Fixing MMOs Is Hard

Tom Chick: MMOs are broken! Fix!
The Narrator: No, you mean WoW is broken.

And now we have:

Trembling Hand: Oh come on, they’re broken, fix plz.

So I thought I’d share my jaded, broken-on-the-wheel-of-pain response to the above. A caveat: if someone released a game with all 10 of those points implemented, I’m sure it would be awesome. However — the devil, as always, is in the details.

Thus, I’ll hit these out of order, because some of them are such obvious truths it’s hard to disagree with (even for me, and I’m a professional curmudgeon.)

10) Launch when it’s finished

Yes, that’d be swell. When is finished? When the game is fun? That’d be great. When you run out of money and are going to lay everyone off unless you shove it out the door prematurely? True more times than I care to remember, including some eventual market successes.

But yes, in an ideal world we’d be free of budgetary pressures and, through beneficent overlords careless with cash, or even more unlikely, proper and experienced project management, a game would be developed well, QA’d throughly, beta’d for both fun gameplay and crippling bugs, and release on time and on budget.

Heh. Hah. muahahHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAH. There, I’m done now.

8 ) Make subscriptions cheaper

Hard to get cheaper than “free”, which is rapidly becoming the price point for a lot of new games. But yes, asking for a credit card is a pretty crucial hurdle that is difficult for a lot of games to surmount. So, sure, cheaper is good. Hopefully you can afford to keep that team running and throwing cash at them so they don’t have to release things early!

7) Quality of life
4) Don’t make me grind

Totally agreed here, on both of these. In fact, I’m tempted to combine them and call this the Blizzard Rule. Namely: if your players are playing your game and suddenly think “you know, I could be having more fun playing World of Warcraft right now”? It’s time to break out the “maintenance mode” budget spreadsheets.

3) Make combat smarter

It’d be great if we could. Unfortunately, the Internet intervenes.

Both in terms of lag time (the more complex the interaction between client and server during a time-critical action like, say, combat, the more lag breaks the immersion, or more accurately the outright lie that you’re actually engaging with a game in realtime as opposed to a half-second or so delay) and in terms of, well, people on the Internet aren’t that enamored with complex things. Take Dungeons and Dragons Online – which has precisely the type of combat the original poster proposed. DDO is not, by any stretch, a market success. Now, that’s probably not due to the complex combat system – but by that same token, it didn’t exactly close the deal for selling the game either.

Players, in the aggregate, tend to enjoy simplicity. Sorry. No, really, I’m sorry, I’m the guy who likes insanely overcomplex rules systems. Unfortunately you and I are outliers.

1) Make the worlds more engaging

Also make them fun. And finished. Also, profitable. Anything else? Oh yeah, blue. They should be blue. Blue is cool.

OK, enough sarcasm on that one. Yes, plenty of games fall down in inducing a sense of wonder or even a sense of place that’s critical for the success of a virtual world, probably through a tunnel vision imposed on deathmarching your way through an insane production schedule so you can “release it when it’s finished” before the entire company is laid off. And a lot of that is due to the unoriginal design of many games tasked with “cloning WoW”. It’s really hard to make a coherent world when you’re working off a xerox machine of game mechanics and interfaces.

(By the way, there is not a single MMO designer on the planet who wakes up in the morning with “I’d love to clone WoW” as his or her personal dream. There are many executives, however, who wake up EVERY morning with that dream. Protip: Executives outrank designers.)

By the way, if you’re keeping score, I start tossing bombs in earnest right about…. now.

2) Ditch classes and levels

If I had a quarter for every armchair designer (or actual designer for that matter) I’ve listened to that began their “How I Would Save The MMO Industry Singlehandedly” speech with “ditch classes and levels”, I could fund World of Progressquest singlehandedly. It’s the quickest way to indie cred: instead of saying you really like Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, you say you really wish someone would make a game just like Ultima Online (which effectively had classes and eventually patched them in explicitly) or Asheron’s Call 1 (which had levels as well as implicit classes) or Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) or My Favorite MUD No One Ever Heard Of But It Totally Ruled. Saying “I wish someone would ditch those damn levels and classes” isn’t proposing a game design. It’s proposing the absence of one.

Unless you have a pretty compelling alternative for explaining how people can develop their character without being intimately familiar with the game’s rules (which, mind you, are almost never well documented in any MMO, it’s like some sort of conspiracy industry-wide to refuse to hire a decent web team), you’re simply taking all the design work you’d already have to do in creating skills and abilities, and instead of building them into coherent class sets yourself are saying “screw it – let the players do it. They know better anyway. Plus there’s none of that annoying game balance to worry about! Everybody can be everything, amirite?” (Oh wait, you have this really complex series of checks and balances to make sure you can’t screw up your character or become God of the Tankmages that will mean the game will take 2 years to learn instead of 1 year. Right.)

Ditching levels and classes won’t magically eliminate The Grind: Ultima Online was a horribly, horribly grind-tastic game (hello, GM Blacksmith TWICE, cry for me) and World of Warcraft is pretty grind-free despite being chock full of both classes AND levels.  It’s simply another rules system, and by its nature an inherently more complicated one, both to design and more importantly, to play. That doesn’t mean it’s BAD – there’s plenty of successful MUDs that do very well with mature skills-based systems. But just tossing that out as “well, hell, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this besides ME” ignores, among other things, the fact that this gets proposed and wildly argued over and finally shouted down violently by the experienced and probably drunk senior developer in every MMO designed to date.

Of course, just rehashing D&D over and over again is pretty insane, too.

5) Make mobs smarter

It would be ridiculously easy to make mobs smarter. “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.” It would be the equivalent of That Dungeon Master Guy you all hate who takes great, sadistic, and Aspergian glee in making sure “his” players always die horribly.

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

6) Encourage grouping

Yeah, let’s not go there.

9) Listen to, and engage with, players

The players are often WRONG.

What’s more, they will lie to you.

DIRECTLY.

TO YOUR FACE.

No, really, their class is horribly underpowered, any fool would know that if they only played the game and that bug you’re talking about is really a feature and anyway you shouldn’t remove it because our entire side is underpopulated so it’s only fair.

The players are not the ones at financial risk if your game fails. They simply move on after consuming all you have to offer.

Of course the players are also often right. There’s a whole discipline of development which revolves around figuring out which is which. At least until they figure out they’re the least paid people at the company and move on to junior worldbuilder so they finally get some respect in the break room.

But engaging with players entails the willingness to do some very fundamental things which, to date, have been unpopular with both developers and players.

* Telling players they are wrong.

* Telling dev teams they are wrong.

* Telling players and dev teams that YOU have been wrong.

* Being honest with both players and dev teams.

* Not taking sides with one against the other.

* Not playing favorites with certain players or groups of players.

* Not playing favorites with certain devs or groups of devs.

* Not building up your own personal reputation at the cost of your teams or your community.

* Having skin thick enough to deflect radioactive waste.

* Having the ability to process thousands of often contradictory voices, cleanly, quickly and professionally, without hearing them in your head as an insane cacophany driving you to murder small children.

If you’re not willing to do that – all of that – then the point you ignored will be the point that will hoist you on your petard and do more damage to your community than if you had never engaged with them in the first place. And that is why most dev teams of late just take the path of least resistance and not bother. Because it’s SAFER.

But yeah, you should totally engage with your players, because, hey, they are kind of the reason you’re there. Just be aware you’ll screw it up and cause more harm than good. Also be aware you’re not the first.

So… yeah. Hopefully this gives some idea of the long and brutal path between good intentions and attempted implementation.

It’s HARD, yo.

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104 Responses to Fixing MMOs Is Hard

  1. Iconic says:

    On “Ditching classes and levels.”

    Classes can be ditched, levels are always going to exist in some form, whether you call them that or not.

    I think what many people crave is escape from the same linear crap where every player of Class X and level Y has access to the exact same everything. Yes, it’s easier to balance, but the laziness and “can’t be done” attitude on this front is amazing.

    At the very least there is a lot of room to allow custom class design and overlap, like the old class system in Star Wars Galaxies. There was an awful lot of structure in the way that you had to progress, but there was also a fair amount of freedom to combine bits of different professions together. A more open system than the old SWG system would be a lot of work, but would also offer a lot more fun to jaded MMO players.

  2. Mist says:

    10) Launch when the beginning of the game is fun, the middle of the game is fun, and the end of the game is fun, and that fun is able to last more than a week. If you have a fun beginning game but no endgame yet, don’t add a bunch of non-fun content between the beginning and the end and hope to stall for time. (See: AoC levels 21-80.)

    9) Don’t listen to the players. Make a community of your best beta players, and then create some kind of hidden karma system for constructive feedback submitted, and then select a few of your more literate high-end players. Create a private feedback forum. Then ignore most of what they say anyway. Stick to The Vision, assuming your Vision is good; if your Vision isn’t good, listening to your whiny players won’t help it anyway.

    8) Subscription prices are fine. MMOs deliver dozens of hours of entertainment a month to even casual players, and 100+ to the hardcore. Strongly consider charging the hardcore extra money for content designed specifically for them and no one else. Yes they will complain when they need to pay 5-10 dollars for access to Raid Dungeon Z. As a side note, if you’re going to do this, create a system where players can pay to gift this access to other players, because half your hardcore players are jobless while the other half are trust-fund babies. Also, don’t harass people for trying to trade timecards for gold, support it if you have the resources. It’s win/win.

