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Designing: The Game and Its Content

MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 3 Does This Rollercoaster Have Sand?

Posted by , 11 June 2016 - - - - - - · 319 views
themepark, sandpark, mmo, rpg and 3 more...

Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz


Blog #3: Does This Rollercoaster Have Sand?
(Themeparks, Sandboxes, and Sandparks)


Themeparks and Sandboxes represent two different philosophies about what a gameplay experience should be like. Themeparks are concerned with giving players a well-paced, story-rich experience. This means guiding players along a somewhat linear path, and preventing them from changing the gameworld except in certain planned ways (combat and quests) or personal locations (instanced housing or inside minigames), to prevent players from damaging the experience for future players, or taking actions that the story can't react appropriately to, damaging the players' immersion. World of Warcraft is probably the most widely-known and played themepark game, though there are many, many others.


Sandboxes are concerned with creating a highly-interactive, sim-like world where players can do whatever they want within the world's physical capabilities. NPCs and pre-created locations don't usually have a place in a sandbox game, whether because they are regarded as irrelevant and not worth putting development effort (and budget) into, or whether they are seen as a taint on the pure player-shapable sand of the world. Sandbox play often focuses on gathering, crafting, and building, whether this is an end in itself or in support of combat. Some sandboxes focus more on trading and traveling. Eve Online and Wurm Online are two of the most widely-known sandboxes. Wurn Online, in fact, has a web page devoted to talking about the nature of sandbox games and why they feel it is important that their game is an exemplary sandbox.


Sandparks are any hybrid between themeparks and sandboxes. It's still an open question which features will become characteristic of this genre, or whether it will split into two or more distinct types of sandpark. Personally I think that customizability will turn out to be a central trait of sandpark games. Themeparks and sandboxes both consider customizability a virtue, though they normally focus on different types of customizability: character appearances and mounts for themeparks, crafting and housing customzability for sandboxes. Players who are requesting sandpark MMOs often seem to be looking for a game that has all types of customizability, rather than neglecting some as both themeparks and sandboxes tend to do. Ryzom could be considered an existing example of a sandpark, but it's not a complete, well-developed example of the genre, which is why it has had such financial problems over the course of its existence. There's a fuzzy line between "grinders" and sandparks. Grinders are like themeparks which are somewhat sandbox-like in that they mostly lack questing and instead have really high level caps reached mainly by killing monsters. Arguably, they combine the worst features of themeparks and sandboxes, though their design goal of using a limited budget to create a world players can spend years playing in without running out of game might be considered noble.


One way of combining the best (though possibly most expensive) features of sandboxes and themeparks is geographically: the themepark locations are NPC towns where quests and story are delivered, while all land outside the borders of NPC towns is sandbox-like, allowing players to build and grow crops on it, as well as the usual monster hunting. In some cases the land outside towns may be divided into two different bands – suburbs for player housing, which don't have monsters or gathering nodes, and wilderness with monsters and gatherables. A designer might prefer to have housing separated from wilderness because if wilderness areas are not landscapable or constructable the terrain data for them is simpler and requires less bandwidth and load times for players. Similarly, if monsters can't roam around housing areas and attack, the monster AI doesn't have to know how to navigate around houses and housing/monster interactions don't need to be tested for bugs and exploits. On the other hand, a designer might want players to be able to reshape the whole world, or to have territory control gameplay focused on gathering nodes. One other possibility is putting the player housing into the NPC city, but this is really a themepark approach, because usually this type of housing can't be customized on the outside, only on the inside (which may be in an instance). And as I was saying above, limiting customizability seems to run counter to the purpose of having sandparks rather than being content with either a sandbox or a themepark.


A different way of combining sandpark and themepark elements might be having quests and narration be delivered through the menu system, rather than having NPCs exist at particular locations in the world. Or, if NPCs existed in a physical location, it might be that each player had a copy of the full set of NPCs on their personal property, and these NPCs could communicate with the player regardless of where the player was or what they were doing. A system like this can be seen in games where the player has a cell phone or other personal communicator through which NPCs call the player; Grand Theft Auto V is one example. A slightly different version can be seen in games lke Castleville – the player gets a copy of each NPC who wanders around like a pet, but all the actual missions and story are delivered through the menu system. This approach is probably descended from the single-player campaigns of games like Warcraft III and StarCraft/StarCraft II; in these games stories and missions are delivered through the menu system, but the main characters of the story are often playable hero units in the mission levels.


