on Feb 14, 2007
This article looks like an excellent launching point for talking about what I think is one of the major drawbacks of Massively Multiplayer games. I am by no means a veteran of MMO games, but I’ve played a few. Every few years I pick one up and put a few weeks into it. I started with The Realm way back in 1996, and in 2002 I played Dark Age of Camelot. One thing I’ve noticed about the games I’ve played is that they all more or less require players to work together. (Note, I understand World of Warcraft eases this requirement, so that solo play is less painful. I haven’t tried WoW yet, so I can’t say.) This requirement makes sense at first. What’s the point in having a multiplayer game if everyone goes off in their own corner and does their own thing? But this cuts the other way, because it makes the player dependent on others to take part in their gaming experience. It’s usually exceedingly difficult to play these games alone. I’m not a big fan of this dynamic, and I think there are better ways to encourage people to play together without punishing them for not doing so.
But before I get started: I’m not sold on the idea that people need to fight together – or against each other – to make the game “multiplayer”. A lot of the multiplayer appeal comes simply from having others around so that you can trade, share tips, chat, or show off your avatar.
The typical MMO expects – and is designed around – certain behaviors. Players are encouraged to form groups of (about) four people of varying classes or skills. You’ll need the “caster” (someone who can deal tremendous damage but who is themselves pretty fragile) a “healer” (someone who can restore hitpoints during a fight) and a couple of “tanks” (people who are very durable, who can protect the others). The more a player strays from this expected ideal, the harder the game gets for them.
But all we’ve accomplished here is to take the basic single-player gameplay (kill monsters, earn XP and loot) and add a certain level of unrewarding busywork that must be done beforehand. The problem here is the inherent hassle of getting a group together with the right mix. They all have to be near the same level, of the right character types, interested in the same sort of fighting, and available for the same period of time. They need to find each other, agree on a leader, and pick a place to play. This is tricky for a bunch of strangers to pull off in a world where everyone is constantly coming and going. Suddenly you have a great recipe for wasting everyone’s time. (I’ll also throw in that not all of us are attention-starved extroverts. After a few hours of MMO gaming I’ve really had my fill of meeting new people. Some thrive on that, but some of us would rather make a small group of friends and otherwise keep to ourselves.)
The rewards in the game (experience and loot) increase with the strength of the monsters, but are divided by the number of players in the group according to some (usually) inscrutable system. This creates an incentive for groups to find a monster which is nearly their equal. Players have an incentive for joining a group, but they also have some pretty strong disincentives for letting more people join once the party hits the desired size. Once the group is finally formed and has reached their hunting spot, the group can’t expand (or their rewards will diminish sharply) or shrink (because they will be defeated) and so the desired party state is very volatile. Odds are that before too long a member of the group is going to need to log off and deal with real life. Since the game discourages having “extra” party members, the loss of just one person is often enough to put them all out of business. If someone leaves, the others will be obliged to stop fighting in order to recruit or relocate.
So you have a system where a tremendous amount of time is simply wasted trying to get a group of into the same place at the same time. In short, the social and cooperative aspects of the game are the chief source of friction to actually playing. Instead of multiplayer adding to gameplay, it becomes an impediment to gameplay. I don’t think this is the way things should be.
Part of the problem here is the pass / fail nature of “lethal” combat. If the gameplay involved some sort of non-combat goal, then the system would be more flexible. If the game involved something like building a ship, a lone player could do whatever the game requires to reach that goal. If some other people showed up to help then the rate of progress would naturally increase, and if they left it would slow down again. Most importantly, a player would never be obliged to stop having fun because someone else logged off. People have it in their heads that RPG gaming is about the risk of combat, and I don’t think it is. I think the real goal is simply accomplishing things. Preferably, but not necessarily, together.
This dynamic can be applied to almost any sort of positive activity. Digging tunnels, building objects, and harvesting resources are all things which can be done at any time, by any number of people. I think very few games have really explored this type of cooperative play, and I think there is a huge degree of untapped potential there. There is a lot more I can say about non-combat games, but I think that post needs to wait for another time.
At any rate, I think this type of flexible gameplay would be possible within a more traditional “monster fighting” game, although it would require major changes to the combat paradigm people have come to know. You would need to make player victory inevitable (or nearly so) which is going to raise some eyebrows. Humor me here, because I do think you can have a fun game even when the player’s life isn’t in constant danger.
Here is how I picture things:
So, let’s say we have a game were a level ten player will seek out a level ten monster. But the numbers work so that a group of six level ten fighters also fight level ten monsters – they just go through them faster. (I won’t belabor the mechanics here, but this is a perfectly reasonable setup.) This makes it so that groups can grow, shrink, split, or merge in the field, without interrupting gameplay. Like building a ship, completion of the task is a foregone conclusion (assuming they aren’t careless) and their satisfaction comes not from “winning”, but from the rewards they get and out of an enjoyment of the process itself. I know this will sound like heresy to some, but I don’t think danger is a required ingredient.
In our game, a player can beat a monster solo, as long as they don’t mind fighting for a long time. They can choose to seek out help to speed things up, but they aren’t obliged to stick around town looking for that help. They can charge out into the wilderness and look for friends as they go. Once they are part of a team, they know that having a teammate log off won’t force everyone else to flee to a safer area.
The gameworld is divided into regions with visible geographic boundaries. Some regions are good for players between levels one and four. Others are for players between two and six, and so on. As long as you don’t go into a region above your level, and as long as you rest when appropriate, you don’t have to really fear outright death. Defeating monsters then becomes a task like building or tunneling: You work on it until the job is done, with the understanding that the work goes faster with help.
This type of thing would be much more attractive to casual gamers, and would negate a huge number of headaches one normally finds in multiplayer games. Teaming up would be something for the more serious players, or for people who log in for hours at a time. People who can only play for one hour won’t be forced to waste most of it trying to hook up with a group.
Making combat “safer” improves the game in a lot of other ways. In traditional games, players tend to cluster in safe spots. They can’t explore at will, because they might blunder into a high-level monster that will wipe them out. In our game they will know they can move about freely, because the worst that can happen is a long fight. (That is, provided they don’t cross the river or ravine or whatever separates this region from the more dangerous ones.) They will be more likely to really explore the game world and even hunt on the move, instead of camping a spot where monsters spawn. The wilderness will be more enticing. Instead of having monsters appear in fixed locations, monsters will appear only in the gaps between groups of players. If a player wants to fight monsters, they have to seek them, instead of waiting for the next batch to beam in. Sure, the game is no longer “dangerous”, but the changing scenery will do a lot more to keep things interesting than the “danger” ever did.
This will also avoid the problem where suicidal fools would lead a party to their deaths out of impatience and greed. If the rest of the party is about to do something stupid, the cautious player can go back to soloing instead of following or finding themselves stranded alone in dangerous territory. (That is the #1 reason I no longer play these games. I’m a low-risk person by nature, and I got tired of getting killed by overzealous idiot companions.)
You could argue that this is diminishing the “multiplayer” aspect of the game, although I would counter that while people do indeed talk to one another while forming a party, there are more interesting ways for people to interact than repeatedly broadcasting, “NEED LVL5 WIZ 4 RUN 2 SHADOWLNDS PLS”. I don’t think that this sort of thing is all that “multiplayer”. I’m not even sure that you can count it as “social”. It’s only slightly more interactive than spam.
Right now MMO games are more or less like their single-player counterparts, except that you must form a team before you can have fun. A system like the one I outlined above would mitigate these drawbacks and would give players what they really want: To take the fun of the single-player experience and share it with others.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.