  3. VorpalK says:

    DDO is a less-than-successful game because of the basically-forced grouping. The combat system was decent when I was beta testing it. I’m not willing to beg for a party so I can have a night of gameplay though.

    As has been mentioned, UO got away with FFA PvP when it was the only game in town. EQ got away with forced grouping when it was (almost) the only game in town.

    Neither of those things is true, and despite the protests of the D&D loyalists (and children, I was playing D&D before the Blue Box basic set came out. I still have boxed sets of Gamma World and Boot Hill), DDO is not pen and paper D&D. It’s an MMO, a business that needs to attract customers.

    If you want to enforce groups, play fucking Pen and Paper D&D and house rule your ass off. Stop trying to drive away income (I mean solo players) because you think everyone needs to respect your authoritah.

  4. VorpalK says:

    neither of those things is true NOW. Doh.

  5. I just about wrote a book in your comment box, but before I submitted it, I realized I can use this stuff to make a new post on my OWN blog, and screw your comments.

    But I agree with all of your points, so there’s that.

  6. Mist says:

    I really need to get one of these bloggy thingies.

  7. Eric Heimburg :
    But I agree with all of your points, so there’s that.

    And really, isn’t that what’s important here?

  8. I’ve been in a tizzy with all these “10 ways to fix MMOs” postings that have been going around. Thank you for posting the angry rant I didn’t have time to make. Thank you for also playing “Cassandra” (which is probably a role you relish, it’s why you have subscribers).

    I might add to the various posters of how to fix MMOs “Why don’t you try to fix it yourself?”. Go pick up a bargin bin copy of Neverwinter Nights 1, host a server and play around with the rules and see how this affects players. Or sign up with a group planning to do something with metaplace, or an unreal mod, or a thousand other ways of doing a self published multi-player game these days. Go nuts and throw out every baby and stinky tub of bathwater you can. Hopefully you’ll discover some grand new design rule that no one else has, most likely you’ll realize why some rules you hated are there (like while aggro/hate is kinda silly, it’s better than having no player control for who gets attacked).

    Anyway, thanks for speaking up for the harsh voice of reality.

  9. JuJutsu says:

    I never thought I’d say thank goodness for WoW; I don’t care for it and don’t play it. But as long as it keeps #4 & #7 [the Blizzard Rule] in play then….thank goodness for WoW. Unlike the rest of life, designing games is Hard. They have Executives that want to actually make money; timelines and these budget things. It’s not their fault they dump half-finished product out the door.

    I hope the Blizzard Rule stays in place a nice long time.

  10. Allen Varney says:

    Your link for “Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes” (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) links to the Hasbro site, presumably because you listed the URL as “RuneQuest” (the Chaosium tabletop RPG, later sold to Avalon Hill which was purchased by Wizards of the Coast which was purchased by Hasbro, though the RPG was later licensed to Mongoose Publishing) when you may instead have meant “Runescape” (the Java-based boutique MMO).

    If you did in fact mean the tabletop RuneQuest, it has neither classes nor levels, though arguably getting your skills up to 100% was a grind, and the tabletop RPG hasn’t ever made a ton of money for any of its publishers.

  11. So delaying launch until the game is “finished” would drive the company out of business, but launching before the game is finished will result in players coming, deciding that it fails the Blizzard rule due to its unfinished state, and leaving the game with, for the sake of argument, 60% of the number of subscribers Marc Jacobs wanted.

    Guess we should all get used to waiting two years a pop for the next WoW expansion, because those rules seem to say that we’re not seeing a viable contender to the throne until Blizzard releases one itself.

  12. Allen Varney :
    “RuneQuest”

    Good catch. And probably a Freudian slip since I was thinking about Runequest when going off on level/class alternative systems.

    (Although it kind of suffered when Avalon Hill bought it and turned it, weirdly, into a game about Vikings.)

  13. Queso says:

    I didnt play WOW classic, but I imagined that it took people a lot longer to get from 1-60 than it did people to get to 1-40 in Warhammer.

    I wonder if making a huge grind before people get to end game is a good idea to stall your player base before you can get the end game stuff completed.

  14. Mist says:

    WoW 1-60 was fairly long but wasn’t a huge grind. It had a ton of excellent level up content, both in the form of solo quests, group quests, and amazingly fun 5 man instances long before you hit endgame. Scarlet Monastery, Shadowfang Keep, Deadmines, WoW never would have been a success without that now largely bypassed content. I think people forget how WoW got popular in the first place. It was because the gameplay, almost ALL of the gameplay, 1-60 was incredibly fun. It also had enough endgame to keep enough of the high end around for 2 years until they could deliver a much improved experience for all in BC.

    This is very much unlike AoC level 41-80, or all the tier 3 content in WAR. That content was all horrible, and made people not even want to hit endgame. That content was where subscriptions went to die. If you want to put a finger on why those two games didn’t succeed where WoW did, that’s it, right there.

  15. Freakazoid says:

    How do you keep finding all these terrible, terrible blogs?

    It’s nice that you can come in and correct their awfulness, but I almost prefer to pretend they don’t exist.

  16. jinstevens says:

    Remind me not make a post about improving MMOs. 😛

  17. UnSub says:

    On that “Make mobs smarter” point in the original blog, can people stop crafting awesome stories of NPC AI (or, for that matter, PvP encounters) of how things went X, Y and Z and then they won?

    Taking HL as their example, I often saw random things of X, Y and Z then died. Quick load, died again. Quick load, let’s try this … dead. Quick load, let’s throw a grenade there then pull back and yay, made it. In single player FPSs I can fiddle around with tactics until I win. MMOs don’t have quick load buttons. If players want random, unpredictable encounters, they should be prepared to die a lot.

    Oh, and CoH/V has items, but they are called enhancements. They are loot by any other name.

    Final point: ChampO has ditched classes and theoretically you can pick any powers you want. We’ll have to see what that means for players and character advancement when it launches.

  18. Shouldn’t you have named this article, “The Empire Strikes Back”? Nice cut scenes!

  19. Ravious says:

    And, that. I believe. Is the best way to end the blogosphere chain of 10 things.

  20. Dan Gray says:

    Mist :
    10) Launch when the beginning of the game is fun, the middle of the game is fun, and the end of the game is fun, and that fun is able to last more than a week. If you have a fun beginning game but no endgame yet, don’t add a bunch of non-fun content between the beginning and the end and hope to stall for time. (See: AoC levels 21-80.)

    This I will agree with, but I think it needs expanding on a little more.

    It’s not about trying to release with huge amounts of content intending keep every player busy. That approach is going to drain your budgets and strain your team to breaking point. It is about developing enough FUN content with a decent replayability value, so people wont mind coming back to the same thing again and again. A smaller amount of polished and fun content beats larger amounts of mediocre content every time.

    Take Left4Dead, for example. No, it’s not an MMO, but I think the comparison still applies. Left4Dead released with, and still has, only four campaigns. Four campaigns that can be played through in 30 minutes to an hour each. That really doesn’t sound like much, does it? Yet people are still loving the game having played through each one dozens of times. Why? Because it’s fun. I don’t want to get picky with details about how this doesn’t apply to MMO design theory, it’s a simple principle that I am illustrating.

    Mist :
    9) Don’t listen to the players. Make a community of your best beta players, and then create some kind of hidden karma system for constructive feedback submitted, and then select a few of your more literate high-end players. Create a private feedback forum. Then ignore most of what they say anyway. Stick to The Vision, assuming your Vision is good; if your Vision isn’t good, listening to your whiny players won’t help it anyway.

    This is a very jaded view, and strongly disagree.

    1) If a design decision is relating to the overall vision of your game then it generally isn’t something you should be presenting to your community anyway, unless your current vision is a miserable failure. However, that definitely does not translate to “you only raise unimportant issues with your community.”

    2) Isolating the intelligent discussion away from the rest of your community may help with signal to noise ratio in the short term, but it is going to be damaging in the long term. Players who spend a lot of time thinking about a game will eventually create their own vision of how they feel it should develop. This distorts their feedback, and will lead to conflicts with others who were previously on the same page. The only way to help prevent that is keeping it public, so decisions aren’t being made in such an isolated environment. You also stunt the development of your community by not encouraging the experienced and well spoken members of your community to fraternize with the rest.

    In the past I have both personally managed and been a member of small core feedback groups on private forums, for two different MMOs. In neither case did I see it help a great deal, and in both I felt that in the long term it was quite detrimental for the reasons I listed above.

  21. pharniel says:

    I have nothing to say aside from YAY angry johnny is still in business (haven’t thought about them since freshman year of college).

  22. Turlow says:

    If you ditch levels (class or skill), how do characters improve? I may be missing something but a level-less game would mean all players start with the same abilities with the same chance of success using those abilities and the chance of success never ever changes for anyone. I suppose the game could be item-centric where equipment improves your abilities. But wouldn’t that just redefine level from character based attributes to equipment based?

  23. EpicSquirt says:

    The list sounds intimidating, my theory is that random people could make better MMOs than out there with the amount of money Age of Conan or Warhammer have used for development.