A third attempt at trying to combine sandpark and themepark elements might follow the approach of a game like Vindictus – this type of game doesn't have a main world, but instead allows players to run the dungeon of their choice from a menu. If a game of this type were to add either instanced player housing, menu-accessed gathering and crafting areas, or both, it could become sandpark-like. Wouldn't be too different from existing themeparks that use an expansion to add instanced player housing with sandbox-like play such as growing crops possible only within the housing. Runes of Magic and Wizard 101 are two examples of themepark MMOs which have added sandbox elements via an instanced housing system.


Themeparks, Sandboxes, and Sandparks aren't the only kind of MMO. Myst Online: Uru Live Again is the most well-known examples of an MMO adventure game (MMOA or MMOAG). There are several MMO strategy games (or PBBG, Persistent Browser-Based Game). Examples include Travian, Grepolis, Ikariam, Evony, Stronghold Kingdoms, and many more. There are also several not-quite-MMO online CCGs, games which are basically lobby games where players duel each other at a Collectible Card Game. These include games from Magic The Gathering Online and Hearthstone through PoxNora and a wide variety of free-to-play single-player RPG-like games where the player uses cards to fight a series of increasingly difficult AI opponents, combined with online lobby-based duelling against other players. Wizard 101 is also an interesting example of a themepark MMO which has CCG-style combat. Tactical MMOs usually fit into one of the themepark/sandbox/sandpark categories, but I feel they are worth mentioning in case any of you have not yet encountered the unique experience of an MMO where combat is turn-based and generally occurs on a checkerboard-like field and use of terrain is an important elements of combat. Dofus and Atlantica Online are two examples of tactical MMOs.


So, why might you, as a designer, choose to create a themepark or a sandbox, or something else entirely? It really depends on the type of experience you want to create for your players. In previous blogs we've already covered whether to give players a precreated character, an avatar which is a blank slate for the player to customize, or a team of adventurers, athletes, soldiers, or pets. We've also covered whether to focus on players who want to play in groups or players who want to play solo. Now we can add: players who like to experience precreated stories, players who like to customize the world around them, players who like to have clear goals and be rewarded and recognized by the game for achieving these goals, players who dislike having a game try to guide them somewhere and set their goals for them, and also players who like to spend almost all their play time on combat vs. players who like to spend half or more of their play time on non-combat activities like crafting, trading, or exploring.


What kind of experience do you want to give players? What kind do you as a player want to experience? Let me know in the comments! ^_^

MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 2 Fishing For Grouper Or Sole?

Posted by , 11 June 2016 - - - - - - · 275 views
group, solo, party, extrovert and 2 more...

Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz


Attached Image


Blog #2: Fishing For Grouper Or Sole?
(Designing For Group Play Or Solo Play)


In the previous blog I talked about solo adventurers, adventuring parties where each character is controlled by one player, and adventuring parties (or sports teams or armies) where all the characters or units are controlled by one player. These differences in gameplay structure result in differences in gameplay experience, and most MMO players have a strong preference for what type of gameplay experience they want from an MMO. In this case, the specific issue is whether they want to play as a team with other players or play by themselves with only occasional casual interactions with other players. One of the major factors underlying this preference is the fact that some people are extroverts and some people are introverts.


Extroversion and introversion are naturally occurring personality types, which are at least influenced by genetics, if not completely determined by them, and it's visible from toddlerhood whether someone is inclined to be one or the other. What are these personality types? What's so different between the two of them? Extroverts are people who like people – socializing makes them feel energized, while being alone makes them feel depressed. Introverts are people who find it draining and stressful to interact too closely with other people; they find being alone restful and great for being able to hear themselves think or work contentedly on a project. Very few people want to socialize all the time or none of the time though – it's more about whether you are more often in the mood to socialize or more often in the mood to be by yourself. Neither extroversion nor introversion is better than the other, and neither is capable of changing into the other; it's quite damaging to pressure someone to act counter to their personality type. (If you want to learn more about introversion, extroversion, and other personality types, I recommend taking the Keirsey Temperament Test, of which there are several versions available online. Or if you want an actual book, I recommend Please Understand Me II by David Keirsey.)


