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SGS Keynote: Jack Emmert On Designing MMO Behaviors
SGS Keynote: Jack Emmert On Designing MMO Behaviors
October 31, 2006 | By Jill Duffy

October 31, 2006 | By Jill Duffy
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As part of our Serious Games Summit coverage, we present the conference's second keynote, featuring City of Heroes designer Jack Emmert on lessons learned from his MMO past, and ways to encourage more player-driven serious games.

Educating Through MMOs

“If we’re going to use MMO design ideas and technologies to create new styles of education, collaborative learning environments and leadership training, we need to look at how these games actual instill and support these behaviors,” says Jack Emmert, lead designer at Cryptic Studios. This thought comes from the description of his keynote speech at day two of the 2006 Serious Games Summit D.C., a talk presented to nearly 800 people interested in using entertainment technology for non-entertainment purposes.

Discussing design and player behavior is not necessarily what first comes to mind for this audience when talking about making video games. They have clear objectives in mind for their products and players, and reaching those objectives can hinder the creators from negotiating the gap that exists between what the game asks the player to do and what the player wants to do in the game, to the game, or to the other game players. “Of course,” says Emmert, “that’s all we do as game designers: we design for player behavior.”

Emmert is vivacious about comic books, professing, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t read comics.” He’s also a long-time game player of traditional table-top and paper games. In July 2000, he co-founded Cryptic Studios, whose flagship massively-multiplayer online game City of Heroes was released in April 2004 (with support from NCsoft), with a secondary title City of Villains debuting about a year later.

Since then, his company faced a lengthy legal battle with Marvel Comics, recently resolved (in fact, Cryptic is now producing the official Marvel MMO in conjunction with Microsoft.) Yet Emmert teems with as much excitement about City of Heroes now as he did when the game first took off.

The MMO Canon, Listed

Sharing that excitement with a group of serious games professionals wasn’t much of a challenge. Providing a history of landmark MMO titles, Emmert gave his audience a concise idea of how the North American online games market has grown in the last decade. Understanding this segment of the industry is crucial for serious game developers because of the unique and breaking ways in which the players interact with each other, interact with the game, and provide feedback to the makers, who can actually make changes to the game in the form of standard updates or expansions.

The “canon,” as Emmert defines it, of North American MMO titles are the ones that serious game developers “need to understand for their importance and relevance”:

- Ultima Online (1997) whose active subscription number peaked at 250,000 (all subscription numbers estimated).
- Everquest (1999), the first full 3D MMO, which peaked at 500,000 worldwide subscribers.
- Dark Age of Camelot (2001), an independently developed game that had a maximum 250,000 subscribers worldwide.
- Star Wars Galaxies (2003), with 300,000 worldwide subscribers at its peak.
- World of Warcraft (2004), whose total active subscribers worldwide have to date peaked at 6.5 million.

City of Heroes hasn’t set any subscriber number records at 180,000, but it does measure up to some of the more influential titles from a few years ago. And even this picture is somewhat limited, since all the games are North American. “I don’t pretend to know how the Asian MMP [market] works,” says Emmert of the region outpacing the U.S. and Canada, “but I try.”

“Probably the amount of people who have ever played World of Warcraft [as opposed to just counting current, active subscribers] is about 10 million, and when you think that the population of the U.S. is 300 million” it just shows the game’s reach and impact. The online game medium allows for this, another reason serious games developers would benefit from understanding why and how.

Why Online Games Fail

Yet, not all MMOs float. “EA.com had a whole division that just collapsed because so many games were unsuccessful,” Emmert claims. There may be some balance or formula that separates the well-received MMOs from the failures, and Emmert used his talk at the Serious Games Summit to highlight pieces of City of Heroes and City of Villains and analyze from the player’s point of view why they did well or flopped.

What might surprise new entrants of the game development industry is that these failures and successes rely in some part on trial and error. “Research, to be honest— we don’t use it in the commercial industry. I wouldn’t even know where to look for it,” says Emmert. But he does know that “ownership is key. Make players own stuff. That way, they’re not going to own you.”

Another way to improve the chances of creating a successful massively multiplayer titles is to use groups. “Grouping is absolutely vital in an MMP,” Emmert says. “If people are playing online and they meet friends, then they are going to play. I have no other evidence of this other than the exit surveys in City of Heroes. “We want to keep people playing. What are the mechanisms MMPs have used to keep people playing?” Some of these mechanisms, from Emmert’s point of view, are not only grouping, but also classifying player types, such as fighter, mage, thief, and cleric. The designers then need to find a purpose for those player types, which gives them reason to rely on other player types for other purposes.

