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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.

Neil Sorens, Blogger

March 26, 2007

42 Min Read

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 to make the game look and play better instead of being reserved for scenes where dozens of player models must be drawn. Lastly, solo play gives anti-social players a way to advance their persistent entity without affecting other players’ game experience, as well giving all players a way to avoid anti-social behavior without lessening their game experience in some way.

The “party” paradigm of RPGs—where each character in the party has a specialized role and relies on the others to survive—is another one of those old pen-and-paper/CRPG holdovers that designers include in almost every PEG seemingly without much consideration. It is quite possible to make an RPG-style PEG that does not use the tired damage absorber/damage dealer/healer system. Diablo 2 did it. And there are plenty of games that can be played “co-op” without forcing players into specialized, dependent roles, with Gears of War being a prominent example.

And if the game uses a party mechanic, why not let the player control the entire party? It is quite common in current PEGs for players to control more than one character at once by using multiple accounts and computers (“two-boxing”). Why not make control of multiple characters a central feature of the game? Players do not want to be held back because the designer left necessary tools out of their toolbox.

And even if the player controlled a self-sufficient group of characters, co-op would still be a viable option. The co-op mechanic would let players coordinate their groups of characters against challenges that scale in difficulty based on how many player-controlled parties are present. Imagine an Xcom-style PEG, where 4 players, each controlling a team of 4 characters, coordinate their efforts to neutralize the aliens terrorizing Rio de Janeiro. Or a Total War-style PEG, where 3 players, each controlling an army division comprised of many units, assault an AI-controlled castle together. In both cases, players could very well play alone, but the co-op mode, while not necessary to enjoy the game, would provide a new and social gameplay experience.

Problem #5: Domineering Design

There is nothing as frustrating for a player than being told by the game, “You can’t do that!” without a logical explanation for the limitation. Examples of this type of artificial limitation include:
· Invisible barriers preventing a character from walking into an apparently open area
· Abilities becoming useless in certain areas or against certain opponents
· The inability use two different abilities together (“stacking”)
· Limited interaction with certain non-player characters (NPCs), such as the inability to attack quest-giving NPCs

Artificial limitations like these make the game environment feel more like a set of arbitrary rules than a real world. It is not a big deal for glorified board games like Civilization, where the game consists of rules and artificial constructs with just a thin veneer of realism. However, for role-playing games, where the point of the game (supposedly) is to exist in a fictional—but believable—universe, unnatural constraints are especially problematic.

Players who find some way around these limitations (or off the game’s planned track in general) are typically punished for “exploiting” the game. Anything that was not planned for ends up being “fixed,” often by the addition of even more of these limitations. This type of design philosophy tends to close off the already limited avenues for creativity and innovation on the part of the player in the name of preserving the game’s longevity.

Another type of frustrating restriction common in PEGs is the inability for players to affect the game world. Although there are typically plenty of “quests” the player can undertake, completing the quest rarely changes the game world for more than a few minutes. Defeating the evil presence at the old mill only gives the mill a ten minute respite, as the evil soon reappears and waits (refraining from doing anything evil in the meantime) for the next player in line to defeat it.

Meanwhile the quest dispensers—err, NPCs—maintain their eternal vigils at their permanent residences on the tops of hills, in front of their houses, in the depths of dank dungeons, etc. Over ten million scarlet scallywags have been slain at the hands of players, yet the NPC captain’s bloodthirst has not yet been slaked, nor are there any fewer of the scarlet charlatans than before.

“But you can’t allow players to affect the game world in a meaningful way in this kind of game!” you say. “That would break the game for everyone else!”

Yes. Yes, it would. Considering the nature of the RPG genre, this is an ironic problem to have. RPGs are about saving the world or otherwise fixing some sort of hefty problem. The objective purportedly is to alter the game world. An RPG where altering the game world would break the game therefore has a serious flaw. Who wants to play an RPG where all of your actions are completely meaningless? In such a game, the ultimate objective would not be to do quests or solve problems; it would be to affect the one thing you can affect in the world: the progression of your entity (as discussed in section #3).

As an aside, would it really be so bad if player A and player B had different game experiences as a result of the world being altered? (This goes back to section #3’s discussion of players having near-identical play experiences.)

Lastly, PEGs tend to restrict players based on mathematical criteria, usually character level. Since just about every challenge in these games is numerical in nature (as discussed in section #1), players are limited in what they can do by numerical factors, rather than controller skill or problem-solving ability. If they have a level 3 character, the only challenges they can overcome at that point might be defeating enemies from level 1-5. This unnatural stratification limits players almost solely by time played, not by skill or mental prowess. No matter how adroit or intelligent a player is, there is no room to excel, exacerbating the problem described in section #4: no one is special.

All these factors combine to increase the feeling that you are trapped in the path set for you by the game designer. Instead of having the freedom to do anything and go anywhere, as players likely imagined when they first picked up the game, they find oppressive boundaries early and often.