In general, humans are approximately 60% extroverts and 40% introverts. But, extroverts tend to be less interested in anything computery than introverts, so computer and video gamers have a reversed ratio, more like 40% extroverts and 60% introverts. On the other hand, extroverted gamers gravitate more toward multiplayer games than single-player games, so MMO players are somewhere around 50% extroverts. This even divide has actually proved problematic, especially for AAA MMOs. 50% is not a big enough piece of the audience for an AAA situation where the company does not want to make a niche game. In real life introverts and extroverts are often friends with each other. Most workplaces employ both types of people because they are good at different types of jobs, and most business need both types of job done. But introverts and extroverts tend to have different hobbies and interests.


MMOs can only afford to provide a narrow selection of interactive experiences for players, and few possible experiences appeal strongly to both introverts and extroverts. A game that is aimed only at one personality type can provide the widest range of options for that type of player, but will not retain players of the other type. Designing for both types is like trying to walk in two directions at the same time – you don't have enough bodies to go both directions, so you're going to fall on your face. Any game development project that tries to do too much with too little ends up with a shallow game that has a limited number of hours of gameplay any given player will like. (Spore, while not an MMO, is a really clear example of this type of error in going for a broad but shallow game.) When an MMO's design fails to take personality type into account, content that one type of gamer would like may be gated behind content that this type of gamer doesn't like. So either they are unhappy while playing through the mis-targeted content, or they quit before the get to the content they would have liked. Meanwhile players that liked the first type of content will not be interested in the second kind, and won't consider it a good reward or replacement for finishing the first kind.


What if you want both types of players?


In an ideal situation where an MMO had an infinitely large budget, would it be the best choice to have content for group players and solo players in the same game. Well... maybe not. Games are a form of fiction. According to one of my favorite fiction theorists, Simon Lesser, one of the purposes of fiction is to present to the audience "a world free of distracting irrelevancies" and the purpose of play a game or reading a novel is "to learn about ourselves" by "testing ourselves against the contents of this fictional world, which have meaning in direct proportion to their relevance to our own concerns". If a virtual world contains elements "relevant to the concerns" of a solo player, are they "distracing irrelevancies" to a group player, and vice-versa? Yes, at least some of the time they are. (I'll talk about this further when I get to the topic of crafting in MMOs in a future blog entry.)


Moreover, even in an enormous high-budget MMO you wouldn't see parallel group-focused and solo-focused methods for doing the same activity; redundant gameplay is just never going to be a priority for any developer. Which means that any activity developed as solo gameplay is an activity that won't be available as group gameplay, and vice-versa. So in any compromize game intended to have activites for both group and solo players, opportunities are going to be lost from both groups' points of view. For an AA or indie MMO with a limited budget the answer becomes even clearer: pick group players or solo players to design for. Experienced MMO gamers of all kinds are tired of playing games that aren't really aimed at them, and desperate for a game that will allow them to be who they want to be and act how they want to act in a virtual world that caters to their niche. Playing a game that feels like a badly-fitting piece of clothing is one of those irritations that builds up until the prospect of facting that annoyance one more time outweighs your desire to go back and play for another day, and is a reason why many otherwise-loyal players leave games even though they have a fairly high level character in that game. May the next decade be the era of niche games, where every player can find a truly comfortable fit!


However, perhaps there are some of you whose dream is to make a game for everyone. Maybe you will even make one that proves me wrong, because both group and solo players will prefer it to more nice games; maybe the introverts and extroverts who are friends or relatives in real live will be really happy they can play your game together, while being free to not really play 'together'. So, for those determined to make a game for both solo players and group players, here are my recommendations:


Scalable Dungeons! The number one way that any average themepark MMO could be more solo-friendly is by giving each dungeon a solo mode.


Gathering, Crafting and sim-activities like growing crops. If killing monsters in the main game world is the solo player's "meat", gathering and crafting are the potatoes. Don't undercut your solo players by making gear droppable; have crafting mats for that gear or enhancement consumables for that gear drop instead! In any game which has a serious crafting system, the best gear for every level should be craftable, though it may require drops from dungeon bosses to craft, or high faction reputations to get the recipes. Also, standard gathering, where you stand at a node and wait, just plain sucks. It is inarguably crappy gameplay. If you want gathering to be one of your main types of solo gameplay, make it actual gameplay, where the player has to play some kind of minigame, which must be an actual fun way to spend time, to gather their materials.


