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Rethinking the MMO


March 26, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6
 

Problem #6: Exorbitant Time Requirements

It is only a matter of time before the mainstream media comes down on World of Warcraft like a load of bricks. We have already seen anti-WoW crusading on the front page of Yahoo! as well as on The Tyra Banks Show (or at least, people watching the show saw it). While it is certainly debatable whether such games are evil, soul-consuming, life-wrecking monsters, the fact remains that they are more enjoyable when played in long stretches than when played in short ones.

However, avoiding the ire of the media is just a secondary reason for designing a game to be enjoyable in short play sessions. The biggest reason is that a large portion of the market is unwilling or unable to dedicate a lot of their time to your game. Former PEG players who have had to quit because of time constraints, uncooperative spouses, jobs, graduation from college, etc., might be willing to play a PEG that provided equal enjoyment for a smaller time commitment. People who game at lunch, on breaks, at the office after work, or even during work could be buying and playing your game if it provided enough enjoyment within their limited time frame. Why should they be wasting their company’s money playing Solitaire when they could be wasting it playing your game? Instead, it has become conventional wisdom that you have to dedicate all your gaming time and even a big chunk of your life to enjoy a PEG, and as a result, this part of the market is largely untapped.

In current PEGs, three elements are to blame for making short play stints unsatisfying.

First, players have to spend too much time organizing and preparing, whether it is seeking out other players for grouping, traveling (often to join those players), or arranging players into groups, giving instructions, and clearing “trash” (typically, unchallenging encounters that yield little to no reward, but that must be cleared before it is possible to fight a boss) for a “raid.” Playing with others is fun; organizing and preparing is not.

Second, players typically must play for a long time before they receive any reward, yet another aspect of current PEGs that would be a death warrant for any single-player game. When players fail to earn any reward, they either end up playing a long session in order to earn the reward or quit altogether because they are not having fun. Neither situation is desirable.

Third, many challenges simply take long, continuous play sessions to overcome. If the player leaves the game before the end, he must start again from the beginning in his next attempt. In many cases, even staying logged in and leaving the game for a few minutes can result in disaster, whether it be from the ensuing miscommunication (Leroy Jenkins!), enemy behavior (spawning, wandering), or a suddenly short-handed group being overwhelmed.

Solution 1: Let the player have fun right away

Let players get where they are going as quickly as possible (Diablo 2’s waypoints are a fine example). Let them accomplish something meaningful without having to organize with other players. If they do want to join other players, provide an efficient matchmaking feature and allow them to join each other as quickly as possible. The character summoning feature found in several games is a good solution, but it is often restricted to specific locations and/or high-level characters.

Solution 2: Unchain players from the keyboard

Sometimes, players just have to stop playing for a while. Biological needs, kids that need to be picked up or taken care of, and meals are just some of the common events that take players’ attention away from the game. The game design should take these interruptions into account. Players should be able to get back into the action quickly and without causing in-game problems such as death/dismemberment, separation from the group, etc. The Diablo series, which despite its flaws is one of the best game design teaching tools in existence (Magic: the Gathering and Deus Ex are two others), solved this problem neatly with Town Portals, which allow players to go instantly to a safe area for as long as is needed and return at will.


Blizzard's Diablo II

The game should also break up challenges into easily-consumed chunks. Players should be able to complete all challenges in a reasonable amount of time; if the designer wants to make a challenge longer, he can break it up into smaller parts that do not have to be finished all in one go. Even better, the game could save the player or group’s progress for that challenge and allow them to resume it later. World of Warcraft has this type of feature, but its “checkpoints” within each challenge are still too far apart. Also, it should not be assumed that because a certain challenge is at the end of the game, all players attempting it are hardcore enough to dedicate an entire evening to the endeavor.

When deciding how long is too long, a designer should take into consideration what people are not saying—the people who are not playing PEGs because of the required time investment. Shortening the time necessary to complete challenges can attract this quite large group of players, while at the same time it is not likely to alienate existing players. “Hey, this game sucks because it only takes two hours to kill the boss instead of ten!” is an improbable response, especially if there is more substance to the game than passing grueling tests of endurance for the sole purpose of obtaining bragging rights.

Solution 3: Let the player accomplish something in a short play session

Players should be able to do something satisfying within a fairly short amount of game time. It does not have to be large rewards such gaining a level, finding a great item, killing a boss, or earning a new ability, although those certainly work. Smaller accomplishments such as advancing to a new area, creating something, and completing an objective or quest can all be used to provide the steady supply of rewards that makes those short sessions worthwhile and keeps players coming back for more.

BBS “door games” such as Trade Wars 2002, Barren Realms Elite, and The Pit are great examples of persistent-entity games that were satisfying in small doses. They limited the player to a certain amount of time or turns per day, yet they were designed in such a way that they were enjoyable in small quantities while retaining their addictive nature.

Conclusions

It may just sound like I hate PEGs, but that could not be further from the truth. I have played almost all of them well beyond the traditional free first month—at least the Western ones—and appreciate their unique appeal. However, it is frustrating to see the stagnation and missed opportunities for growth and improvement (a common sentiment about the game industry as whole, I know).

As long as developers and publishers do nothing but copy what is successful, they—and gamers—will continue to miss out on these games’ staggeringly awesome potential. And as long as PEGs are designed by and for stat geeks (whom I know and love and sometimes am) with little regard for traditional game design fundamentals, they will continue to waste that potential.

The good news is that excellent ideas, the dedication necessary to see them to fruition, and the money to support them inevitably collide. It is only a matter of time before we see these games and think of them not as “good MMOs” but as good action games, good driving games, good sports games, and so on, with the persistent-entity aspect being just one of many attractive features.


Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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