for it. Just like most of the other topics this column delves into, this is and should always be an optional facet of gameplay, not some required time/money sink in which not everyone would be interested. The question is how do we make it work? The technology is there, the demand is there, and some companies have begun to experiment with it, so after all these years of MMORPG history, where is the advanced player-created content?

You can comment on Nathan's article here.