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.

27 thoughts on “Armchair designers save MMOs

  1. On the subject of the levels and classes thing, has EVE Online not dodged this? Or is there a way of seeing EVE’s characters in terms of levels and classes?

  2. Interesting question. I think it does avoid the basic level/class paradigm and yet, people still compare themselves in terms of skill levels. “Oh, you have to have {Insert Skill} IV before anyone will let you do X / take you seriously for Y” and so on.

    I really don’t think there’s any way around the basic premise that people have to be able to a) measure their own progress in quantifiable (as well as quality) terms, and b) compare themselves with others, or with desired goals. Well, there is of course, but for traditional MMOs I think it would be wiser to work *well* with the paradigm than to try and ditch it altogether. I’m sure it’s easier on the design end, and relatively sure it’s fine with the playing public.

    What we may be tired of is that it’s been done the same exact way over and over; I’m not sure we’re tired of the basic idea. Does that make sense?

  3. levels and classes at least try to level the playing field

    Since 99.9% of the time people say “MMO” they really mean MMORPG explain how levels and classes even the playing field when nearly the entire focus of RPGs is advancing your character’s level/class/skills/gear/etc. beyond what they started with, and often attempting to “one up” the other players? RPGs thrive on *not* having a level playing field, which is why PvP has never truly worked in (Diku) RPGs.

    Just like the old adage “even a broken clock is right twice a day” in RPG’s we have a “level playing field” twice — upon rolling your character and loading into the world, and at level cap. Oh but wait! At level cap we have the much-vaunted “end-game” where we enter the gear chasing grind to continue advancing and one-upping. So you could almost say that only two characters with the same level, gear, stats, build, whatever are on a so-called level playing field.

    @Drew: Not really. EVE does have certain ships and pilot builds that approximate a “class” for a specific role. As for levels, *any* progression system is a levels system. Any RPG has to have some numerical system at its core, which is why people say skill trees are just levels in disguise. They’re correct in that. One of my core issues with levels isn’t the actual levels per se, it’s how the Diku ruleset turned them into a barrier for playing with others, where in the original tabletop RPGs levels enhanced and encouraged players getting together. Most of the single-player RPGs these days still use “levels” but they don’t function quite the same as the DikuMMORPG version of levels either.

  4. @Scott — that wasn’t quite what I meant, but I know we both have our drums and bang on them. 😉

    A level playing field more or less implies that everything is equally available to everyone. Yes, that’s less than true in many cases, but I’ll take the ILLUSION of it over the total lack of it (where, say, anyone who shells out more RL money than me gets stuff that allows them to kick my ass). Or maybe more accurately I would prefer that the designers of games I play at least try to make things more or less fair.

    That’s a huge hobby-horse of mine. However, it’s often received by other people as me saying I’m a radical revolutionary who wants to make sure nobody has anything, and especially nobody has anything I don’t have. I’m tired of trying to rectify that perception and now I’m mostly resigned to the fact that people think unfair is perfectly fine *if it’s in their favour*. Human nature, probably.

    /throttles incipient rant

  5. That said you’re absolutely right — the modern MMO is rooted in DIKU which is itself firmly rooted in D&D or early tabletop RPGs, which are themselves relatively firmly rooted in tabletop strategy games.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not a good, basic premise. It may mean its various implementations are getting kinda tired though. 😀

  6. You have to go back to MUSHs and other text based games. Often times there were no levels or even skills. It was your character and what they wanted to do in the world.

    In one I played, there was an economy, fighting and space ships. There were no skill modifiers for anything though. Of course it was role playing, so people played their part in the universe.

  7. @Werit — this is a problem I think MMOs can’t hope to fix, at least not with current technology and whatnot. You absolutely cannot make an MMO like the old RPGs we remember, because you’d need a bunch of people acting as GMs. Sure, you can emulate that to some extent (NWN), but MMO /= tabletop RPG and really, personally I don’t think they should.

    A small-scale (100 people max) experience is one thing, and designed one way. A massive (1000 people +) online game is an entirely different beast.

    Actually, I really wish we’d stop thinking of MMOs in terms of tabletop RPGs. Maybe *that* is the real box we need to look out of, at least now and then. Some games already do (EVE for one) and maybe that’s why they do what they do so well. (Not voodoo.)

  8. Personally, I don’t mind leveling it’s a measure of achievement that I enjoy. However, I could give it up for other ways of tracking my progress – EVE is pure skills, W101 has levels but hell I rarely know what level I am, I just know what spell I’m working to gain access to next.

