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Feature: 'Soapbox: Rethinking the MMO'

For today's exclusive Gamasutra feature, game designer and Dancing Robot Studios CEO Neil Sorens steps up to the Gamasutra Soapbox with a very lengthy editorial on changing the struc
For today's exclusive Gamasutra feature, game designer and Dancing Robot Studios CEO Neil Sorens steps up to the Gamasutra Soapbox with a very lengthy editorial on changing the structure of traditional massively-multiplayer games. Sorens says one of the problems with current MMOs, or Persistent Entity Games (PEGs) as he terms them, is that many make the player feel ordinary both through offering identical advancement to other players, or by simply scaling enemy strength to the player, never giving them a chance to feel like a true hero. In this excerpt, he offers some solutions to the problem: "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. 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)." Also important to this is giving player new ways to exploit new skills: "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." You can now read the full Gamasutra feature with much more from Sorens on the problems with, and suggested solutions to, many MMO design problems currently facing gamers (no registration required, please feel free to link to this column from external websites).

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