    10) Either launch when finished or make the development itself an open process. In any case, the project and budget management and is really laughable sometimes in the industry: No one will prove to me that patches (development, testing and applying them to a live product) each week or each two weeks can work for a MMO (AoC tried that). Sofware quality can be measured as: being on time, being in budget and the amount of errors in. The fact is that besides of seeking a balance in that magical triangle, the games often have a bad design making one way of playing the path most will choose!

    8) Beta software shouldn’t cost 15 Euros per month.

    3) & 5) Simple combat and griding are okay to a degree: but you have to make sure that there are many (simple) ways of fighting and many ways of griding (through PvE, PvP, market game, political game, etc.)

    6) I wouldn’t encourage grouping, in fact I’d remove groups, parties, war bands and so on. Grouping would come then with a higher communication cost and could lead to a communication break down. Yes, beating the crap out of the zerg with a small group of dedicated people is fun, but spread healing from a safe position and watching health bars in group window go up and down isn’t! In many games one can just play the game by foccusing on the damn health bars and not on what’s going on. I’d remove the health bars too, one would have to beat on someone for as long as it takes.

    2) Classes and levels are totally obsolete, you can drive a game with an attribute and skill based system easily. See Shadowrun, the pen & paper RPG (minus the arche types).

    9) Sell your vision and invite everyone to take part in it and make it better, just don’t bullshit people with features you will not deliver and try to be innovative.

  24. […] Scott Jennings points out like many of the other ‘quick fixes’ we armchair MMO devs come up with it’s just […]

  25. dartwick says:

    Beyond grinding levels to get to the end game, the biggest problem in MMOs is definitely that most the players insist on a game they can simultaneously play while cooking dinner and watching TV.

    games suck because players demand it.

  26. Best quote of 2009: “Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.”

  27. Chris F says:

    I think they should have added one more, which is to curb marketing until the product is more feature secure. This goes back to Dan Gray’s comment of how ‘players create their own vision of the game’. Players do that the day a game is announced. There are already thousands of players who have formed their opinion on what the KOTOR MMO should play like for them.

    Companies should wait just a bit longer before releasing info to make sure they know and understand what their game is – and more importantly, isn’t – so they can relay that to consumers and meter expectations.

  28. Its hard to believe these guys have ever played games before, much less have advanced degrees. Its clear they’ve never worked in the industry before and if they were to get jobs in the industry, they’d probably make the same craptacular mistakes that Koster did with UO and McQuaid did with EQ. This sentence though was most telling:

    “Let me change my name. Let me change my appearance as often as I like. Don’t restrict me doing these things unless you have a very good reason.”

    OMG are you kidding? Did you learn nothing from the griefing that went on in UO and I/LoK and these features weren’t even available!

    But above and beyond that, their comments just seem whacked and without thought. They have some good points. I don’t know anyone who loves the levelling grind. But its hardly why MMOs are broken. Comparing the combat systems of MMOs with those of single player FPS games, again, does not make an MMO broken. But yah the same old combat process gets old and tired after a while. As you pointed out in your rant, they don’t have a clue about the business of MMOs and not even Microsoft — a company with more money than god — ships software when its ‘finished.’ Near as I can tell any piece of software is pretty much a work in progress and is never “finished.”

    Gah I’m going to rant myself because these guys are so far off the mark and so wrong and their rant is so thoughtless and stupid it pisses me off. Don’t listen to them Lum. They are WRONG. and making games is HARD.

  29. […] recently made the best quote about game design I’ve heard in a long time: Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. […]

  30. Steve says:

    Launching when it’s finished is easy. All you have to do is determine how long you have to make the game before you run out of money, and then create a game design that can be made in half that time.

  31. Gammarad says:

    The “how to fix MMOs” game seems really fun to me, I want to play.

    Step 1: how to fix the “3 boring classes” problem. Because it sounds like this is a big and difficult one somehow. Keep classes, they are a great solution to multiple problems (knowing who does what at a glance is one that wasn’t even mentioned, as well as all the ones in the main article here).

    Here’s my answer: Take out the “damage” role, everyone should be damaging. Give every class roughly equal damage. Take out the “tank” role, make the MBIs do area damage, they hit everyone fighting them the same amount. Keep healing, it just becomes different to do. Add a role of “defense” and a role of “offense” – the defense role makes MBIs hit softer, or miss a lot, or something like that, whether by adding a shield or by cursing the MBI or covering it in gluey stuff or whatever. The offense role makes the MBI die faster by making everyone do more damage, or swing faster, or hit more often, or making the MBI heal itself slower, or something. The variety in defense/offense classes is usually whether it works by “buff” or “debuff” but you can squeeze more variety in there too. So pretty much, defense replaces tanks and offense replaces damage, but, they’re much more interesting to play because everyone gets to do equal damage. On a team, the offense makes everyone hit harder, not just himself. The defense makes everyone safer, not just himself.

    Not only that, but when you do it this way, you can balance it so that it doesn’t matter which you have more of, healing, offense, or defense. They are pretty much substitutes for each other. Offense makes you kill things faster, so you might need to make other disadvantages for having too much offense, but the risk of offense is random numbers; offense makes it faster but it also makes it riskier and the slowdown there is the times you die 🙂

    You probably already have MBIs that are intended for one player and other MBIs that are intended for multiple only. I’ll call them SMBIs (solo mbis) and GMBIs (group mbis). Solo MBIs can be killed by at least one of the new 3 roles. Group MBIs need at least one of each, and then add any number of whichever else.

    City of Villains pretty much has the above scheme, but the MBIs are much weaker there overall. I think it could still work for a game with MBIs as tough as the Everquest ones, with the above suggestion.

    Step 2 EZ socialization

    But the one thing that most MMOs need to be “fixed” is very simple, they need a way for players of different levels and playing times to join up and do something meaningful together, without it being a way of cheating and having the player lower on the ladder getting a “rung up” so to speak. Having a mentoring system that temporarily boosts the lower one up to the higher one’s level, but does not provide them any faster of an advancement, is all that’s necessary, but making that happen technically seems to be fairly difficult and/or omitted for some other reason.

    As for encouraging grouping, that is also doable without becoming Everquest. You just have to “encourage” it. But I pretty much think most MMOs already do this, so it’s not really a how to fix them thing. Maybe WoW does not encourage grouping at lower levels (mostly in my new-to-WoW feeling by making it very confusing to figure out how quests work when you’re in a group), but most MMOs do. And WoW encourages it at middle and higher levels, with their multi person instances.

  32. Matt says:

    “Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.”

    Everything I’ve been teaching my designers summed up into two sentences. Thanks Scott.

  33. Ysharros says:

    Hear hear! Burn all armchairs. Or at least fit them with really painful, remote-controlled pointy spring-loaded things.

    Ow.

  34. tsweatt says:

    I do believe that’s the first DragonRealms reference I’ve seen in a long, long time, and I have to say it’s long over due! So many promising systems in the game could be applied to MMOs…hopefully not the PvP consent system though, as that has led to a disagreement between myself and Simutronics (and hey remember Hero’s Journey?) about whether or not I should be allowed to play the game again.

  35. […] all over the MMO blogosphere are chewing on a new meme: Are MMOs broken? Or is it just […]

  36. SiliconMage says:

    Few other thoughts.

    1) Start small, iterate often. Don’t use a 10 year single release development model, this is a sure recipe for failure. Concentrate on the core first, and release something playable and fun with a limited feature set within, say, 3 years. Add crafting, diplomacy, city sieges, or funky new feature #46 in later iterations.

    2) Add jumping. Your users will complain if they can’t jump. Don’t know why, really. But some people will be put off enough to quit playing if its not there.

    3) Add emotes, and not just text emotes. Dancing is a big one, but burping, farting, sitting, and laying down are all very popular.

    4) Allow male and female versions of all of your classes. Some folks will refuse to play a female only character (I imagine the reverse is true to some extent as well).

    5) Balance the classes (or skills) ARITHMETICALLY. 1 point damage = 1 point healing = 1 point crowd control, create an Excel spreadsheet and make sure each class (or skill) balances out to within .1 of a point to each other, and publish this sheet and let all of your users examine/critique it.

    6) DON’T publish class descriptions years ahead of time because your customers will hold you to them like a binding contract forever. “Master of spell damage HA!!!!”

    7) Accommodate different playing types within your game. Let the Griefers grief each other in a griefing zone, let the rogues pickpocket each other in a Thieves area, PvP area’s etc. Make a zone where magic is stronger, another where melee is stronger, another for ranged. Then put in some juicy quests for the other classes to get some phat loot.

    8) Don’t make “Godlike Super Items” where 1 item is clearly the most superior in every aspect as your customers will ignore all other items. Make a superior melee armor, superior ranged armour, elemental armor, stats armor and force your users to pick and choose. Add weight restrictions so they can’t simple carry around all the armor sets and switch to the ones needed.

    9) Design your content as a binary tree, with lower levels having fewer choices and higher levels having more. So if you are making low/medium/high level dungeons, make it 2/2/8, not 4/4/2.

    10) Items that are harder to obtain should have more visual bonuses that statistical. The 100 hour quest sword should result in a flaming sword that looks cool as opposed to the sword of zonewide butt raping +1000 to everything. Make the game a little more casual friendly.

