Most of today’s single-player action games like Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed have around 15-25 hours of gameplay. These games share some similarities as the player progresses: the character gains more abilities that affect gameplay (weapons, moves, new mission types, etc), he advanced in a linear story, meets new characters, kills new enemies and often has the chance to explore something extra. Also they all share about the same payment method: you pay around $40 and you have access to all the game for as long as you like.
They are also, of course, single-player experiences.
In most MMOs today, like in World of Warcraft, you take 20 hours to reach a third or less of the your game progression. And, most of the time, that means little gameplay, hardly any story, a multitude of disposable npcs and tons of variants of the same enemies, all of that often focused on a limited repetition of completing the same kinds of quests with the obvious lack of effect to the game world.
I am not oblivious to what is new or is to come. Cataclysm has added many minigames to their quests and Guild Wars 2 promises much with their dynamic events, but the question remains: Did we need to make MMOs so much differently then our single-player games?
The first thing that came to my mind when I wrote the above question was that it was a matter of using a different media. Just like a scriptwriter has to adapt when he turns a novel into a movie, a game designer must adapt as he turns a single-player into a massive multiplayer. But how much of this adaptation has actually occurred in MMOs?
If you go back to Ultima Online and other similar ‘original’ MMOs (and you might add MU*’s here), they were virtual worlds in which players had a certain amount of freedom. Today’s MMOs evolved from that experience, adding quests and raids to make the experience less daunting and therefore widening the audience. We could go on for days on yet another discussion about how to improve MMOs, but that’s not the purpose of this article. The real purpose is to ask: Did it evolve from the best starting point?
The single-player experience
I have often complained about MMO’s single-player narratives. You are the chosen one. You are the hero. You are the one who killed the dragon and saved the princess. We all suffer from autism in these massive worlds. So you ask: “why the hell is that guy now saying MMOs need to be more like single-player games?”
When you write a novel, you have to describe scenes: Objects, body language, places and often characters. In a movie, that’s already on the screen. In a novel you often write in one or more character’s point of view, so that you can transmit personality, perception and thought with how the scene is described, the words you use and directly through what the character is thinking. That is no so easy to do on movies. There are also situations that work greatly in words but not as a visual scene and vice-versa. Hence, adaptation is needed.
That means that giving MMO players an experience that is a facsimile of a single-player game is an absurd. It’s like a silent movie in which scenes are cut by a black screen with text explaining what is going on. Or a popup window with a wall of text out of a generic character that never moves, for that matter.
Now you see I’m referring to the single-player NARRATIVE, not the single-player GAMEFLOW.
In a MMO, you take 20+ hours just to learn to play the game. Are they so much more complex than single-player games to require that long? If they take that long, are they really any good?
The single-player gameflow
While it often varies to some extend, single-player games often follow a basic flow: you are presented with a level in which you learn the basics of the game during about an hour or so. After that, you are given the ‘liberty’ to get used to that gameplay while new elements are slowly added: A weapon that does spread damage instead of line hit, a different kind of ammo, a new way to bypass threats, etc. Using my first examples, in Bioshock you find new powers and new weapons (as well as variants of the same few basic enemies) during most of the game. In AC you begin with many items, then must regain them slowly and, eventually, acquire new ones.
Both games also add an element of exploration: While not required, in each level you are able to search for recordings and hidden treasure (Bioshock) or complete side quests and collect flags (Assassin’s Creed). Both are presented in discreet ways that do not get on the way of the ‘common’ player, but still attract several others, like, to use Bartleanism, the achiever and explorer. Sometimes, because you noticed there must be something over that building, you end up going for it, just for the experience.
Now you could come up and say “yeah, but MMOs are far more complex than single-player games.” And I agree… to an extent.
How complex are MMOs?
One of the main complexities of MMOs is what humans are made for: Social interaction. While it may vary from culture to culture, what attract humans to MMOs are social interactions, either direct or indirect. So features like chat, friends list, party, guilds, group missions, etc, are a necessary complexity in MMOs. It does, then, take up a good share of the time players need to learn from games.
You might also add that, if the player doesn’t play well (in his peers’ perspective), he sucks, so he is no good to play with. It means that players are more inclined to want to learn so that they do not look bad in front of others (even faceless strangers). Social pressure just like in high school is here. Weee!
