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Rethinking the MMO
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Rethinking the MMO

March 26, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

Problem #5: Domineering Design

There is nothing as frustrating for a player than being told by the game, “You can’t do that!” without a logical explanation for the limitation. Examples of this type of artificial limitation include:
· Invisible barriers preventing a character from walking into an apparently open area
· Abilities becoming useless in certain areas or against certain opponents
· The inability use two different abilities together (“stacking”)
· Limited interaction with certain non-player characters (NPCs), such as the inability to attack quest-giving NPCs

Artificial limitations like these make the game environment feel more like a set of arbitrary rules than a real world. It is not a big deal for glorified board games like Civilization, where the game consists of rules and artificial constructs with just a thin veneer of realism. However, for role-playing games, where the point of the game (supposedly) is to exist in a fictional—but believable—universe, unnatural constraints are especially problematic.

Players who find some way around these limitations (or off the game’s planned track in general) are typically punished for “exploiting” the game. Anything that was not planned for ends up being “fixed,” often by the addition of even more of these limitations. This type of design philosophy tends to close off the already limited avenues for creativity and innovation on the part of the player in the name of preserving the game’s longevity.

Another type of frustrating restriction common in PEGs is the inability for players to affect the game world. Although there are typically plenty of “quests” the player can undertake, completing the quest rarely changes the game world for more than a few minutes. Defeating the evil presence at the old mill only gives the mill a ten minute respite, as the evil soon reappears and waits (refraining from doing anything evil in the meantime) for the next player in line to defeat it.

Meanwhile the quest dispensers—err, NPCs—maintain their eternal vigils at their permanent residences on the tops of hills, in front of their houses, in the depths of dank dungeons, etc. Over ten million scarlet scallywags have been slain at the hands of players, yet the NPC captain’s bloodthirst has not yet been slaked, nor are there any fewer of the scarlet charlatans than before.

“But you can’t allow players to affect the game world in a meaningful way in this kind of game!” you say. “That would break the game for everyone else!”

Yes. Yes, it would. Considering the nature of the RPG genre, this is an ironic problem to have. RPGs are about saving the world or otherwise fixing some sort of hefty problem. The objective purportedly is to alter the game world. An RPG where altering the game world would break the game therefore has a serious flaw. Who wants to play an RPG where all of your actions are completely meaningless? In such a game, the ultimate objective would not be to do quests or solve problems; it would be to affect the one thing you can affect in the world: the progression of your entity (as discussed in section #3).

As an aside, would it really be so bad if player A and player B had different game experiences as a result of the world being altered? (This goes back to section #3’s discussion of players having near-identical play experiences.)

Lastly, PEGs tend to restrict players based on mathematical criteria, usually character level. Since just about every challenge in these games is numerical in nature (as discussed in section #1), players are limited in what they can do by numerical factors, rather than controller skill or problem-solving ability. If they have a level 3 character, the only challenges they can overcome at that point might be defeating enemies from level 1-5. This unnatural stratification limits players almost solely by time played, not by skill or mental prowess. No matter how adroit or intelligent a player is, there is no room to excel, exacerbating the problem described in section #4: no one is special.

All these factors combine to increase the feeling that you are trapped in the path set for you by the game designer. Instead of having the freedom to do anything and go anywhere, as players likely imagined when they first picked up the game, they find oppressive boundaries early and often.

Solution 1: Design for fun first, balance second

It’s incredibly tough to take a dull but balanced game and make it fun. It is much easier to balance a fun but unbalanced game. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure that the fun goes in first:
· Create a gameplay prototype to get an idea of how your ideas translate into a real experience.
· Think about the “fun factor” a feature adds for the average player before including it. Don’t throw things into the design just because Game X had it or because a vocal minority demands it.
· Avoid adding limitations just because they will save a little bit of development time. Go the extra mile to give the player the greatest sense of freedom possible.
· Don’t be afraid to throw out genre conventions.
· Trust your ability to balance things later. That’s the easy part.
· Don’t assume that the fun will magically appear once some feature or piece of content is added late in development.

Solution 2: Make creativity the object of the game

If you make a “creation” game, not only do you give players a creative outlet, but you also ensure that players have a large effect on the game world, since it logically follows that players creating things are affecting their surroundings in some way. In other words, it is much easier to allow players to affect the game world when you design for it from the start.

There are many different things you can have players create: houses, cities, dungeons, music, stories, sculptures, and so on. However, the simple or meaningless customization found in most of today’s PEGs is not enough to anchor a game; the creation must be a central element of gameplay, and it must allow players to make something noticeably unique. Otherwise, it’s just a visual sideshow in a “roller coaster” game. Examples of well-done but ultimately unimportant (in terms of gameplay) customization include changing a character’s looks in City of Heroes and setting various parameters such as wall and floor textures for your character’s residence in Everquest II.

Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest II

What if one of the main objectives of a PEG was to create dungeons, as in Dungeon Keeper? Players could choose to play the game as heroes invading a dungeon, and the dungeon’s creator could play the evil dungeon master (or just leave the dungeon automated). During the time the players are navigating the dungeon, their game world would be entirely player-created; they might even have the ability to alter the dungeon themselves by tunneling, etc.

Giving players the power to alter the game world through creation has another strong advantage, as discussed in section #3: players would provide each other with the fresh content necessary to maintain the game’s longevity. All you have to do is provide viable tools, sufficient incentives (either real or virtual), and a quality filter. A sampling of user profiles shows that even people with no technical skill can be motivated to learn new tools and concepts that allow them to create and customize. With the proper tools, such as the dungeon-editing GUI in Dungeon Keeper and the creature editing tools in Spore, you can put your players to work for you and make the game more enjoyable for them in the process.

Solution 3: Present the player with diverse challenges and multi-purpose tools

Most PEGs provide the player with a wide range of redundant abilities but a narrow variety of challenges to overcome with those abilities. Instead, players should have fewer abilities and face a wide array of complex, unpredictable challenges that require players to think, adapt, solve problems, and beat their own paths, rather than go to a web site and find the solution that the designer has dictate or use the same sequence of abilities for 95% of the challenges they face. The norm should be for each challenge to be materially different from the last, instead of superficial differences poorly masking their uniformity.

Simple physics-based games are a good example of how varied and enjoyable gameplay can revolve around a single tool such as the capacity to move an object. On the other extreme, the ability to cast seven different levels of Fireball does not allow for the same kind of creativity and problem solving on the part of the player. Granted, one is harder to do than the other (especially in a networked game world), but improving core mechanics should take priority in today’s bloated PEG budgets over superficial features such as having ten different newbie areas.

Intelligent, adaptive AI and interactive, volatile environments are two examples of game features that can provide a foundation for the “emergent gameplay” that can help generate the kind of challenges needed to keep players on their toes without each individual challenge having to be prepared in advance by a designer. A simple example: In Act V of Diablo 2, on the Bloody Foothills level, the designer scattered friendly soldiers across the level. These soldiers are somewhat weak and will die without the player’s intervention. The player can choose to ignore these soldiers and proceed as if they did not exist, in which case they will all likely suffer a cruel demise, but the player can continue playing as in all the other levels. Or the player can focus on rescuing the soldiers and protecting them, gradually accumulating a veritable army (if successful) on the way to the boss fight. In this case, a very simple and inexpensive addition to the game has created a new, unique challenge for the player to take on (and fitting rewards) without shoving it down the player’s throat.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

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