Thursday, November 18, 2010

MMORPG design guidelines

Over the years I repeatedly tried to write down a description of my dream MMORPG. I failed; every time. Today I consider myself smarter: A complete MMORPG is too complex to think it through in your mind. You need to play it and iterate, iterate, iterate...
However, what I consider myself capable of is writing down a few design guidelines. Here are 11 of them.

MMORPG design guidelines

1) The virtual world is separate from the real world
This is easily the most important. It is the main reason why I do not like F2P/RMT. I do not want what you do in real life to have any influence whatsoever on anything in the virtual world. Partly this is for immersion reasons. A cause-effect relationship that crosses the line to the virtual world always seems like a divine intervention. The concept of arbitrary real world interventions into the virtual world simply feels wrong to me.
Of course, some limitations always apply. After all, the virtual world is imbedded in the real one. For example, people need to log off from time to time. Therefore, we need solutions for how to handle the logged-off characters. So, this design guideline can never be absolute. It is, however, extremely important to me that it is obeyed as much as possible. No pets/achievements that arbitrarily cross this line, for example.

2) As much credibility, consistency and immersion as possible and as little as necessary

Credibility means that I can believe what is happening in the game. Some people call this believability.

Consistency means that there are no logical problems inside the framework of the virtual world.

Immersion requires the first two, but is more: Immersion means that I do not have to actively ignore things to enjoy the virtual world. Good graphics would be an example.

Realism is a very bad word in this context. It makes people think that I (or anybody for that matter) were interested in the virtual world being as similar as possible to the real world. That would be silly.
I am not interested in a simulation of the real world. I already live in one. As a game I consider it too grindy, not very just, tedious and there is rarely enough action going on. Also, your possibilities to experiment are severely restricted. Of course, the real one can be very rewarding at times, so I do not condemn the real world here. I simply express my wish of supplementing it with a virtual one.

Seriously, I am interested in a game; but not in an abstract game like Tetris or Chess. These games can be great fun. I played both of them enthusiastically for years. When playing an MMORPG, however, I am interested in playing a role. This wish can be characterized as escapist. I do not consider this much of an insult, actually. Rather it means that I am interested in creativity and like to dream. Within limits that is very desirable for every human, in my opinion. In fact, it is the basis for almost all literature, theater ... culture, and yes, also science.

That being said, I am very serious about the “as little as necessary” part. Some things are simply no fun. It may not be consistent with the virtual world that you drink much more than you could ever pee, but that is really not important to me. Neither is blood, violence, sex or all these things people consider ‘mature’ when they are, quite obviously, the opposite. I also acknowledge that the concept of “hit points” makes for much more fun games than the corresponding concept of the real world that would look more consistent with the rest of the physics inside the game.

All I am saying here, really is:
A small back bag can be fun. The concept of thirst can be fun. The concept of rust can be fun. Characters searching for a bridge instead of swimming through a torrent can be fun. A lot of things in real life can be used to enrich the game world. Fallout 3: New Vegas is the most recent proof of that.

3) Fluid graphics are much more important than good ones
Good graphics are great. But any frame rate lower than 30fps is a catastrophe. Stutter is a catastrophe. This really needs to get into the heads of game designers! Nothing breaks immersion more than that.

4) Character power progression (CPP) is a fun concept, but needs to be used very carefully
What is generally accepted is that humans recognize differences in numbers only if they are higher than 10%. So, if your CPP relies on items and you want each item to be recognizable as a direct increase in power, you double character power every 8 items. That means that after 80 new items the character becomes about 1000 times as strong. After 160 items he is 1mio times as strong and after 240 item upgrades the character is 1billion times as strong.
Obviously, that is not sustainable. More importantly, however, the chances of successfully combating something in a typical MMO tend to be fun only if the character power is within +-50%. A character with 50% less hit points for example will generally have no chance at all against a character with 100% hit points.
This is not only a problem in PvP, but also in PvE. Depending on the pace of the game, a good time span to defeat a “typical MMORPG mob” is somewhere between 10 seconds and 5 minutes. Therefore, the amount of item upgrades you can give out per hour played would be very, very small.
Consequently, the 10% should be completely ignored. Players love to become more powerful even if that power increase is not obvious. The new shiny armor is nice on its own. In fact, a linear CPP system can help to keep the players who play a lot within range of the players who play not as much.

5) Players should have the illusion of impact
See the post before this one. The point is not that you necessarily need a sandbox approach to MMORPGs. But the developers need to at least try to create an illusion. If they do not even try, the world and all events feel so gimmicky that I cannot really like them. This is connected with point (2), of course.

6) Players tend to optimize the fun out of your game
Careful with min/maxing. The best games in the world use min/maxing to be even better, but these games are not like a MMORPG. They are much more simple. Chess or Soccer have extremely strict rules. Only within that very strict rule-set can they still be fun when players start to min/max them.
Often, things that are great fun when you do them without much min/maxing, become absurdly un-fun if you give players incentives to optimize. Your players optimize the fun out of your game within weeks.
Arena-PvP is World of Warcraft is a wonderful example. And my fear is that with battleground-PvP Blizzard runs into the same trap. This is really not about the feature itself. Battlegrounds have been fun in WoW for 6 years. But with the introduction of rated BGs, Blizzard is suddenly required to ban fun things like rocket boots. Things like ranking, prices for the best or a high number of participants play a much larger role than the feature itself.