  37. Loredena says:

    “Allow male and female versions of all of your classes. Some folks will refuse to play a female only character (I imagine the reverse is true to some extent as well).”

    This applies to races as well — there are games I, as a woman gamer, have refused to buy or play because they had multiple male-only races. I gave LotRO a pass on the dwarves, because it DID fit the lore, and was only one race. Arcanium (I think that was the name) on the other hand opted for that choice with multiple races, with no preexisting lore to work around — despite my initial interest in the game (I’m definitely part of its target audience) I refused to get it.

  38. […] thus!”). And this is me jumping on it, because I do care about this stuff. Besides, when Lum gets involved it’s hard not to get sucked into the slipstream, especially when he says stuff I agree with. […]

  39. […] unholy walls of text I stumbled into the following conversation with a member named Mist, over on Scott Jennings’ blog. As with my last entry, I thought it was interesting enough to share […]

  40. Tesh says:

    My concerns with classes are that they are built to function best in groups, and that they introduce PvP imbalance. I don’t particularly want to play in a group all the time, and paper/rock/scissors PvP is frustrating and far less skill-intensive than it should be.

    Atlantica Online dodges this to some degree by allowing players to control a squad of units, rather than a single unit. Each unit is very constrained in its “class”, but because the player controls more than one constrained unit, it’s possible to build a much more robust “player presence” in combat.

  41. […] – Scott Jennings posted his response to the above linked article, which is pretty interesting reading as […]

  42. Longasc says:

    (2) I would still ditch classes and levels. Sure, some kind of “levels” will always exist, but the current implementation (e.g. WoW) is awful. It is all about reaching the max, end level quickly and then throw away 90% of the game world for a meager endgame content.

    (9) The truth is in the middle, and no company or designer is 100% focused on himself or 100% on the games’ community. The fallacy is that one or the other is right/wrong. In the end the designers always decide, never the player base. Designers do not have to heed player advice, but it can never hurt to listen to it.

  43. damn you, capitalism! says:

    Re 5: People keep complaining that it’s silly when one group of goblins stands 20 feet away watching you kill thier siblings in a different group of goblins. To solve this, you’d need to have that other group of goblins outside the range of character visibility, which is pretty darn far in most games. Or your entire gameplay would revolve around aoe’ing 10,0000 goblins as each group chains another group who all necessarily hit like baby murlocs.

    You would either have to have very barren, empty worlds, where each reasonably dangerous mob is separated from any other reasonably dangerous mob by the player’s maximum visual distance, or you’d have to have worlds where the player is truly an epic hero capable of surviving 10’s of monsters (hello, wotlk). If you had large, barren worlds, people would be complaining even more about how long it takes to go from z to x, and how camped each place is. It’s just not realistic.

    Re 2 – I’m sorry, but I loved — LOVED — UO’s classless and leveless system. Yes, in the end it’s just a different “skin” on the actual game system behind it, and it’s much much more complicated to balance since you can’t be ensured that the frost mage skills won’t be mixed with the ret pally skills, but it was also much more interesting as a player and much more engaging. I know alot of folks ended up having the flavor of the month build, but I stil loved it.

  44. Ed says:

    “Make mobs smarter” is more difficult than you think (I’m speaking from experience here). We can have “smart” mobs in single player games, sure. But just how many of these mobs are “in play” at any one time? Single player games have a limited window of activity, the area surrounding the player.

    With MMOs, you have a larger number of mobs and less CPU time for their behavior. As my boss once told me, it’s not how complex something is, it’s how complex and how many times a second do you have to do it.

  45. Mortarion says:

    I got mentally exhausted reading over this because (while I’ve known these problems exist), it really put me into the shoes of an MMO dev. Why do you people WANT these jobs?! I’d spend five minutes trying to resolve these problems, then say “Screw it” and go make an FPS action game. Those involve much fewer paradoxes!

  46. Mist says:

    Mortarion :
    Why do you people WANT these jobs?!

    Moneyhats, duh.

  47. Nirgal says:

    A lot of these I agree with your comments on. I do think your comment on ‘encouraging grouping’ was a bit short. Of course you can take it too far and there should be useful solo content, but by the same token I find it hard to get into ‘MMOs’ where everyone is just running around doing their own thing. I can get better content from a single player game with no subscription fee if I’m not interacting with others.

  48. Iconic says:

    “If you ditch levels (class or skill), how do characters improve? I may be missing something but a level-less game would mean all players start with the same abilities with the same chance of success using those abilities and the chance of success never ever changes for anyone.”

    Well, you’re almost certainly going to have levels of some kind. That doesn’t mean they have to be of the linear variety. I’ll use UO just as an example: your character has skill levels, and has a finite amount of skill that can be obtained (this used to 700, but I’m sure that’s changed by now). So in a sense, characters range from ~50 to 700. However, a character with 50 skill in 14 abilities is not the same level power wise as a character with 7 skills at 100. Skills take longer to level the higher they get, and a maxed out skill (Grand Master) skill represents a lot of time and effort. A maxed out character would typically have 7 GM skills (but they might be completely different from character to character).

    Players figure out really efficient templates over time, so that they essentially design their own classes. The challenge for the designers is to keep working on the existing skills to make less desired abilities seem more appealing, and to add additional skills over time. Obviously the more skills you put into the game the more complex the balancing act becomes, as each skill can now interact with so many others.

    This is one example: A skill based system. In place of skill you could easily have a bunch of tiered menus, sort of like what you find in WoW talent trees. As a general rule you can put the points that you earn (your pseudo levels) into any tree you want, but within each tree you have to build up through the tiers, preventing you from easily cherry picking the most potent stuff from every tree. Star Wars Galaxies had a very primitive version of this.

    The point is, yes, you have to have levels of some kind if you want to have character progression, but they don’t have to be the same boring, lazy linear progression of levels that seem to have carried over from Dungeons and Dragons to every other fantasy game in the universe.

    You don’t need pre designed classes, but you need to be aware of the ways that people min/max a system, anticipate it, and react to it when you fail to anticipate it. You can’t simply throw in a bunch of abilities, assume that people will choose them more or less equally, and throw your hands up in despair when every one has the same 5 abilities after launch.

  49. Vaxhacker says:

    But, without levels I wouldn’t be able to say “Ding! 80!” in guild chat. Where’s the fun in that?

  50. damn you, capitalism! says:

    One other thing I really miss about UO — the ability to “own” a damn house, build it how I want block by block, and take many and varied actual game items and stack them into beautiful fishtanks or write in colored cloth various rude words on my roof for passerby.

  51. Lee Quillen says:

    “Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.”

    I’m a player, and I’ll say outright… I dislike challenge.

    Recent First Person Shooters were a great example. I played CoD:Modern Warfare, beat it, told everyone to out and buy it RIGHT NOW! Loved the story, the pacing… it all seemed perfect. I’m in the middle of CoD:World at War right now, and recently after dieing to a grenade for about the zillionth time… realized that the only difference between the two games (IMHO) was that the second was a lot harder. A lot harder means more deaths… which means more time thinking about how I died and replaying content instead of being immersed in how bad ass I am.

    Oddly enough casual,non-frustrating, easy to get into, games are very popular with the masses.

    Fix for MMOs? take what Blizzard got right (accessibility, ton of content at release, fairly polished compared peer MMOs) and apply it to your design. I think a lot of great and innovative ideas have failed right out of the gate by leaving out details that WoW made seem like a standard due to being so popular.

  52. Brask Mumei says:

    I love challenge, but only if dying is fun.

    When you make dying “meaningful” you force me to avoid challenges and bottom feed. And then question WTF I’m doing and cancel my sub.

  53. yunk says:

    I laughed out loud at “Launch when it’s finished” yeah that would be great for ANY software development effort.

    The only time that applies is embedded software, and with everyone flashing rom chips thesedays really it only applies in deviced that aren’t networked like in a car. I bet even planes get flashed regularly. that’s actually kinda scary now that I think of it.

  54. Lethality says:

    This post is a joke… tell us Scott, how’s the back-seat developing going?

  55. Jackbnimble says:

    I think that the problem with mmo’s and challenge is pretty simple.

    1) People do like challenge, or more specifically OVERCOMING a challenge.

    2) If something is too challenging people get frustrated, angry, etc.

    3) Different people are challenged in different ways, by different things.

    This is the problem that the games need to figure out how to overcome. Most single player games do it by altering the difficulty level. Doing this in an mmo though is more problematic, though still possible.

    Want an excellent mmo that is incredibly successful both in player base and financially?

    Create game that has varied interesting challenges that can be conquered at a reasonable rate. Make sure the challenges can be dealt with well by a very broad player base, then finally make sure you never run out of said challenges. If you can manage to do this, your mmo will be the WOW breaker. Unfortunately actually pulling this off is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of time and talent to do, and due to technical limitations may be currently impossible.

  56. sixkilla says:

    Logic prevails and the circle jerk is over! Huzzah!

  57. Ray O'Brien says:

    As far as a game with no classes…you ever heard of Champions Online??

  58. Nirgal says:

    Brask Mumei :
    I love challenge, but only if dying is fun.
    When you make dying “meaningful” you force me to avoid challenges and bottom feed. And then question WTF I’m doing and cancel my sub.