“You cannot play Everquest alone,” says Emmert of one example. “You have to find other people online. The [enemies] are so tough that no one person can do it. And in fact, you have to get just the right players” to move forward. And while some may questions the true strength of player grouping in games, enough MMOs have succeeded due to the very nature of their grouping that the trend cannot be ignored.

Overcoming The Fear Of Strangers

Emmert realized, in developing City of Heroes that there is a deeply rooted fear in most people of, essentially, grouping with strangers. He asks by example do you know your neighbors well enough to have them over to dinner? Do you know and trust your neighbors well enough to let them take care of your children. These rhetorical questions beg yet another question about irrational fears, namely, if the odds are absurdly low that we should be wary of our neighbors, why do many people still not know or trust them?

“We need to develop mechanisms that circumvent this fear that we have. In City of Heroes, we used a few classic mechanisms,” the primary one being “sidekicks,” Emmert says. Using sidekicks, partners in the game play alongside each other and advance to new levels together, so friends playing together can stay together. Emmert notes how the use of sidekicks helped Cryptic Studios maintain a 90 percent conversion rate when their players’ free trials expired. This design choice, he says, was intentional, and is one that serious game makers can learn from.

“The other thing we did was create super groups,” says Emmert, “large amounts of people willing to cooperate,” otherwise known as guilds in other MMO games. “Super groups are purely a social mechanism that allow people to have a chat chain and that’s about it.”

On Emergent Behavior

On the subject of emergent behavior — a topic covered extensively by Serious Games Summit keynote Henry Jenkins one day earlier — Emmert has been extremely accepting, almost appreciative, of the types of actions City of Heroes players come up with on their own, without being prompted by the game. Emmert says when Superman actor Christopher Reeve passed away, game players wanted to hold commemorative gatherings in his honor. “If you run an MMP, one of the things you’re going to get is requests like this. People will ask, ‘Can you honor the tsunami victims?’” or make similar requests.

Says Emmert, “In this area, in the way it’s designed, it’s open. It’s safe” so people come together to honor Christopher Reeve, but they stay to chat and interact, which strengthens the community aspect of the game. Those working on games for social change or team-training can learn from this example that often the best way to tighten the community is by supporting what the players want, rather than mandating players complete missions or follow a certain path.

Emmert highlights other facets of the game that players appreciate, such as costume creation and player creation. He also notes that groups often used their costumes to show group identity rather than individuality, illustrating that some of the best team-building, again, originates from the players themselves.

Lessons Learned From City

But not all the game design put in place in City of Heroes and City of Villains worked out for the best. For example, “Players don’t ever want to be in a situation when they’re forced to group,” Emmert says. Another example is a facet created by the game designers, that, according to Emmert, were “probably the best designed game element ever.

“We spent more time developing [bases] than any other feature in City of Heroes or City of Villains,” he says. Although bases are built by a team, Emmert and his team viewed them as being “incredibly, incredibly individual” because each piece of the base is designed and added by individuals.

“What happened was players hated it. It’s the most underused facet of the game. It received almost no coverage in the press. And there’s nothing like it in any other MMP.” Emmert’s hypothesis is that “people don’t like contributing money to a group to express individuality. ... At its heart, these MMPs are individual game experiences in front of a computer terminal.”

Among other issues, Emmert shares with serious games developers the concept of metagaming, or keeping gamers in love with the product by offering ancillary products or ways for them to stay connected to the game, even when not playing. In his company, these metagaming experience come in the form of products, such as comic books and figurines, but also user-generated content, like fan pages or short stories written by players about their characters and shared on the internet. “If somebody can live and breath something and get it everywhere they turn, then I have a really dedicated fan,” says Emmert.

Conclusion

Overall, for serious game creators who are just now learning about the game industry, Emmert shares his summary about game design, how it is a new discipline, but what importance is has to the field.

“Game designers have no identifiable talents. I can test the programming, I can test the art, but there’s no way to test the design,” Emmert says, adding that designers “have to understand the other disciplines,” too. There’s also a distinction between design as design versus design as implementation, he says.

“Game design is actually a new phenomenon in video games as a whole. It really came about around 10 years ago. ... Originally, you’d have a programmer and an artists, maybe. There were games that were done by just a programmer,” says Emmert. “As the graphics ability got better, they hired artists.” Now, as stories and content are more central to the game than they were a dozen years ago, “you’ve got to have somebody who thinks just about the game, hence, game designers.”

[The Serious Games Summit is in its final day in Arlington, Va. For more information on the event, visit its official website. Further Gamasutra write-ups on the event include info on the DOD's serious game efforts and Henry Jenkins' Day 1 keynote.]


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