    Repetition is fine. You need a challenge to attain achievement. I think the back-lash against grind is from the careless over use to stretch content. I can be asked to achieve a goal for which I will be rewarded by completing the prerequisite 5 instances. OR I could be asked to attain 5 items randomly dropped from the same ONE instance. There is a distinct difference. The later is likely to feel like a grind to someone who’s unlucky or doesn’t value doing that one instance 15 times to get the 5 items. That’s the grind that I’m done with paying to do. Now ask me to do that several times throughout the course of leveling and it’s a grind.

    Another excellent example is WAR crafting. They boasted about it and set out to remove the grind. However, the based the materials on items that are primarily acquired as random drops. Random will always equal grind! Having designed crafting in that fashion made the whole thing the worst crafting grind I’d ever done, especially for low value items.

    I dont think players mean no repetition – at least I don’t. I’m saying eliminate the open ended repetition or large scale go get a bijillion honor with some faction to get this trinket.

  9. “Random will always equal grind! Having designed crafting in that fashion made the whole thing the worst crafting grind I’d ever done, especially for low value items.”

    Very, very true, both in general (random = grind) and in the specifics regarding WAR crafting. I think you just nailed why I despise WAR crafting, when I call myself a crafting ho.

  10. I don’t think I, personally, am too far against the concepts themselves. I was once, but not so much anymore.

    The problem to my mind is simply one of homogeneity, of things being too similar. Something that will bring to the table is entire rule sets that are simply copied… because the person their trying to emulate had them. Same goes for UIs, it’s good to stick to a standard, but you should aim to improve the usability of your game and to build it such that it works best for your game.

    Hopefully as more games release this will correct itself.

  11. I personally don’t treat an MMORPG like a tabletop because it’s (currently) impossible for a server to have the same reactions and ability to mold the encounter or world around my actions like a tabletop GM can. Plus look how many kids these days have never played a tabletop in their lives. To them “RPG” is some type of CRPG, either the JRPGs ala Final Fantasy, etc. or the BioWare western style RPGs. (How’s that for throwing acronyms around?)

    As for the RMT aspect “anyone who shells out more RL money than me gets stuff that allows them to kick my ass” I still don’t follow how that actually matters. If someone grinds out the PvP ranks or raids to get that gear, they’ll still kick your ass if you haven’t done it too. If you work and can only put in say 15+ hours per week and someone else can put in 40+ per week, they’ll get that gear faster and can kick your ass with it. So in the end does it truly matter if they had to sit at their PC for weeks and give up all those hours or if they avoided the grind and paid for the same gear? In both scenarios, your ass was kicked… For PvE players, there’s no ass kicking to be had so within that sphere it really doesn’t matter how anyone else got their stuff.

  12. I don’t mind playing through content. I’m an Explorer; I love taking my time and puttering around. I don’t like being forced to repeat content to gain access to more content. That’s the essence of grind to me, and so far, it’s almost wholly built on a need to stretch out sub time.

  13. @Scott – I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. No matter how often you explain your position, I neither understand it nor agree with it, and I’m pretty sure the reverse is true too. Shouldn’t matter in the greater scheme of discussion-things anyway. 😉

  14. @Scott If we ever have a PVP game that’s based on skill more than anything else, the RMT argument won’t matter. In fact it rarely matters nowadays. Ever met the Ebayer or RMTer who has awesome gear but no idea how to play the class? yea…

    On another note, I’m trying to think of a way to incorporate what Bioware (and now Obsidian) have done with NWN … being able to make persistent worlds and even create portals between them, with user generated content that’s different from world to world. Hell it’d almost be like a Fantasy Rifts campaign.

    Having an MMO company RUN things may not be the best solution. Finding a way to create a platform that you can give to the consumers, let them play with and generate content, then link it all up together somewhere, even polished a bit, would be awesome, imo.

  15. @Wiqd: Yes, but I’ve also met many a player who leveled his character legitimately but had no idea how to play his class… Some people get it, some don’t.

    GAH! Stop mentioning Rifts already! Bringing back all those wonderful memories and I can’t relive them… /whap

    On a serious note (never did NWN) having a “real” game (ie. a client I’m running locally) yet able to zip from game to game ala Metaplace would rock. One character yet in one server is a fantasy world, another is sci-fi, another is all cel-shaded graphics, etc. and transferring from game to game is as easy as walking through a zone portal… For that matter, the monthly sub wouldn’t necessarily be needed since the people who actually create their world content could rent their own servers like FPS clans do.

    @Ysh: Make a post then so we can have that discussion without hijacking another! LOL

    I think my stance on it is easily enough understood and my impression of yours (mind you, in reality I tend to side more with your stance but the logical side of my mind writes the opposing view) is the classic “I had to do it this way so it’s only fair that everyone else does too.” The same reason raiders feel their achievements are cheapened when the raids are toned down. The same reason grandparents tell us their “uphill, both ways in the snow” stories.

