Thursday, August 19, 2010

MMORPG near future

In recent years I had been convinced that the only way for MMORPGs to move forward were sandbox approaches. The reasoning was that to create a diverse, interesting and in parts unpredictable world this would be the only way. Content creation of even hundreds of designer would never be enough to satisfy the consumers.

Now, I still think that that is the final stage of MMO evolution, but I am not so sure that it is the next one anymore. Players have a hard time role playing a fantasy character. There are a lot of problems that arise from the fact that you are actually playing a game (perhaps a fun simulation) and often have obligations in real life that require you to play only for a limited (non-epic) time frames. There are also conflicts of interest. Min/maxing is a result of the most prominent one.

The next generation of AAA-MMORPGs will consist of games like ST:ToR or GW2 (among others). These games try a different approach and got me thinking about the limits of that approach.

What are the limits designing a (more) credible MMORPG? What are the limits of dynamic questing?

Dynamic questing in this context means less static quests. In the past you had a quest giver who would ask you to kill, collect or transport things. This system was kept very easy, because it evolved from MMORPGs that only offered mob grinding as a way to progress ones character. It is also very easy to keep bug free and resistant against bugs that still get thorugh.

But the world keeps rolling and at this time, with today’s budget of AAA-MMORPGs we can have a look at more complex solutions. In fact, we must, because in the MMORPG market the winner takes it all.

Guild Wars 2 seems to make a great step forward, but they also make a mistake: They focus on the individual player. No immersive world focuses on the player. Otherwise, however, I like their approach a lot.

To explain what I would like to find in my next generation MMORPG, I will describe a dynamic (less static) questing environment that would be technically feasible and a big improvement over today’s quests.

• Orcs are landing at a beach somewhere in a world where you cannot teleport everywhere at will. There is friction of movement.

• The Orcs act on their own using scripts to try to follow orders of a game designer. The game designer needs to spend some hour every day to look at each server.

• The developer tells them to set up a very strong, but small camp.

• He orders them to march into the land and conquer a small NPC village.

• He sets sets up supply routes from the coast to the village and patrols the near land.

• He creates small quests from less-important NPCs who askes players to find out more about the Orc presence. The quest descriptions include a guess at how hard the quest will be. These quests can often be done alone, if you are careful, because you will only meet very small patrols that you can attack at a time and location of your choosing.

• A big army of players could attack the Orcs and decimate them below an (unpredictable, but guessable) number. Alternatively they could kill some important bosses of the Orcs, like an influential shaman or a chieftain. They could poison a well, if they are especially evil (the well might still be poisoned after the Orcs have been defeated). For obvious reasons this shouldn’t be possible for single players. A forth option would be to disrupt the supply routes of the Orcs. If the players succeed, the Orcs will retreat back to stage one: The coast in this case. If the designer wants, he can order more ships full of Orcs to land at the coast.

• Should the players not succeed in driving back the Orcs, the designer will order an attack and perhaps conquer another village after some weeks.

• A big Orc camp at step 4 could be weakened by defeating the chieftain at step 2, thus disrupting supplies. It could make the Orcs at step 4 go back and try to re-conquer the location at step 2 within a week. It is the game designers work to do what makes sense and entertains the players with a credible world.

• The designer looks at his screen every morning and decides that the Orcs will now move back/forth. He places a few buildings the Orcs will try to build with resources they transport via supplies or farmed at the location (wood). Finally he creates a few simple quests. It is very similar to a strategy game and might even eventually evolve into that direction.

Will this be fun for the individual player? You need to make it fun!

Players can ‘grind’ Orcs, collect their ears (or whatever) and go back to receive a reward. They can hardly be the great hero, because the Orc camps are too well fortified, but by chance they might attack a specific supply caravan of the Orcs that contained really valuable items (for them, for some authorities, etc).

While the invasion goes on, players can play this MMO like they played any other MMO. But their actions will have a meaning, will be much more immersive and if they want to make a substantial difference they can band together. There needs to be limits of banding together, as there are technical limitations. Players understand this. Give those Orcs AoE spells and it won’t even make much sense to attack a camp with some 200 players, depending on the terrain.

There will be little whining about ‘I cannot do this quest alone’, because it will seem natural to the players that 'accessing' the very well defended supply caravan requires support by other players. However, there always needs to be enough to do for solo players.

Several events can happen at the same time at different locations. Make it worthwhile to migrate to a location that has few players and the friction of travel will solve many problems with too many players at one location. Now you can try to introduce trade in a feasible, fun and still immersive way. Etc. etc. etc.

Today designers constantly update their online worlds. The worlds are not left alone today, either. Instead of creating a new raid dungeon all I ask from the developers is to guide their online worlds. If they are given the right (bug free, tested) tools they should be able to do this with ease. All they need are ways to order mobs to move from X to Y, to try to transport stuff from X to Y using route Z. To try to build something that requires X wood at location Y…
These things are possible to code nowadays. Given enough time and money they can be relatively bug free.

Today content creation means creating new mobs, new graphics, new dungeons. Tomorrow new content means more stories and more entertainment.

Concluding remarks:

1) There still is a lot of potential before we really need sandboxes to simulate a fun virtual world. Where a sandbox approach is feasible, however, it should always be used. If only for the reason that they are so much cheaper than developer interaction/scripts.

2) Instead of an exponential character progression, I suggest to create an interesting world that offers predominantly credible advances of character power. I.e. The difference of a high-end character and a new character (after tutorial) should be some 100%. No more. The world keeps players playing for the same reason we like to watch those TV series (e.g. Lost): We want to know what happens next.
The story can be supplemented by messengers that bring news from the front or even a newspaper/video, depending on the setting.
We have a unique character that can experience the world and could even be part of something larger than himself if the player is willing to use his saturday evening on it.

3) For the family guys: What is better: Watching Lost with your family or watching/playing that fantasy story that you can even be part of?

1 comment:

  1. There are MMORTS out there already who allow that type of gameplay, with the only problem being that players can't be heroes - thay are generals of the army instead.