Solution 1: Design for fun first, balance second

It’s incredibly tough to take a dull but balanced game and make it fun. It is much easier to balance a fun but unbalanced game. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure that the fun goes in first:
· Create a gameplay prototype to get an idea of how your ideas translate into a real experience.
· Think about the “fun factor” a feature adds for the average player before including it. Don’t throw things into the design just because Game X had it or because a vocal minority demands it.
· Avoid adding limitations just because they will save a little bit of development time. Go the extra mile to give the player the greatest sense of freedom possible.
· Don’t be afraid to throw out genre conventions.
· Trust your ability to balance things later. That’s the easy part.
· Don’t assume that the fun will magically appear once some feature or piece of content is added late in development.

Solution 2: Make creativity the object of the game

If you make a “creation” game, not only do you give players a creative outlet, but you also ensure that players have a large effect on the game world, since it logically follows that players creating things are affecting their surroundings in some way. In other words, it is much easier to allow players to affect the game world when you design for it from the start.

There are many different things you can have players create: houses, cities, dungeons, music, stories, sculptures, and so on. However, the simple or meaningless customization found in most of today’s PEGs is not enough to anchor a game; the creation must be a central element of gameplay, and it must allow players to make something noticeably unique. Otherwise, it’s just a visual sideshow in a “roller coaster” game. Examples of well-done but ultimately unimportant (in terms of gameplay) customization include changing a character’s looks in City of Heroes and setting various parameters such as wall and floor textures for your character’s residence in Everquest II.

Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest II

What if one of the main objectives of a PEG was to create dungeons, as in Dungeon Keeper? Players could choose to play the game as heroes invading a dungeon, and the dungeon’s creator could play the evil dungeon master (or just leave the dungeon automated). During the time the players are navigating the dungeon, their game world would be entirely player-created; they might even have the ability to alter the dungeon themselves by tunneling, etc.

Giving players the power to alter the game world through creation has another strong advantage, as discussed in section #3: players would provide each other with the fresh content necessary to maintain the game’s longevity. All you have to do is provide viable tools, sufficient incentives (either real or virtual), and a quality filter. A sampling of myspace.com user profiles shows that even people with no technical skill can be motivated to learn new tools and concepts that allow them to create and customize. With the proper tools, such as the dungeon-editing GUI in Dungeon Keeper and the creature editing tools in Spore, you can put your players to work for you and make the game more enjoyable for them in the process.

Solution 3: Present the player with diverse challenges and multi-purpose tools

Most PEGs provide the player with a wide range of redundant abilities but a narrow variety of challenges to overcome with those abilities. Instead, players should have fewer abilities and face a wide array of complex, unpredictable challenges that require players to think, adapt, solve problems, and beat their own paths, rather than go to a web site and find the solution that the designer has dictate or use the same sequence of abilities for 95% of the challenges they face. The norm should be for each challenge to be materially different from the last, instead of superficial differences poorly masking their uniformity.

Simple physics-based games are a good example of how varied and enjoyable gameplay can revolve around a single tool such as the capacity to move an object. On the other extreme, the ability to cast seven different levels of Fireball does not allow for the same kind of creativity and problem solving on the part of the player. Granted, one is harder to do than the other (especially in a networked game world), but improving core mechanics should take priority in today’s bloated PEG budgets over superficial features such as having ten different newbie areas.

Intelligent, adaptive AI and interactive, volatile environments are two examples of game features that can provide a foundation for the “emergent gameplay” that can help generate the kind of challenges needed to keep players on their toes without each individual challenge having to be prepared in advance by a designer. A simple example: In Act V of Diablo 2, on the Bloody Foothills level, the designer scattered friendly soldiers across the level. These soldiers are somewhat weak and will die without the player’s intervention. The player can choose to ignore these soldiers and proceed as if they did not exist, in which case they will all likely suffer a cruel demise, but the player can continue playing as in all the other levels. Or the player can focus on rescuing the soldiers and protecting them, gradually accumulating a veritable army (if successful) on the way to the boss fight. In this case, a very simple and inexpensive addition to the game has created a new, unique challenge for the player to take on (and fitting rewards) without shoving it down the player’s throat.

Problem #6: Exorbitant Time Requirements

It is only a matter of time before the mainstream media comes down on World of Warcraft like a load of bricks. We have already seen anti-WoW crusading on the front page of Yahoo! as well as on The Tyra Banks Show (or at least, people watching the show saw it). While it is certainly debatable whether such games are evil, soul-consuming, life-wrecking monsters, the fact remains that they are more enjoyable when played in long stretches than when played in short ones.

However, avoiding the ire of the media is just a secondary reason for designing a game to be enjoyable in short play sessions. The biggest reason is that a large portion of the market is unwilling or unable to dedicate a lot of their time to your game. Former PEG players who have had to quit because of time constraints, uncooperative spouses, jobs, graduation from college, etc., might be willing to play a PEG that provided equal enjoyment for a smaller time commitment. People who game at lunch, on breaks, at the office after work, or even during work could be buying and playing your game if it provided enough enjoyment within their limited time frame. Why should they be wasting their company’s money playing Solitaire when they could be wasting it playing your game? Instead, it has become conventional wisdom that you have to dedicate all your gaming time and even a big chunk of your life to enjoy a PEG, and as a result, this part of the market is largely untapped.

