Can we try something new? I’m the biggest fan of fantasy there is, but I’m thinking our settings could use a good kick in the pants. Or is D&D-style, Tolkienesque fantasy the only financially viable (e.g. safe) option when investing millions of dollars to build out a game? My guess is that a solid idea, excellent gameplay coupled with good marketing could take some other ideas further than they have gone to date. Just a few ideas this week to mull over, even if they never get built!
Last week, I talked about how we might improve community in MMOs, and these were pretty broad principles, based on perhaps some examples seen here and there in older MMOs as well as some (hopefully) common sense thinking about how people like to interact. But I thought this week, I might talk about some more specific ideas for improving sociability. That is, improving tools and ways that reward players to interact in a positive way such that a supportive community eventually arises. At the same time, I’ll try to keep the suggestions to things that won’t blow the development budget, or penalize players that prefer solo gaming.
Most of us know the current in-game tools for interacting and grouping, but here’s a brief rundown:
One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?” That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO? It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others. With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly. And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling. It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering.
So what are some things that could be done? Here’s a few ideas.
So in one of our infamous brainstorm sessions, we were sprouting MMO ideas, and one of them that came out is one that I’ve seen great examples of in other games – Star Citizen, EVE, The Repopulation, even Star Trek Online, but none of those quite had the hook we were thinking of. I thought this week I’d go ahead and just toss the idea open to the ether for someone to run with or ignore (my guess is that there are at least a dozen other people thinking along the same lines who have more programming expertise and, more importantly, money to pay programmers.) Our thought was something of a Star Trek mixed with Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner – that drive for exploration, but with a real sense of danger in the universe. Space travel is not safe, but it is necessary. Necessary because earth is dying.
The Year is 3786 AD and the Earth is dying. War, starvation, global warming, predation of resources are enough to seal our fate. But, as if to rub it in, scientists just confirmed the sun is slowly and surely expanding. The expectation is it will not be long before we go extinct – we won’t live to see the Red Giant because we’ll have killed ourselves long before then; the days are numbered for the human species. But 50 years ago we found something. Conspiracy theorists whispered of a discovery by Mars 17 that was quickly hushed up along with whispers of alien artifacts. Shortly after the announcement of the Sun going Red, the Corporation unveiled a fleet of ships “capable of faster- than-light travel” along with a list of the most promising systems that could support human life. And they are recruiting scouts…
One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation. In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance. Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth. This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story. Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.
If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope. The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between. It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting. It’s good to know who the enemy is.
I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.” It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned. LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing. There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.
With World of Warcraft adding an in-game store, or cash shop, one of last bastions of pure subscription MMORPGs is yielding to market forces and testing the micro-transaction model. There’s no indication that the WoW subscription is going away completely, but it seems today that the line between using in-game money and real money to purchase virtual items (cosmetics, potions, mounts) is becoming increasingly blurred. Purists complain that adding an in-game store breaks immersion in the game world, with filthy real-world lucre polluting and destabilizing the in-game marketplace not to mention adding dollars or pounds to silver or gold piece in-game currencies. But can the in-game store be made palatable, or even “immersive?”
Well, I think I’m going to go completely off the rails this week and talk about ways to completely unbalance a game. A big part of an MMOs development team’s time seems to be taken up with balancing each of the classes in an MMO. The reasoning behind this is pretty obvious – if one class is “the most powerful,” most players will pick it, and nobody will play those weaker classes. A good example of this might be the Jedi class in the now closed Star Wars Galaxies. It was so head and shoulders above the rest of those classes, that Jedi populations skyrocketed.
Partially due to the effort to balance classes, there typically are limits on the number of races and classes made available in a game. The more races and classes available, the harder it is to keep on those classes in sync and on par with one another.
Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels. I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try. I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level. Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes. Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding. It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary character, and eventually, I ended up leveling on my own.
Some of the most fun times I’ve had playing World of Warcraft (WoW) have been running dungeons with our guild. My brother and I and several friends would group up and tackle a few of them every Sunday morning, and it truly was an event. I’d grab my coffee and don the Ventrilo and we’d be off, joking as we made our way through the trash mobs on our way to the bosses. The camaraderie was a big part of the session but a big part of the fun, for me at least, was tackling the dungeons in the area we were already adventuring in. I had already finished up the questing in a number of the surrounding zones, knew the story and background of the area, and finishing the dungeons was a nice way to wrap up those storylines, as the bosses frequently were the final bad guys in those quest chains. The dungeons were the culminations of those tales. The trouble for me started when we began doing two things: random dungeons and pick-up-groups, or PUGs.