Low-level dungeons! Going the other direction, players who prefer grouping tend to hate games where the first dungeon, the first place that really requires a group, doesn't appear until level 20. Non-combat group tasks, like giving your newbie level and NPC fortress where two players must stand on tiles at the same time to open the gate for 30 seconds, could also add some easy group content that even people who haven't really mastered combat yet can do. Ideally, you could also place and NPC there who will come stand on one of the tiles if asked to by a player. Then it's more friendly to soloers and people who happen to be playing when the game is underpopulated.


Low-level PvP! Group PvP is the other favorite activity of players that prefer grouping; yet some games have either no PvP or 1v1 dueling only for low-level players. Games which have multiplayer mount racing, a CCG, or other multiplayer 'PvP minigames' also tend to have ridiculously high level or money requirements to be able to participate and not be utterly left in the dust by higher level players. Handicap systems where players are automatically up-leveled, down-leveled, or allowed to use a game-provided mount/card deck/whatever are essential for getting low level players into grouping activities and enabling group play between players of diverse levels. If you are particularly interested in focusing on PvP, a leveless game might even be the answer, because level disparities are so disruptive and limiting to PvP.


Raids tend be considered PvE endgame content. While raids are undoubtedly the form of PvE which requires the most experience at playing the game, and they are easier to balance for a group of max-level players than for a group of players with more diverse levels, like all group play they will generally be avoided by solo players, and if they are the only PvE endgame content an MMO has, and solo players who made it to the top level are going to feel pretty neglected and abandoned by the designers at this point. If raids are an important part of your game, make sure you have alternate high-level solo PvE content.


Collecting is a hobby that both introverts and extroverts like, but it tends to be somewhat more popular with introverts. Extroverts are more interested in collecting if it is supported by a system for showing off your collection to other players, though. Very few MMOs have done much with collecting ad using galleries or mannequins and weapon stands to display collections, which is sad because it's a relatively easy thing to implement, especially if you already have player housing or an ability for players to look at each others' equipped gear.


NPC interactability – this is something that could improve an MMO experience for group players and solo players alike. NPCs which can be interacted with more like a real person would be more pleasing to extroverts who don't like wasting time not interacting with other players, and introverts would have a guaranteed positive experience interacting with NPCs, as opposed to other players who might feel like handing out insults, criticism, and harrassment to anyone they happen to meet. Also, collectible NPCs are an idea whose time has come – I want that harem of NPCs to go with my houseful of pets PLZKTHX.


Focusing On Soloers


Before I get into the meat of this section, I think I need to soapbox a bit. YES, it is a completely valid idea to design an MMO focused on solo players. I have occassionally run into some extroverts who don't understand why introverts might enjoy solo MMO play and find it uniquely different and/or better than playing a single-player game. Or worse, occassionally I encounter someone who feels that MMOs as a genre are the collective property of extroverts, and introverts should GTFO becuase they're bringing down the property values in the neighborhood. That is nothing but bigotry. A genre of games is huge. The realm of MMOs is big enough to contain several games for every type of player. Players who prefer to solo in MMOs, as opposed to either grouping in MMOs or playing a single-player game, have real and valid reasons for this preference. All gamers deserve games that cater to their preferred type of play. Solo players don't deserve to be treated like second class citizens, either by other gamers or by games that try to draw in both group and solo players, but quietly give preferential treatment to group players. They don't deserve games that drop group play requirements unexpectedly on players' heads several levels into the game, or games that forget about solo content about halfway through the game, trying to force solo players into grouped high-level and endgame content. Group players also deserve games that focus on and support grouping; I'll get to that a few paragraphs further down. Meanwhile, that's enough ranting from me.


For people who are genuinely confused about why someone would enjoy soloing in an MMO, let's look at what a solo player actually does in a game. Whether you prefer to group or solo, the presence of other players in an MMO's world is one of the things that makes an MMO's world feel real in a way that a single-player game world, even one with great story and graphics, can't manage. Forums and public chat channels are great for introverts and people with social anxiety because they allow users to communicate at their own pace, communicate without committing to guild or faction membership, and provide opportunities to see what existing communitiy members are saying before trying to join the discussion. (On the other hand, verbal-only chat systems are pretty horrible for introverts, though extroverts generally like them.)