In current PEGs, three elements are to blame for making short play stints unsatisfying.

First, players have to spend too much time organizing and preparing, whether it is seeking out other players for grouping, traveling (often to join those players), or arranging players into groups, giving instructions, and clearing “trash” (typically, unchallenging encounters that yield little to no reward, but that must be cleared before it is possible to fight a boss) for a “raid.” Playing with others is fun; organizing and preparing is not.

Second, players typically must play for a long time before they receive any reward, yet another aspect of current PEGs that would be a death warrant for any single-player game. When players fail to earn any reward, they either end up playing a long session in order to earn the reward or quit altogether because they are not having fun. Neither situation is desirable.

Third, many challenges simply take long, continuous play sessions to overcome. If the player leaves the game before the end, he must start again from the beginning in his next attempt. In many cases, even staying logged in and leaving the game for a few minutes can result in disaster, whether it be from the ensuing miscommunication (Leroy Jenkins!), enemy behavior (spawning, wandering), or a suddenly short-handed group being overwhelmed.

Solution 1: Let the player have fun right away

Let players get where they are going as quickly as possible (Diablo 2’s waypoints are a fine example). Let them accomplish something meaningful without having to organize with other players. If they do want to join other players, provide an efficient matchmaking feature and allow them to join each other as quickly as possible. The character summoning feature found in several games is a good solution, but it is often restricted to specific locations and/or high-level characters.

Solution 2: Unchain players from the keyboard

Sometimes, players just have to stop playing for a while. Biological needs, kids that need to be picked up or taken care of, and meals are just some of the common events that take players’ attention away from the game. The game design should take these interruptions into account. Players should be able to get back into the action quickly and without causing in-game problems such as death/dismemberment, separation from the group, etc. The Diablo series, which despite its flaws is one of the best game design teaching tools in existence (Magic: the Gathering and Deus Ex are two others), solved this problem neatly with Town Portals, which allow players to go instantly to a safe area for as long as is needed and return at will.

Blizzard's Diablo II

The game should also break up challenges into easily-consumed chunks. Players should be able to complete all challenges in a reasonable amount of time; if the designer wants to make a challenge longer, he can break it up into smaller parts that do not have to be finished all in one go. Even better, the game could save the player or group’s progress for that challenge and allow them to resume it later. World of Warcraft has this type of feature, but its “checkpoints” within each challenge are still too far apart. Also, it should not be assumed that because a certain challenge is at the end of the game, all players attempting it are hardcore enough to dedicate an entire evening to the endeavor.

When deciding how long is too long, a designer should take into consideration what people are not saying—the people who are not playing PEGs because of the required time investment. Shortening the time necessary to complete challenges can attract this quite large group of players, while at the same time it is not likely to alienate existing players. “Hey, this game sucks because it only takes two hours to kill the boss instead of ten!” is an improbable response, especially if there is more substance to the game than passing grueling tests of endurance for the sole purpose of obtaining bragging rights.

Solution 3: Let the player accomplish something in a short play session

Players should be able to do something satisfying within a fairly short amount of game time. It does not have to be large rewards such gaining a level, finding a great item, killing a boss, or earning a new ability, although those certainly work. Smaller accomplishments such as advancing to a new area, creating something, and completing an objective or quest can all be used to provide the steady supply of rewards that makes those short sessions worthwhile and keeps players coming back for more.

BBS “door games” such as Trade Wars 2002, Barren Realms Elite, and The Pit are great examples of persistent-entity games that were satisfying in small doses. They limited the player to a certain amount of time or turns per day, yet they were designed in such a way that they were enjoyable in small quantities while retaining their addictive nature.


It may just sound like I hate PEGs, but that could not be further from the truth. I have played almost all of them well beyond the traditional free first month—at least the Western ones—and appreciate their unique appeal. However, it is frustrating to see the stagnation and missed opportunities for growth and improvement (a common sentiment about the game industry as whole, I know).

As long as developers and publishers do nothing but copy what is successful, they—and gamers—will continue to miss out on these games’ staggeringly awesome potential. And as long as PEGs are designed by and for stat geeks (whom I know and love and sometimes am) with little regard for traditional game design fundamentals, they will continue to waste that potential.

The good news is that excellent ideas, the dedication necessary to see them to fruition, and the money to support them inevitably collide. It is only a matter of time before we see these games and think of them not as “good MMOs” but as good action games, good driving games, good sports games, and so on, with the persistent-entity aspect being just one of many attractive features.

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About the Author(s)

Neil Sorens


Neil Sorens is Creative Director at Zen Studios. Neil has worked in the games industry for over ten years as a tester, producer, and designer. He blogs about game design on Gamasutra.

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