  16. @Scott You know, it’s funny that you mention Metaplace because that’s exactly the platform I was thinking of when I did my “Building the Harvest Moon MMO” post.

    You give the people a set of rules to work in, the tools to build what they want and let them go. Your world is scalable to infinity since each little area is instanced and you have the little meeting places in between. In fact, I was thinking of asking Tami what her take on running an MMO in that manner was. Hmm…

    I mean, taking the Harvest Moon approach, you have a central area for each nation you’d let people play in and they’d just … create their farm / shop / beachfront property themselves, and while they’re all instanced, they’d be connected together on the outside, if that makes sense.

    You can still have 1 huge interconnected game functioning towards your grand vision, but the bulk of what happens is left to the player and as a developer you can focus more on story plots, etc

  17. @Scott OH and your renting servers idea would / could replace the monthly “subscription” to play the game. I mean at least in that case you know you’re paying for the server upkeep and whatnot, instead of thinking you’re owed content. Renting a server to host a world on isn’t much different than paying a subscription to play a game, but to the psyche I think it makes a difference.

  18. First of all, Tom Chick’s #1 goal is to create controversy so as to gain page views. Getting page views = feeding his family. See his Killzone 2 “review” today, for example. So his list of reasons things are broken is deliberately controversial.


    Funny thing about classes, and I’ve said this a zillion times, half of them here at Ysh’s… in days of yore, NOT having classes was considered horribly broken. Why? Because (the argument, not mine…I like open systems…went) classes force you to make tough choices. If I want to do X then I can’t do Y but I’ll be able to do Z even though I’m not *really* that interested in doing Z.

    In UO, which was 100% skill based, the playerbase pretty quickly min/maxed the skill systems and “everyone” ended up being the same. And by “everyone” I mean the very vocal min/maxers. Those of us who *gasp* actually role-played picked skills that fit our characters.

    Sorry to be old gramps here, but it’s funny how to go in circles and call it progress.

    I was hoping MetaPlace would be a viable replacement for NWN, but for that to happen people would have to agree on a set of basic rules to follow. Um, NDA line is very nearby, but let’s just say its a very open platform (by design).

    NWN, unless I just dreamed this, did have some mods that would let you travel between worlds. Basically it was just copying your character data from one to the next, since there were no central servers.

    I had an huge, HUGE amount of fun “admining” and hacking a persistent world module (Norduck) in NWN. I miss those times a lot. If someone released a product that would facilitate that kind of ‘end user building’ today, I think it’d sell like mad.

  19. @Pete ORLY? Goes to show what I know, hah! I only followed the link from somewhere else, and I don’t intend to go back. 😉

    I’m not sure Metaplace is really intended to stand in for something like NWN? NWN1 had its flaws, but it’s the closest I’ve seen to a real computerised version of tabletop. That said, between computer and tabletop versions if both were available, I’d always pick the latter. What NWN did well was allow people who couldn’t physically get together, get together. I’m not going to touch NWN2 and the butchery that was — how can you even remotely assume the multi-player aspect wasn’t what drew most of the long-term player base? /boggle. (I don’t know if they did, but they sure designed the game as if they thought that.)

    And yes, you could take chars from one world to another, was just a matter of having the data — and complying with local rules, but that’s a different matter.

  20. “That said, between computer and tabletop versions if both were available, I’d always pick the latter. What NWN did well was allow people who couldn’t physically get together, get together.”

    Going way off topic, but we had a DM who was in Michigan, and the party was made up of folks in Boston, Seattle, someplace in Australia, and … I forget if there was a 4th.

    That was pretty neat!! 🙂

  21. Still have to remember, MMO = game and virtual world = not game. And when you start talking about eliminating grinds, levels, classes…you’re going back to the days of virtual worlds, not MMOs. To tag onto Pete’s gramps comments. We had virtual worlds…they were telnet…and later…chat rooms and message boards. All we have done to them since is make them more aesthetically pleasing and added some functionality.

    Games use rules. By getting rid of rules you get rid of the game. But I think what everyone is saying with these “fix mmo” posts is we want developers to freshen up the way the rules are implemented.

    Like Ysh said, it’s easy to voice what we think is wrong with MMOs, but where are our *real* suggestions to fix them? I smell a blog post coming on.

  22. Wiqd and I have been posting about solutions here and there. That’s the main gist of what I do on my blog; I point out flaws that I see, then I try to create something that would address it. It’s way more fun for me to create solutions (even hypothetical ones) than whine and moan but never get anything done.

Comments are closed.