Friday, April 6, 2012

My MMmanifesto - Coherence

Coherence in a game world refers both to functionality and atmosphere. MMOs, more than other games, are susceptible to the 'customer's always right' syndrome. Instead of releasing a finished product, developers are constantly making changes, which is wonderful... in theory. In practice, rather than expanding content based on what would logically fit into the design of their product, developers try to cater to every whim of every single knuckle-dragging troglodyte who starts spamming their forums demanding such-and-such alteration or he'll cancel his subscription. Over time, this of course has a lowest-common-denominator trend, but the side effects are also interesting.
For one thing, it is impossible to fool all of the people all of the time. Players' demands are predictably self-serving. Swashbucklers will demand that their bucklers be overpowered and fireball fans will demand bigger explosions. This is not only a matter of balance, but of ruining the game's diversity. If any option is overpowered, it will be overplayed, and games become pointlessly monotonous when everyone is only using the flavor of the month class or template. The corollary here is an easy way to spot an imbalance in any pvp game: if anything is overplayed, it is likely overpowered.

Overall though, the two main issues are atmosphere and fragmenting the player base, and both are best illustrated by some wrong choices.

Lord of the Rings Online
This game's selling point is middle-earth. It contains, along with City of Heroes, one of the highest proportions of players who, if not for the appeal of comic books or LotR, would never have bothered playing online. One caveat is the limited variety of mobs, weapons and special effects. Tolkien, being no idiot, had a good feel for the necessity for contrast and maintained most aspects of middle-earth utterly mundane in order to offset the more magical parts of the story. For the designers of an MMO based mostly on farming endless hordes of trivial mobs, this is somewhat limiting, and at the start of the game there was at least one reviewer who characterized the gameplay as 'pigs gone wild' because of the sheer number of wild boars players had to slice through. In an attempt to cater to a wider audience, starting with the 'Mines of Moria' expansion, the game got more and more of the elements so popular with its competitors: glowing weapons, devils, a class that constantly shoots fireballs, and especially, flashier artwork. All of a sudden, it was not enough to fight orcs, they had to be flaming orcs with giant spikes growing out of their shoulders. It wasn't enough to have giant spiders, they had to get bigger and bigger until even mundane encounters can dwarf old Shelob.
If your game's selling point is giving players a chance to wander through middle-earth, you are shooting yourself in the foot by suddenly transporting them into a Saturday-morning cartoon. Pick one central aesthetic and build on that.

A Tale in the Desert
This game was based on the quaintness of building civilization from mud and flax, and its freeform... form. Some of the changes made to it over the years directly undermined this. There was no reason for a level system, and even less than no reason for players to 'level up' in a ridiculous "highlander" lightning strike. There was no reason to remove the stereotyped ancient Egypt player avatars and building aesthetics. Ignore whatever harebrained complaints you receive from some self-styled Egyptian anti-defamation league. Pleasing a few nutjobs is not worth gutting the game's personality.

Its best feature was how well it integrated player activities into the in-game economy. It was a perfect example of the right way to handle divergent demands from players. Some were pacifists, some wanted to hunt for deals on the market, others wanted to hunt pacifists. In its original form, the game could handle this because all these disparate activities were interdependent and linked together through the crafting and market systems. Killing NPCs yielded money, miners provided raw materials for ship construction, PvPers acted as bodyguards. Player societies developed based on interdependence, and the second worst trend in the game (after multiple accounts) was refusing to capitalize on that pattern. It was a mistake to have NPCs drop more raw materials, or putting in more missions that players could run in perfect safety without worrying about pvp. It was a mistake to put in wormholes to allow players to mine rare minerals without worrying about being discovered by patrolling griefers. It was a mistake to put in more and more specialized types of ships that pigeonholed players into one particular role. Making soloing easier and more beneficial than grouping, making players self-sufficient is counterproductive to a multiplayer game. It doesn't matter how many people whined that they wanted more loot for mindlessly cycling through NPC targets or that they didn't want to have to depend on others for protection while they mined. Giving them the soloing they wanted removed them from the player community anyway, regardless of whether they kept their subscriptions active or not.

I cannot fathom the thoughtless process that led to the 'Core Combat' expansion.The appeal of the game was its gigantic, continent-spanning battles full of multi-occupant vehicles, and some cretin decides the expansion should focus on separating players into caves where they chase each other down one by one on foot. The worst part is that of course, there were many players who did go for this, which removed many participants from main portion, the actual game itself, undermining those wonderful gigantic battles full of planes and tanks. Utterly idiotic.

A constant example of an addition that subtracts more than it adds to a game is seasonal content. It is a weak attempt to cover up the monotony of the actual game by tacking on something completely extraneous somewhere in there to distract players. "Ok, so they never did balance the classes, the new zone is still not ready, pvp is still pointless, but we can go fishing and yaaaaay, Santa Claus is in town!" I refer you to my earlier "Saturday-morning cartoon" comment.

PvP is a third and very touchy issue that ties into this topic, but since it warrants its own post, i will only say that slapping some sorry excuse for PvP on a game that was not designed for it only wastes development time and money. Actual PvPers will not be content with it and PvErs will make no use of it. Good examples of bad attempts here would be LOTRO and City of Heroes. Even worse are the ones that had a chance and made a pretty strong investment in it but stopped and fell back to appeasing all players instead of centering the game on PvP, like WoW, Warhammer Online or Rift.

edit: I almost forgot the most famous example, Ultima Online, because i never played it myself. Supposedly, at one point, the game was split into PvP and PvE servers. Gankers suddenly had nobody to supply them and farmers had no point to their farming. Both sides got bored and left.

Overall, the main point is to stick to the core principles of whatever world you're designing. In MMOs, this also means tying everything back into the multiplayer aspect. Every player activity should relate somehow to the development of the world at large. Don't give a player money for killing a deer. Give him meat that has to be cooked and bones that have to be sharpened into arrowheads. Don't let a miner carry fifty swords' worth of metal ore back to town himself. Make him depend on another player with a wheelbarrow. Don't give a single player both the ability to kill and the ability to get away simply because he wants to be the ultimate ganker. Make him depend on others to cover his retreat. Don't put a separate pvp area in one spot and a separate mining area in another and a separate mob-farming area in another.
Don't split your game world into mini-games.

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