7) The game should offer players something to do no matter when they log on
This can make the game a bit addictive, but is really important to me. I want to be able to do something on my own – also in a MMORPG. But I also want to do things together with other people. Indirect interaction (like the economy) is also very important here. “Grinding” is not necessarily bad.

8) The game should make players socialize without forcing them to do it
Not much to add here. You want that new player to make friends in your game, because in the end that is why MMOs are successful: Social interaction.

9) Good games are easy to learn and hard to master
Easy to learn is, in fact, the easy part here. The “hard to master” is problematic, because not everything that is hard is also fun.

10) Progression by time investment is better than by skill
This is a really controversial topic. There may not be many people in the world who agree with me nowadays. So let me state first: I am not unemployed, I work 60-70 hours the week, but, obviously, have some “disposable” time during work.
The reason I like progression by time investment is that this allows all people to reach anything in the game. The reason I dislike progression by skill is that it creates elitist behavior.
Back in classic WoW, when there was not much skill involved in anything, even the High Warlords (PvP rank 14 – only possible if not working), would be nice people. They would help you when you asked them, they would organize for you. They wouldn’t tell you to become a pro or call you noob. That, at least, is my personal experience.
In WoW this all started to change with The Burning Crusade and since then, supported by tools to measure character performance, the skill segregation is running wild.

11) Treat me like a grown-up


  1. All great and very worthy of consideration points . A few personal comments:

    4) Character power progression (CPP) is a fun concept, but needs to be used very carefully

    I tend to think that CPP is one of the most detrimental concepts for virtual worlds. Besides token period (which imho are necessary for accountability and game familiarization for new players) . They should be no CPP in terms of individual character power

    All cpp leads to is endless treadmills for hyper-inflating gear. It creates lots of problem balancing vets vs newbies , power , class and server imbalances. If you creating an addiction for treadmill as your business model (which is what farmville and diku-legacy MMO essentially are) then you do it. If you aim to create living breathing virtual world with an illusion of impact this is wrong path

    10) Progression by time investment is better than by skill

    Well people are not equal. Not in anything. That includes any skill or , for that matter, time investment ability . Problem with purely time investment is that its boring without solving inequality either . What fun progress quest would be? Equality cannot exist without making everyone equally mediocre and bland . I think one way to combat is trough accommodating various play styles. certain classes should appeal to FPS twitch junkies (emphasis on quick positioning , precision aiming ,reflexes etc - AoC melee classes , wow vanilla rogue, mages etc) , certain one would be for more tactically minded player ( less reliance on timing and positioning, more on picking the right order and priorities - healers naturally are good example of this play style )

    I think the natural issue you trying to avoid is wolf praying with other wolfs and preying on sheep .But coherent organization of people with various skill sets exists. Take MP FPS or RTS they are played by vast amount of players with different skill levels. Pro play vs pros , noobs vs noobs. Now you say you cant achieve same thing in a virtual world? Why not? - there are top 1% , top 10% players and the rest.

    So you need to make those top people work with average and below people, not against them. How to achieve that? -have predefined sides. 2 main sides + one balancing. Each side will have its own elite segment but they would be fighting other side having this elite segment too. This elite segment would be the elite leading the charge . The long lost and much missed realm pride of DaoC is a real effect, use it to your advantage. Dont let the sides be completely player defined - it would quickly become like DF - elite clans hunting everyone not so elite to extinction.

    There are also other mechanics for segregating noobs and elites. Have beefier targets on map to fight for, have many of them, so elites could not be everywhere at same time . So big guys would slug it out at prime keeps, some new and coming fresh recruits could duke it out in less critical spots. So there is a flow for a new player to progress to vet status. Not the abrupt- your a noob , be a fodder for our vets for a while!

    Dont work against what is natural. Design to use the natural tendencies to your advantage, make them work inside your system , not outside (or even worse -against it!) ,

  2. Very insightful comment. Thanks alot!

    The spamfilter got you, that's why it disappeared for a time. Unfortunately there is no way disable that filter. I need to bring back the comments manually.

    On topic:
    I am also very sceptical of CCP, but would still prefer a slow one with diminishing returns. MMORPGs don't need to be fair, they need to immerse me in their world and be fun.

    I agree perfectly on using human nature and not fighting it. "Hardcore" and "Casuals", however you define them, should be brought together in a MMOROG and work with each other for common goals.

  3. 10) Progression by time investment is better than by skill

    I disagree. I view WoW as is it is today as 99% Progression by time investment. If you can learn to follow simple instructions from the raid leader and learn to NOT STAND IN THE FIRE you will progress via time investment.

    This is why I no longer play. (I admit that I will pick up the new expantion in a year or so to check out the cinamatics and story line when I have nothing else to do)