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Redefining MMOs: The game no one is making

The "Massively" blog (http://www.massively.com/), which publishes news articles about MMORPGs, is wrapping up a series called "Redefining MMOs", and they've asked readers to tell them what they want to see in next-generation, "redefined" MMORPGs. You can find related articles here:


For Massively's sake, my email address is mevins@me.com.

That post provides me a perfect excuse to summarize the goals of the XG gaming project.

Of course, I've written such articles before; "The Whole Elephant", below, gives a bird's-eye view of the qualities I'm looking for in an MMORPG. That's the long-term goal of the XG software project (http://code.google.com/p/explorersguild/). This time, though, let's do it a different way. Let's talk about the nitty-gritty of game features in my ideal MMORPG.

I'd like to see a very large world with a lot of variety in terrain, flora, and fauna. I don't want it to be chopped up into zones by level. In fact, I'd be happier if there were no levels at all. Let the level of danger be determined by what sort of creature my character is and what sort of creature he faces. I've never been happy with the concept of a level one bear. Bears are big, tough, and dangerous. If the time comes that I don't have to worry about bears, it's because I've become pretty darn big, tough, and dangerous myself. Now the bears can worry about me. I'll worry when I run into something that bears are scared of.

Don't just make the world big; design it to grow. Design it with a lot of space for expansion, and keep the new things coming all the time. Let us find them. Exploration is wonderful. Watch what we like to do and where we like to go, and add places for us to find. XG has plans for worlds that can do a lot of that automatically, with some human help, but that's a topic for another time. The main thing is, make worlds that we can help to create by exploring them, and don't make us wait a dog's age for expansions; design the world to grow a little every month, or every week.

I'd like to see mobs that seem to have their own lives, rather than just being spat out arbitrarily by a spawn point. Darkfall, even with all its problems, had the right idea here. That gang of goblins should be in those ruins for some reason. They should have an agenda. If you kill a bunch of them, they shouldn't just respawn; make them run away and look for reinforcements. Maybe they don't come back until you're gone, and then they fortify the place so that it won't be so easy to drive them away next time. Or maybe they give up and move to a less dangerous hideout, and try to sneak whatever it was they were interested in out of those ruins. Point is, give mobs a reason to do what they do. Doing so will give us reasons to do something with them. If the mobs are interesting enough, we don't need as many quests.

I'd like to lose levels altogether. Let me build a character with something like the freedom that Champions gives us--only moreso. Give us skill curves that model actual skill--skilling up is easy to start and gets harder; stop practicing and your skill decreases--and adjust the curves until you reach the point of maximum fun. Give us a rich enough library of skills that we'll have tradeoffs to make. Then don't stick obstacles in the way of acquiring or changing them, unless they contribute positively to our immersion in the game. Losing skill in an ability because I don't use it enough makes sense. Being unable to learn something new because I don't have enough gold to buy a respec doesn't; it's just an arbitrary barrier.

I want to lose classes, too, at least the normal kind of classes. What I want to see instead is a robust system of skills, with progression trees that depend on skilling up and on combining skills. Skilling up tends to translate directly into macroing; Lord of the Rings Online counters this effect with their Deeds system by capping how much you can advance a Deed per day. That works fine; it not only serves a practical purpose, it also serves as a reasonable model of the human limits on skill improvement that athletes actually run into. There's only so much improvement you can make in a short time, no matter how much you want to work at something.

But I don't want to lose classes completely. Instead, I want to see a set of tools that groups of players can use to build their own classes by assembling abilities into skill trees. Force them to make tradeoffs with their skill trees, sure. Make them earn the privilege of creating classes, sure. But give the players the ability to create factions with unique classes.

That approach represents a larger goal I have for this kind of game. I want MMORPGs in which the world is alive and changing, and where what the players do helps to create the world. Not only should player-created factions be able to come up with new and unique classes, they should also be able to earn the right to create quests and rewards. They should be able to look forward to the factions they create becoming part of the game world, part of the story that all other players see.

I want players to have the opportunity to be world-builders, too. When I play conventional games, I'm always frustrated that I can't add content to the world. I want to take a group of Gnomes into Ironforge, set up a shop, hang a sign, and do business. I want to get together with my Hobbit friends and build a brand new watchtower north of Oatbarton, to keep an eye on those goblins and wolves. I want to found a new order of Disciples of Khaine and build a bone tower where they practice their bloody rites. I want players to be able to create new buildings, new towns, new factions, new storylines, and have all of those things available to all players.

