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Thursday, March 20, 2008

MMOs. They're doing it wrong.

I tend to play MMOs more than anything else. Even though I'm rabidly anti-social towards most of the people who play them I just love the idea of playing in a shared world full of stupid talking scenery.

But they never get it right and until I read Halting State by Charles Stross I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. Halting State is set in Scotland in 2017. In it Stross decides that MMOs have become very big business indeed and proceeds to build a rather good conspiracy story around a robbery in one of these MMOs. At as basic level he says this "The economy of an MMO is based around fun. If your players aren't having fun they'll go somewhere else".

Here's my list of things that Stross's MMO did right that current teams haven't managed to figure out yet.

1. Scale. The first time we enter Stross's game it's in a city 2km across floating in the sky above a landmass that doesn't seem to end. You can start off and head in any direction looking for action or performing quests. According to Stross upon the realisation that manually creating content was expensive and time consuming companies put a lot of R&D money into procedurally generated content. Both quests and landmass. So in a 2017 MMO no two people will ever do the same things. You might get a quest to go to a dungeon that has been spawned just for you but will still be there for other quests later for anyone. Compare that to WoW or LOTRO and these games begin to look very small and very static. Most current MMOs never really change the early game (Which is odd considering how many people end up replaying them with different characters). One thing I really hate in an MMO is starting a new character since I know I'm going to have to do exactly the same things every other one of my characters has done. It's boring.

2. They feel like games. With the possible exception of Eve Online all current MMOs do a very poor job of hiding the fact that they're a game so that in the end they all become an exercise in min/maxing, stat tweaking for max dps and effective exploiting of the game mechanics. Why? Because there's nothing else to do but rush to level 50 and see all the new content that they've spent the last 12 months creating to keep you interested. Why should I play an adventurer in a fantasy game and be somehow unable to figure out how to ride a horse until I've been playing the game for 35 levels *and* then find it costs more than I paid for my house for the same character. It's fantasy land. I run around killing orcs for a living. I should have known how to ride a horse since I was a nipper.

We know why I have to wait for level 35 to get a horse of course (Sorry). It's because the devs are focused on creating a game and a game requires a reward and something to strive for and timesinks to keep you playing. So Ultima Online lets anyone with 500 gold (10 minutes for a new player) buy and ride a horse (One that you have to stable and doesn't vanish the second you dismount) while everything since would rather you spent most of your time traveling. What I'd like is a big sandbox that features plenty to do (Including save the world epic quests) but no two players should ever have to play through the game in the same way.

3. Combat is everything. Only Ultima Online to my knowledge has ever tackled this. It's the only MMO I've played where it's possible to create a successful character without ever having to pick up a sword. It was easily possible to spend your time running a shop or being a blacksmith. In almost anything else those sorts of occupations are secondary and normally directly tied to fighting. Stop it please.

4. Odd stuff. I've already mentioned seasoned fighters being unable to ride horses but what about other issues? In a huge game world you might not be near a town when night falls or you want to cook some food and have a kip. In LOTRO only specialist cooks can cook food and create campfires (Creating campfires used to be the Hunter's job). Say what? You mean to say your traveling mercenary has no idea how to get a campfire going and cook some salted meat he has in his backpack? Seriously?

I start up my game client and login. Upon choosing the character I want to play tonight (I have several) a map appears with towns, villages and special areas I've already visited highlighted and I'm asked to choose where I want to start. On the map I can see where my friends are but tonight I'm going solo. I choose to start in a stone circle on a hilltop near a small village. A real life friend told me he'd passed through there yesterday and was told by a npc that an orc warband had been sighted in the area. I want to investigate and see if they're still around. I can go anywhere I've previously been in this game. Why shouldn't I? What dev team in their right mind would expect their players to trudge halfway across the game world before they can start having fun (Oh wait. Most of them). I look around and immediately notice the bloody corpse in the center of the circle. A quick examination of it shows it's a ritual sacrifice and I have a new quest. It's not the orcs I was expecting though. It seems I recognised the killing as the work of a cult that worships an insane god. I'm told I can see tracks heading off into the woods to the east. I decide to accept the quest and investigate. I head off to the east and when I reach the edge of the woods I switch on my tracking skill (This character spends a lot of time in forests. There are no strict classes in the game but you could probably call him a ranger) and discover the people I'm following passed by here a few hours ago and then turned north. I follow the trail until I come upon a small shack in a clearing. Two cultists are standing guard outside. I unsheathe my bow and stick and arrow in the throat of the one on the left (Those damage bonuses for stealth kills are very handy :) ) then unsheathe my sword and run at the one on the right. As I'm killing him another two run out from the shack but don't worry. It's an MMO and not real life. Despite being realistic and huge it's still possible to fight a few mobs lower level than you ;). I finish these off and head into the shack. Inside I find a woman bound to a chair crying. I ungag her and she asks for my help......