An auctionhouse or marketplace is another great way that MMOs allow players to interact with each other with a bit of a safety buffer in between them. Economic gameplay with other players is much more interesting than simulated economic play in a single-player game because interacting with other people is more unpredictable, and not in a way that's uselessly random, but in a fascinating way where you can see one pattern emerging here, a different pattern emerging there, and the patterns change each week or month.


As mentioned above, gathering, crafting, and sim gameplay such as growing crops or breeding animals are a staple of solo gameplay. Unfortunately a lot of games tend to 'sabotage' these types of gameplay by inserting group requirements, even when the game as a whole isn't heavily group focused. A Tale In The Desert has some types of gathering that require 4 or more people, and due to the lack of an auctionhouse it is impractical to aboid that type of gathering by trading for the material instead. (Though on the other hand, the fact that A Tale In The Desert expects every single player to craft their own house and generally has a focus on crafting items for oneself rather than to sell or to grind crafting XP, is really great for soloers. In fact, restrictions on selling or trading craftable items and breedable pets could be a really good thing for a solo-focused game, because you want each player to have the pleasure of climbing the tech tree on their own, you don't want them to get leapfrogged over interesting content due to the accomplishments of earlier players.) Wizard 101 has a system where breeding pets requires two players who each have a pet; a player cannot breed two pets they own. Breeding dragoturkey mounts in Dofus requires ownership of a paddock, and property ownership is restricted to guilds and in limited supply per server; additionally it's extremely difficult to capture wild dragoturkeys in solo combat; for some classes it's merely hard, but for others it's all but impossible.


Finally, minigames are popular content among solo players. Introverts tend to be more interested than extroverts in puzzles and beating their own previous high scores or score requirements for a special prize from the game, both common elements of minigames. Minigames which are based on breeding pets or mounts, or collecting cards, tie in well with other solo-player interests. Even multiplayer minigames are fairly good for solo players because players are often too busy to interact much during the game, and it is easy to leave between rounds if one feels oversocialized or discovers that a player one dislikes is already playing the minigame.


In general, if you are designing for solo players, beware of mechanics you are copying from other MMOs, as those other MMOs were probably not solo-focused and might contain elements that, while interesting designwork, might undermine your game's solo focus.


Focusing On Groupers


Group players too deserve to have MMOs which support group play and community interaction. There doesn't seem to be a lot of prejudice against group play in MMOs, so I don't feel the need to repeat my rant in reverse for this section. Group interaction in MMOs tends to take a few common forms: Dungeons, Raids, Team PvP, and Large Scale PvP. More innovative forms include inducements to group during monster-hunting in the main world, group property ownership, and group puzzles.


Dungeon runs usually feature a group of 3 to 8 players entering an instanced dungeon where they first have to avoid aggroing too many lower level mobs at once, then must cooperate with coordinated timing to kill one or more bosses. This is the type of play where the triad of combat roles – tank, healer, and DPS (damage per second) – has gained most of its fame. Vindictus is an example of an MMO that has chosen to focus on dungeon runs to the extreme of not really having a virtual world outside the dungeons.


A larger version of a dungeon run, raids feature large groups of 20 to 100 players, usually fighting a world boss, though in some cases they are fighting an invasion of a whole army, which may culminate in a boss. Within a raid players are often divided into multiple dungeon-style groups using the tank-healer-DPS system. Raids are found in WoW and most WoW-alike MMOs, mainly at higher levels of the game. "Endgame progression", if that term isn't paradoxical, tends to involve farming gear from either raids or by earning PvP tokens to spend in a PvP shop. Though farming reputation is also a notable endgame activity in WoW-alikes.


Team PvP pits one group of 3 to 8 players against another, either in an arena system or in a guild territory system or faction territory system. Territory systems are pvp systems in which the victorious side on a battlefield temporarily gains control of some territory within the game; generally the faction members or guild members of the faction or guild controlling the territory get some kind of bonuses or buffs as long as they keep control. In some games PvP has an entirely different set of gear than PvE, which means that people who want to take part in both of these activities are kept busy farming 2 different sets of gear. MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) are a recent experiment in online games intended to focus entirely on group play. In my personal opinion MOBAs aren't technically MMOs, but they are still worthwhile for MMO designers to look at, along with other not-quite-MMOs like virtual pet sites and online casinos and arcades. MOBAs evolved from a hybridization of team PvP in MMOs and offline multiplayer battle arenas descended from the Bomberman series, various racing games including Mario Kart, and FPS games with a multiplayer mode like GoldenEye 007.