    Different people feel differently about this though. I play EVE online and like it in large part due to aspects that come along with the high death penalty. For example, I don’t have to grind endlessly to get competitive PvP gear precisely because people lose their gear when they die. Nobody is going to camp Eramai for weeks on end if they’re going to have to do it again the next time they’re face down in the dirt. So, as a whole, I spend more time doing things I like.

  59. Somedude says:

    Player’s do like challenge, they just don’t like to be punished for losing. Ultimately, that’s what MMOs do, progress quest design principles are directly at odds with challenge oriented gameplay for everyone but a small portion of hardcore players.

    Not that Saints Row 2 is particularly challenging, but I can fail a mission 5 times in a row and while somewhat frustrating, is no biggie due to their check point system. If I had to run out and buy more ammo or make more money between each failure, then it goes from somewhat frustrating to nerd rage.

    But players are people and people are sheep, and while they enjoy challenge, you need progress quest mechanics to keep people playing month in and month out. So, you kind of have to throw challenge out the window.

  60. Bitwraith says:

    An interesting thing about this genre is how over the generations the feature set has been paired down. If you collect the most common requests from MMO gamers, you’d have a feature set that resembles UO: skill based leveling, housing, boats, pvp, fully interactive itemization, etc.

  61. Echo says:

    Lum-

    Been reading your stuff since the to LtM days, and I find myself generally in agreement with your design/content related views.

    @Bitwraith: I’m an MMO gamer, been one since the dawn of EQ (missed the UO boat playing paper RPs with friends) and I wouldn’t notice if every game designed going forward skipped PvP entirely. And, for me, the sole purpose of ingame housing is storing crap…large vaults and instant toon to toon mail removes that need.

    Which brings me to my point: Reality is a pain, but it separates what CAN be done from all the “gosh, wouldn’t it be nice” plans. Money drives development, and money follows success. Tabula Rasa exists because of the success part…it doesn’t because of the reality part.

  62. Yeebo says:

    I don’t have much to add. This was one of the most thought provoking posts, and discussion chains, I’ve stumbled across in a while. SiliconMage’s comment seemed exceptionally insightful.

    On the whole classes’ levels issue:

    I personally enjoy classes because they present a well organized, and functional, set of themed abilities for me to explore. They increase replay value by segregating abilities off between different characters. And finally, they make a new game much easier to get going in. Choose a role and go.

    That said, hybrid systems have enjoyed quite a bit of success in offline RPGs. For example, KoTRO I and II actually had a very flexible skill / talent system meshed seamlessly with a class/ level system. Those were mainstream successes by any standard. Morrowind, Fallout, and Fable also use hybrid systems. From this it follows, in my mind, that a pure class system is not the only recipe for mainstream success.

    Certainly balancing a less restricted system then a pure class system can be challenging. However, I suspect that the market will embrace systems that have a higher learning curve than “pick a class” if it’s embedded in a quality product.

  63. Daniel says:

    I just wandered in here, long-time gamer, not much interested in the development process, just want to have fun. Play WoW now.

    I enjoyed this piece because for the first time in my life I felt that someone in the development community was honest with me. Maybe that lack of trust was why I never cared to complain or get interested, just move on to the next game. But perhaps I just never really understood where developers where coming from, having never been involved in the biz.

    I have some things to think about now. Maybe more than I really want to. Thanks for writing this.

  64. UnsGub says:

    10) Launch when it’s finished

    This is really old, outdated, and not the future.

    Launch often and never stop. The first launch is the press release saying the game is being made, it is just content, and it never really stops even when the lights go out. There is still a lot to learn for history for example.

  65. joe says:

    “Release when it’s finished”– Bullshit. They go so over budget they can’t invest anymore. This means they would actually take a chance with their current investment rather than pump more money into it… that’s obviously a desperate measure. It should read 1)Don’t run out of money.

  66. Zeb Cook says:

    Thanks for saving me the trouble of posting a rebuttal in Trembling Hand’s comments.

    As a long-time designer of all sorts of games, let me add my minor notes:

    10. Launching — the best hope is to launch well. MMO’s are never finished, but if your launch goes badly, it doesn’t matter what other plans you might have down the line.

    3. Combat Smarter — the goal is not to make combat more complex, but to increase the player’s depth of options. Those that want a simple fight can continue that way, others can tinker to their heart’s content.

    2. Amen. I’ve tried both. Classes win. They provide consistent expectation, definition of role, clarify grouping (try LFG in a freeform skill system), create content, establish limits, and, yes, simplify balancing (which is still damn hard). Given the choice to learn anything, the majority of players try to do everything and don’t do well at any of it — because the game system, content and world encourage diversity (to do this quest chain you need X, for combat you need Y, etc.). Player’s aren’t keen on imposing limits on themselves, but are much more accepting of limits established from the start. At the extreme Skill-based systems can also discourage grouping, since there is no inherent specialization. I’ve got nothing against a system that does without classes, but it has to address all of the above (and more).

    5. As I have explained to designers on various teams, “The goal of a good AI is to lose gracefully.” Making AI’s win is easy. Making them lose well is harder.

    9. There is an art to listening to players. While I’m not so utterly cynical to say they all lie, most of the time they don’t say what they really want. The trick is to listen to what they’re saying and then figure out what the real problem/answer is. Players usually describe a symptom as if it were the cause. “My class is too weak” could really be “My class doesn’t have enough interesting things to do,” or “My abilities encourage less than optimum tactics for my class” or “What I thought this class was supposed to be doesn’t match what I wind up doing.” There’s often a valid issue, but it’s not the issue the player thinks.

  67. Longbow says:

    Fixing MMO’s is very simple. MMo’s are also virtual believable worlds; they are still videogames, but they’re supposed to make a fictional static world become real in every way. And i don’t mean simply use names and settings as a hype booster, but the whole world we’ve read in books and seen in films actually become REAL because of the time-progression that constitutes the persistancy of these games.

    For example Star Trek Online isn’t sposed to be the average MMO with the usual clichés but with names and things that sound trekky, but the ACTUAL world of star trek that becomes alive in EVERYWAY.

  68. Phil says:

    0) Let people play with their friends

    Not just the friends that happen to be about the same level, on the same server, on the same quests, in the same guild, with comparable gear, playing complementary classes, in the same zone, of the same real skill level.

  69. Andy O. says:

    Lum :
    6) Encourage grouping

    Yeah, let’s not go there.

    Haha, god I lived through the Planes of Power in EQ1, even beat Quarm, god having to get 36 gamers all on the same page to take down the Rathe Council. I see why WoW started making their raids smaller, and the 5 man group, what a concept!

  70. Blackblade says:

    Excellent post, Scott, as usual.

    One small thing I’d like to say about a comment.

    Captain Cursor :
    I might add to the various posters of how to fix MMOs “Why don’t you try to fix it yourself?”. Go pick up a bargin bin copy of Neverwinter Nights 1, host a server and play around with the rules and see how this affects players. Or sign up with a group planning to do something with metaplace, or an unreal mod, or a thousand other ways of doing a self published multi-player game these days. Go nuts and throw out every baby and stinky tub of bathwater you can. Hopefully you’ll discover some grand new design rule that no one else has, most likely you’ll realize why some rules you hated are there (like while aggro/hate is kinda silly, it’s better than having no player control for who gets attacked).

    It’s statements like this that always put me in a bit of a tizzy.. Where is it written that in order to be able to have a good design idea, you have to be able to code it?

    Apparently Gary Gygax was one hell of a programmer.. I’ve seen quite a few D&D based video games, so you know he was all about the C++.

    It’s one thing to have a sound baseline understanding of various technologies to know what is technically feasible. It’s quite another to completely reject a good idea because the person who came up with it can’t get the 1’s and 0’s to do their bidding. That’s why you have professional coders to do that sort of thing..

    I’m in no way in the industry other than a consumer, but the way some people who are in the industry make it sound, to be on a development team you have to be able to create your own compiler and know assembly cold before you even think of putting pen to paper about YOUR idea.

  71. Klaitu says:

    UO was grindtastic?

    You could get a 7xGM in less than 30 days without macroing. Try getting to the max level in WoW in 30 days. If it’s possible, you’ll be in pain near the end.

  72. EpicSquirt says:

    Zeb Cook :
    2. Amen. I’ve tried both. Classes win. They provide consistent expectation, definition of role, clarify grouping (try LFG in a freeform skill system), create content, establish limits, and, yes, simplify balancing (which is still damn hard). Given the choice to learn anything, the majority of players try to do everything and don’t do well at any of it — because the game system, content and world encourage diversity (to do this quest chain you need X, for combat you need Y, etc.). Player’s aren’t keen on imposing limits on themselves, but are much more accepting of limits established from the start. At the extreme Skill-based systems can also discourage grouping, since there is no inherent specialization. I’ve got nothing against a system that does without classes, but it has to address all of the above (and more).

    Consistent expectation is damn boring, definition of role is stereotyping (but also works with skill based systems, as a set of skills can define a class or an arche-type, group setups should only limit the ways of how something can be achieved but not set 2 healers, 2 hybrid, 3 DPS, 1 interrupter in stone!

