Game Design: More MMORPG Ideas

Yesterday, the NDA for Final Fantasy 14 was lifted and I was able to check out Yoni’s stream where she showed how the game operates. Although PVP and end game content are unknowns at this point, the basics of an MMORPG exist where the differences outside of the lore/world are in multi-classing. However, we discussed a bit about how the kill/collect/FedEx guy type of questing hasn’t really changed much and is pretty much a standard in these games. That led me to think about more revolutionary ideas to improve the basics of the MMORPG genre.

I saw an article that discusses the new vision for Everquest and parts of it are echoed in an earlier blog of mine where I discussed how Blizzard needs to open up the game engine to 3rd parties to make the content aspect scale better. Everquest, in the future, will be doing something along those lines and are also incorporating a Minecraft type of constructable/destructable environment. Those are certainly revolutionary ideas for MMORPGs at the moment but I want to go further in adding to this equation.

First, one of my current criticisms about MMORPGs is that while these games have heavy exploration aspects, they really don’t feel like “worlds”. People emphasize the people/social aspect of the game as the element that makes these games “worlds” but for me they’re merely distractions that are not that engaging in the long term. I know the Elder Scrolls series has done quite a fantastic job in putting together highly detailed environments, but even then most of this reflects more in the art, visuals and sound rather than the actual game play. There isn’t a lot of consequence beyond spending useless hours just wandering aimlessly. In short, I feel that we’re just playing something that reminds me more of an interactive movie than a world.

To change this idea, I want to introduce more mechanics into these games that really are environmentally based. For instance, take the notion of rain and snow. While games may show a rain or snow visual, there isn’t really much more to these aspects. But let’s say you’re on a hill where you’re either fighting uphill or downhill and a thunderous rain storm occurs. What should logically happen is that the ground becomes slicker over time, creating a sense of peril through slipperiness. Although you can introduce a hidden mechanic that penalizes or elevates the person’s ability to fight (meaning negative or positive hit modifiers), what also should happen from a game play perspective is a sliding motion where the combatants not only have to deal with each other, but simultaneously work to prevent themselves from slipping. On top of that, in the case of just moving from place to place, a person might be forced to carefully navigate in a non-combat situation such as just running down a steep hill while not tripping and falling to their death accidentally.

In the case of snow, you can have the sense of trudging where a player is slowed immensely. However, people can compensate through certain types of footwear and mounts. At the same time, you might factor in temperature here. So certain armor types might not be adequate enough to protect adventurers from the cold. That might again require special types of armor and/or clothing so that people won’t freeze to death. I keep thinking about places like Northrend and how this aspect was just so lost in World of Warcraft. As small of detail as this may sound, it’s subtle and adds far more as an interesting flavor to create a more detailed world.

You can conversely talk about desserts or extremely heated environments. I always found it amazing where you’d see adventurers generically dressed up in maxed out full plate armor running through the dessert. How can this be? Shouldn’t they need water? Shouldn’t they suffer heat exhaustion from heavy armor and running through a parched wasteland? You could introduce penalties where someone is forced to drink water or locate an oasis periodically or suffer damage. They could even have conditions like in real life such as heat stroke. And you could force players to use special attire here as well. Maybe too much dust can cause issues for heavy armor for instance.

Those are just some simple ideas to add little things from a real world perspective. But as I ponder whether to invest myself into yet another MMORPG like a Final Fantasy 14 or Everquest, the big thing to me is what the end goal vision is for these games. What is the end game content going to look like? How will it play out? A lot of the MMORPG world is clamoring over Wild Star but the truth is that the primary differentiator is the combat system (at least to me). But I suspect that the end game combat for that along with FF14 and possibly the next generation of Everquest will still be more of the same, focusing on raid bosses, PVP through battle grounds and arenas and some other economic grind.

What’s more important though isn’t those aspects but how the world itself and game engine as a platform will be structured to allow for indefinite expandability. I see Everquest having the best inkling thus far in this part of the industry with their focus on crowdsourced games. That part to me is the future for MMORPGs because the content itself is lacking in terms of scalability for companies. Yet merely to hand over the entire content creation process to everyone isn’t so easy. You need a framework/structure to work from and that’s where the world and game engine architecture thought process steps in.

