Sunday, April 1, 2012

A prelude to commenting on The Secret World and my demands from MMOs

(and also an unnecessarily long title)
(reminds me of those old-timey novel chapter subtitles: "Post 62, wherein our valiant hero, having set forth to right the wrongs of the world of virtual worlds, reminisces about his past adventures battling the hordes of the simpleminded")

For some years now, i've been going on and on about everything that's wrong with MMOs to anyone unlucky enough to pretend to listen, but i've never really put together a coherent list of demands. The closest i came was a few years ago on the forums of a game supposedly coming out this summer, The Secret World. This is one of a long series of games that have a chance to finally deliver the features which long-time players have been requesting for... well, a long time.

I posted this in a thread someone started about general feature requests for MMOs. Without further ado, i proudly present draft -1 of my MMO manifesto.

Let's describe a few ideal MMO conditions here. I'm pretending that someone at Funcom is actually reading this thread and noticing that there is a market for quality games, not just flashy ones.

1. No instancing. I'm paying you $15/month to play in a persistent world with thousands (or at least hundreds) of other players, not farm the same instance 50 times over in a 5-man group. If Sony could do it with Planetside, 5 years ago, you can do it now.

2. No treadmill. There's grinding and there's grinding. In WoW (the real Diablo 3), you farm instance after instance just to maintain the effectiveness of the gear you have. In EVE, you farm asteroids for a month, but when you're done, you've actually built a gigantic ship that opens up new tactical options. You're not just "keeping up with the Joneses." WoW=bad, EVE=good

3. "kill 10 rats in my basement" is not a "quest". "Find the golden fleece", or "Destroy the ring of power" now THAT's a Quest. Something which includes travel, information-gathering, cooperation with other players, and yes, the occasional rat-hunt.

4. Either build the game with PvP in mind or do not implement PvP. Even if you make it fully optional, it will still turn out to be a joke. See City of Heroes or even WoW in its current form. Some game concepts work better as purely cooperative playstyles. TSW, with its supposed slant towards puzzles, secrets, and meta-plot, definitely strikes me as one of them. Learn from "A Tale in the Desert", if you have anyone at Funcom who played it during its golden age. It had some very good ideas.

5. No classes. Yes, i know they've already been implemented. It's a mistake. The nuker/tank/healer triad has been done to death. Try something new. For god's sake, even Counterstrike was more flexible than that.

6. No levels. Another mistake. What you're doing is basically wasting content. Half your game will go largely unused because max-level characters do not go into newbie zones. Again, take your cue from EVE or Planetside. They allowed for character development while still letting new players jump right in with the big boys and fight in the same areas. They also made the starting areas useful to even the most advanced players, as trading hubs or staging areas for invasions.

7. The in-game economy should be player-driven. That means crafting-driven, and that means resource gathering, both from static and non-static sources. (Nodes and mobs). No fully-functional item drops from monsters. This also means that the results of low-level crafting should be useful, possibly as modular pieces of higher-level crafting recipes. No pointless "skilling up" of crafting abilities. There is only one MMO that i know of that almost got all this right, and that's EVE.

8. Non-static game world. Players should be able to build in the main game world, with whatever limits are necessary to prevent clutter. Mobs should not respawn every 20 seconds, or in the same spot. Player actions should affect the landscape, the availability of resources ('pollution' prevents farming, etc.) and the respawn locations and frequency of mobs. This means that if you wiped out the entire population of rats in your basement, they will not simply respawn there in an hour from thin air. Yes, game developers, spontaneous generation has indeed been disproven some time ago. Saga of Ryzom was probably the most daring on this point.

9. Aesthetics.
No cheap theatrical tricks. I have great respect for Tornquist's choice in one chapter of "The Longest Journey". The heroine was magically catapulted to another world in the middle of the night, meaning in her underwear. The important part is that it was NOT a g-string. If i want pornography, i'll watch pornography. If i choose to play a female character, i don't want to be playing the kind of bimbo whose first thought would be "does this life-saving body armor show off my boobs? 'cause i wanna look good for Cthulhu".
In this category is also the male version of the archetype: Conan. Please, i don't want every single character option and NPC to be some square-jawed, muscle-bound bad boy or crusader for justice. You made a Conan game, move on.
No elves and goblins. No insta-morphing werewolves and godlike vampires. Don't get me wrong, i loved Lord of the Rings and Interview with the Vampire, but there are other sources of inspiration. Funcom seems to have gotten this right, so let's hope they stay on track.
And if you want to introduce emotion, try stepping back a bit. In Homeworld, a strategy game, the great tragic moment included no tear-jerker images of mothers clutching their babies, no bloodied corpses. It was just the methodical movements of ships in space, salvaging what was left of a civilisation, with the planet burning far in the background, fleet-command's barely emotional voice announcing 'Kharak is burning' and good old adagio for strings playing in the background.
Let the player weigh the emotional content during gameplay, don't just give a sob-story or horror story as a text interlude and then back to the old hack'n'slash.
Also, take a cue from Half-Life 1. Positional audio is one of the greatest tools for creating suspense. Localized sources of sound within the game world can do wonders for its atmosphere without overloading graphics cards. And pay a good composer for your game's music. I played Diablo 2 with the music on. I played WoW with the music off. Same company, different quality.

And the most important piece here: you don't need the latest graphics effects to create aesthetic effect. You gambled on that with AoC (succesfully, i'll grant), and i'm one of the few who seemed to foresee that it would sacrifice gameplay for graphics. Try hiring a few talented visual artists, musicians and writers instead of a few dozen programmers. You'll save money too, and expand your playerbase to include those who don't buy new computers every 6 months.

10. Balance is an unattainable ideal, but should always be sought. Game developers have to keep that nerf-bat handy to knock down those flavor-of-the-month templates that always crop up. Keep in touch with what's happening in the game world and act accordingly. Most people who played WoW from the start remember Blizzard continually insisting that the shaman class was not overpowered, but "working as intended". One hilarious moment for me was when the public datamining started and it turned out that shamans were winning 85% ? of their pvp fights. Learn from those mistakes.

11. GMs are not simply there to move a character when it gets stuck behind a rock. Have those bums organize player events, have them spawn as monsters and terrorize the countryside. It beats getting quests from NPCs or fighting the same old monster AI.

Yes, i know that there is not a single major company which has not heard all this before. Yes, i know that none of this will be implemented, because the addictive, dumbed-down, oversimplified slot-machine approach to MMOs used by EQ, WoW, LOTRO and all the others simply sells, it has mass appeal. What i'm trying to show is not that i'm teaching game developers anything, but that there are plenty of players out there who also know these things. There is a market for quality, albeit small, and you can make a good profit on a smaller investment by catering to those of us who are crazy enough to ask for better products. Look at threads like this, Funcom, we're already here. Sell us something worth buying.

Make a niche game, not a WoW clone.

End quote.

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