    “Classes create content, establish limits and simplify balancing” and skill based systems not? Void arguments, nothing to them. Skill based systems have usually limits too (maximum amount of skills, maximum value for skill, learning cost), balancing a 32 vs 32 class-based-system fight should be no easier or harder than balancing a 32 vs 32 skill-based-system fight. “Classes create content” must be one of Scott’s jokes, everyone can wear a mage hat or a heavy shield, the question is how proficient he is at it! Please elaborate.

    Tried EVE Online. When you meet someone for the first time, then you don’t know how the character is skilled and what the ship he is in is capable of.

    Characters in EVE have attributes, those affect skill learning speed. You can be specialized or mix professions like Trader, Industrialist, Combat Pilot through skills easily.

    Someone should take Shadowrun’s (pen & paper RPG) system, take away the arche-type system and use the attributes and skills, edges and flaws and use karma (instead of experience) for enhancing skills and attributes and buying and leveling magical artefacts.

    I despise the class FOTMism, the whole leveling-simulator idea, the 8-char-slots-MMOs where everybody runs a couple of accounts and has 8 twinks which are ready to be logged on for every purpose.

    It’s mundane, I have a brain, I could try to achieve to be anything I want to, but obviously I can’t due to my limits, never will be an astronaut or a rocket scientist, but a charater in a game, in a virtual world, why should the character have such limits?

    To me a player ideally would have more choices with a skill-based system than with a class-based system.

    A game is a series of interesting choices. – Sid Meier

  73. Adam says:

    “Try getting to the max level in WoW in 30 days. If it’s possible, you’ll be in pain near the end.”

    Really? My last char was 7 days played to 80, 25 days irl (working more than 40 hours a week). My friend who’s using recruit-a-friend is on pace for 4 days to 80. Just like UO, there’s a big difference between the casual, several month pace to max most people use and the min-max pace. I’d certainly say WoW has a much easier and more enjoyable (and marginally shorter) leveling pace than many other comparable games. It’s one of the reasons it blew up in the first place: because 1-60 in release felt *fun* and not grindy.

  74. isildur says:

    Good article. But you mentioned classes and levels. So this comment thread will be about classes and levels.

    In the red corner: people who have made MMOs and know why we use classes and levels.

    In the blue corner: people who have not, and think classes and levels were shat out by Satan himself.

    FIGHT!

  75. EpicSquirt says:

    @isildur
    Can you explain what the knowledge behind the people in the red corner is please?

    Shouldn’t be there a green corner with people who have made MMOs without classes and levels (knowledgable or not :P)?

  76. Tim says:

    Good to see some discussion springing from my post at Trembling Hand. We need to debate these points rather than resign ourselves to the derivative MMOs of today.

    Couple of points though: ‘better AI’ doesn’t mean ‘harder’. I don’t know why this leap of logic keeps getting made. Heck, making the current mobs smarter could just mean not having them behave so predictably stupid. They can still be beatable, but they could at least give the illusion of smarts instead of standing around waiting for someone to cross their invisible ‘personal space’ barrier and aggro.

    Classes, levels: think outside the box. An MMO doesn’t need to be based on D&D. It just doesn’t. An MMO is anything ‘massively multiplayer’. It could be a lobby for instanced battles that contribute to a larger strategic world. Then it could be more like Counter-Strike or Combat Mission. People don’t bemoan the lack of levels in those games. Or if you really want levels, make it like Mount&Blade – earn xp and gain levels as usual, and each level gives you points to spend on abilities, improving them incrementally. And mobs don’t ‘con’. (I never want to see grey mob that is trivial to me – that breaks my suspension of disbelief – unless it’s City of Heroes…) Sure, this system compresses the spectrum of abilities between level 1 and the level cap, but if that’s folded into the gameplay (as it is in Mount&Blade), then that can work.

    And ‘encourage grouping’ sooo doesn’t mean ‘force grouping’. Encouraging grouping should be a bottom-up thing (incentives, extra xp, auto quest sharing, sidekicking etc) not top down (dungeon required 40 people to enter). Hey, have epic content, but for mainstream PvE, just make it a no brainer to group. Don’t explicitly penalise solo (except they don’t get the advantages of being in a complementary group).

    And finally – not all MMOs should be the same. There really, really should be a diverse range of games available. Some like WoW, some like EVE, some like a lobby/instance, some PvP focused. Give us diversity, because MMO gamers are a broad church.

  77. Daniel says:

    @Tim. I’ve been thinking about the OP throughout my working day and the thing I kept coming back to as the most troublesome was the point that players lie about wanting challenge. And I came to the same conclusion you did. That when players say they want more challenge, when they say that want smarter mobs, they don’t mean they want impossible fights. They mean they want mobs to act more intelligently.

    What does intelligence mean, exactly? I think that one aspect of intelligence is situational awareness. The immediate response of every arrgoed mob should not be attack. Sometimes it means flee, sometimes it means run for help, sometimes it means attack. A smart monster does not have a one track mind; a smart monster does not employ the same tactic in every battle; a smart monster wants to live another day if it can.

    Let me give an example of what I mean by situational awareness. I play WoW and in order to level up a profession as a level 60 player I had to go back to the starting area. I was honestly shocked that my level 60 could arrgo those low levels. And even more shocked that once picked up those monster would attack. It was mindless. Any smart monster, when faced with overwhelming odds against them, would flee; or would at least try to gather for a group attack. There simply was no situational awareness on the part of the mobs, and I thought that was and is very poor game design.

    The second comment that I would make about challenge is that it needs to be purposeful. The more difficult the fight, the more meaning it must have in terms of game content. I’ll admit to avoiding certain difficult battles in WoW. It’s because those battles are difficult, yet winning them doesn’t reward me in any way. They just waste my time. I’m not interested in a hard battle of the sake of a hard battle. I need to understand how it fits withing the overall meaning of the game progression before I am willing to play it. Again, let me give an example from WoW. With in the game, the amount of XP given is based upon the level of the opposing monster. Yet in all situations that I have investigated, the XP per hour is always maximized by fighting monsters at or two levels below you. Fighting mobs three or four levels above you is more challenging and more fun, IMHO, but the game simply does not reward that behavior, unless you are being escorted through the game by a much higher level character. So it’s just not fair to claim that players lie about wanting challenge when the game does not reward them for taking challenges.

  78. Vetarnias says:

    @isildur
    By all means, do enlighten us. Because to me, the only reason that can possibly come to mind for levels is “treadmill” — forcing people to go to the maximum level so they can take part in the endgame, and for class, “replayability” for when you think you’ve ridden that treadmill as far as it would carry on without starting to sputter up smoke.

    Both of these are probably high on the suits’ list, but as far as game designers are concerned, I don’t see why they themselves would be so attached to such obviously unpopular ideas.

    I for one am tired of the fake sense of progression that is usually the result of levels (e.g. you can one-shot the guy ten levels below you and get one-shotted by one ten levels above), sometimes accompanied by a parallel grind for gear à la WoW.

    And if I may get even more specific: I do remember that within a month of the release of Pirates of the Burning Sea, players were asking that only level-40+ players accept invitations to port battles, even in a nation that couldn’t afford to be so choosy because they didn’t have enough people (France). On one glorious occasion, the nation leaders apparently asked people of low levels to pass up on invitations, and the nation ended up getting trounced in the battle because it didn’t nearly have a full complement of 24 (something like 8 or 9, if I remember).

    Yet how can you convince low-level people that they can serve in any meaningful fashion in an RvR game when you’re excluding them from port battles (or even any sort of group PvP) for being liabilities? And in the context of PotBS the players are *right* to do so because that’s how the game was designed, which means that at one point the question must be put to the developers whether this was an intended consequence of their design choices.

    And in the case of PotBS, the uselessness of lowbies is glaring: Lowbies are a liability in PotBS because the best level-20 ships are massively outgunned by level-50 ships in three aspects: number of cannon, caliber, and range — and I’m not even getting into the armor differences between a level-20 and a level-50 ship (or indeed the skills to which a level-50 player has access to widen the discrepancy). In other words, in a port battle, a level-50 ship can pretty much sink a level-20 ship with a single broadside, long before the level-20 could even get in range to fire his guns (which would only make a dent anyway). This is just the nautical version of the one-shot in WoW, except that WoW doesn’t revolve around RvR or even PvP.

    So the message of PotBS was, level to 50, or be useless. Fine for the usual powerlevelers, but not so fine for ordinary players who would take their time getting to level 50 — only to be told then to pass on port battle invitations in favour of people with more experience, i.e. those same powerlevelers who got to 50 within the first month. I myself only made it to 45 over the course of five months before I quit, and even my best ship (an Oliphant, level 44) wasn’t considered battle-worthy; the Heavy Oliphant was okay, but that was a level-50 ship…

    So if you were to ask me what was the impact of having levels in PotBS, I would say it just led to the quick consolidation of the endgame (the port battles) within the hands of a few hardcore gamers who had the time to play and typically leveled up very quickly, and who then started dismissing slower players who had reached 50 but didn’t nearly have their experience in the port battles from which they had been discouraged from taking part because of their low level. The rest of the players were more or less told: “Go level to 50, do your PvE stuff, and mind the red circles (even when they cover half the map and you can’t get to some of the content without entering one) for there is no crying in there.”

