Monday, March 25, 2013

My MMManifesto

Here it is at last: the summary of my vision of a persistent world, a truly massive multiplayer game. Though i may add side notes in the future, i'm finally ready to compile what i've been saying for years. Details may vary depending on budget, setting, game engine limitations or other specifics, but these are the ground rules. Games are not to be considered MMOs if they fail to live up to this list.
Points 1-8 are must-haves. 9-12 are simply major improvements.

1. The world is the game.
The one feature which sets a persistent world apart from smaller FPS, RTS or RPGs is the persistent world itself and it is that feature which must be exploited to its fullest potential. All other components must be re-interpreted in terms of their influence on the landscape. The draw of a persistent world is taking part in the developing story of the conflicts and advancements of a community of thousands of players, not individual self-aggrandizement. The focus must be taken off performing tasks for immediate reward and shifted onto further goals requiring interaction. The various individual player actions like killing each other, harvesting resources, crafting or killing monsters should have no reward in themselves, but should only be useful in creating a place in the game world for that player.
Components which are treated as separate minigames traditionally must be made to interact. In its simplest form, this is interdependency: combatants must be dependent on gear made by crafters who must be dependent on resource gatherers who must depend on protection from combatants. All player activity must occupy the same game world. There should be almost no 'safe-zones' for resource gathering and no instantly joining PvP arenas from anywhere in the game world. The goal is a network of player communities, tribes, clans or guilds which have an actual presence on the game map, each controlling a smaller or larger portion of it. Between these there can be room for soloers, tourists, bandits and vagrants, but those can only have meaning once stable communities form.
Teleportation and instancing should be heavily restricted. It should be used only as a last resort to keep players from getting stuck somewhere, a 'return' spell to the only safe zone, the starter city, or maybe to one single destination of the player's choice. Everything in the game, quest locations, objects or players, must have an actual presence in it, interacting with other components. Players hunting monsters should be able to get killed by other players. Monsters should interfere when they hear sounds of combat nearby. Objects should have weight/bulk limitations and require players to actively transport them across the map. The landscape itself should have some degree of mutability susceptible to player influence whether in the form of building houses and entire cities, depopulating or deforesting whole regions, or simply blowing a crater into the game map.

2. No treadmill.
A persistent world should not include any mechanics which artificially delay or prevent participation in the events of that world. First off, this means no exponential character advancement. A top-skill, top-geared character should be no more than a degree of magnitude stronger than a starter character and the target power difference between relatively new and relatively well-developed characters should be closer to two-fold. They should be able to cooperate in mutually beneficial activities.
There should be no levels to progress through, only individual skills to develop through use. Levels segregate players when a persistent world should be encouraging them to build interconnected, interdependent communities.
Individual gear should never be presented as a goal in itself, as bragging rights, but only a means to an end, a tool in competing or cooperating with others. The world is persistent. Player activity is continual. There is no 'end-game'.

3. PvP drives player action.
Conflict between player groups is not only an excellent motivator to keep them engaged, but being less predictable it helps keep the gameplay from getting stale. The greatest events in the game should be the building of cities and their destruction. The game engine must allow for hundreds of players to fight in the same space while remaining smooth and playable. The game should be PvP-centered, with players having no protection from each other except in starter zones. Any law should be created by the players.
In order for PvP to mean anything however it can only be the means to an end, the way to gain control over resources in the game world. It can never be limited to only griefing other players as they try to advance their characters and it can never be limited to arena combat which does not impact the rest of the game.
Never reward players directly for killing each other, aside from looting each others corpses, which should be slightly limited in itself to prevent banditry from being entirely more profitable than industry.
PvP must be frequent and on a large enough scale that resource-gatherers, crafters and strategists can be fully involved in the game without directly participating in PvP on any regular basis, without firing a shot, by simply cooperating with combatants, providing them with production, transportation etc.

4. PvE serves as background.
The world should not be packed with monsters just waiting to be killed. Without levels, the central role of PvE shifts from experience-farming to resource acquisition. Mobs can either be resources themselves or frustrate players' attempts to get resources. They serve as obstacles or skill practice or both. They should move freely within their habitat and react in believable ways, not simply jump on players' swords.
NPC respawn timers should be on the order of tens of minutes, not seconds. Mob populations should shift according to environmental factors and player actions. It should be possible both to clear all mobs from an area for half a day or so or conversely for unchecked monster populations to grow large enough to threaten player settlements.
Also, PvE should never be limited to hunting monsters for body parts. They should be more than moving crafting resources. Taming, enslaving or allying with NPCs should be a frequent part of the game.
One of the main uses of PvE is providing content when/where the player population is too thin for meaningful PvP. Though large-scale encounters are important, there should always be accessible solo content as well. Take measures however to prevent effortless repetitive grinding from becoming a substitute for coordinated multiplayer activities.
Do not give fully-functional rewards from killing NPCs. The reward should never be immediate, but usable in other activities in the game.

Quests, when used very sparsely, help vary gameplay a bit and should be a small part of the game experience.
Instancing should almost never be used. Exceptions might include some form of instanced player housing to lessen overcrowding, and very large very complex scripted raids which would be too open to griefing. However, instances should never be a regular part of either solo or group gameplay. PvP should never be instanced.

