The Ninth Circle #25: Massive Disappointments

MMORPGs remain a disappointment, at least in the West, compared to their potential. You only have to look at the success of the Lord of the Rings films, or go into a book shop and see shelves adorned with fantasy novels to see that public interest in the genre is large. Yet the market now contains barely 1 million subscribers across all titles. New titles, with few exceptions, just cannibalize the existing market rather than attract a new influx of players. I say in the West as Asian countries are a different story altogether. Lineage: The Bloodpledge counts its players in the millions. Ragnarok online boasts 500,000 players in Thailand alone. Everquest can just match that many users worldwide. Clearly the industry is underperforming, but why? And what can be done to turn things around?

In my mind, if there is one failure of MMOGs it is that they place the individual experience over the group experience. This is fine, essential even, in single player, but not for the environment of the MMOG. Now it would be unfair to say that MMOGs ignore group play, but for the most part, player groups and societies that arise do so in spite of the game system, not because of it. People actually have to make an effort to group together in these games, often to their disadvantage over the lone power gamer.

Western MMOGs owe a lot to the pencil and paper game Dungeons & dragons. The original Dungeons & Dragons was not designed as a solo event. By the very way that game was written, you needed one person (the DM to do most of the talking) and a group of players to interact with the DM?s created environment. This game didn?t just encourage social interaction; it demanded it.

Of the current MMOGs, Everquest has come closest to re-creating the original D&D feel. A group of different players, in a party, on an essentially endless quest to acquire better items and attain a higher level. This in part accounts for its success in the US and European markets.

Designers will often say things like “we want players to decide how they want to experience the world.” That?s a cop-out to me, and suggests the designers don?t really know what kind of game they are making, or how people are going to play their game.

The player experience must be central to MMORPG design. One of the most valuable lessons that designers should learn is from their business model. People are expected to pay a monthly fee to play. This means they are paying customers, with certain expectations. If these expectations are not met, they will complain loudly before going elsewhere. It is not a privilege for people to play an MMORPG. There is a market, and every game in that market needs to give people a reason to come back month after month, and keep paying to play. There are plenty of alternatives out there, both free and fee-based.

The designers need to know from the start what it is they want the players to do. If they want to stress player interaction and cooperation, then having a strong external threat -“the other” is the best place to start. Then give players something to lose to this “other”,

so you would make sure player housing, right up through town and city level, was present. The chosen “other” then needs to be capable of destroying those structures, thus giving players a need and reason to defend their own. At the same time, the most powerful items can be player-crafted, to further push the cooperation aspect.

If you want, the “other” can be another group of players. This is what Shadowbane has done, and with a fair degree of success too. But you don?t want players to feel surrounded and besieged. Give them some purpose and direction even within the sphere of player versus player action. This is an MMORPG, not an online shooter, where maps can be fought over bitterly for an hour or more, and then forgotten. Events need a level of permanence.

Another aspect of a game to stress is individual excellence. Here, the journey of the single player is what is stressed. It can take place either cooperatively or in isolation, but mostly in the latter. Attached to this has to be a system of bragging rights, or what is the point of working hard to achieve. Who can kill the biggest monster, who can charm the unlikeliest pet, who can build the best suit of armour- all these things and more must be in the game, and easily discerned by other players. Ultima Online has the richest level of detail in regards to individual achievement. In this type of game, player groups, whether guilds or parties, are something that arise sporadically. Many choose not to join either, and still keep their bragging rights.This isn?t to say that a party-based game can have no individual achievement, or that a game focused on the individual will be necessarily devoid of groups. Rather, the central aspect of a games design will affect how people approach it, and designers need to know what that will be from the first line of code. A multiplayer online game needs to stress group cooperation over individual exploits, or it?s just not using its chosen medium in the best way. It?s not rocket science, and there are now plenty of examples on the markets, both of failures and successes.

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