    Lowbies were useless in PvP and RvR. Perhaps many quit the game over that (not to mention the ganking) before they could get a taste of the endgame. So I would love to hear why people who make MMO’s use levels and classes.

  79. Tim says:

    @Vetarnias

    And again EVE paves the way. (Caveat – I personally don’t enjoy EVE, but I do respect it tremendously as it serves its audience incredibly well – case in point, EVE is the highest selling Western MMO after WoW and possibly WAR).

    In EVE, you can be capable in PvP at mid-level by specialising in one of the many roles – tackling, ECM, support etc rather than firepower.

    Plus, the more skills you get opens up bigger ships, but those ships are slower and more vulnerable to smaller ships. Thus, mid-level players still have a role to play in combat against larger ships too.

    Not that EVE is perfect, but it shows an alternative to the ‘con’ system and levels = better-in-every-way system.

  80. Anticorium says:

    Boy, I sure wish the lead designer of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would show up and explain why people who make games use classes and levels.

  81. PassingS says:

    I know this is on the levelling side again, but I have a new thing to venture which the OP didn’t state. The main reason people hate levels is the inherant grind to going from 1 -> whatever. I mean, for me just starting to play WoW, I’d have quit after an hour if not for the triple XP bonus. The one alteration to the system that I haven’t seen used outside of Guild Wars is one of the level cap. Level for a couple of hours (in the case of the two “chapters”) and you’ll hit max level and can use all content.

    Of course, I can think of a reason why it’s not used very often –

  82. PassingS says:

    bugger it…double post >_<.

    as I was saying in #25, the only reason I can come up with is that having a very large level cap (that is game effecting) is that is spread your playerbase very thin. For example, if WoW were to have a level cap of say….30, then a larger percentage of the game would be open to players, which would stop players from milling together at quest hubs, which seems to be one of the ways WoW is trying to “Encourage grouping” so to speak. However, they’ve already got a built in answer for this – Trade channels are linked across a server…why not a general channel with a tag having an area name at the beggining of the message?

    And excellent post btw. It’s good to see what others have picked up as being “wrong” with the industry.

    PassingS

  83. Todd Ogrin says:

    “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.”

    That sounds an awful lot like PVP.

  84. […] Lum the Mad might complain about those of us not in the rarified company of “true” game designers, but our recent discussions around here and at Wiqd’s place have been more constructive than whining, and I’d love to maintain that when I get fired up here again.  It’s a lot more fun to create than tear someone else down. […]

  85. Nirgal says:

    Todd Ogrin :
    “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.”
    That sounds an awful lot like PVP.

    It’s also the primary reason why I enjoyed playing healers in DAoC’s RvR but couldn’t stand PvE with them.

  86. Ardanna says:

    Well, I’m in agreement with most of it – save the launch when ready response you gave, Scott.

    It’s interesting as I’m certain you’ve argued the other side of the fence pre-MMO worker type person days. I’m sure at some point you’ve said that customers have to, essentially, stop paying into crap to “test” products that clearly weren’t ready. But, as we learn and grow and change our perspectives change… or, maybe it was some other blog!

    But I digress. Launch when it’s ready… I guess we can lower our standards and say launch when it’s playable… maybe?

    You said this (wish I knew how to quote):

    But yes, in an ideal world we’d be free of budgetary pressures and, through beneficent overlords careless with cash, or even more unlikely, proper and experienced project management, a game would be developed well, QA’d throughly, beta’d for both fun gameplay and crippling bugs, and release on time and on budget.

    I think this is a poor view to take and excuses bad design/testing/behaviour/whatever on the releasing company’s part.

    It’s neither fair nor reasonable to say… yes we are running out of cash so let’s throw this out there, have people pay us to try and get it playable, and then maybe we’ll have something! How is this only being realized when the company is running out of cash?

    Unacceptable. Everyone’s favourite example is likely Vanguard or Hellgate or both. Vanguard launched beyond broken and it was inexcusable to dump that crap on the market despite whatever budgetary pressures the company may have had. Should they loose it all, go bankrupt etc.? Well – yeah. I guess so. I mean, it’s not a charity, right? It’s a business selling a product. The product sucked. They sold it anyway KNOWING that is sucked. Therefore they suck. But you’re justifying that behaviour because making good products is hard.

    I think companies do need to fail so the message will be loud and clear. If we make crappy products, our business won’t survive.

    But we’ll all be duped by the hype (glares at the $100+ collector’s edition of Vanguard buried in his closet), buy into it, be disappointed and repeat the cycle again. Then we’ll get Trembling Hand type posts telling the biz how to fix it, your responses saying fixing it is hard (not possible?) and then round and round we go again!

    We’re all so predictable.

  87. geldonyetich says:

    I’ve got a pretty simple philosophy on fixing MMORPGs.

    Treat them like any other game. A game without any special qualification that comes with being a fabulous massively multiplayer spectacle. That there’s more than one player involved, or thousands of players involved, is just another piece to consider in the design. The goal, as always: generate fun.

    This is probably why, when an experienced development team which has never made a MMORPG before tries their hand at it, the results have been good. Square-Enix and Final Fantasy XI. Blizzard and World of Warcraft. You may not like those games, but look at the mmogchart on either, and the player retention on both has been unusually good.

    Something like EVE Online strikes is an entirely different tangent, and that’s interesting. The game can be pretty dull to play, but if the [i]drama[/i] is exciting, that’s an acceptable substitute.

  88. geldonyetich says:

    Another thought I just had to share:

    A “drama-centric” MMORPGs are to games as reality television is to other television shows. It’s not so much the quality of the entertainment that matters anymore, the actors aren’t even actors, it’s just watching the resulting spectacle of forcing normal Janes and Joes into an improbable situation that matters.

    I never enjoyed Lineage or Lineage 2, but the population on both games has been exceptional. However, what’s the end game? Same thing as EVE Online: massive PvP fests with territorial loss. They’re just another reality TV MMORPG.

  89. Spec says:

    8) Make Subscriptions Cheaper:
    The Chinese model of “The9” where you buy time cards and only pay for the actual time you play is a pretty solid pay-to-play setup. Considering then you stop all whining about downtime and maintenance (not that you should launch with much downtime anyways).

    Free will never work for an (successful)MMO – too many post-launch support employees that need to be paid.

    1) Make the worlds more engaging – “And a lot of that is due to the unoriginal design of many games tasked with “cloning WoW”. It’s really hard to make a coherent world when you’re working off a xerox machine of game mechanics and interfaces.”

    I disagree to a point – too many games in development are wasting too much of their design time on UI “originality” – instead of focusing on PvE/PvP/Progression immersion. Honestly, why do companies try recreating the wheel just to be different? WoW did a good job on a minimal UI with a wide range of customization options…

    Game developers should take advantage of this and duplicate their UI – putting customers at a certain comfort level immediately upon starting the game… and also save money in development “duplicate their UI, then throw everything into storyline/graphics/PvE etc..”

    Everyone keeps mentioning WoW – but I never see any mention of market availability. Over 40% of WoW’s playerbase comes from the Asian market -Blizzard did something like a 1-2 month development tour of Asia during development simply to customize certain graphics to attract Asian players.. all other new MMO’s seem to have horse blinders on and ignore the largest gaming addict market on the planet.

    So – if you consider only about 5-6 million players come from the U.S./Euro markets for WoW (after 4 years).. when games like AoC and Warhammer launch with approx. 750k players in their first month… they aren’t doing that bad (for the record I play neither).

    I’m babbling now… end.

  90. grits says:

    Adam :
    “Try getting to the max level in WoW in 30 days. If it’s possible, you’ll be in pain near the end.”
    Really? My last char was 7 days played to 80, 25 days irl (working more than 40 hours a week). My friend who’s using recruit-a-friend is on pace for 4 days to 80. Just like UO, there’s a big difference between the casual, several month pace to max most people use and the min-max pace. I’d certainly say WoW has a much easier and more enjoyable (and marginally shorter) leveling pace than many other comparable games. It’s one of the reasons it blew up in the first place: because 1-60 in release felt *fun* and not grindy.

    7 days of /played over 25 days is almost 7 hours per day, every day. 7 hours of playing for most people isn’t enjoyable one day a week, much less every day of the week for 3.5 weeks. So I’m going to have to agree that getting to max level in wow in 30 days is a real pain. Doable, yes, but not something for the faint of heart.

    That said, I’m currently leveling a warrior. He’s at level 68 with 5 days 2 hours /played, without RaF, and I would guess 10 to 15 hours of that is standing around while I’m afk making dinner or walking the dog. I’ve been working on him since December 20th or so. Not 0-to-80-in-30-days, but still a very enjoyable pace imho.

  91. IainC says:

    Spec :
    Make Subscriptions Cheaper:
    The Chinese model of “The9″ where you buy time cards and only pay for the actual time you play is a pretty solid pay-to-play setup. Considering then you stop all whining about downtime and maintenance (not that you should launch with much downtime anyways).

    That model works well for the asian market and some very specific Western ones (Greece and Spain for example) but isn’t so great for other Western markets.

    The reason is to do with the way that the average gamer in those territories plays games. In China and Korea, a lot of online gaming happens in cyber cafés and so the players log in with at the same time as their friends having already organised themselves for the play session out of game. Whereas most Western gamers play at home on our own PCs and hook up with our friends once we’re connected.

