Sunday, May 27, 2007

MMOG – A game designer’s view of the genre

Howdy ho! Welcome to yet another exciting article here at my POGD blog! Today, we’ll be discussing about the magical world of MMO games, and MMORPGs (being the most popular kind of MMO game) in general. We will be going through the following points in today’s discussion:

- What’s an MMO and what defines an MMO
- General Structure and Design of MMORPGs
- Why MMORPGs are so addictive
- Problems in MMORPGs and suggested solutions
- Conclusion

What’s an MMO and what defines an MMO

I’m pretty sure you, the reader, already know what an MMO is. But as a quick refresher, her e’s a quick definition of an MMO, courtesy of Wikipedia.org:

A Massively Multiplayer Online Game (also called MMOG or MMO) is a computer game which is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously. By necessity, they are played on the Internet, and feature at least one persistent world. Some argue that small player-count games, with 200 and fewer players, are also part of the genre; the persistent world is probably the only "hard" requirement.

MMOGs can enable players to cooperate and compete with each other on a grand scale, and sometimes to interact meaningfully with people around the world. They include a variety of gameplay types, representing many video game genres. Many MMOGs require players to invest large amounts of their time into the game. Most MMOGs require a monthly subscription fee, but some can be played for free.”

Woah. That is one heck of a definition, but honestly, in layman terms, an MMO is really, as it name suggests, just a Massively Multiplayer Online game. It has to be online, played via a connection to the internet, and with a large player base, capable of playing the game simultaneously with one another, in a persistent world.

General Structure and Design of MMORPGs

So now that you know what an MMO, an MMORPG is simply the RPG version of an MMO game. These games are formally called: “Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game”. In an MMORPG, it is normal for players to control a single avatar, depicting the player him/herself. The basic structure of avatars in MMORPGs follows the standard RPG system, which was originally derived from board games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

Avatars, in MMORPGs are often equipped with various stats, and in most cases are gauged by level. Level indicates how strong a player is and what kind of opponents he may face. Depending on the player’s level, stats and equipment, the player is able to defeat his/her opponents, who also share similar statistics.

Another common feature in MMORPGs is the presence of some kind of player class/ranking system. Players are usually given the option to choose a player class, which in turn, provides them with special, unique abilities. Classes also play an important role in determining the players attack power depending on the player’s statistics.

It is also normal for combat to be present in MMORPGs. Combat takes into account the player’s statistics and generates various results depending on the player’s other statistics, such as level and class. One instance would be if a player of the Warrior class had a high strength statistic, he would probably have a high attack count. The same cannot be said for a player of the Magician class, for the Magician class would have to depend greatly on intelligence and wisdom to cast magical spells at his/her opponents.

Another game design norm of the average MMORPG would be the quest systems and NPCs. In every MMORPG, there will surely be NPCs, whether they are simply shopkeepers or maybe even monsters, NPCs play a key role in the development of players. NPCs also make up for the overall game-play of MMORPGs, because if there was an instance where nobody was playing the game in a particular area, the NPCs would be available for any prospecting player who decides to drop by and have a go at the area. In other words, he wouldn’t be bored stiff because there was no one else around, since the NPCs would be providing him with quests and items. Questing in MMORPGs is vital. Quests are usually short missions and stories that a player can partake in, they generally give high amounts of experience, and are vital for the player’s continued growth. One unique design pattern of Quests in MMORPGs is that the quests are repeatable. It would make little sense to only allow one player to do a single quest, because the level designers would need to keep coming up with new content for every player. This is unrealistic on the long run, because if the player base gets too big, level designers would be overwhelmed with work.

Why MMORPGs are so addictive

Well now, this is one tough question to answer. Taking into mind game designs and the principles of game design, here are my reasons (as observed from the article of MMOG Motivation):

Firstly, the community contributes to any MMORPGs addictiveness. The community can either be the best part or the worst part of any MMORPG. Because of this community (from all over the world) people are exposed to new faces and different types of people around the clock. You wouldn’t have to wait for your friends to come online before being able to play the game, but instead just going online to play it with complete strangers, with no strings attached at all. Of course this can lead to various problems when players begin to abuse the fact that the other parties playing the game can in no way find out their true identity. Such people usually exist only to spoil the game’s experience for other players and are often isolated from the main player community.

Secondly, MMORPGs propose the idea of a never-ending story. Quests and story-lines in MMORPGs are often brief and short, however due to the abundance of quests and mini-stories in MMORPGs, players get to play for hours and hours, and continue on new more exciting stories. Games like: World of Warcraft have even included chain quests, where a story might even continue over a few quests and ultimately be resolved with a powerful boss in a dungeon (otherwise known as an instance).

Finally, MMORPGs have endless possibilities. If the game is well maintained with a good content provider, an MMORPG could literally last forever, with new content added and old content removed, players will ultimately have new unique experiences, and the game becomes highly replay-able.

Problems in MMORPGs and suggested solutions

No game design can be absolutely perfect in my opinion (though some come very close to it), and like any other game genre, MMORPGs do have their problems. Here are some of the problems MMORPGs face, and some solutions, suggested by yours truly:

Firstly, the very thing that makes MMORPGs great can also cause an MMORPG’s downfall that is the community. The community is what keeps an MMORPG going and if the community turns sour, very drastic things could happen. Take for example the popular online game: Ultima Online. Being one of the first MMORPGs to be made popular, Ultima Online boasted an array of new systems and playability, including Player Versus Player and Back Stabbing moves. Because of the game’s initial un-moderated state, Ultima Online became a dreadful game for beginners, where once a new player stepped out of the boundaries of a town, another player would leap from a nearby bush and kill the player. In fact PvP was such a big problem in Ultima Online that Origin Systems (Creators of the Ultima Series) had to start new non-PvP servers for new players. One solution to this problem, is to simply restrict the zones in which PvP can occur, I believe that PvP should never occur in newbie starting points, and that there should be level caps on the PvP of any MMORPG. Players with too high a difference in level should not be able to attack each other, for the fight would be biased to the stronger player. Another smart move would be to have a dueling system, where players can choose whether they want to duel another player. That way, the opponents approval would be required before a fight can begin.

Another flaw in game design is the level difference. For example if a player joins a game where everyone is of a high level. He will generally not have any companions to complete the lower level quests and may in turn leave the game altogether. This can be said for any subsequent newbie joining the game. And this will drastically affect the community size of the game. Therefore to spread players out over worlds more efficiently, I believe that MMORPGs should recommend servers to players, that way due to computational calculations, servers can have an equal amount of new and experienced players. Another solution to this problem, is to provide a rich solo-experience for players, with lots of NPCs and quests, the new player can continue playing the game, even if he is doing it on his own.

Conclusion

As flawless as MMORPGs might initially seem, they are not quite so. However, I believe that MMORPGs are here to stay and that one day, all games will be MMO or at least multiplayer in one way or another. I’ve got to run now, so join me again for another funky article in the near future at Bryo’s POGD!