I want one world. I don't mean there should only ever be one, true MMORPG world. I mean I want each world to be like EVE Online's world. If you play EVE, you don't need to know what realm or shard your friends are playing on; there's just one. I want a game where each imaginary world gets exactly one copy, like EVE. It's not only so that players don't have to worry about which shard their friends are on; it's so that the game world can have a timeline and a history. It's so that, when you create a character or a faction or a building or a village or a kingdom, your creation will be encountered by the whole world of players. It's so that the shared experience is really shared; so that we're all talking about the same thing when we mention the Battle of Foobar, or the Fall of the Ogre of the West March.

I want to see a system where a group of players can take over control of a group of NPCs, and play them. That might mean a small player group getting together for a short time to make the goblins in the ruins into something a little more fun. Or it might mean a more ambitious group of players taking over some band of ruffians and turning them into a full-fledged faction. Do we all know about Shadowclan? The guild of players who decided to play orcs in Ultima Online to provide a smarter and more entertaining enemy than the mobs, and how in the process they created the concept of monster RP? I hope we as players don't forget that. I hope we as game developers can make room for a lot more of it to happen in our games in the future. I want players like Shadowclan to come into a game and say, "hey! Those NPCs look fun; let's take them over." Or where they can say, "Geez, you know, that road there looks like a good place for a bunch of bloodthirsty goblins. Let get on that." Or even, "wow, you know, this city would be a lot more interesting if it had a big old Thieves' Guild in a big, spooky, labyrinthine guild hall. Let's get started on that right away."

I want to play an MMORPG where the world is a canvas we can use to create things. That means it needs history; it needs a world that the players can change, and a world that stays changed after the players change it. It means it needs ways to build things--buildings, towns, factions, classes--and have them last and be seen by other players.

It also means that it needs destroyers. It is a law of nature that if you hand out paintbrushes, someone's going to paint something rude on the nearest wall. That's where the destroyers come in: beings of godlike power (that is, operations staff) that go around obliterating things and taking power away from people. It would be nice if we didn't need such a thing, but of course we will.

I want to see a game where we don't all work our way through the same sequence of the same quests, and we don't all grind to get the same items. If I kill Mobnorg the ogre, I want him to be dead. I don't want five other people to come along in the next fifteen minutes and kill Mobnorg the ogre. Who cares if I killed Mobnorg the ogre, when four hundred people already did it today before me? I want to see a world that can accommodate unique events. I want characters whose stories are different from every other character's.

While we're at it, let's lose the epic magical items that roll off the assembly line. I mean, how epic and magical is an item really when there are five thousand copies of it? Besides which, surely it should be more important that a fencer is a master of the art of the sword, than whether his sword is green or purple. There's a place for magical items, but in order for them to be magical, they need to be rare and unique. "Unique" means there is exactly one. If there are two Glowing Purple Maces of the Furious Hedgehog, then it's not unique. If we want magical items, let's take a page from Lord of the Rings Online and make them "legendary", unique, and customized to the particular character, so that only you and perhaps your heir ever have your Bright Orange Spatula of the Titans.

I want to see a good, workable version of permanent death. Why? Mortal characters should age and die. If they don't, we can't really have history and stories that we participate in and create. Permadeath doesn't have to happen often, and it doesn't have to be something that blindside new players so that they shun the game. But when you choose to roll a *mortal* character, it should be clear from the get-go that your character will eventually shuffle off its *mortal* coil, from old age, if nothing else. That way, the game world can have generations of characters with histories. There can be statues of the fallen heroes, and those can be players, instead of purely fictional characters. Real people can visit a statute and remember who it was, and what the world was like before that battle. There's no story without history, and there's no history in a world where everyone and everything is reborn a hundred times a day.

Along with permanent death, I want to see mortals, immortals, and transitions that can take you between their worlds. When a mortal dies, I want the option to keep playing--not as the same character magically sprung back to life, but as an undead, or a ghost. I want to see apotheosis, in which mortals may become (minor) gods or demons. I want to see incarnation, in which immortals can be reborn as mortals. I want to see play options for immortals that reflect their legendary natures. For example, if you are a godling, you should be able to gain power by attracting worshippers. You should be limited by the influence of competing gods, and by the damping effect of unbelief. If you are an undead, you should have unearthly powers, sure, but you should also suffer weaknesses inherent in your magical nature--banes, wards, holy symbols: these things should weaken and overcome you, and you should have to work around them.

I'd like to see an MMORPG game world that can simultaneously accommodate several playstyles. I'd like to see a world where you can go adventuring and come across a battlefield where two grand armies (led by players) are contending to decide the fates of kingdoms; where secluded enclaves of wizards and engineers work furiously behind closed gates to launch RTS-style assaults n other enclaves; where you can advance the the highest levels of wealth, prestige, and skill by exploring the uncharted boundaries of the map and bringing back wonders no one has seen before.

I want an MMORPG that is as much a playground for authors as it is for audiences.


February 2010

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