Large-scale PvP features large groups of players fighting each other; in some cases there are NPC characters mixed in among the players to provide story context for the battle or explain strategic objectives that are different from one battle to another. In a battleground system the two sides are generally factions on the same server. In an RvR (realm vs. realm) system the two sides are generally players from two different servers. Some games have large-scale guild vs. guild combat, but the percentage of guilds per server which can field more than 10 fighters at any given time isn't very high, so this version of large-scale PvP has somewhat fallen out of favor among designers.


Many MMOs treat battling normal monsters in the game's main world as a solo activity or one where people can group in pairs or trios, but might be fighting in separate neighboring battles rather than actually fighting in the same battle. Some games will even automatically group any two players fighting nearby, unless they have set some options to prevent this. Other MMOs try to bribe or force players to group in the main world. Even players who prefer grouping don't necessarily like being subjected to these lures and pushes, so if you are a designer who wants to encourage players to group, please keep in mind that methods should be tested to see how off-putting they are to players, or how much unpleasant drama they create. Various techniques for promoting grouping in main-world monster hunting include: Monsters marked as appropriate for a certain level of player are either difficult enough to require a few players of that level to successfully fight them or tend to come in groups of monsters which require a few players of that level to successfully fight them. Final Fantasy XI is an example of a game where soloing in a level-appropriate area was discouraged through difficulty, as the mobs were scaled to be fought by groups. Some games give an XP or loot bonus to monster kills made while in-group with other players (who are physically in the same area and not idle). Maplestory is an example of a game that gives an XP bonus to anyone in a group.


Some games, for example Dofus, have instanced battles so it is very easy for that kind of game to tell how many players of what levels are actually involved in the battle. Dofus has certain rare drops which will simply not be dropped at all if there are too few players in a battle. Wizard 101 is another game with instanced battles where the game can tell how many players are in a battle – in this case the game will call nearby monsters to join a battle where a group of players have aggroed a smaller group of monsters.


Several games require property to be owned by a guild rather than an individual, or require several players to sign on as initial members before a new guild can be created. Collectively-owned property and collectively-stored assets are a big source of drama and accusations of various crimes between players; if you want to avoid this kind of drama, even in a group-focued game, you may want to avoid group ownership of property and assets, or implement a system that publicly tracks what individuals give to a group property and what they are permitted to take from it or change within it.


Maplestory and Dofus both contain examples of group puzzles: generally 3 or more players need to either stand in the correct spots at the same time or activate levers in the correct order.


One problem that group-focused games face is conveying story. For a player who wants to play in a group as much as possible, they are afraid of seeming slow and annoying other group members if they take the time to read text while in a dungeon or talking to an NPC, and will 'spoil' dungeons for themselves by reading about them online beforehand so they don't annoy other group members by being oncompetent. They also get blocked in their attempts to group if they have a quest where only other players who are on the same step of the quest can group with them – FFXIV A Realm Reborn has had a lot of players expressing frustration with the interleaving of quest chains and boss fights. I don't know of a clear solution to this problem. Putting text into a journal or library of lore books where the player can read it later can help a little, but it's not anywhere near enough to really solve this problem. Having NPCs in dungeons deliver spoken dialogue in a timed gap before a battle such that players can't do anything else while listening is another possibility, but would surely get annoying for people running the dungeon for a 3rd or 4th time. And dungeon replayability is more important for group-focused games than single-player games. Some MMOs, particularly sandbox MMOs, don't really need a lot of story, but it's too important to RPGs to consider leaving the story out to be a solution. (Plus, as a writer, saying that would be practically a crime; they might even revoke my poetic license. ^_~ ) Sorry I don't have a more useful suggestion for this one.


As I said above for solo-focused games, if you want to design a group-focused game, beware of copying mechanics from other games which may not have been group-focused, as you could accidentally undermine the group-focus of your game.