Another complexity is the character build. You may argue that class-based is better than skill-based or vice-versa. Here, it doesn’t matter. Players want to be different both in looks and in abilities. You might even evoke the holy trinity if you will. In that sense, how much the single-player game comparison is possible? One might say that you could have a Bioshock MMO where players had a limited number of powers and weapons so that a party might be composed of players that permanently or temporarily have a different set of abilities just like I played Bioshock different from you or your friends.
But players need to experiment, to choose and to be able to go back and say ‘this build is not good for me’. We go back to the social pressure of not wanting to fail. It also goes back to the fact that, in that case, class, skill or simply item-based abilities makes no difference. How many times did you go shift between weapons, powers and enhancements in Bioshock?
Now, I return to my question: How complex do MMOs need to be? And why?
It’s a fact: studios need money to make games. In the end, even a studio that focus on making games for gamers need to think about profit. MMOs are no exception. MMOs are designed based on their payment method. If the studio needs you to stay as long as possible, paying monthly fees, they will require you to take hours to progress and reach new gameplay. They need you to want to spend money on a XP booster gem or a new adventure pack so that you can have fun NOW.
They are not evil, of course. A lot of people are happy to provide them with this money in exchange for what they offer. If they didn’t, WoW wouldn’t be the absurd success it is; neither would Blizzard have sold so many celestial mounts in so little time. But it is how MMOs are made today.
Now let’s look at this following list of games: Neverwinter Nights, Guild Wars, Freelancer.
They share three main similarities: First, you pay once for the game and play as long as you want and they have massive communities that still play them even after years of their release. They also have given their respective studios profit despite their models. Note that I did not mention that GW has expansions (and does NWN) or that NWN and FL are basically single-player games with server support to (supposedly) up to 128 players. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that these games still live as multiplayer communities despite not following the classic MMO monetization concepts.
You might talk about the power of user content in NWN or the love for some specific game mechanics. The fact is that these games were made to last not to make money, but to be played. I didn’t have to play Freelancer on a server with friends just to rise up my level so I could access a raid 10 hours away from me. I played it because it was fun to play with my friends.
Isn’t that the point of massive multiplayer games?
Mixing it all together
I’d be an ass if I came in here without some sort of solution. Again, if I had one, I’d probably be rich. As I’m not, this is just an idea of someone with some experience both as player and as designer.
Design the gameflow as if designing a single-player. It doesn’t matter if the player picks a class to start with or has a generic Joe that adds items/skills/abilities as he goes. Present him to a small sandbox, like one of Assassin’s Creed cities. Allow for experimentation. Let the player choose abilities and go back to change it if he must.
In this small sandbox, guide him with quests that may be generic in form, but personal in context. Say, locations, characters, names and items vary, but the general concept is the same. So that, when you play it, you speak with the thug Hassan who tells you to find the traitorous Nasin at the Mosque and kill him, while when I played it, I had to speak with the merchant Freda who told me to go to the temple and vanquish a possessed monk. As the player plays the game, each decision or quest context is recorded for future reference, so that quests become every time more tailored to the player’s experience.
Pepper this small sandbox with extras: exploration, access to group content, raids, whatever. What is important is the freedom to experiment, but without the fear of been lost.
After an average 2 hours, allow the player to exit this small sandbox and access other, larger ones. Impose some expected limitations here. For instance, outside this initial sandbox, your capacity to experiment with abilities is limited, so that it doesn’t become meaningless. The concept of small interconnected sandboxes may sound absurd, but it’s a conceptual thing that the player may not even be aware of.
Outside the initial sandbox, continue adding exploration and adaptative quests. More the player plays more information the game may have to tailor the same quests to his personal context without the need for handmade content. And then you add dynamic content, like what Guild War 2 promises to have. A certain sandbox may have cycles of invasions or minor events players are groups may interfere. More than that: Individual quests could take in account current conditions of a sandbox to tailor a given quest to that specific player. So, if you have been playing the game as a stealthy assassin, taking contracts to murder members of the merchant’s guild, when the city is under attack by demons, maybe a quest suggests members of the guild were involved in it to try to protect themselves and now you must punish them and steal the tome they used to gain knowledge on the demons.
The concept makes players feel they have a stake in the game. They want to keep playing to find out what will happen next to their world just like you do with Civilization or Total War games. They want to show their friends what they helped create so that new players come in often. And they want more, so they will buy expansions.
Back to the beginning to close up with the question I wanted to bring up:
What if MMOs did not evolve from virtual worlds, but from single-player games?
What do you think? Do MMOs need to be adapted from single-players? Do you see a different way of doing it? Or do you just think I should shut up and let MMOs continue to evolve the way they do now?