Obviously, games like these will always need to anticipate large numbers of consumers. So scaling in terms of technological architecture will be a constant requirement. But what isn’t so obvious is how the world itself should be designed. That’s where we need to take a look back to the classic AD&D games and how they managed to be sustainable for so many years. In AD&D, one of the key elements beyond the rule books were extremely passionate gaming hobbyists and professionals who built up magnificent worlds. You had places like the Dragonlance/Krynn, Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms/Faerun, Dark Sun, etc. These realms provided huge maps, touching briefly upon the cultures and general lore for each area with tons of possibility for expansions. For me the Forgotten Realms perhaps was the most well done of the above as it simply was huge.

The next generation of MMORPGs need to do something similar where the entire globe geographically is defined and that certain pockets are detailed to give the game a starting point. However, there should be hints of lore painted around the globe that allows new designers to come in and add their input. You could insert a cultural type of structure like the Red Wizards of Thay, adding a paragraph or two but keeping the remaining city, people, etc. all left for future development. Not every spot would require huge paragraphs but even certain continents might add blurbs that hint at the politics or people.

But I touched upon a word in there that hasn’t really made as much of an impact in gaming beyond hardcore role playing servers and that is “culture.” I feel that a huge missing element in MMORPGs is the essence of culture that engages people more inside of the game. Most of the time, it’s the people on that server who end up defining the real RP elements (such as jack ass male blood elf hunters from Tichondrius who grief people in LFR or act like a drugged out surfer dude Sean Penn from Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Yet it saddens me that the game does not actively have ways to encourage better RP/cultural behavior.

Just throwing out some ideas in this, I thought about how someone might enter a town of a secret society group of wizards where your dress, speech and other mannerisms can subject you to backlash or welcoming. Imagine taking something like a local chat where the NPCs can hear your conversation with other players. The moment you step out of character, the NPCs might suspect that you’re an intruder and assault you. So you’re forced to learn the localized speak in order to integrate properly. There could be other aspects such as an emote or greeting you must perform when you meet or leave someone.

Of course, this requires far more sophisticated AI on the NPCs’ part but I think that’s another subject that needs to be drastically touched upon in MMORPGs. NPCs are pretty bland and lack any substance outside of being a quest giver, vender or PVP dummy. I feel that most serve no purpose and just take up space rather than act as a possibly useful plot device. And it’s sad coming from Ultimas 4-7 where NPCs felt far richer, having the ability to employ sophisticated dialogs and interactions. Instead, we’re left with boring flavor text that I think most people never bother reading these days. I understand that the oversimplification of dialogs into linear flavor text were done to handle the scale for quest givers but it makes the world really shallow.

More than that NPCs themselves for the most part are designed to be nothing more than placeholders and have as much personality as Kristen Stewart (maybe NPCs have more personality than her but it’s close). But the key thing that Ultima 5 innovated was just on having NPCs manage their own schedules (and I would like to address the idea of time itself in a bit). I remember one of the cool features in Ultima 5 that was pretty revolutionary for RPGs was just seeing an NPC eat dinner then go to sleep beyond performing their normal professional duties. In a few cases for Ultima 5 (and later Ultimas for that matter), the schedule would matter since a few NPCs would do things at certain times (like the one that hid the Skull Keys in Minoc). It’s subtle touches like that which make you feel more engaged in the game.

But if you want to take this idea further, you want to make the ability to impact the NPC’s scheduled affect overall game play. A simple idea in using the example of food above is what happens if the NPC doesn’t eat on time? Or what if a person kidnaps an NPC or prevents them from eating? Most people would say, “Well, they’d die of course!” Not from moment one though. They could become angry or frustrated and might assault the player. Or perhaps they weaken as their hunger grows until they finally pass out from lack of food and water.

People might say, “What’s the point?” The point is making the environment come to life and adding fun, weird features that people can mess with. You might get some sneaky people who would exploit something like this to prevent others from completing a quest. In turn, you would have to ensure that it can’t get out of hand. Perhaps, the response would be having the city guards come down and arrest the person or even attack and kill the player. Yet starving someone could be part of a quest. Again, it’s just an idea to add to the realism of the MMORPG genre.

