Rethinking the MMO

Game designer and Dancing Robot Studios CEO Neil Sorens steps up to the Gamasutra Soapbox in today's cover feature, with a very lengthy editorial on changing the structure of traditional massively-multiplayer games.

You already know all about the MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) phenomenon: the GDC panels, the rants, the spectacular failures and successes, the addictions, the “Make Love, Not Warcraft” South Park episode, the ubiquitous elves, and especially the profits. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, though, here’s a brief explanation of why MMOs are important.

World of Warcraft is a rather successful MMO. Its subscription model gives it a trump card against software pirates, and its massive subscriber base guarantees continued revenue for the next few years at least, if current trends are to be trusted. Even World of Warcraft’s older, poorer cousins, such Everquest and Ultima Online, continue to turn profits many years after their initial release.

On the other side of the PC gaming coin, non-subscription retail games face increasingly grim prospects as customers turn to pirated software and parasitic games such as the aforementioned World of Warcraft, which more than one executive has blamed for slow PC game sales. And they appear to have a valid complaint: retail sales of PC games have fallen every year since 2001, while revenue from subscription fees has skyrocketed.

Clearly, the trends show that the future of enthusiast PC gaming lies with games that can hold a player’s interest over long periods of time; at the very least, these games commute PC gaming’s death sentence for a few years, until game consoles can provide the features, depth, flexibility, and convenience that PCs allow.

The thing is…we all expected these games to evolve. We looked at Everquest and its addictiveness and reasoned that surely someone would improve on this formula, creating a breed of entertainment that the entire spectrum of gamers could enjoy. Instead, we have seen a parade of copycats that fails to appeal to a large portion of the potential market, despite far bigger development budgets than any offline games.

What’s the problem? Is it that MMO developers choose to design their games for a niche audience? Or are the designers, who often have little to no experience with traditional video game design, simply incapable of designing anything but a nerd-fest? I can’t answer that, but here are a few questions on the subject I do want to try to answer from the standpoint of a traditional game designer: What exactly is an MMO? Will the current MMO formula hold up over time? What is holding this type of game back from more universal success, and how can it be improved?

Massive Misnomer

If we are to understand why these games have such widespread popularity, it is important to recognize what distinguishing game elements draw players in and keep them hooked.

In defining just what kind of games fall into this category, the term “MMO” is itself not particularly helpful. If my memory serves me correctly, “massively multiplayer” was simply marketing-speak used to promote Everquest when it launched. Being able to interact with thousands of other people was touted as one of the game’s most important features, setting it apart from more diminutively online multiplayer games of the time, such as Diablo.

Blizzard's World of Warcraft

However, the “massively multiplayer” aspect of subscription games is not what draws people into these games and keeps them hooked, in most cases. Imagine, for instance, that World of Warcraft were set up like Diablo 2 (not a “massively multiplayer” game), where only eight players could play in a single game, and the game was balanced with this restriction in mind. The game would still be quite playable and fun for most of the people who currently subscribe. In fact, in the game’s present form, players rarely interact with more than the same few people every time they log in. If dragons could be killed with only eight players, players’ social circles would be even smaller, making the other thousands of players nigh-irrelevant.

That’s not to say that all these other players are a bad thing; they’re just not the most important thing in this particular type of game. It is quite possible to create a game where interacting with lots of people is the most appealing feature (Second Life and others). However, that category of quasi-games is outside the scope of this discussion.

Persistence Pays

What is it, then, that convinces a subscriber to pay triple digits every year for a single game? What facet of the game would cause the whole tower to crumble if removed? The answer is persistent character progression. Imagine that World of Warcraft is now back to hosting thousands of players on each server (plus several hundred in the login queue, of course). This time, however, when a player gains a level, it only lasts until the player logs off—like a game of Quake, where all kill stats reset when the game is over. The same goes for abilities, items, and all other forms of progression. Players can still interact with thousands of other players and do everything else they could do before; the one change is that their character progress is no longer persistent. My hunch is that under these conditions, the game would not have many subscribers left, as neither the gameplay mechanics nor the ability to interact with thousands of players would provide enough appeal to retain them.

The reality is that the MMO as we know it is primarily about advancing a “secure” persistent entity (character, team, vehicle, country, etc.) in a multiplayer environment of any size. (Diablo 2’s wonderful experiment with “Closed,” “Open,” and “Ladder” realms provides convincing evidence that the feeling of accomplishment increases—and attracts more players—when it is validated by the presence of other players and by attempted cheat prevention.) For the developers and publishers, of course, it is also about collecting a subscription fee or other type of regular payment, but this is not an essential part of the user experience. My term to describe these games, then, is Persistent Entity Game, or PEG.