And of course if I'd started in the village instead of the stone circle I'd probably be in another part of the map fighting orcs now.

Note that I'm not saying my way is the only way or indeed easy to do. I just wish that MMO developers and publishers would grow a pair and start working on making their games live and breathe rather than churning out the same thing over and over again.

What does everyone else think?


The Unfocused Gaijin said...

I would agree, thats why i dont play them. with that said however that was a cleverly worded dissertation of the garbage being peddled as "games". I play first person shooters since it isnt really repetitive until i play it too much nevertheless the quality in these games is equally as minimal as MMOs. hopefully with a little luck we will see some well thought out interesting and relatively cheap MMO,s in our lifetime..... not likely as longas the game companies keep selling out to MS.

Unknown said...

Which is why I've been playing World War II online for the past 6 years. It's the only game I've played during that time. Why, it's never the same two days in a row. It's reality based, huge (most of Belguim, Holland and Luxemburg, plus parts of France, England and Germany. The players are fanatical, the company is very involved. Plus there is real skill involved in the hundred or so different weapon systems (air, ship, armor, atgs, many inf specialties including paratroops). Not everyone finds orcs and swords and gold all that interesting....

dmost said...

You have it right. The only problem is: the huge number of players that seem quite content to play boring, repetitious and mentally untaxing games.

People will pay to play for months and months, slowly leveling their character up.

For the MMOs, its not so much about fun, but instead its about something akin to the psychology of slot machines. Sit there hour after hour hitting the 'attack' button and pay out something interesting once in a while. Now if only they could figure out a way to charge for every hit of the 'attack' button....

Way back when, I used to play role playing games - started with D&D, then traveller, then Runequest.

Runequest was a very interesting game - it had a semi-realistic combat system, in which, no matter how experienced you were, the smallest child with a dagger always had some chance of getting through your armour for a critical hit and possibly killing you. It made players cautious and encouraged a completely different style of play - you picked your combats carefully.

MMOs unfortunately, have been poisoned by the D&D model, in which a high level character basically cannot ever be killed by a low level character.

Stll, D&D did basically pioneer the slot-machine-like addiction of leveling up.

MMO FPS have similar problems - theres no skill involved. I used to play a mod for BF1942 called Desert Combat - to fly the helicopter was a tricky proposition, and to fly it well required hours of play. If you were real good with a sniper rifle, you could time the aimpoint wobble and judge the range just right and get a headshot on a moving target - now that required skill. Then I played, umm, a scifi MMO FPS - Planetside - they dumbed down every vehicle so that any moron could fly one, and dumbed down the shooting so that it was all probablistic - didnt matter how well you aimed, basically, as long as the target was in a cone-of-fire. You had an armour bar which went down with every hit, and then you went into health, eventually dying. D&D again.

I know that network latency is behind many of the decisions to dumb things down, but why not make a game where the player has to learn the skills rather than the 'character'.

I can imagine a game with semi-realistic shooting that players can master (c.f. Americas Army). I can imagine a game with semi-realistic sword-fighting that players can master (c.f. any number of fighting games). I can imagine a game where bad driving will wreck your vehicle.

In Planetside there was a lockpicking/hacking skill. it struck me that there was a whole mini-game in there - allow players to design puzzles representing locks, and then allow other players to try to solve those puzzles. If you are good at solving puzzles, you become a good hacker.

In planetside there was also something that really irked me - the whole world was populated with static forts with static defenses and a smattering of bunkers around. The game designers had placed all these forts and defenses around, but there was no way to change anything. It turned out that the game designers had placed the defenses and bunkers without any regard for their placement - bunkers would face upwards slopes for no reason, when in fact they should have been placed looking down a slope. of course, it hardly mattered because their world physics didnt differentiate between moving up or downslope.

Havent played any MMOs since Planetside, so dismayed was I.

So heres my question - is there some set of charging policies that an MMO could put into place that would encourage them to treat their players as more than a bunch of slot machine junkies?

Unknown said...

I agree, but the big fish just keep the MMOs alive by catering to the softcore players in one content patch and the hardcore players in the next one, so that they can keep them paying, and milking the respective MMO as long as they can.
I've also read some stuff about how they should change here: How MMOs should change - Part Deux

kaiise said...

legends of valour

would be a good template for what you propose.