Speaking of food, I think that food has become too de-emphasized. World of Warcraft attempted to make food more interesting in their own universe by providing more useful buffs beyond banquets. But I honestly hate the way that plays out in that it’s just a raid supplement rather than an integral part of the game. I do think that some older games might’ve gone overboard with the concept of needing food all the time (like the older Ultimas) but I do miss the aspect of starvation in the game. For me food is just such an integral part of our lives that it’s too lacking in these games at the same level. Making food and drink more important would add so much more flavor to the game. Like it would help motivate people to hit inns or restaurants in the game rather than just buying stuff from the auction house or finding it on dead corpses. Or finding fruits from trees and plants in forest that you can eat (or perhaps get poisoned by if you lack the proper foraging skill).

Going back a step I want to talk about the idea of time in the game. From my perspective, time really doesn’t have too much meaning outside of enrage timers, timed quests, respawn rates and wasting your own time. But time over never feels linear but constant rather except in those cases I mentioned above. It’s kinda like being at a Vegas casino where you can’t really tell what time it is as a result of the unnatural indoor ceiling lighting. In a game like World of Warcraft, time is beyond wrecked because of how Cataclysm restructured the game. Garrosh is by far the most confusing offender in all of this and I have no idea how they’ll correct the situation when the expansion comes out (since we supposedly will kill Garrosh in patch 5.4). But time is too critical of an element to ignore and you can see how Blizzard essentially confounded their own game by mixing phasing and restructuring.

So one thing that must occur in creating an MMORPG universe is ensuring that time is kept linear. I think that Cataclysm should never have revamped the old Vanilla zones. Or rather what they really should have done was kept the Vanilla zones for leveling but phased them and made them the higher level Cataclysm content beyond the few zones they created. That way new players can see the world progress rather than this bizarre mixture where revamped zones and lore mess up how BC and WOTLK content plays out somewhat.

Yet Cataclysm should be a lesson for any company and MMORPG on what not to do in terms of dealing with time and phasing. Phasing is fine but really should depend upon the individual progress of a character/player. You could argue that the zone phasing was okay but I’m looking at the overall picture of the game. It feels too awkward going to a place like Nagrand after receiving various quest from a different skinned Garrosh.

More than that though, I think time needs to work with concepts like events, people and places more thoroughly. Like Everquest mentioned how once an area is destroyed in the next version, it pretty much is gone for good. Things like that make the game more real to me because it takes into consideration events and places and how that’s impacted through players’ actions. Even regenerating NPCs and mobs can be annoying and it’s an element that I’m not overly fond of in World of Warcraft. I feel like once you kill Lei Shen, you shouldn’t have to farm him over and over again just for loot. That idea is just monotonous and kills my desire to play the game over time.

Either way, you really have to return to the basics when it comes to designing these elements into the world. I think that these MMORPGs for the most part focus far too much on the visuals, lore and boss fight mechanics rather than the elements of a world to make themselves more compelling. I don’t want to play a minor delta in dedicating myself to a new game. Making combat UI a slightly different way isn’t a good enough feature to get me to devote time to another huge MMORPG. Instead, I really want to see game innovations that change how you play and interact with the world. It’s something severely lacking and I feel that many of these companies should really go back to something like an AD&D for inspiration as it pretty much has withstood the test of time when it comes to the way a world works. It’s just a matter of dissecting all the different rules and points and creating your own interpretation come to life.

So how can you address this part? One thought would be to make it optional to farm a boss like a Lei Shen, but the purpose shouldn’t be for loot. For NPCs, you could always create new ones with different names that are assigned to specific positions such as a flight master or inn keeper. Or perhaps you could phase those to a player. I wouldn’t want to make permanent killings a mechanism that griefers could exploit to cause immense detriment to others. So phasing would be a possible tool to prevent griefing. Or if a griefer did try something like that, it would incur a huge penalty (such as the NPC having a ridiculous amount of health and damage ability, or sending the griefer into prison a week, etc.) Maybe in the case of fantasy MMORPGs players could have the ability to resurrect the NPC themselves. Either way, you’d have to balance that issue out.

Yet along the lines of time I would like to see the impact to a person’s age in the game. Age doesn’t play enough of a role in the games I’ve seen but other non-MMORPGs like Might and Magic, AD&D, etc. have employed age as a key mechanic at times. For instance, for humans, as you grow older in AD&D, your stats will change both in positive and negative ways. If you were assaulted by a ghost, you would age and possibly could die. For races like humans and half-orcs, this could be a serious consequence unless they had a remedy like an Elixer of Youth to reverse the unnatural process.

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