The debate between innovation and status quo is fundamental to game design, especially in the massively-multiplayer online genre.
Damion Schubert, lead combat designer for Bioware Austin's first project, but previously a prominent designer on Shadowbane, Ultima Online 2 and Meridian 59, has had many opportunities in parlance and on his blog to elevate or condemn both - and for his talk Friday at the Austin Game Conference entitled "Beyond Men in Tights," he did both, for both. And gave reasons why.
Derivative Is Logical?
"Because it sells" would be the easiest answer to give why games seem derivative a lot of the time, Schubert explained, but there are other reasons related to how the developers can get the games made, and how the players perceive the effort when it's time to play, why derivation is useful and change can be dangerous, at least when ignoring what Schubert considered most basic.
To identify the fundamentals, Schubert started by asking questions, or rather, one big question encompassing many: "Why do we keep making grind-tastic, class-based, combat-oriented, men-in-tights-themed game-y games? Right? We all want to know the answer to that. Because we keep doing it." Realizing the answers, he argued, is more important than a garage-shop developer running off to do something completely different than what's already been done, just for difference's sake. Further, it's important to focus on what players actually want, rather than what Schubert called "ant farming," creating situations which are more interesting for developers to observe than for players to experience.
"I want the people in this room to take lessons from this, so you can innovate smarter," he said. "And the reason why I say innovate smarter is because I think that we as an industry are very myopic about what people actually want, what they're actually looking for in terms of the innovation side of the industry."
Every industry has this problem, he said, and gave an example of mobile phones. Loading the phones with cameras and music players and other features turned out not to have such a broad appeal, he said, when it turned out all most people really wanted from a mobile phone was small size, long battery life and not having to worry about accidentally pushing buttons. The Motorola Razr was a huge seller, Schubert said, because it delivered on those wants.
Keeping Up With The WoW-s
In MMO land, World of Warcraft is the 600-pound, 7-million-subscriber gorilla that cannot be ignored, he said. It's not going anywhere, so if anyone's planning to meet it head on with a new MMO, WoW will continue to add content to stay ahead. They also used a comparatively huge budget, upwards of $50 million, a risk few would be willing to take, or should. "Unless you have Pepsi money," Schubert said, "you're not going to be able to go head to head with Coke. Right? You have to make Red Bull."
But that's hung up by teams that want to do what Schubert called "crazy innovation," that wouldn't improve the game but sounds cool to developers, or those in management or money positions who think they really can wrestle the gorilla. WoW did it, after all, considering once the gorilla was known as EverQuest. Besides the money, time and Blizzard-standard polish, Schubert argued that smart innovation, a point made by keynote Rob Pardo two days earlier, made the difference - players can reach the peak of their abilities by playing alone, for one - not to mention WoW didn't launch "in an absolutely shameful state," which other games had.
But why is combat still used? If games on the shelf at a store were movies, he said, it'd be like having a store full of "Die Hard." Combat provides a tactical problem for players, something for them to do for the minimum 200 hours of gameplay most will expect. There are ways around direct combat, such as the mini-games in Puzzle Pirates, which introduces abstract swordfights and fisticuffs into two-player puzzle games. But trying to rip out combat entirely without replacing it with something that inspires group play, scales with the size of those groups, and reiterates the same experience bottom to top is difficult.
A Touch Of Class
MMOs also don't have to be character class-based to be successful, Schubert said, but like combat, classes (such as fighters, wizards, rogues and healers) serve their purpose. For one, they make it easier for players to choose by not overwhelming them. Players will agonize over any choices that matter, because they've probably learned from experience that such choices are hard to undo after the fact.
Once playing, it's easier for players to tell each other apart based on their class, both to cooperate and compete with each other. In player versus player competition, or PvP, the tactics need to be transparent. In chess, for example, each player knows what the other is able to do, a reason Schubert argued is why it's been played for hundreds of years. A varied experience is also a risk for removing classes, such that in contrast to too many choices, there might be only a few.
As for experience and levels, Schubert said they aren't the problem - though grinding, the sense that the experience is merely a means to an end and not fun - is. Players respond to marked, substantial improvement, even if it's just the mythical "Ding!" from EverQuest. It makes them feel rewarded for their time, and pulls them on to the next challenge. It's important, however, if realism is the goal, to avoid pushing players toward unrealistic behavior. Use-based systems, a hallmark of many early MMOs, have largely been abandoned, though the latest Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, while not a MMO, provoked at least one anecdote about a dark assassin character leaping through fields (practicing jumping skill) and picking flowers (to gain familiarity with poisons.)
Solo, Only Solo
Schubert was critical of WoW for, while it allowed players to reach top level by themselves, the solo play dries up after that, leaving raids on monsters and other huge-group play. But, he acknowledged that WoW's pacing and quest rewards are well done, and encouraged players to explore, such that players don't feel like they're grinding.
Fantasy, or the men in tights, are good for what Schubert called "fiction with resonance." Fantasy themes aren't just for geeks - the "Lord of the Rings" movie franchise success is proof of this - the orcs and elves are understood well enough by a broad enough audience that they don't have to be explained. It's the difference between the wheel and the railroad improvements in Civilization and the futuristic, alien improvements of Alpha Centauri.
It's also the derivative fantasy of EverQuest having greater appeal to the races and critters in Asheron's Call that Schubert said players had trouble pronouncing, much less relating to. And for relations, it's important that the fiction be "double coded" so young and old audiences alike might relate and understand them at different levels. Generic fantasy lends itself well to this, he said, whereas science fiction that relies on lots of explanation to make sense, doesn't.
Inviting Gamers Into Worlds
Then there's the concern that the world be inviting. Many game projects propose a post-apocalyptic world, but showing an artist's rendering of a destroyed city with a forbidding, hazy sky, Schubert asked the audience, "Who wants to live here?" Such a place might be fun to visit, he said, but players wouldn't want to stay. An example of that would be Shadowbane, which Schubert used to work on - a broken world full of people who hated each other tended to wear on people.
Fantasy also provides for variety of experience, evidenced by the most popular "instances" in WoW being the ones that are most varied. And, he said, it's important to keep the appropriate gameplay for the sort of fiction used - a Harry Potter game wouldn't lend itself to much monster bashing, he said, though at one point Electronic Arts might have made that the core of a Harry Potter MMO.
Finally, with regards to the old debate as to whether or not MMOs are "worlds" or "games" first, Schubert said the whole debate turns out to be an early fabrication "by the 'world' guys to make themselves feel important." In a way, the "game" end of the argument won out, evidenced by the success of EverQuest and World of Warcraft as opposed to "world" type games like Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, both of which Schubert said had post-release attempts by developers to "rip out the world features and shove in games."
A World Of Hurt?
If MMO developers want to go the "world" route (and he acknowledged the success of games like Eve Online, Second Life and Runescape, as opposed to more "game"-type MMOs like Dungeons & Dragons Online, Auto Assault and Matrix Online, he gave the following warnings:
- Protect your young. Too many "world" MMOs tend to tell new players they're on their own, which isn't fun for anyone but the most hardcore, aggressive gamers.
- Favor fairness over freedom. Players will declare their desire for freedom right up until release, and then they'll immediately cry for "balance."
- Don't innovate too much or too little. Be sure the innovations provide bang for the players' buck.
- When in doubt, be true to the Vision. The notion got a bad rap in the era of EverQuest, but it's true. Dedication to that vision is the difference between Earth & Beyond, which tried to do EQ in space, and Eve Online, which was far more true to the idea of space-opera combat. The latter was a sleeper success, but at least it's still in business.