A large step for CoX, an even bigger one for MMOs

coxmissionarchitectjpgI wasn’t going to comment on NCSoft’s new Mission Architect system, planned to go live sometime in March, largely because plenty of others have already done so, but then it occurred to me that more exposure for a good idea can’t hurt. Even if you don’t play CoX (and I don’t, right now), it’s worth a look at how NCSoft designed this, especially if you’re one of the people who believe, as I do, that (some degree of) user-generated content has got to be in the future of MMOs. It’s probably not the only answer down that road, but I suspect it’s a prominent part of it.

Look at crafting/trading: whether it’s in fantasy-WoW or scifi-EVE, there’s no real, dynamic trade if there’s no way for consumers to request supply from producers. Sure, you can post stuff on auction houses, but that’s largely a case of post and pray. More to the point, if you make FoozleNoses and Bob needs 100 FoozleNoses but NONE have sold on the AH in the last 3 weeks, you’re unlikely to be making and selling any since there appears to be no demand, and Bob starts to believe FoozleNoses just don’t exist. 

Enter purchase orders. I’m pretty sure EVE had them, but my memory is at best coy and at worst downright mendacious, so forgive me if I’m wrong. EVE *should* have them if it doesn’t. Hell, every game should have them. Sadly, it’s much, much easier to design an Auction House interface that it is to work out a proper purchase order system to go with it… even though the latter isn’t exactly rocket science. Some games have them, or had them — I’m pretty sure Horizons (remember that?) had one back in the day.

Sure, you could do what businesses in real life do and have done for millennia: find someone who makes what you want and go to them to place your order. They may be next door, down the street, in the next county or in the next country, but what doing business is all about.

Except I’m not DOING business in an MMO, I’m PLAYING at doing business. There is a real, huge difference. It’s not that we’re not taking it seriously, but play /= work. When kids play make-believe, they do it quite seriously, with proper attention to what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean they’re working at it. And when I run a business in an MMO (or try to, most games make it damn near impossible to play as anything other than a glorified medieval Gordon Gecko), I take it seriously but I do not want to have it become work. I’ve been there, and it’s called SWG, and is closely followed by the slouching Burnout Beast.

Trying to make contact in game with someone who sold something I need on the AH and thus may or may not actually produce what I need on a regular basis, and then getting them to supply me — have Devs actually TRIED doing that, ever? It was hard enough in SWG, which is a game predicated around player trading and crafting (or was) and which has a relatively robust email system. And seriously… I have to try to contact someone who may or may not log on, may or may not speak English (or whatever I speak), may or may not respond, and then may or may not actually adhere to our agreement, with no obligation or accountability on their part at any point in this process? (Or on mine, for that matter.) So maybe, in a few weeks, if I get lucky, I’ll have the FoozleNoses I need? No thanks. Neither am I going to sit in TradeHub001 making endless requests on a chat channel — sure, that might have been how it was done in EQ back in the day and how it’s done in WoW now, but that doesn’t make it a GOOD way, it makes it a “we couldn’t be arsed to cater to crafters so you’re just going to have to spam a channel” Dev-way.

I’m not saying I want everything now and I want everything easily. I’m certainly not saying I want to be able to do everything myself, because a trading game (or sub-game) by definition needs people to interact with or it’s a lot less entertaining. But, if I’m going to “seriously play” at being a trader, then I need a vaguely reliable, timely way of contracting suppliers. THAT isn’t rocket science either. Purrrchaaaase Orrrders. It’s not that hard to say, and it’s not that hard to design.

And that’s just for trading — heck, you could restrict it to materials-trading or whatever you want if you didn’t want to kill your Auction House, though I seriously doubt that would happen anyway. Some people like to order, some people like to browse. No reason you can’t please both.

I’ve pondered “player-generated content” before and, sad to say, my imagination usually lets me down. That’s because our MMOs have become variants on “Kill Ten Rats” and the only real ideas I could come up with were… you guessed it. But then I remembered SWG’s new(ish) Storytelling mini-system — you can buy props, stage settings, effects doohickeys (smoke machines), NPCs, monsters, whatever — and you can place them, load them up with lines and/or treasure, and voila: user-generated content. It can be a show, it can be a treasure hunt, it can be an epic fight. Or it can be all three — bird, plane, pterodactyl!

So here’s what I think: if we players are given the tools, I suspect we’ll come up with some pretty non-killtenrats stuff. Maybe not all of us, maybe not even most of us — but most Neverwinter Nights players never made a dungeon and there were still enough talented guys who *did* that you could be playing them till 2012 and never have to make one of your own. We don’t ALL have to be content-creators — but being empowered to become one is going to be a huge step forward. I’ll be fascinated to see how the Mission Architect system works in practice, when it’s launched. If I’ve the funds, I may even have to resub to CoX just to try it. Who else plays, and where?