Babies and Bathwater

There has been a recent round of blog posts suggesting that current MMOs have lost something, that they aren’t living up to their potential, are in desperate need of a revolution, and that power-mad developers are trying to lock players on a limited path. Of course, these assertions aren’t anything new–posters on entrenched message boards like FoH have been saying the same thing for years.

Certainly there is room for entirely new styles of massively multiplayer online games to be developed. We need this kind of development to happen. But the fact is that the Diku MMO is here to stay, if for no other reason that it’s a popular style of game that millions of people around the world have proven willing to pay money for. So look, just stop whining that the genre is exhausted and out of ideas, because it doesn’t matter–even if there are jaded gamers who have had enough of the format and should just move on already, there are millions of new players waiting to take their places.

Rather than abandoning hope for the Diku MMO–which is about as likely to disappear from the gaming landscape as the FPS–we should look for ways to address its shortcomings.

The problem isn’t that there are a lot of quests in these games; it’s that the quests are often boring, non-heroic, and the only legitimate path of advancement. Worse still, quests in some current titles actually penalize socialization because updates don’t apply to the whole group. And nobody enjoys ganking a named creature in the wild only to reach a quest hub and receive a mission to kill that very same beastie.

These are solvable problems. Let’s not do away with the game content Achievers love; let’s stop penalizing Explorers and Socializers instead. By being thoughtful about our methods of delivering achievement, we should actually feed exploration and socialization. Reward people for encountering mysteries in the wild. Create settings that foster a variety of adventuring outside the linear quest line.

Another topic that comes up a lot is how current MMOs have removed all sense of danger and risk. Again, this is a problem we can solve without going in a completely ridiculous and reckless direction. Simply walking outside the borders of your home town needn’t mean that everything your character has ever earned is on the line (don’t worry–those of you who enjoy that sort of thing will always have niche PvP games to play for however many months of lifespan those titles have). Punitive death penalties may please the hardcore, but they are one of the primary reasons players leave a game.

Instead, find other stakes with real consequences that players can fight for. Make them overcome huge obstacles with a real chance of loss–but loss that makes them feel like they really tried and want to do better next time, not a loss that makes them feel stupid or unskilled.

Look, a lot of this comes down to content, and making content is expensive–believe me, I know. But MMO makers are just going to have to bite the bullet on this one. If you read between the lines and pay attention to what the developers of tomorrow’s MMOs are telling you, several companies are working on addressing these challenges in their own ways (such as BioWare, Trion, and, yes, 38 Studios). There is no universal solution, but developers are trying new things.

While some teams will focus on taking the MMO into bold new directions, others will try to build upon what has proven to work and make it even better. This genre has room for both revolution and evolution, and in fact needs both paths to thrive. Pushing boundaries is healthy, but throwing out the baby with the bathwater would ultimately undermine the considerable progress MMOs have made since the late 1990s.

Published by

Moorgard

Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

15 thoughts on “Babies and Bathwater”

  1. Over the course of the last few months I’ve come to realize pretty much the same thing you’ve explained here. It is unlikely for the industry to just dump everything that they’ve done and start from scratch. Business wise it is risky and this is a risk adverse market. It seems more productive to look at what doesn’t really work out that well and possibly suggest fixes.

    I’ll be excited to see what is around the corner for our industry and thank you kindly for the mention. It is always appreciated.

  2. Really good read Steve…. You’ve come such a long way from good old Povar :) It is so good to see people like you involved in making MMO’s. I believe their is room for all kinds of MMo’s, as broadband becomes more wide spread and faster, it’s a huge potential market. With plenty of room for niche games imho. Look at Eve, very niche game but has done very well and continually grown, slowly perhaps but when you look at sub numbers they’ve pretty consistently grown over the years. And I have to admit, it’s the one game I periodically go back to , as opposed to every other MMO I’ve played. But you do have to be into the whole sci-fi thing for that :)

    The real key to a lasting MMO is the community, which I find so lacking in today’s games . In any MMO I’ve played since, old EQ had the best. You really had to depend on people. And as much as many people dislike static camps, it really fostered the EQ community. You got to know people that way. Just waiting on the list for a certain drop was fun cause you’d meet PUG’s all waiting for their call to a group, and sometimes got a truly golden group out of it all. These days people group for a quest and then go on their merry way, off to their next quest…..

    I don’t know the answer but I do have hope that you all at 38 can figure it out…..I really badly miss a good MMO :)

  3. I’m the last person who will say that we need to ignore the past. My post was a way to try to verbalize what people have been grumbling about for a while. If I were a real pessimist about games I would have entitled my post, “What we have never had in our games”. I’m not that dire. Yet. ;)

    The problem is that as an industry, we get locked into patterns. The reason why some people suggest throwing Achievers under the bus is because there are so many games out there. The typical Achiever has plenty of games to choose from, so creating a game where the Achiever motivation is still important potentially leads to the same old problems. Saying we need to focus on Exploration or Socialization is one thing, but how do you do it? Where are the examples we can look at like we can WoW for Achievement? Too many developers are eager to fall into the same pattern, which gives us the same types of games.

