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What is it, then, that convinces a subscriber to pay triple digits every year for a single game? What facet of the game would cause the whole tower to crumble if removed? The answer is persistent character progression. Imagine that World of Warcraft is now back to hosting thousands of players on each server (plus several hundred in the login queue, of course). This time, however, when a player gains a level, it only lasts until the player logs off—like a game of Quake, where all kill stats reset when the game is over. The same goes for abilities, items, and all other forms of progression. Players can still interact with thousands of other players and do everything else they could do before; the one change is that their character progress is no longer persistent. My hunch is that under these conditions, the game would not have many subscribers left, as neither the gameplay mechanics nor the ability to interact with thousands of players would provide enough appeal to retain them.
The reality is that the MMO as we know it is primarily about advancing a “secure” persistent entity (character, team, vehicle, country, etc.) in a multiplayer environment of any size. (Diablo 2’s wonderful experiment with “Closed,” “Open,” and “Ladder” realms provides convincing evidence that the feeling of accomplishment increases—and attracts more players—when it is validated by the presence of other players and by attempted cheat prevention.) For the developers and publishers, of course, it is also about collecting a subscription fee or other type of regular payment, but this is not an essential part of the user experience. My term to describe these games, then, is Persistent Entity Game, or PEG.
It is not quite right to say that PEG (or MMO, in its current usage) is a genre of game; the concept of advancing a persistent entity (or interacting with hundreds of other players) can be included in games of many genres, from First Person Shooter (World War II Online), to Real-Time Strategy (Shattered Galaxy), to Sports (Smallball) to Role-Playing (Ultima Online). Even tedious games that are terribly designed in a traditional video game sense (not naming any names here) can hold a great deal of appeal for many people, simply because the allure of a persistent character is so strong.
Those types of games will not succeed forever, however. Games do evolve, despite what you might believe after seeing seven years of stale, cookie-cutter PEGs. Eventually, some developer will create a PEG that fuses enjoyable advancement of a persistent entity with a game that is also fun in the traditional sense.
Recalcitrant PEG developers and publishers should pay heed to the lesson taught by adventure games. Fifteen years ago, the central gameplay mechanic in popular adventure games like King's Quest was brute-force puzzle-solving, with a heavy helping of instant death by trial-and-error. Despite the crude and frustrating gameplay, these games sold very well because they offered better graphics and storylines than games in other genres did at the time. As other games began to offer those same compelling features and combine them with more palatable gameplay mechanics, the adventure game genre became a niche market.
Today’s PEGs are in much the same situation, as their central gameplay has changed little from ancient CRPGs (computer role playing-games) and MUDs (multi-user dungeons), which were little more than scantily-clad stat-building exercises. Just as they did with adventure games, clever developers will soon adopt the most compelling feature of today’s PEGs, the persistent entity, and combine it with more appealing gameplay mechanics, relegating the “MMO” as we know it to the bargain bin of history, so to speak.
The first step towards recovery, the saying goes, is admitting you have a problem. Each PEG comes with its own unique set of design issues, but the ones I will address are, in my view, the most pervasive and the most off-putting to potential new customers.
Although most PEGs are of the RPG flavor, I’ve attempted to look at problems and solutions in a genre-neutral fashion. However, since the majority of readers are most familiar with RPG-style games like World of Warcraft, the discussion tilts towards the terminology and manifestation of game concepts in those titles.
Just as with adventure games of yesteryear, the persistent-character games on the market today have stale and unappealing gameplay mechanics. The central mechanic is “die-roll” combat, where players and monsters take turns hitting each other at regular intervals until statistics dictate that one of them falls over.
With apologies to the pen-and-paper role-players out there, this type of gameplay is not particularly compelling to the mass market, which finds more excitement in fast-paced combat with outcomes based primarily on player skill, rather than mathematical formulae. A comparison of the combat scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies to those of Lord of the Rings Online provides a stark example of how boring gameplay mechanics drain the excitement from what should be an exhilarating battle. There is a reason that no one has tried to make a single-player game with “MMO” mechanics: few people would be interested.
To make matters worse, the game mechanics do not often require players to adapt in a meaningful way, leading to repetitive encounters where the player performs the same set of actions every time. Since every challenge is overcome in nearly the same fashion as the previous challenge, the one potentially appealing aspect of mathematical combat (figuring out how to make the numbers work to your advantage) provides diminishing returns with each repetition. It is usually a simple matter to perform as well as the game allows, resulting in little variance in how well the user performs from one challenge to another. As a result, the player almost never has the rewarding feeling of turning in a spectacular performance, one of the big draws of many video games. After a while, the user’s mind will turn on the auto-pilot. At that point, the game will seem like work, and the interactivity it provides is pointless—a huge flaw for any video game, especially one that does not provide much in the way of passive entertainment.
Even many of the players who subscribe to PEGs concede that the gameplay itself is not stimulating; it is primarily the potential for advancing their characters that motivates them to continue playing. And since advancement generally serves only to improve a character’s ability to do well in combat, an unsatisfying cycle exists.
Crafting sub-games are even worse. A typical crafting implementation involves two components, neither of which is particularly interesting: navigating menus/interface and waiting for the item to compete. Players enjoy being able to create items, but the inane drudgery of the process is off-putting and completely unnecessary.
The most reasonable explanation for why this problem exists is that PEG designers have simply misunderstood why many people play their games. We see evidence supporting this hypothesis in Everquest II and Vanguard’s crafting systems, where the designers have “improved” crafting by copying the arduous math-based, meter-centric mechanics used in the adventuring department.
Solution: Ensure that gameplay provides enjoyable mental and/or physical challenges
Almost every good video game in existence requires the user to surmount challenges with brains or dexterity, rather than tedious repetition. And PEGs need to be good video games first and foremost, not just treat dispensers. If the only real challenges in the game are spending a few thousand hours playing the game, hoping your stats are better than your enemy’s stats, and waiting for the treats to drop into your lap, it is not a good video game, as the satirical “game” Progress Quest illustrates.
Enjoyable mental challenges can be added by making opponents smarter, more unpredictable, and more responsive to player actions. . Physical challenges involve things like requiring rapid and/or complex controller input by the player within a limited time frame, requiring the player to observe and react to subtle details or motions on the screen, etc. Heuristic problem solving and “twitch” action both hold far more mass appeal than the real-time 7th grade algebra solving and slow-motion button-mashing that typically forms the basis of current PEG gameplay.
One specific application of this solution to the crafting problem would be creating mini-games that require players to think or react in a fun way during the crafting process and that become increasingly complex or difficult as the player advances and masters the game.
Note that challenges do not have to be frantic and stressful to be enjoyable. It is perfectly acceptable for a game to proceed at a leisurely pace, as long as it provides adequate stimulation or entertainment value.