Tuesday, December 04, 2001

Thinking Out Loud: MMORPGs -- 4 Dec 2001

It seems to me that the biggest problems with MMORPG's right now is their incredible "done that"ness. The current crop of MMORPG's look nicer, but in gameplay are no different, essentially, than Meridian 59, or, really, than the MUDs that have been around for æons. (You know, since, like, the '80s.) Skills and terminology that apply to one game transfer immediately to others. Characters are one of, or a combination of, healers, tanks, and nukers. (Summoners, which seem to defy this, turn out to be a combination tank/nuker.) Gameplay is often about finding the hunting grounds that are appropriate to your level, hunting there until you've levelled a couple times, and moving on to the next hunting grounds.

I think the single biggest thing that is missing from the game is the quest. I'm short on example games for current quest systems. I don't remember any quests in DragonRealms (DR). The only quests I recall in Meridian 59 (M59) were of the take-him-a-message sort. Ultima Online (UO) had traveller quests, where you needed to escort a traveller somewhere for gold, but for most players the only important "quests" were to obtain materials for crafting (eg, "black gold" is mined near Vesper; "texas tea" grows near Trinsic). Everquest (EQ) does appear to have a lot of quests, but for the most part, players hunt until a quest becomes easy enough that it's mostly about travelling.

What seems to be missing is the element that is important from single-player RPGs ... players quest, and by questing, they gain experience. When designing a single-player RPG, designers don't expect their players to spend six hours in a single room fighting a never-ending onslaught of (insert monster here). Bo-ring. I believe that the only thing that saves MMORPG's from being tedious is the interaction with other PCs.

But this isn't enough. Do you invite people to your house to engage the tedious? "Hey, Mike, why don't you and Judy come over. We have some paint that's drying, and Carol says maybe we can churn butter later." Shared tedium isn't fun for long.

My idea is that players should progress through a MMORPG much the way they progress through a single-player game -- as a connected series of individual quests. eg:

  1. Players begin in city "A".
  2. Local residents (mainly NPCs) are concerned!
  3. Journey to city "B".
  4. City "B" has been overrun by (monster)s!
  5. The (monster)s seem to come from the Ancient "C" Mine.
  6. Descend the mine: The Wizard of "D" is behind this!
  7. The Wizard of "D" teleports away, perhaps to city "E".
  8. Journey to City "E" ... and so on.

The obvious problem with this is that it's hardly possible for several hundred players to be traipsing through the same dungeon, and have the dungeon experience be at all interesting, or indeed even to be different from other MMORPGs. My solution is to rethink the way servers are split: There are very few non-dungeon servers (but the "aboveground" world(s) is/are big enough that they don't feel crowded). [Optional: Some genius might be expended in splitting the aboveground into areas (different planes, or planets, or ...) that segregate players into approximate skill-level groups. (Eg, one doesn't learn the true whereabouts of the Wizard of "T" until one reaches level 43, or a gimcrackery skill of 91%.) This prevents low-level players from being "twinked" by high-level players.]

In each area ("town"), there are people (NPCs) with quests. These could be major (Ascend to the roof of the Tower of "W", above the 66th floor, and return to me the egg of a golden roc. Oh, did I tell you that barbarians control the tower?) or they could be minor (That bastard "G" stole my chicken!). The quest-givers give out quests that are appropriate for the party which attempts them. (One thing to consider is the players' difficulty settings ... do they want a cakewalk or do they want to cheat death?)

The party (which might be one player) sets out to the quest site on the aboveground server. However, upon entering the dungeon, the party is in a world of its own: No other players are within the dungeon. And, for at least several game days, the state of the dungeon doesn't change as players enter and exit the dungeon. Once it does change, players can be notified with a simple "Oh, dear! The scary "H" monsters have refortified the Temple/Mine/Wal-Mart!"

To work as I've suggested, and to give the game worthwhile replay value, the number of quests has to be huge and continually growing. (At some critical mass, the number of quests becomes large enough that the number can seem to be inflated artificially, by rotating old quests out and restoring them six months later.) This strikes me as the most serious bottleneck: A couple of quests would have to be added PER DAY to keep interest and value (and keep generating monthly income). Perhaps the players themselves could be recruited to do much of this work; the number of superbly designed 3D worlds created by fans as mods to existing games continues to astound me. But the company must still retain a large force of "editors" who pick the best, clean up any problems or inconsistencies, and add them to the world.

I've already come up with several concerns with the above, mostly technical. I'm curious what you come up with. Part II (items) is to come.

[To come, perhaps, eventually ... but not anywhere near the time that this message was composed.]