It is not quite right to say that PEG (or MMO, in its current usage) is a genre of game; the concept of advancing a persistent entity (or interacting with hundreds of other players) can be included in games of many genres, from First Person Shooter (World War II Online), to Real-Time Strategy (Shattered Galaxy), to Sports (Smallball) to Role-Playing (Ultima Online). Even tedious games that are terribly designed in a traditional video game sense (not naming any names here) can hold a great deal of appeal for many people, simply because the allure of a persistent character is so strong.

Origin's Ultima Online

Repetitive History

Those types of games will not succeed forever, however. Games do evolve, despite what you might believe after seeing seven years of stale, cookie-cutter PEGs. Eventually, some developer will create a PEG that fuses enjoyable advancement of a persistent entity with a game that is also fun in the traditional sense.

Recalcitrant PEG developers and publishers should pay heed to the lesson taught by adventure games. Fifteen years ago, the central gameplay mechanic in popular adventure games like King's Quest was brute-force puzzle-solving, with a heavy helping of instant death by trial-and-error. Despite the crude and frustrating gameplay, these games sold very well because they offered better graphics and storylines than games in other genres did at the time. As other games began to offer those same compelling features and combine them with more palatable gameplay mechanics, the adventure game genre became a niche market.

Today’s PEGs are in much the same situation, as their central gameplay has changed little from ancient CRPGs (computer role playing-games) and MUDs (multi-user dungeons), which were little more than scantily-clad stat-building exercises. Just as they did with adventure games, clever developers will soon adopt the most compelling feature of today’s PEGs, the persistent entity, and combine it with more appealing gameplay mechanics, relegating the “MMO” as we know it to the bargain bin of history, so to speak.

Solving the Problems

The first step towards recovery, the saying goes, is admitting you have a problem. Each PEG comes with its own unique set of design issues, but the ones I will address are, in my view, the most pervasive and the most off-putting to potential new customers.

Although most PEGs are of the RPG flavor, I’ve attempted to look at problems and solutions in a genre-neutral fashion. However, since the majority of readers are most familiar with RPG-style games like World of Warcraft, the discussion tilts towards the terminology and manifestation of game concepts in those titles.

Problem #1: Boring Gameplay

Just as with adventure games of yesteryear, the persistent-character games on the market today have stale and unappealing gameplay mechanics. The central mechanic is “die-roll” combat, where players and monsters take turns hitting each other at regular intervals until statistics dictate that one of them falls over.

With apologies to the pen-and-paper role-players out there, this type of gameplay is not particularly compelling to the mass market, which finds more excitement in fast-paced combat with outcomes based primarily on player skill, rather than mathematical formulae. A comparison of the combat scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies to those of Lord of the Rings Online provides a stark example of how boring gameplay mechanics drain the excitement from what should be an exhilarating battle. There is a reason that no one has tried to make a single-player game with “MMO” mechanics: few people would be interested.

To make matters worse, the game mechanics do not often require players to adapt in a meaningful way, leading to repetitive encounters where the player performs the same set of actions every time. Since every challenge is overcome in nearly the same fashion as the previous challenge, the one potentially appealing aspect of mathematical combat (figuring out how to make the numbers work to your advantage) provides diminishing returns with each repetition. It is usually a simple matter to perform as well as the game allows, resulting in little variance in how well the user performs from one challenge to another. As a result, the player almost never has the rewarding feeling of turning in a spectacular performance, one of the big draws of many video games. After a while, the user’s mind will turn on the auto-pilot. At that point, the game will seem like work, and the interactivity it provides is pointless—a huge flaw for any video game, especially one that does not provide much in the way of passive entertainment.

Even many of the players who subscribe to PEGs concede that the gameplay itself is not stimulating; it is primarily the potential for advancing their characters that motivates them to continue playing. And since advancement generally serves only to improve a character’s ability to do well in combat, an unsatisfying cycle exists.

Crafting sub-games are even worse. A typical crafting implementation involves two components, neither of which is particularly interesting: navigating menus/interface and waiting for the item to compete. Players enjoy being able to create items, but the inane drudgery of the process is off-putting and completely unnecessary.

