Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What do you do?

As you know I'd love to play a AAA - virtual world instead of the WoW clones we have today. Things I would absolutely love in a virtual world are no teleports, vast landscapes to explore, meaningful trade, modification of the countryside and all those 'immersive' things. However, to just make a virtual world is not enough.

One of the very most important questions a designer of a virtual world should be able to answer is: "What do the players actually do in the game?".
Answers like: "You can do PvP, explore and craft" are nice, but not sufficient. As a designer you need to be able to answer this question as precisely as possible.

Make no mistake, emergent gameplay is great. But by it's very nature it is unpredictable and thus unreliable. You cannot make a virtual world and hope for emergent gameplay to solve your problems. Nor can you hope that the awesomeness of the world alone keeps subscribers subscribed. Just like love is great, but doesn't replace bread, so is a rich virtual world great, but useless without things to do.

That doesn't automatically mean that you need to incorporate separated minigames, like instanced dungeon runs with strangers combined with a convenience-teleport. But if you fail to understand the appeal of this to some people (as well as the shortcomings!) you should really look for another job.

Moreover, your answer should describe activities that are fun if done in chunks of
- 30 minutes,
- 2 hours and
- 4 hours.

To only offer 30 minute distractions doesn't cut it. Not even for WoW, that still has raiding. To only offer 4 hour activities, however, doesn't cut it, either. The potential players of a meaningful virtual world are mostly adults. Often 30 years and older. They have jobs, families, responsibilities. They certainly love to do that 4 hour forced march + battle to support their allies fighting off the enemy faction. But only during weekends. On a workday they might want to log in for 30 minutes and if there are no meaningful activities for this time frame, they might still love your game, but decide that it is just not for them.

The quintessence is:
If you create a virtual world full of awesome things, you still need to describe exactly what the players can do in it. And you need to offer meaningful activities that take 30 minutes, as well as meaningful activities that take two and four hours.


  1. What to do? Build communities and civilisation, starting from some scrappy outpost and a few rustic huts, thru a thriving village, and on up to city states.

    A bit like unlocking the Isle of Quel'Danas but done 1000 times more detailed, and with a thousand different places being colonised/built/etc.

    Go stake out a slice of wilderness, rally some friends together, and build it up.

  2. So you need an interface to build communities. You need to be able to build 'outposts'. Everywhere ? Can you destroy them? How?

    What I intent to say with this post is that it is not enough to state the 'sandbox'/'emergent gameplay' style as a goal. You also need to give the players a tool to do this. And you need to create an attitude among them that they want to do this.

    As soon as you have done this, you can give a precise answer to the question.

  3. Oh yes, lots of interface stuff and AI NPCs and such.

    And yes, player settlements can degrade by the depredations of roving monsters, the passage of time, weather, etc. Maybe even by enemy players or their NPC militia.

    With damage occurring to buildings and roads and fences and you have a natural opportunity to present a variety of quests - hunt down the marauders, perform crafting, go chop down trees, escort a supply train, and so on.

    Why would players care about the health and vitality of settlements, other than simple pride?

    Start by making the world a dangerous place, make it hard to survive for any time out in the wilds on your own, especially at the beginning.

    Then, tie character growth (gear, trainers, buffs, enchants etc) to the settlements - the magnificence of your local religious edifice determines what trainers are available, the size and quality of the blacksmithy and armory affects what weapons are available, and so on.

    Add to that the potential for lots of villages, and you've got the potential for players to develop a sense of ownership. The little village of Treeglen may not be much chop, but it's their village.

    Do this and the players have a reason to help build and invest in their local settlement. As their village grows and they get bragging rights.

  4. Great stuff, I'd certainly buy the game. But you haven't really told me what I do when I log in.

    See.. the kind of content you describe is .. cheap. Most of us MMO bloggers can come up with hundreds auf phenomenal ideas. The trick is not to come up with an idea, but how to implement it. How to exactly implement it to offer an experience to the player.

    Because that is what game designers do: They craft experiences. The virtual world with all it's rules and features is just a means to an end here.

    1) The player continues to build his house (fun for 20min or more). [Evaluation: Is this fun?]

    2) The player starts to walk to next town to sell his trade goods that he acquired in earlier sessions (ETA 40min). He needs to be careful of bandits. And decide whether to travel dangerous and fast or safe and slow areas. He asks a guard about how dangerous the street is.
    [Evaluation: Is this fun?]

    3) ...
    [Evaluation: Is this fun?]

    Of course, we design a world. But only for the purpose of crafting experiences for players. The two are connected, but to make sure the world you created it fun to play, and not just an empty shell, you need to be able to answer the questions

    What do the players actually do in the game?

    What experiences do you actually offer to the individual player?

  5. Something else to consider is the relative gains from half hour and four hour sessions. While the half hour session should be gainful, it's important to not reach a point where 8 half hour sessions are replacing the 4 hour session. Or as it might be seen in WoW, running a bunch of randoms rather than a raid.

  6. I absolutely agree, Klepsacovic.

    In fact, I think the activities should not be so isolated that adding them up is even possible. If possible they should all be part of something bigger. That bestows meaning. And it is less repetetive, less boring.

    Dungeon Runs in WoW, especially with the teleporting, anonymous LFG is something I would never integrate into a virtual world. But it's success proves that there is something to learn from it.

    In some way this reminds me the evolution of US TV series. This is the way virtual worlds need to go, as well. Of course, the 'stories' need to be player-generated, whenever possible.

  7. I think this is what happend with Darkfall. They created an open world with basically nothing in it and then said, oh the players make the content.

    Tools and building blocks need to be in place in order to create things.

  8. Perfect points. I will even go as far as saying there should be no more than 5 minutes between you log in and start doing "fun" activity

    E.g. if it takes one 30 minutes to travel somewhere before player can do what he considers fun that mechanics is out

    FPS have it down to 1min or less. RTS have 5 min-10 lobby waits.WoWs LFD was around 5 min too (or so I hear)

    Pick up core activities you expect players doing and concentrate around making them as much fun and as accessible as possible

  9. Surely you're not asking for a list of activities which are inherently fun, are you Nils?

    What I proposed is a framework for a world, a non-static world, where even mundane activities are colored by meaning.

    Example: Escorting a trade caravan from point A to point B, where failure to arrive has actual effects (and not simply a sad trumpet wah-wah-waaaah and a trip back to the quest giver) .. then satisfaction and joy comes from completion of the task, regardless whether the journey was beset by bandits or entirely uneventful.

    Another activity might be leading a scouting party to establish a small mining outpost. If this was a quest in WoW you'd have to go to some general map location, click a thing, maybe fight off a magic spawning quest mob, and then go turn in. In WoW, it wouldn't matter just where you select to place the mining outpost, you wouldn't have to make an interesting decision between locating near a steady supply of lumber vs nearer to a major trade route vs near some mysterious caves etc.

    Driving a stake in the ground is not inherently fun. Context, impact, and meaning makes it so though.

  10. Garumoo, I agree with this. 'Meaning' is one of those things that separate WoW from a virtual world.

    If you have a list of things that are inherently fun, I am also interested :)

    My perfect virtual world would exist of minigames that are inherently fun, but also massively interconnected - not isolated.

  11. Pick up core activities you expect players doing and concentrate around making them as much fun and as accessible as possible

    This is the secret behind WoW's success, I think. What WoW fails at is connecting these core activities and to give them meaning.

    You can have the most meaningful virtual world: If your core activities aren't fun, nobody will p(l)ay. And that is what many indie MMORPG designers (Darkfall, Dawntide..) don't seem to understand.

    See my next post ;)