Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What MMOs Should Learn From Single Player Games

Every now and then I cut down on my MMO gameplay to try out various single player games. Playing single player games reminds me how primitive MMO games still are. From a technical perspective, MMOs are also about as complicated as a game can get, and the fact that thousands of players can play concurrently vastly complicates game design in ways single player games don't need to be concerned with. But aside from graphics, MMOs really have not advanced all that much since the days of Meridian 59. Single player games still frequently have features that should be more prominent in MMO gameplay. Some of the most transformative features that I think MMORPG games could benefit from are replacing the character class concept, factions that matter, and player created content.

Alternatives to Character Classes

Pete recently discussed what he thought MMO devs could learn from Fable 2. One of his points was that Fable 2 doesn't use the a class based system of leveling; you earn XP and funnel it into various skill trees. Many RPGs feature alternatives to the traditional D&D style class and XP structure. The Final Fantasy series generally features some crazy new alternative in every iteration.

What could an MMO developer learn from this? Well, one of the principal drawbacks to the class system in MMOs is that you end up requiring certain classes (the Holy Trinity.) This inevitably leads to all sorts of class balance issues, and angry players/customers because they perceive (rightly or wrongly) certain classes are more desired than others. In addition, all characters of the same class end up being very much alike.

Imagine a system where you get a number of skill trees, like the Achievement trees in EverQuest II, and you build your character's abilities by earning points and spending them how you see fit. Every character could be different, and if a particular ability gets nerfed, well, you respec and rebuild differently. That's still inconvenient, but not as inconvenient as picking a class, taking several months to level it to the cap, and then having its core abilities changed to such a degree you find you don't want to play that character anymore.

Factions that Matter

Recently, I've been playing Fallout 3. Wow, what a great game. Bethesda did a great job living up to the original Fallout franchise (the first two games, as well as Wasteland, which the Fallout games were a spiritual sequel to, still rank as my favorite RPG games ever.)

One of the great things about this game franchise is that you get to make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The people in game will react to you based on the decisions you have made in the past.

It would be nice to see an MMO that also let you make choices over time that affected how NPCs reacted to you in the future. EverQuest II has a few diplomacy quests where you get an item and are asked to deliver it to one faction but can deliver it to their enemy instead; however, these quests are rare and typically the only impact on the game is the reward you get.

One reason we don't see this is people don't like changes that can't be undone. Its hard to stomach making a "wrong" decision if it took you a year or two to get your character to that point. But if a game is designed where leveling isn't as important, then maybe people won't mind as much - since it won't be that much trouble to build up an alt who can take the different path.

Right now, I think MMORPG developers are taking the easy way out. They like to advertise that they have over 10,000 quests in the game. It sounds great. But when half of those are "kill 10 " in quest arcs that lead to other variants of the same thing with no further ramifications, well, what's the point? Its quantity over quality.

While quests might not be able to permanently change the world, they should be able to permanently alter how NPCs react to the players in that world. I hope that's what Bioware is going to try to create with their Star Wars MMORPG. It really is the next step forward for this genre.

Player Created Content

I've been playing LittleBigPlanet recently and that game is addictive. One of the great features is it allows players to create their own levels and share it with the world. Only one game so far, the Saga of Ryzom, allows player created levels. City of Heroes is introducing this feature soon as well.

I could imagine other games doing so. Of course, the fear is that players will abuse them to make games that provide easy leveling or easy loot. But there might be ways to avoid that:

Imagine if EverQuest II implemented a player created mission system. It might start out with players going to an inn in a city. There, a bard spins tall tales, repeating stories he has heard. The stories are missions created by other players. Since the stories are imaginary, we can easily dismiss them as non-canon, and therefore don't need to worry about conflicts with established lore. You can earn experience, as people can learn through listening and learning as well as doing, but you don't leave with any loot since you never really went anywhere.

Any drops in the zone would be NO ZONE (and used only for things that you need for the quests). However, monsters and player-created quests might occasionally reward players with the equivalent of D.I.R.T.Y. Money (tokens) which you can keep with you and trade in to the Bard's Guild for various, mostly cosmetic rewards, such as appearance armor, etc.

I can see something like this being very popular on roleplaying servers. I think it would also be popular with the general public as well. There could be titles for players who create the most popular zones. And it means that there would be a constant influx of new content.

When City of Heroes Issue 14 comes out, I'll definitely be resubscribing just for this feature alone; hopefully, more games will allow forms of player-created content in the future.

The Road Ahead

There is a lot of potential in this genre that is barely being tapped. Ever since World of Warcraft came out, everyone has been bending over backwards to clone their success. World of Warcraft did innovate somewhat - it made the quest arc the central mechanism for leveling. And, while that system is incredibly flawed, it was an improvement over the previous model (the EverQuest model) which was to sit in one spot (the camp) and pull the same mobs repeatedly.

But ever since WoW came out, the industry sort of got stuck in a rut where it was too busy trying to copy WoW's success. Hopefully, that's starting to change.

Coming soon, we have, the City of Heroes Architect feature, which makes it the second MMO to make player-driven content a huge part of the game. Chronicles of Spellborn promises some innovation with a card deck-based combat system. And Bioware promises a very strong story-driven MMO experience in the Stars Wars universe.

Have you seen any particularly innovative features in recent games that you would like to see become a more common feature of the MMO genre as a whole?

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