Jaikara said...

I agree completely. I've been playing WoW for a few months now and I'm already feeling that it might not be worth sticking in there for the endgame. Especially when I know I'll just end up another boss farming, epic gear seeking, mat gathering, gold hoarding, noob pwning troll.

John said...

Agreed! :)

Kevin said...

You don't want an MMO. You want an online Choose Your Own Adventure story.

Procedurally generated quests and dungeons would not be nearly as popular as you might think... simply because you can't learn from mistakes. Encounters are complex, and require learning. If the encounter changes every time, it'll either be impossible, or uninteresting.

MMOs are games; they are not Second Life set in Medieval England.

Big Flub said...

Thank you for telling me what I wanted. Much appreciated. I did wonder why I couldn't figure it out.

You raid a lot don't you?

Unknown said...

Ive been wanting to make a post like this for a while, and you seem to have hit the nail on the head, and this is why I no longer play MMOs.

The problems with MMOs break down to two things: content, and mechanics.

The static nature of content in MMOs is the absolute opposite of the "living breathing world" most MMOs set out to create. The moment someone finds a new piece of content its evaluated, posted on a spoiler site, where successive generations can ignore it never to be played again, if its reward isnt the current optimal reward, or if it is, the entire population of the server can crowd over it. Exploration means nothing more than treading in someone elses shoes while stubbornly keeping your eyes blinkered to online spoilers that everyone else has already read, and thus intentionally crippling your own effectiveness.

It means that designers, faced with an empty page to fill, load up the world with repetitive, unimaginative quests. It means that they have to blow through time and budget writing "collect 10 rat tails" quests instead of working on interesting set piece content and letting the dynamic systems fill out the rest of the world.

Whole areas of the game can be "outgrown" but have to stay there,
whether or not they serve the needs of an upwardly levelling player base.

"Expansions" mean literally expanding the game world, further thinning out the population, rather than finding new things to do in the world that already exists.

Mechanics, like you say, are based around a system which intentionally divorces players own gaming skill (which is where half the fun is!) from their online avatars. Everything you can do is a game of rolling dice.

There is nothing that can truly make your character unique that isnt available to everyone else, and more often than not goes to the person with the most time to invest.

One day, someone will make a game that solves these two problems. Where the world reacts to the players in it, and you truly dont know what is around the next corner before you get there. Where the gaming skill that you have counts for something, and your wits, speed and sharpness of eye arent relegated to watching numbers that determine the likely outcome of a dice roll. When they do, I will play that game, but until then, Im staying away.

Unknown said...

Games like WoW are not meant to be a direct representation of real life.

The challenges and limitations in most MMOs are there to add dificulty. If you want a challenge that closely imitates real life and is unique, try becoming a rock star, or getting a job in a highly competitive field.

Also, and I speak for WoW only, because that's the only one I play, the character limitations are in place to force you into forging relationships with other players. Most of the gains I've made in WoW have been through the help of my guild.

So no, I can't build a fire, and I can't make my own swords, but I can trade my specialities for the things I need.

And if you're unhappy with the way a certain game plays, don't pay the scrip. I am actually pretty glad that I have to run all around the WoW to get what I want, it makes me think about the game in a different way, and keeps the God darned Alliance at an arms length.

Unknown said...

MMOS are not "games" they are an exercise in futility designed to keep a user PAYING not PLAYING.

This current incarnation of "MMOs" is short lived, they have another 5 years at most. They will evolve, be patient.

Games should be competitive, there is nothing about the current list MMOs that are competitive.

Unknown said...

Go learn some programming so that you can understand that what you are asking for is beyond our current ability.

Adam Skinner said...

Guild Wars is a good example of a competitive MMORPG. It's heavily dependent on instancing, and there are no true MMO adventure areas.

I think the idea of expansions changing existing areas is a great one. However, this reflects the change of terrain over time (a group of orcs moved from point X to take over the hobgoblins at point Y, or some such).

If you're interested in a non-combat oriented MMORPG, check out A Tale in the Desert.

imonsei said...

the argument goes like this:
"waaah waaaah I'm a casual gamer. waaah waah I don't want to pay for a game where I can get beat by a player that's better than me even tho I used more money and time on the game"
observation 1. there are heaps more casual gamers than hardcore gamers.
observation 2. big gaming companies like to make money.

utcha sep said...

I agree with most of your points, however I see some problems (perhaps just confusion on my side). If areas are being spawned randomly for players, but then remain persistent for the access of other people as well... we're talking about a HUGE world. CRAZY BIG. Which brings up my second point.