    You know how annoying it is when your party has to sit around waiting because the healer has to go and feed the kids in the middle of a raid or the tank needs to let the dog out RIGHT NOW? Now imagine that it’s not just wasting time but costing you money when they do that.

  92. Dave says:

    Am I the only one who finds it interesting that many of the regular “solutions”/”complaints” about MMO’s are effectively to turn them into/exasperate that they’re not FPS multiplayer?

    Because lord knows there’s not enough of those out there already…

  93. Thunderlips says:

    Howdy Lum, this is Thunderlips from the days of yor and I will throw in my two cents as a long time MMO player. Being an ‘MMO player’ I have the distinct advantage of being the customer rather than the developer. So, honestly I think I have an edge up any developers when they ask silly things like ‘what makes MMOs better’.

    >> 10) Launch when it’s finished

    This is a symptom of overly ambitious projects, not a problem from the get-go. Obviously if you do something of a limited scale and do it very well, it will fly better than a everything-including-the-kitchen-sink but buggy as hell rushed POS. Design it with scalability paramount and add the significant growth as you go – IE, spiral development method that never ends.

    >> 8 ) Make subscriptions cheaper

    You see Lum, we are not 3rd worlders who have to eat dirt cakes to fill our bellies. We are a consumer nation and it delineates us from the muck-dwellers. It makes us feel good to pay too much for a product – look at fucking Starbucks. Why the price has stayed the same since UO I can not fathom. The only real trick here is to not raise the price after it has been set.

    >> 7) Quality of life
    >> 4) Don’t make me grind

    Wrong wrong wrong. Many people like to grind. I find it therepudic to mine (same in UO). I could do that shit for hours. I like seeing my little pieces of rock get larger. Yes I know it is hardly efficient but I like it. You guys assumes far far too much. The real trick here is simply to offer as many styles of play as possible, and give them all some merit.

    >> 3) Make combat smarter

    This depends on the player and I don’t really figure this is terribly true. People like responsiveness more than anything else. The actual system is relatively moot as long as it is competent.

    >> 1) Make the worlds more engaging

    This should be retitled ‘familiar but engaging’

    >> 2) Ditch classes and levels

    Eh, more classes and more levels. One of the few things EQ2 got right me thinks. a) they are familiar which should never be underestimated, b) anything that separated my godly asshat of the whale from some nub is grand, c) the first game to have 50 races and 1000 levels will be pure win.

    >> 5) Make mobs smarter

    Holy crap I agree with you for a change. Unless I’m stomping things making their intestines shoot out of their nose as I loot their last worldly goods, I am not happy. The trick here is the illusion of challenge.

    >> 6) Encourage grouping

    Eh, as above, accommodate different game play while making them all have some merits.

    >> 9) Listen to, and engage with, players

    That’s what you hire the third world much dwellers to do.

  94. Izarek says:

    Pretty much everything I see in World of Warcraft has been influenced by the past:

    More challenges? Great! Lets set up dungeons that people can crawl through. With reasonably smart monsters, who do things like run and get their friends. Its super great exp, the loot is much better and then 30 minutes into the dungeon, a runner gets away and POOF! Everyone is dead on a killer corpse run (back when “I died” was the worse thing I could tell my wife at 11:00pm when that meant I’d be another hour, minimum). Group is over, and people grump that grinding away on the surface on non-running monsters is a better use of their time.

    If I really want some EPIC loot, how about I sit in one place for a few weeks… straight. Then once its over, time for a raid or 3 of 70 of my closest friends. At least the ones who have the entire weekend blocked off (okay maybe a few hours of sleep too). MAN! We are l33t. Not like those losers who can’t hack this game.

    Okay, okay. None of this grouping only stuff. Lets put a mix of group and solo content. Nerf the death penalty so only the Grim Reaper is complaining. Group stuff mostly instanced, except for a very small number of outdoor non-instanced content. All we need now is a tank… oh wait the healer left… CC sucks, we need another… Man, group dynamics SUCKS! I’m soloing and leaving these stupid group areas empty. Or at least wait until they make all outdoor content soloable. Or I can beg a friend or bribe a stranger to run me through with no challenge so I can get this darn quest out of my log, don’t have to worry about dying so I can get a quest reward I’ll replace in 5 levels (which is when? Day after tomorrow?).

    Lets make the game more engaging. But this DPS can solo as a tank I can’t. Or that tank can get a group in a second but as DPS I have to wait hours, might as well solo. Ah, finally its balanced… in PvE. Well mostly. Now that I’m 10% behind in DPS, no one will choose me for this raid. Or PvP. Or anything. Time to reroll and grind my way through it all again. I wish I could level faster. And have more quests. YAY! thousands upon thousands of quests… but these quest tell NO story (even though some do). And I can’t affect the world… THAT game allows their players to affect the world. They built that beautiful town together… oh and someone came in the middle of the night when no one was on and destroyed 2 months worth of work. Daaaamn!

    I wish someone would take ALL of that into consideration and balance it all perfect. THAT’S a game I would play!

    Meanwhile… in the board room: “How much money we make this month? Really? Hey tell those developers to get the lead out and make the game so its more like what 80% of the people do.”

  95. slackjaw says:

    Taunt exists to fill in the blank for where collision dection could/should/will be in the “future”. Once healers can actually hide behind the tank, mobs will permitted to be smarter.

  96. IainC says:

    slackjaw :
    Taunt exists to fill in the blank for where collision dection could/should/will be in the “future”. Once healers can actually hide behind the tank, mobs will permitted to be smarter.

    No.
    Taunt is in no way a design substitute for CD. Imagine a mob that wants to eat your healer (because that’s the smart thing to do right?), he can’t get to your healer because Burly McTank and his identical twin brother are blocking his way. So he froths and rails as he tries to scrabble over the tank wall to get to the healer. Meanwhile the McTank brothers and their good friend Seamus O’Stabby are turning him into dogfood without taking any damage in return. So to make the encounter challenging, we tell the monster to put aside his death feud with the healer after a while and concentrate on the guys who are stopping him from getting there.

    Ooh look it’s a taunt system by any other name!

  97. Iconic says:

    Seems as if you just said “No” and then agreed with him.

  98. IainC says:

    @Iconic
    Not really, it’s still the exact same aggro management systems which are seen in pretty much every game.

    Monster picks a target based on what the biggest threat is (with healing usually being given a greater weight than DPS)
    Monster zeroes in on the highest aggro
    Tanks need to move aggro from the squishy healer to themselves

    Simply blocking the mob isn’t a good design solution as that then leads to zero risk encounters. The important thing is aggro movement and currently this is done by the players directly (through taunts/detaunts) as well as by switches in the AI (IF can’t reach target THEN move to next aggro magnet in list).

    It’s not a quantum leap, it’s what already happens.

  99. IainC says:

    To be clearer, collision detection (or lack of it) is not the reason that monsters and aggro systems work the way they do.

  100. Iconic says:

    I posted a response and it seemed to go into the ether.

    Anyway, it seems as if slackjaw is talking about the “taunt” mechanic whereby mobs are artificially forced to attack a target that is not the most logical target.

    And he says “well, if/when collision detection exists in a really feasible way, then the taunt mechanic can go away.”

    And then you say “No” and then go on to give a paint by numbers example of EXACTLY what slackjaw was saying (or at least the way I interpreted it).

    So maybe we’re all disagreeing on what “taunt” is referring to or something?

  101. IainC says:

    I was mostly taking issue with the assumption that if only CD was implemented then monsters would be more intelligent. Taunts aren’t really the issue, purely a symptom of what Slackjaw was actually talking about.

  102. Spec says:

    IainC :

    Spec :Make Subscriptions Cheaper:The Chinese model of “The9″ where you buy time cards and only pay for the actual time you play is a pretty solid pay-to-play setup. Considering then you stop all whining about downtime and maintenance (not that you should launch with much downtime anyways).

    That model works well for the asian market and some very specific Western ones (Greece and Spain for example) but isn’t so great for other Western markets.
    You know how annoying it is when your party has to sit around waiting because the healer has to go and feed the kids in the middle of a raid or the tank needs to let the dog out RIGHT NOW? Now imagine that it’s not just wasting time but costing you money when they do that.

    Technically – right now you are paying for the time that you sleep, work, eat, or whenever you aren’t even logged into the game. I actually live in China (not Chinese)- and yes, internet cafe’s are popular (they are more like dirty slave dungeons). If you walk around most of them though, it’s typically starcraft or other games. Alot of the WoW community here plays from home (not to say you don’t see WoW at all in the cafe’s).

  103. […] I think it all started a couple of weeks back with Tom Chick explaining why MMO’s are Broken which was basically a re-hash of every “Why this game suxors” post on every MMO forum out there. The next day Trembling Hand jumped on the bandwagon. Scott Jennings over on Broken Toys tried to explain to both of them that first, MMO <> WoW, and secondly, while most MMO’s are fantasy based, they’re not developed in Fantasy Land. […]

  104. […] Scott Jennings mocked wet-behind-the-ears designers who tend to leap at the idea of building a MMO free of the traditional class setup: If I had a […]

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