The most reasonable explanation for why this problem exists is that PEG designers have simply misunderstood why many people play their games. We see evidence supporting this hypothesis in Everquest II and Vanguard’s crafting systems, where the designers have “improved” crafting by copying the arduous math-based, meter-centric mechanics used in the adventuring department.

Solution: Ensure that gameplay provides enjoyable mental and/or physical challenges

Almost every good video game in existence requires the user to surmount challenges with brains or dexterity, rather than tedious repetition. And PEGs need to be good video games first and foremost, not just treat dispensers. If the only real challenges in the game are spending a few thousand hours playing the game, hoping your stats are better than your enemy’s stats, and waiting for the treats to drop into your lap, it is not a good video game, as the satirical “game” Progress Quest illustrates.

Enjoyable mental challenges can be added by making opponents smarter, more unpredictable, and more responsive to player actions. . Physical challenges involve things like requiring rapid and/or complex controller input by the player within a limited time frame, requiring the player to observe and react to subtle details or motions on the screen, etc. Heuristic problem solving and “twitch” action both hold far more mass appeal than the real-time 7th grade algebra solving and slow-motion button-mashing that typically forms the basis of current PEG gameplay.

One specific application of this solution to the crafting problem would be creating mini-games that require players to think or react in a fun way during the crafting process and that become increasingly complex or difficult as the player advances and masters the game.

Note that challenges do not have to be frantic and stressful to be enjoyable. It is perfectly acceptable for a game to proceed at a leisurely pace, as long as it provides adequate stimulation or entertainment value.

Problem #2: Grinding

Another issue that stems partly from die-roll combat is that of “grinding.” Grinding is the act of playing in a repetitive, unexciting, or otherwise un-enjoyable fashion in order to make faster progress. Since die-roll combat is based on two factors that are generally very easy to quantify and predict (the player’s power and the enemy’s power), it follows that players almost always know at the start of a battle who the winner will be. This knowledge lessens the excitement and tension of battles. As players are able to predict outcomes with a high degree of accuracy, games are balanced with the assumption that players will win a very high percentage of their battles. In other words, the punishment for losing a single battle far outstrips the average reward for winning a single battle. Players will spend hours at a time churning through feeble, ineffectual opponents rather than taking on more risk, because the game rewards them more for adopting this style of play.

Another factor that leads to “grinding” is that PEGs tend to be balanced in a way such that players run out of new things to do well before they have advanced their characters far enough to move on to new content. As a result, they must do the same things over many times before they can progress.

Finally, players are willing to “grind” because the primary goal of most PEGs is to reach the maximum level. This problem is discussed further in the next section.

Solution 1: Encourage players to play in fun ways

All things being equal, players will choose fun activities over dull ones; all a game designer has to do is to ensure that players are not rewarded more for choosing the dull ones. Once the reward for “grinding” is less appealing than for playing in a fun way, players have no reason to “grind.”

In particular, games should give players who take on tougher or more unpredictable challenges, even if they fail often, better rewards (such as faster advancement) than if they had 100% success with weak or predictable challenges.

“Raids” (high-risk, high-reward challenges) are already an important component of many PEGs, but unfortunately, the average player does not benefit from raids until reaching the maximum level. This kind of challenge should be available to the average player (not just guilds, not just players who looked up the super-secret quest on the web site), and it should give better, longer-lasting rewards than grinding does. However, in their current form raids have their own set of problems, as discussed further in sections #4 and #6.

Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest

Solution 2: Tune advancement to match game content

If players get bored at level 24 because they can’t have any meaningful new experiences (such as exploration, loot, enemies, and quests) until they reach level 30, then players should reach level 30 sooner, or the designer needs to add more things for them to do until they reach level 30 (besides repeating the same things they have been doing). Players should still need to “earn” their advancement, but the best way of earning it should involve overcoming interesting challenges, not by subjecting oneself to hours of tedium.

Problem #3: Advancement-holics Anonymous

Voluminous discussion (including the lion’s share of all gamer and developer “rants”) has been conducted on the subject of PEGs. Most of it, unfortunately, assumes the inclusion of boring gameplay mechanics, then goes on to debate implementation details such as game balance issues (whether progression should primarily take the form of character skills or levels, whether one type of character is more powerful than another, etc.), how best to prevent real money from influencing in-game accomplishment, and other secondary issues. They rarely address the problem described in section #1: boring gameplay mechanics.