Traveling anywhere you've been before. Not a horrible thing, though I will say that I've experienced it in an MMO before and it's not as great as you'd think. But maybe that was just because the game was lacking content when you got where you were going. Anyway. Traveling anywhere you've been would be absolutely necessary if the game is automatically spawning new areas for people. The world is growing at a crazy rate, but where are all these areas being placed? It seems logical they are being spawned radially outward from the central city, which means the longer the game persists, the farther away the newest areas for the players will spawn. So now those new players have to walk through millions of kilometers of land to get to their own dungeon.

Obviously this wouldn't work, so I'm assuming I missed something in the logic when I was reading.

Anonymous said...

I really think a MMO that drastically strays from the bash and grind ones out there currently would be wonderful. Dawn would have been one of those had it gotten of the ground but I don't think it ever did. The idea of a MMO being more realistic is absolutely mouth watering in my opinion.

My MMO experience has come from playing Everquest for 4 years. It was one of the pioneers of the MMO genre and the mechanics of that game I really enjoyed. Leveling up kinda sucked but at the same time it was a lot of fun and I had many great memories from it.

I won't play anything else out there because I feel that every new MMO is for those softcore, lazy players. I consider myself hardcore and I want a hardcore game. One where I have to really think about a quest to figure out the next part. Where exploring an area causes you to find something that no one else has found yet. And so much more that makes a game hard but still very interesting.

I know this next part is basically an advertisement for something that I am working on, but here goes anyway. I miss EQ so much that I am working on my own emulated server. Not so much of the annoying leveling up time with lots of high level content. Also hard quests and very different ideas for zones. One specifically oriented around exploring. If any of this sounds interesting or you'd like to check it out, go to

Leahn Novash said...

You should check Darkfall Online. It is not what you ask, but it is an step closer. Though the racial battles are the main topic of the game, you do not need to fight if you don't want to. There are no strict limitations. No classes, no levels. It is skill based like UO was. Even though some things have prerequisites, they rarely block you from doing something. Usually you will do it worse than a more prepared person, but will still do it nonetheless. And did I mention that the combat in the game is manually targeted?

Bert said...

Sorry but the greatest problem with MMOs and adventures and all that rah rah is that there are alot of dick heads that play these games. Think about every MMO you have played there is always some person frustrated with the way their life is and will want to take it out on you and ability to progress with your fun for the night.
Instances helped a whole lot to solve their persistent problem when players trying to work as a group can have a whole night wrecked by some pre-pubescent teenage and his cohorts decide to PK/Gank whatever people decide to call it these days.
The ever changing dungeon at times sounds like a great idea, but you then run into the problem of the instance having any flair at all. Great games are combination of different things that really "work" and everyone has fun. Level design i think is one of those key elements: Diablo is usually the golden example of how it worked...but at the end of the day Diablo was 16 levels of pressing your left mouse button. It worked then, games are just a bit too our standard of games are too complex to allow for the same flexibility. What i would like is combination of the 2, parts of the dungeon specifically designed to the designer/writers visions and parts where they are definitely fit for some random generation....sadly we don't have the tech for that right now....but i'd would like to see where it can go.
PS...don't hate on companies for WANTING to make money in gaming...its very hard industry to survive in.

Jonathan Harford said...

This kind of procedurally generated content is already being done! Just not in MMOs. Or, indeed, games with anything resembling graphics.

Take a look of Dwarf Fortress -- there's no graphics and the UI is painful, but the worlds it generates sound a lot like what you're interested in.

Ben said...

"Go learn some programming so that you can understand that what you are asking for is beyond our current ability."

What kind of pathetic code monkey are you? The list of things that can't be programmed is known and not very long. What's being asked for here is very doable as long as someone decides it's worth trying.

Big Flub said...


It's actually being done at a rather basic level in MMOs too. Anarchy Online will happily generate mission after mission for you at the touch of a button. So will City of Villains.

The problem is that currently games aren't very good at it. That could easily change in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this one-man procedurally generated mmo? It was making the rounds recently on the social bookmarking sites:

Joe said...

You have a great idea, how bout people level not according to the mosters but actual hours played in the mmorpg. Killing monsters can just be a bonus or something, and they dont spawn in the same spot or near anyone. Also there is not 20 in a forest, and there not all the same.

It would be good to walk into a forest and be attacked by a pack of 3-4 wolves who actrually work together to bring you down. Im also sick of real players being alot more skilled that one type of wolf but are killed in one hit by another. All monsters should level up with players, so its not always easy or completely impossible.

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