5. Crafting and trading hold the world together
The most important forms of interaction are indirect. Functions which are handled automatically by most games like the creation, repair and transfer of goods must be made dependent on players. All but the most basic usable goods should be crafted, and usable resources should be acquired in the world at large, not simply bought from NPC vendors in the safety of a town.
One of the reasons to avoid teleportation is to give resources and items an actual presence in the game world, as weight and bulk to be moved. Give players the means and motivation to cooperate and compete in creating trade routes and hubs. Create the means and necessity for moving bulk amounts of materials and items across the game world, vulnerable to attack.
Resources should not be completely static. Resource nodes should be large, designed for exploitation by groups of players, but finite, preventing them from giving too much of an advantage to those who secure them. Nodes should respawn rarely enough that entire areas of the game world can be barren for days on end.
All items, from ammunition to houses to entire cities, should be crafted by players. There should be no fully-finished, usable loot drops from mobs or 'treasure chests' or mission completions.
Items should never be 'bound' to a particular character. Even if they are not usable without a certain skill setup, anyone should be able to handle anything, to facilitate trading.
No player should be able to be self-sufficient. Crafting skills should be interdependent and costly to maintain so that no player can gear himself. Send them to the market.

6. No legitimized cheating.
Player effort drives the game. No players should be allowed to circumvent that effort. All players pay the same amount of money. All players get the same in-game resources. No microtransactions. No account 'upgrades'. Though it is nearly impossible to police multiple accounts, the game mechanics should be created to prevent having more than one account from being useful enough to justify the expense. This means character actions should never be automated, preventing 'heal bots' or 'crafting alts' from being useful and skill gain should be fluid enough to pre-empt the need for alternate characters.
Botting, real-money-trading and user interface modifications should all be banned without exception.

7. Identity matters.
Persistent worlds are formed of interconnected communities. Building a reputation is part of the game. Players should not be able to escape their own poor image by switching names or characters. Identity must be stable.
Each player should have only one character. There should be no classes. Do not try to force 'replay value' by developing multiple characters in a world where interaction is the main issue. Players should be able to re-skill their character as they wish, with relatively small time constraints on the order of a few hours of gameplay.
Logging off should not be a means to immediately avoid retribution and players should never be allowed to switch characters to avoid recognition. If multiple characters are allowed, a single account ID must be publicly displayed to allow record-keeping.
Facilitate record-keeping through the game interface, allowing players to create personal notes about each other, friendlists, blacklists, kill lists and any other ways to easily discern friend from foe.

8. Arbitrate.
No matter how good the system is, its weaknesses will be exploited. The pretence of objectivity, the delusion of a self-regulating system only punishes the few honest individuals. Game-masters must have the power to make draconian decisions to curb the power of griefers and cheaters.
On a larger scale, any player faction which threatens to completely crowd out competition should be dealt with artificially, by weakening it or strengthening its enemies. This divine intervention does not imply collusion of GMs with player groups. Do not fall into favoritism.

9. Throw wrenches in the works.
Unpredictability and variation keep things interesting. Frustration is better than boredom.
Every once in a while, fiddle with the stats on some monster. Give goblins fire immunity for a month then make them susceptible to it for another. Cause a volcano to rise out of the middle of the game map, sink an island, double the dodo bird's aggro radius.
This should never extend to utter chaos but every month or so, something should change in the world.

10. Don't round unnecessarily.
You don't need ten commandments where nine can say it all. You don't need a superfluous tenth playable race in the game if you can't think of unique game mechanics to justify it. If 100 damage is overpowered, don't nerf it to 50, try 93 or 86. Magic spells don't need to last exactly five minutes or half an hour; why not seven-minute blessings and thirteen-minute curses? Playable characters do not need to be the same size or move at the same speed. Not all weapons should be exactly the size of an ideal phallic symbol. Give players both ten-foot-poles and killer toothpicks.
Balance, but do not homogenize.

11. The customer is usually wrong.
Do not pander. Every change made to the game must make sense in context. Do not spend time implementing extraneous features. Do not unbalance the game unnecessarily because of whiny little brats on your forums. Every decision should be made rationally by the development team. Never simply bow to popular demand.
Do not cater to macho cretins. Your game does not need female armor with no chest protection or male characters with bulging muscles. Not every monster needs to be gigantic to make the player feel big for killing it. Preserve proportion; it will only make the few truly big objects in the game world seem that much bigger.

12. Aesthetics are not limited to a triangle count.
An online game will never be as immersive as its single-player counterpart and it doesn't need to be as pretty. An MMOs graphics must convey information about the world around the player quickly and clearly in addition to providing enthralling visuals. Do not make unreasonable hardware demands of players' systems. Do not use the latest gimmick. Use a tried-and-true, stable game engine.
Do not allow glitz to overshadow utility.
Do use distinctive visuals. Don't just be another elves vs. orcs game. Do not limit yourself to fireballs and castles or lasers and warp drives.
Do use distinctive audio. Sound is not just filler. Hire a good composer who can convey meaning through the audio tracks for different situations and areas of the game world.
Write. Create a well fleshed-out world without too detailed a history. The players will make history, but they must do so within a  logical framework.
NPCs, as limited as their role is, must have believable dialogue.

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