So, being as The Air War is out in 2-3 weeks and I’m doing Edge Lit next weekend (1) the time is obviously ripe to talk about game design in MMORPGs.

(1) With my first ever workshop, no less, about which I am bricking it.

Role-playing in computer games came up briefly as a tangent in my Thing That I Did at Durham recently, which got me thinking in more detail. Some background: I like MMOs. I like the idea of them, and in general I like the execution, but there is so much room to make a better gaming experience, especially if you’re gonna add the RPG onto the end of the MMO.

World of Warcraft has sat on the big chair of MMORPGS (from now on just MMOs, lest I hit some sort of acronym event horizon) for a long time, and in general for good reason. For all that it gets made fun of or derided, it’s a solid game that a large team of talented people spend a great deal of time tweaking and tuning and inventing new bits for. The great WoW adventure does appear to be slowing, however – the last big expansion felt underwhelming to me, and to many of the other people I play with, and there is a decidedly ambivalent feeling about the next one, which is mostly about pandas and Pokemon-style pet battles (2). Players of WoW have been wondering for a while what might unseat the crown prince of fetching 20 goblin ears, but the surprising news is that, well, nothing has. There have been plenty of challengers, and none have come close. Also, the brutal truth is that just about every one of those challengers has been WoW with maybe a single new mechanic, and so it’s not surprising that the gaming world hasn’t exactly been swept off its feet.

(2) You get to be a panda and fight mantis-men. No prizes for guessing that I would far, far rather it were the other way round.

There are basically some big problems with the WoW model (much of which model was, I think, inherited from earlier games like Everquest), but they’re none of them insoluble, they just require someone to spend that colossal ton of cash that an MMO costs to make, and risk it on something new. MMOs seem to suffer more than most media from the “copy the winning method” school of design, and unfortunately copying the winning method is never going to net you better than 2nd place. Whilst everyone likes to flirt with the new guy, incumbents have a lot of momentum.

So: what are the big things about the WoW model that could stand a shaking up?

Red vs. Blue

I understand that the 2 opposed factions put the ‘war’ into Warcraft, but even in that came it comes across as weird, arbitrary and often game-breakingly illogical, especially as the factions cannot communicate in any common language, but the world is full of NPCs who can talk to both sides (3). It also means that when the designers add new races, they get slotted into one faction or the other without much logic. In fact the pandas will get to choose which one they eventually end up in, an innovation precisely 2 expansions too late. Anyway, the faction thing isn’t universal (Lord of the Rings and Tera, for example, don’t have it) but it’s insidious – Aion, Rifts, Warhammer,  the new Star Wars and even Secret World (4) all do it. I understand that it streamlines PvP, but it’s an immersion killer for a lot of players. OK, it just about works where you have a complete divide, like in heavy PvP focused games such as Warhammer, but in Rifts, for example, you have the not-Alliance and the not-Horde fighting the world’s must stupidly pointless war, whilst under clear, present, obvious threat by an entire cosmos of invading evil. The real problem with this model is that the game assigns you an ideology. If you’re Horde, you’re going to do the Horde things, whether or not you personally like them or not – if you don’t do them, then you’ll have nothing to do, because them’s the quests.  You’re constantly railroaded into doing objectionable things. I’m reminded of the bit in the Tauren starting area where one guy sends you to kill the gnolls because they’re killing all the animals, and the guy next to him sends you to kill an appalling buttload of animals for basically no reason. Don’t want to do the quests? No xp for you! And sometimes no progression to later parts of the game.

(3) a major plot point of the WoW satire I did with Justina Robson in the anthology “What a Long, Strange Trip it’s Been”.

(4) The new modern day game, whose other great innovation is, wait for it, three factions! They have a green one!

Violence Solves Everything

This is a wider game issue to a certain extent, but it grates most in MMOs where you spend so much time with the one character (5). The problem here is obvious. Violence is easy. Not so much easy to commit, it’s just easy to handle as a problem-solution model. You fight, pitting your abilities against his abilities in an incremental race to the bottom of the health bar. At the end of a fight he’s dead, you’re not, no loose ends and no uncertainty. This leads inevitably to the “fetch me 20 (bodyparts)” quests which are the horrible stodge that pads out MMOs. So what are the alternatives? Stealth, for example. I have fond memories of the single player game Thief, and I played Morrowind and Skyrim as a sneaker. Works fine for a single player game where you don’t have to balance against other players. The problem with sneaking is that, as presented in games to date, it’s an all or nothing thing – you win completely, or you’re spotted and you’ve lost. In WoW there is a stealth class, but it is essentially actively penalised for sneaking rather than fighting its way (no dead monsters, no xp) and fighting is usually an intrinsic part of the stuff you have to do anyway. Diplomacy is another way of solving the same problems as fighting – talking, tricking, disguising, conning, even converting the bad guys to get what you want. Both stealth and social could actually be run in a manner quite similar to combat – with various skills used to actively oppose the other party’s perception/suspicion or whatever, but it would be more complex to set up a game that way, whilst killing stuff is tried, tested and controllable. The dream ticket would be, say, some grand mission where sneakers, talkers and warriors all had their parts to play, like a Shadowrun scenario or a bank caper.