    So, how do we break out of these patterns? For me, the first step is recognizing we have a problem and trying to name it.

  4. “(don’t worry–those of you who enjoy that sort of thing will always have niche PvP games to play for however many months of lifespan those titles have)”
    I’m curious, what’s your opinion about Eve:Online then? A niche PVP game that has been around for many many many months and no indication it’s gonna die.

  5. I do wonder if there’s much possibility of innovation in the AAA space of MMOs at this point. I feel like the philosophy is largely that WoW design is correct because of its huge numbers.

    So when thinking about death penalty for example the discussion probably never goes to will there be an exp loss, will there be corpse recovery etc. No, WoW has proven the right way to do it. The discussion would be: How big is the run speed bonus in ghost form? Do we call it ghost form or maybe soul form? What do we call our spiritmasters and how many of them do we need for each area?

    I imagine a similar situation with many other design choices, that is very little choice at all. You must have the auction house, the mail system, the color-coded item tiers, the fast travel, the instanced dungeons, 2 faction PvP format, the quest log, the signpost-like NPCs with right-click and accept style quests to fill up the log, the mini-map, and so on. What color will your epic items be, well that’s totally on the table.

    Not that WoW was not heavily derivative. But Blizzard still made a game they wanted to make, they didn’t just run down a checklist of things EQ had and make some tweaks. Hopefully some of these other developers are actually making their own games, trying to lead the market and not just follow.

  6. Let’s not do away with the game content Achievers love; let’s stop penalizing Explorers and Socializers instead. By being thoughtful about our methods of delivering achievement, we should actually feed exploration and socialization. Reward people for encountering mysteries in the wild.

    That is exacly what I have been saying for years. Themepark achievements are fine but exploring and socializing is being penalized for no good reason.

    The explorer problem is easy. Give a player credit for any quests they make progress on rather than only the ones in their log book. That way, if a player is out exploring and completes objectives for a quest they don’t have to come back and repeat it just because they found another quest that takes them there. I can’t tell you how many times I avoided cool looking places just because I knew I would get a quest for it later. That is not fun for explorers.

    Socializers have a whole host of problems. Too many games are being released with no social hubs. In fact, it seems like the games that have social hubs have them by accident more than anything else. Social hubs need to be a core part of the world design as do some non-combat activities that encourage socializing. Even something as simple as a chessboard in a tavern would help, but it seems like these are the first features to be cut in modern MMOG’s.

  7. “More of the same, but with polish” isn’t always progress. Also, as long as we’re mixing metaphors, if the baby sours the water in the bath, you *do* change the water, but keep the baby safe.

    As with the business model variety (I will never get good value out of subscriptions, for example, but know that others do), I’m not calling for the immediate execution and/or exile of “me, too” design. I’m calling for devs to understand that the industry is in a rut, and that perpetually poaching from the same player pool, whether in design or in business model, makes for a stagnant genre.

    As Brian notes, there are patterns the genre is stuck in, and that has a way of accelerating diminishing returns.

  8. @reatukrentor: “I’m curious, what’s your opinion about Eve:Online then? A niche PVP game that has been around for many many many months and no indication it’s gonna die.”

    I’m of the opinion that EVE has compelling socio-economic aspects that make it much more than just a standard PvP game. The ganking that happens has a much deeper context than most fantasy-based PvP focused games that have been released.

    @Ferrel: “It is unlikely for the industry to just dump everything that they’ve done and start from scratch. Business wise it is risky and this is a risk adverse market.”

    I get what you’re saying, but I’d also like to take this opportunity to say on the record that it doesn’t all come down to business. Some of us actually love Diku MMOs and want to make cooler/better ones. Honest. I’d love to get rich doing it, but I don’t expect to. This is just a style of game I personally believe in, and a lot of people feel the same way.

    @Brian Green: “So, how do we break out of these patterns?”

    I can’t know for sure whether other developers have tried and failed to do this, but I can tell you how I would approach it at a basic level.

    First, state clear goals which will become your decision razors. For example: “We will make an accessible world-class MMO filled with compelling achievements, encouraging exploration and discovery, with diverse tools for socialization which foster community building.”

    Second, examine every feature and implementation using these razors. Under this mandate, if a feature doesn’t fulfill all these criteria–no matter how cool that feature seems–it must be revised or cut. If the concept of the feature works but the implementation does not, change your implementation. If you refuse to do that, you must reexamine your core values and be honest with yourself about the kind of game you’re making.

    So if your quest system seems nice and accessible but actively discourages socialization in its implementation, it should fail your test and you should revise it (or your product goals). It doesn’t all come out perfectly, and some systems will push the boundaries of what passes the razors, but there needs to be a clear reason for such compromises.

    What I’ve seen happen before is that compromises are made for the sake of meeting a deadline or hitting some quantity of content or features; this is where things fall apart. It makes your stated goals meaningless and does away with the checks and balances created to keep the project honest and on track.