This misplaced focus reflects one of the problems of the genre: issues related to advancement comprise the bulk of the discussion because the game’s appeal comes almost entirely from character building. In fact, designers treat it as the game’s ultimate goal. Everything else—quests, game mechanics, social interactions—are an often undesirable means to a desirable end; namely, acquiring levels and loot. Players have learned that the best rewards in a PEG always come from burning through the game as quickly as possible. Nothing in the game is worth experiencing for its own sake; if it doesn’t give experience or loot, it’s a waste of time in players’ minds. Designers, unfortunately, make little effort to discourage the player from thinking otherwise, as they put very little content into the game that is worth experiencing for its own sake. In other words, they encourage players to play this way. This model is the exact opposite of single-player games, where character advancement (skills, items, levels, etc.), though still a reward, is primarily a one of several tools the player uses in his primary task: advancing through game content.

As mentioned in the section on “grinding,” this focus encourages players to do whatever is necessary to advance quickly so that they can feel more powerful than their peers or “get to the good stuff.” Quite often, the fastest way to advance is the least exciting in terms of minute-to-minute enjoyment. This is backwards; designers should use the appeal of advancement to entice users into entertaining experiences, rather than using it to make up for the lack of fun in other aspects of the game.

Character advancement holds powerful appeal, as has been discussed; it is natural for players to want to empty the cookie jar of quantifiable accomplishment as quickly as possible, even if they get a stomachache in the process. When players zip through the advancement system as quickly as possible, it hurts both the player and the developer. The player does not get to enjoy the game to its fullest, and the developer loses customers as players reach the end quickly and become bored and dissatisfied.

Solution 1: Provide worthwhile alternate goals

Players like advancement because it gives them a feeling of accomplishment, acknowledges their abilities (or time spent on the game, unfortunately), and in some cases, gives them the feeling that they are getting closer to the best parts of the game.

One way to tempt players to play for something other than numerical advancement is to offer other avenues for accomplishment. For example, a game could allow players to create things in the game (and allow other players to see them) – art, music, writing, a pet, shops, museums, etc. Of course, there would need to be some potential game benefit—fees, royalties, prizes, the power of a trusty sidekick—attached to any alternate type of accomplishment. Players should not have to choose between building their persistent entity and doing something fun.

Solution 2: Make the journey interesting

The “roller coaster” game has a designated start and end point, as well as a pre-defined path connecting the two. Experiences as the roller-coaster travels from the start to the end provide the enjoyment—visuals, play mechanics, story, characters, enemies, animations, scripted events, settings, novelty, etc. Examples of well-received “roller-coaster games” include Half Life 2 and God of War. Although there are different ways to play and customize the experience in these games, the player does not deviate from the pre-defined path in any meaningful way.

Valve's Half-Life 2

Many PEGs are primarily of the roller-coaster variety. Although they allow the player to roam around, customize characters, etc., the point of the game is still to travel along a relatively pre-defined path from the start (level 1) to the end (maximum level and best equipment). There is rarely creativity involved, and the only meaningful customization is typically a series of one-time choices made at the start of the game (character creation). Players who have reached the “end of the game” and made the same initial choices (class, race, skills, etc.) often have nearly identical play experiences and characters. In itself, this is not a terrible thing, as the same is true of many high-quality games. However, instead of being like a roller-coaster, PEGs of this ilk are more like freight trains. Although they are still constrained to the path dictated by the designer, there are few interesting experiences between the start and end, the trip is painfully slow and entirely predictable, and the whole point of the journey is to get to a destination, not to enjoy the ride.

Obviously, it can be prohibitively expensive to build a 2000-hour thrill ride. However, someone will find a way to do it, and everyone else will have to follow to stay competitive. Finding low-cost methods of creating entertaining content is a subject that is more suitable for a book or a game design document than a small section in an article, but a short list of possible methods includes: giving users tools and incentives to create compelling content for the game (and providing a quality filter for this content); designing the game such that interactions between users provide the bulk of long-term entertainment (real-time content creation); procedurally generating content; and designing content/experiences such that they hold their entertainment value over many repetitions (re-using old content/assets falls into this last category). Outsourcing to low-cost professional content developers and development of good content-creation tool sets are also good methods that are already in widespread use, but they generally do not provide the radical improvements in cost possible with the other methods.

An alternative is to design the game as a “creation” game, rather than a “roller-coaster” game; this is discussed further in section #5.