(5) It’s also a genre problem, as was mentioned in a panel at Eastercon – there are heroes who don’t come by that title over a mound of corpses, but they’re in the minority.

Nothing you do matters

This is the big one, and it’s sufficiently much of a problem that WoW, for example, has taken steps to blunt it somewhat. However, it’s still there. Nothing you do as a PC matters. In fact in most parts of most games, there is this weird space/time correlation, where if you go back to an earlier area, you are effectively going back in time, and all the guys you killed will be back on their feet, and the peasants are complaining about the same stuff again despite the fact that you sorted all that out when you were there before. WoW and other games now use “phasing” meaning that some areas do change after you hit some milestones, but the problem is still endemic. The need to give you infinite stuff to do leads to constant repeatable quests for NPCs who apparently can’t get enough of some very specific commodity, obtained from bad guys who never go extinct, ruled over by enormous boss monsters that spout the same defiant trash-talk every damn week just before you kill them, because, just as you come back to life when you die, so do they. Nothing changes, nothing progresses, you’re trapped in a never-ending spiral of pointless carnage.

Eve Online at least dodges this one by having the universe player-led (6), and the recent Star Wars game made a very creditable attempt to make you feel as if you were important by giving you a class-based plot which, for a brief time, actually managed to inject some RP into the MMO – but this failed to survive to the midgame, sadly. My character in that was an imperial agent, and you spend the first planet undercover pretending to be a pirate, and it’s really good fun. Then you hit the next planet or so, and whilst you’re still supposed to be undercover as a rebel, simultaneously everyone on the planet is saying, “Hey! You’re an Imperial Secret Agent! Go and fetch me 20 wookie ears!” somehow without blowing your cover. And outside your personal plot, well, no matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.

Another bad habit WoW particularly has is NPC-worship, especially as the game starts off quite lore-heavy after the various plain Warcraft strategy games. This feature turns up in many of the endgame boss fights – you fight your way to the Big Bad, you go through various stages of the fight, and then LO! a lore NPC turns up and spectacularly saves the day, and gets all the credit and the statues and the like (7). The players are marginalized from the game histories, cut out like Stalin’s rejects, and of course it’s because all the players have defeated all the threats to the world. Everyone’s cabinet has the same trophies. Every game server is witness to the same humdrum triumphs.

In contrast, I am unavoidable reminded of the role-playing tour de force that was Skyrim which, with all the pampering luxury of the single player game, was perhaps the most satisfactory gaming experience I’ve ever had (or if it wasn’t, then it was Morrowind). I remember thinking “I wish this was an MMO” because I wanted to share what was happening to me, and not just in a water-cooler sort of way. And although there is an Elder Scrolls MMO in the works, I don’t really hold out much hope. What is good about the one is anathema to the other, unless they change the mould.

Is there any way to solve this one for an MMO? Some thoughts:

– Have player-specific quests. OK, the Skyrim Radiant random quest thing got old after a while, but instead of sending every player to the same place to kill the same bandit, generate a random target, and a random place – or trail of places.

– have player-specific plots. SW:TOR does this at the class level, which is still a whole lot better than most. On the general “there are only X many stories in the world” principle, however, as part of character generation you could set an aim – revenge, rescue, discovery, secret past, whatever, and the game could sporadically throw quests your way that related to that theme – so that maybe along with its +19 Endearing Sword of the Kazoo, that boss just dropped a letter giving you the last known location of your missing brother. and when you accomplished that one, you could choose a new motivation. Or something.

– have player-driven worlds. It should be possible for the mass of player action to determine the denouement of large scale events in the game. Let’s say there are some warring factions in the world (not factions that players are locked into) – if more players help one than the other, that faction might advance, kill important NPCs, take new territory – in the simplest example I could think of. This would work as a device only if the players were free to choose – i.e. no Red vs Blue. Anyway, if the game had multiple servers, each server would develop its own history over time. If you were really daring you could experiment with an MMO arc of a fixed duration, a cycle of the world, a generation of its inhabitants, and at the end, everyone gets old and passes on to new characters in a world that has been shaped by the actions of their predecessors. But that’s just crazy talk…

(6) although I have in my time mocked a friend who desperately had to log onto Eve to buy insurance for his starship. Insurance! In a game!

(7) Again see “The Indecipherables” from “What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been.

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