  9. Some people love Diku MMO’s. Other’s really enjoy a game that happens to be a Diku MMO, but struggle to ever enjoy another Diku the same way again because of predictability issues.

    That leads to a question/hypothesis*: How many Diku’s will the “core audience” play in a lifetime? Is it feasible to expect to pick up a large portion of WoW’s audience with the next great Diku? Or does the next great Diku need to rely more on picking up the current crop of 14-18 year olds who haven’t played WoW because its been out “forever” and is an “old” game?

    I think its entirely possible for another game to come along and do as well as WoW, but I’m guessing it will be as much about market timing as anything else, catching a fresh wave of new players that aren’t jaded against the model.

    *Questions/hypothesis assume the real answer will be somewhere between the extremes.

  10. I get what you’re saying, but I’d also like to take this opportunity to say on the record that it doesn’t all come down to business. Some of us actually love Diku MMOs and want to make cooler/better ones. Honest. I’d love to get rich doing it, but I don’t expect to. This is just a style of game I personally believe in, and a lot of people feel the same way.

    I’m certain it doesn’t come down to business in the eyes of developers. I’d be curious about the pressure from management though. How much do they say “lets do something else” and how much do they crunch numbers and ask, “Steve, is this really worth the risk?” Obviously 38 is a special breed but I’m talking about the EAs and such. Just a curiosity really. I happen to like Diku MMOs too! I’m just a little tired of the exact same thing lately.

  11. Thank you at least for at least acknowledging there is a problem. Even a blind man can see that the current Achievers Gone Wild MMO genre epitomized by WoW and based on the Diku MUD formula has gone terribly stale of late. Now at least we know that 38 Studios has one developer that is aware of the shortcomings and is hopefully wise enough to create a MMO that will distinguish itself from what Blizzard offers and the WoW clone factory approach.

    Nobody is saying let’s get rid of Diku MUD underpinnings completely. All we are saying is that we’d like to see some alternatives offered that provide more thoughtful means of self-actualization for socializers and explorers which you acknowledged quite nicely. If you’ve read those blogs surely you see lots of solutions being presented.

    I would wager that part of the reason you are somewhat defensive of the Diku MUD system is that Copernicus will be based on it. Fair enough. Therefore your challenge will be to reinvigorate that system and make it brand new again — which is exactly what Blizzard did by taking EQ and making it into WoW.

    It’s almost as if you have crafted a clever excuse not to seriously listen to the MMO veterans out there — not the self-important misanthropes and malcontents at FoH — but the real ones that actually give a damn about this genre. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now. You should be grateful that this genre has the kind of passionate people that live, breathe, eat and sleep MMOs. As I recall, you yourself were one of the pioneers of inspired MMO commentary yourself.

    To play the devil’s advocate, sure there will be millions of new gamers in the future but that’s hardly an excuse not to innovate and push the genre forward. In a few years when your MMO comes out people will (hopefully) be pretty sick and tired of WoW. They’re going to want something to fill the void. With luck, your product will be there to give them what they need. Sounds like you have a good handle on providing just enough innovation to counteract the familiarity. :)

  12. Moorgard wrote:
    What I’ve seen happen before is that compromises are made for the sake of meeting a deadline or hitting some quantity of content or features; this is where things fall apart. It makes your stated goals meaningless and does away with the checks and balances created to keep the project honest and on track.

    Yes, that would be that pesky “business” thing you referred to. ;) Eventually the money dries out and you have to ship something. A few companies are lucky enough to be able to go back and revise things until they work, but most companies cannot. Often if a design does not live up to its expectations, it’s canceled instead of reworked. In the face of that choice, some devs prefer to go on with a flawed implementation and a game rather than insisting on doing it right and not having a job. According to some interviews Bill Roper did about Hellgate: London, this is what happened to that game: he was used to Blizzard’s “when its done” mentality and the publisher laughed when he said he needed more money to finish the project. So, he launched the game and the rest is history, even the game unfortunately.

    And that’s the issue in a nutshell, though. It’s all well and good to say, “I want to build a game that doesn’t penalize socializers!” but when the person signing the checks points at WoW and says, “I want one of those!” then your razor is going to be discarded in short order if you want to make your mortgage payment. Given that I’m not in that position (for better or for worse), I feel freer to start questioning the base assumptions many developers make about MMOs.

  13. Great post.

    Brad stole the whole design (document) for Everquest from a DIKU mud (Sojourn).

    i) the classes;
    ii) the spells and skills;
    iii) the inter class dependancy;
    iv) the cities and zones;
    v) the loot;
    vi) the multiple group raid system with encounters that could take hours
    vii) harsh penalties for failure

    EQ1 was and is Sojourn with 3D graphics.

    Sojourn was very different to the other DIKU muds. It was harsh and unforgiving. It had little solo play.

    Blizzard went back to the genres roots and identified elements of DIKU mud play in MUDs other than Sojourn that were fun and used them as the foundation for WoW.

    The good news is Blizzard didn’t exhaust the ideas those games have to offer; many of them are still untapped. There’s gold in them thar hills ……

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