Problem #4: Making Players Feel Ordinary

One reason that video games are appealing is that they allow players to be someone important: a rock star, a valiant hero, a benevolent deity, a nefarious villain, a cunning thief, a brilliant general. PEGs, which are supposed to enhance this attraction with advancement elements, ironically tend to diminish this appeal in various ways.

First, a player doesn’t feel all that important when there are thousands of other “heroes” in the same world doing the same things. Instead, the player is just another face in the crowd, trying to get a little bit ahead in the rat race. In the land where everyone’s a hero, heroes are commoners.

The second problem (particularly prevalent in games with strict level-based advancement) is that as a player’s controlled entity grows more powerful, the challenges he faces grow more difficult, making the advancement seem worthless.

For example, the player can typically dispatch enemies at the start of the game with ease. However, as the game progresses, the relative strength of an appropriate enemy increases, making analogous battles lengthier and more difficult, despite the fact that the character is now many times more powerful than before. This design makes players feel as if they are running in place (hence, the “hamster wheel” analogy), or even getting weaker as they “advance.” In many cases, game balance and the reward system make the player feel forced to group with other players, further increasing the feeling that no matter how far a character advances, it will always be weak in relation to opponents. In a game where gaining power is the primary goal of the game (problem #3), this design flaw is significant.

Even more egregious is the use of similar enemies at various stages of advancement. If a player’s character kills a deer easily at Level 4, why, after twenty levels’ worth of advancement, is it terribly difficult to kill a nearly identical deer in another location? This situation makes the game and its advancement system feel absurdly and unnaturally mathematical. Furthermore, a player can spend months trying to obtain a special item, but even when acquired, that item typically increases the character’s power by only a fraction of a percent. In this case, advancement is not only purely mathematical in terms of gameplay effect, but to add insult to injury, it is also mathematically insignificant.

This problem is particularly noticeable in “raids,” high-risk encounters that typically comprise most of the time spent by experienced players. These challenges often require 24-40 players to overcome. They make the player feel quite insignificant, as the player’s character, having reached the upper limit of advancement, might only be 1/40 as strong as the opponent.

Solution 1: Make difficulty progression varied

Typically, RPG-type PEGs increase difficulty by bumping up enemy hit points and damage output. These tougher enemies may require more time or more players to defeat than easier enemies, but the player does not have to take any different actions to defeat them. The same buttons are pressed, the same ability types used. Therefore, players do not feel any more powerful than when fighting the earlier enemies, even though they may have advanced significantly since then. In order to give meaning to this advancement, the challenges the player faces should force the player to view them in a different light as difficulty increases.

Sony's God of War

For example, instead of having the player advance from fighting a level 1 goblin with 10 hit points to fighting a level 5 goblin with 50 hit points, have the player fight five level 1 goblins at once. Although it might be mathematically equivalent in terms of difficulty, the experience for the player is completely different, in terms of both visuals and gameplay. By facing old enemies and dispatching them much more easily then before, the player gains perspective on how much more powerful his entity has become, and the increase in power is therefore more rewarding.

There are many other methods of increasing difficulty without resorting to brute force (bumping up stats), such as combining challenges in new ways, making enemies smarter, giving enemies new abilities that encourage the player to play differently, or even introducing new gameplay rules and concepts (for example, the player must fight during an earthquake for the first time, and previous assumptions and strategies must be adapted according to the gameplay effects of the earthquake).

Solution 2: Make character progression about more than just numbers

Because even good gameplay mechanics will wear out their welcome with enough repetition, it is important to introduce new mechanics and variations, as well as new uses for old mechanics, as the game progresses. It isn’t enough to give the player a more potent version of an old ability. Players will use this ability in the same way and in the same situations they used the old ability; gameplay is unchanged. The player doesn’t need 20 different variations of “do some damage”; instead, new abilities should offer markedly different gameplay possibilities if they are to hold players’ interest and give them a feeling of genuine advancement.

Solution 3: Design for the solo player

Encouraging players to play alone or in small, regular groups solves several problems. First, the player feels more powerful because he is not surrounded by hundreds of other players whose persistent entities are stronger or more advanced than his. Second, the player is not involuntarily exposed to aspects of unexplored game content (a.k.a. “spoilers”) through contact with those other players, making exploration and discovery of that content more satisfying later on. Third, the time necessary to play the game is reduced, since the player does not need to spend time finding other players to play with first (this is discussed more in section #6). Fourth, limiting the number of players who can congregate in one area allows CPU/GPU cycles to be used

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