Armchair designers save MMOs

See the bandwagon go (“MMOs are broken, thus”). Go bandwagon go (“Yes, yes they are. Even more, thus!”). And this is me jumping on it, because I do care about this stuff. Besides, when Lum gets involved it’s hard not to get sucked into the slipstream, especially when he says stuff I agree with. (Which is actually most of the time, but I’ve used up my allotment of sycophantic for the week.) Also it gives me a chance to pass those links on to the few of you who may not have seen them yet.

I’ve been skittering around lots of these questions  here lately because it’s a subject that fascinates me — not to mention being an ginormous subject that you can just take a bite out of and chew till it makes you sick then move on. Why are we getting tired of games more quickly? Why does WoW hammer every other MMO that comes out into the ground? Is it WoW’s fault, or does the failure lie in new games’ design flaws? Are those flaws inherent to the design, or do they come out through the implementation? Why does one thing work for WoW and not for GameB? And so on.

Armchair design, like armchair coaching, is fun; if it weren’t there would be a damn sight less MMO-blogs out there. The trouble comes when you start believing your own hype. Truly — there are few genuinely new ideas, and if a tiny bit of research (something armchair dictators designers aren’t strong about usually) shows that your marvellous new idea has been proposed a quintillion times in the last decade, chances are it’s either crap, unworkable, unaffordable or all of the above.

I don’t intend to rehash those MMOs-are-broken lists and offer scathing commentary — Lum’s is better, and far better-informed in industry terms. I do want to take a look at a few of the common “ZOMG they really need to do THIS and then all MMOs will suddenly be better!!!1” and examine my own assumptions.

Quality of life/don’t make me grind

We often point to “the grind” as something that should never be done again, ever. Problem is, we tend to all mean different things by it. The other problem is, a certain amount of repetition (baseline definition of grind?) is essential to a feeling of accomplishment. If we could all play the piano perfectly on the first try, we might say “I know Kung Fu!” in a woodenly amazed tone but I doubt we’d feel much personal pride. Achievement implies overcoming some kind of challenge — and no, firing up a client and logging in does not constitute a legitimate challenge.

I don’t like predictions usually, because I’m almost always wrong, but I’m pretty sure that if we removed every single repetitive/grindy element from all games  –or hell, just the ones that require say 5+ repetitions — people would instantly start complaining that game challenges are meaningless and that they no longer feel as though they’re achieving anything.

Actually, that’s a complaint you hear already. Maybe it’s not the grind that’s at fault but rather how you do it and what you do it for, and whether there are viable (equally time-consuming or equally difficult, but different) altenative options to get to the same reward. And maybe it’s the quality of the rewards that are at fault, or the grind:reward ratio. Either way, the grind itself isn’t necessarily the only factor involved.

As for “quality of life” — in the original Trembling Hand post that’s used as a catch-all for stuff that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. And, as with “the grind” or a “good” combat experience, it’s incredibly subjective. I agree with several of the requests in there (in my case, especially the UI/functionality ones), but I disagree with several others. Which is probably what’s going to happen in any discussion as soon as you say “quality of life.” To Paris Hilton, a decent quality of life probably cannot exclude limos, personal jets, and daily manicures; to an African refugee, it probably involves more along the lines of getting fed more than three times a week and having somewhere safe to sleep. That may be a generic baseline, but I doubt you’d get people to even agree to that, and if they did it would be so full of exceptions thrown in by all parties as to be ultimately useless. (Makes you wonder how the European Union ever gets anything done. Oh, wait…)

That said, now that I’m in my armchair, I would very much like to see games revisit the various risk/time/reward curves and see if it’s not possible to step outside them a little. Maybe not always and everywhere, but some of the time. I’m trying to think of an example — well okay, look at Vanguard’s Diplomacy sphere. It turned out to be a kill/xp/level type system, but it might have been a good avenue to experiment with something different. I’m having a hard time coming up with a concrete example (which is the problem with armchair anything — it’s easy to bitch, not so easy to actually come up with something useful). I suspect players will accept alternative fun models — and despite what so many of us say, we’re pretty wedded to the old ones — if those alternative models are introduced as side-systems. Things you can do if you want but don’t have to do. As soon as you make something compulsory (or as good as), you get into a pass/fail thing where if players love it, you’re golden, but if they don’t you’re AoC.

Scrap levels and classes

Lum’s right — you can’t. Well, you can, but most of the time it’s a purely cosmetic thing. And even if you did remove all classes and levels, people would find class/level ways to describe their characters. Because, ultimately, we play with and/or against other people, and that involves comparison, which requires a common basis for said comparison. Levels and classes are perfect for this. So whether we end up calling them skill-tiers and profession-focus instead of levels and classes is just semantics. We may well move away from the concept someday, but I doubt we’ll stray too far. Hell, even martial arts have levels and classes, and it’s worked pretty well for them for a long, long time.

Also, levels and classes at least try to level the playing field, which is pretty essential to any game that’s going to be played by thousands of people. Again, while we may say that we don’t care about fair, I’m sure we do. I sure as hell do. I don’t mind when I don’t do as well as someone else because I’m not as good, or because I haven’t concentrated on that aspect of a game, but I’d be pretty riled if they were “better” just because they pressed buton A instead of button B. No, I don’t always define myself by comparison, but anyone who says that what other people do and get in games doesn’t affect them in any way is kidding themselves because they have the luxury of a level playing field to begin with. Inequity is not a way to build good multiplayer games — how would we feel if the opponent randomly got to pick more letters in Scrabble, or if one player in Monopoly randomly got to start with twice as much cash? (Interestingly enough, when we allow that as a “house rule” or a “handicap,” like in golf, it’s okay. It’s when we don’t have a choice about it that it becomes unfair.)

I’m all into examining the assumptions that underlie some of the stuff we think and say about games, but I missed some of my own. I say I would like skill-based rather than level based, or that I want “something organic” that doesn’t involve picking a class and being stuck with it, but most of the time any alternatives I suggest are pretty firmly rooted in the base level/skill level paradigm.

And maybe it’s not such a bad paradigm. For one, it’s easy to relate to. For another, it’s probably easier to design than some ill-defined and fuzzy “organic” system. That’s not to say you can’t add some layers of pretty between the bare paradigm and the player, to mask the brutal level/classes truth or provide more interesting ways to interact with it.

Breaking down some of my objections to the class/level thing, one of them is how you feel railroaded or locked in once you’ve picked one. Changing that doesn’t necessarily require scrapping the entire class system. Look at SWG — pre-NGE there were “classes” but you could pick, choose, and change at will. Post-NGE you could too, even more easily. Just because a game has classes doesn’t mean those have to be immutable. (Sure, there were flaws in both of those SWG systems, but that’s for another day.)

We piss and moan a lot about game design all over the forum-sphere and blog-sphere, but it seems to me a lot of the pissing and moaning has less to do with games’ design issues than it does with a) the fact that we all love to piss and moan, b) the fact that gamers are jaded and looking for quick fixes, c) the fact that WoW owns the MMO market and some of us would like to see that change. Burning down the house in order to compete with the Blizzard McMansion isn’t, however, necessarily the smartest way to go about either b or c.

Ultimately, I think I would be perfectly content with a game that used all the old paradigms in fresh, or at least well-implemented ways. Oh God, that sounds like babies and bathwater. I’m having Vanguard Vision (TM) flashbacks.