Tuesday, April 3, 2012

My MMmanifesto - fundamentals

The first principle of creating an MMO is a focus on the game world. The logical selling point, the real potential of a persistent virtual world is that world itself. This is what it can offer when compared to any other type of entertainment. The conflict arises from customers' demand to be allowed to win, because they play whatever they do only if it makes them feel big. A good MMO would have a much smaller audience, based on those willing to take a personal loss and find their entertainment from something other than dick-measuring contests or winning mini-games with stacked odds.
A good MMO would make its customers feel small.

You can get some sense of it in EVE-Online. Mine asteroids for a week, build yourself a shiny new spaceship, take it for a spin, then zoom out... and out, and out, until your grand achievement is nothing but an insignificant speck lost among the stars, in the black. Load your week's worth of oxygen-rich ice into a cargo ship and lug it for half an hour to a trading hub, and find yourself lost among the endless swarm of players carrying their own goods. See your effort dwarfed by the scope of the game itself, but at the same time intersecting, affecting all around you.

Log into A Tale in the Desert. Spend an hour picking up blades of grass and planting onions to feed your couple of sheep. Then move outside your little yard and pass your neighbour's house, the one who traded you the bricks for your sheep-fold, and pass the monument built by the crazy architect down the street. Get lost in the changes, in the impact of every other player on your surroundings. So-and-so has a new beehive, whatsername is planting flax again and the-other-guy has a whole new wing on his house (it looks garish and tasteless). Walk for an hour out into the desert looking for spare clumps of vegetation where you might find rare herbs, and stumble onto a whole isolated compound of houses tucked away in some valley, then realize these are the people who sold you the mushrooms and camel-milk you ate yesterday. Walk into a new region and find all new people changing the world around them, and visitors from the other direction, travelers from just as far away as you, aliens you'll never meet again from up in the hills, to whom you can trade papyrus for copper.

A good virtual world has no clear-cut goals. The goal, if you were to try thinking of one, is world domination, but the point of the game is playing your part in the conflicts or great works of the players around you. Bad MMOs give you orders.  They put shiny map markers everywhere to tell you where to go. They put flashing signs up above the heads of NPCs to tell you to talk to them so they can order you what to do. At every turn, every time you kill ten rats which will respawn again in thirty seconds, the game tells you you're a world-saving hero, thank you, thank you oh great one, and by the way your farts smell like roses. Bad MMOs limit the scope of your actions by locking you into instances and tasking you with farming for petty personal goals so that you never have to feel insignificant by being dwarfed by the world around you, and by doing so they make your actions even less significant. A good MMO would let you make your mark on the world, then show you how small a mark it is.

I've said in a previous post that the key missing element in virtual worlds is interaction, and this interaction is embodied by the game world itself. It is your ability to, say, chop down a tree and have it grow back only slowly, changing the landscape for any player who passes that spot. It's your ability to kill off the entire sheep population in an area to corner the market on wool, then lose your monopoly when some enterprising young sailor ships it over from the northern isles, or have your guild find a rich source of iron and build a shanty town to exploit it that gets torn down by a horde of looters who caught wind of your wealth.
And it will get torn down. In order to allow players to change the game world, an MMO also has to allow for others to undo those changes. This usually means PvP, though A Tale in the Desert makes a good case out of law enforcement as an alternative. It means that players should be allowed to kill each other, steal from each other, tear down each others' houses, capture or raze entire cities. Yes, this means that balance and arbitration become crucial. No group of players can ever be allowed to completely squeeze out all others. It means the game world must be carefully tailored or constantly re-sized to allow people to escape each others' influence for variable periods of time, and it implies a certain lawlessness that forces the players themselves to interact and organize for protection. It has been done, at least as proof-of-concept. Ultima Online, Asheron's Call and Shadowbane all supposedly had some decent attempts at it, and from my own experience, i can cite Planetside, A Tale in the Desert and especially EVE. For all its myriad failures, EVE did create vast areas of the game world that were completely lawless, profitable, and exploited by large, powerful groups of players. Their word was law within their territories, and even being caught trespassing was grounds for summary execution or being marked for death anywhere you go by a hundreds-strong alliance.

No game, however, has ever capitalized on this potential of virtual worlds. Every time, they have fallen back to giving players more clear-cut 'missions' or 'quests' to allow them to play without thinking. Every time, they have given players more safe areas where they can get rich without risking anything, and have thereby wrecked the in-game economy. Every time, they have started putting players into smaller and smaller instances that have no effect on anything else.

The concept of an MMO, of a persistent virtual world capable of housing thousands of players all interacting indirectly, has never succeeded or failed as far as i know, because it has never truly been attempted. All we've ever had on the market is an endless string of abortions.

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