No matter whether you want to design an MMO focused on grouping, soloing, or both, I hope this blog entry has given you some ideas for what kind of features will support your design goal, and what kind might be counter-productive. Last but not least, questions for all of you! Do you prefer to be in an MMO that has both group and solo players, or do you prefer to be in a game which focuses on the type of player you are? Want to give an example of an MMO you think does the best job at pleasing both kind of player? And MMO that does the best job focusing on group play? An MMO that does the best job focusing on solo play? I hesitate to ask this last question, but do you think I did a fair job describing both solo play and group play? I know a lot more about the one I prefer than the one I don't like, but I tried hard to do a good job for both. ^_^;

MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 1 To Avatar Or Not To Avatar?

Posted by , 11 June 2016 - - - - - - · 281 views
mmo, rpg, avatar, character and 3 more...

MMO: Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz


Blog #1: To Avatar Or Not To Avatar?
(No, not that movie with the blue cat-aliens.)


One of the most basic divides among game types is one of the least talked about, because it's one of the few that doesn't provoke much controversy among players. Arguments about group play vs. solo play, PvP focus vs. PvE focus, permadeath, and many other topics sweep through MMO gamer communities like seasonal forest fires. But I think the only time I've heard the topic of whether a game is avatar-focused come up is in the context of EVE Online. Player A was recommending that Player B try EVE Online, and Player B replied rather calmly that they just can't get into games where their role in the game is a ship or a nation rather than a specific character running around the world doing stuff.


That specific character, assuming we are talking about a player-chosen or customizable character, is called an avatar. The design question of whether to make an avatar-focused game or not is actually closely related to the issue of whether and how to design a game to enable and support roleplaying. Roleplaying is, in fact, one of those often-argued topics, but I think a lot of people don't understand what avatars have to do with it. Probably because some games are so good at giving a player character-developing things to do with their avatar while other games are so terrible at this, that the average player's experience of avatars is quite mixed. Either way, focusing a game on an avatar is one of the biggest silent distinguishing factors of an MMORPG, as opposed to either single-player RPGs or other types of MMO. Please note, I'm not saying MMORPGs must be avatar focused. Rather, I think it's interesting how many single-player RPGs are not avatar focused, yet this type of RPG has been largely ignored in MMO design. On the other hand, there are a notable number of non-avatar-focused MMOs, but for some reason hardly any of those are MMORPGs. Is this a coincidence, a result of history, or is there some reason non-avatar-focused RPGs don't work as MMOS? Let's investigate! ^_^


Type 1: Mouse or Man(y)?
There are three types of non-avatar focused game. The first type doesn't usually include RPGs, but rather strategy games, puzzle games, SIMs, and adventure games; these are the non-avatar-focused games most heavily represented among MMOs, though many compromize by adding a still-image avatar, as described below. In these types of games the player is generally represented by the mouse cursor (sometimes in the shape of a hand) and the player's body is not shown on the screen or simply does not exist. Though in strategy games the player may regard themselves as having multiple bodies, in the form of the units of their faction, none of them are customizable, and even hero units do not count as avatars. The closest you get to a non-RPG with an avatar focus is a game like Minecraft or the Harvest Moon series where the player character is what you use to run around building and tending plants.


Let's look at some history. Single-player RPGs of the 80s and 90s were rarely avatar-focused because they faced technological limitations that discouraged designers from choosing to give the player a customizable avatar-type character. Changable character appearances had a high development cost, a high game storage size cost, and often resulted in overall poorer-quality character graphics. Linear stories where the player could not make any meaningful choices also won out in terms of cost-effectiveness against interactive story games where the player could customize their character's personality. We'll get to interactive story in a later blog entry though. So, there were several reasons for single-player RPGs to avoid giving players customizable avatars, unless the avatar could be limited to a cheaper system like non-animated portraits. Even this was pretty much only possible in games where the player's character neither walked around the world nor participated directly in combat; so basically, mostly non-RPGs or strategy-RPG hybrids, where combat occurs by means of a card game or moving units around a chessboard-like tactical battlefield. Still-image avatars were common in the earliest networked graphical games, which were mainly card and board games converted to computer games. The use of the term avatar to apply to user-chosen still images in web forums and other social media descends from this type of minimal avatar. (Check out the comments below this blog entry for some examples! ^_^ )


Type 2: Found This Cool Character Just Lying Around
But back to single-player RPGs of the 80s and 90s. When they did give the player control of a single character, because of the high cost of enabling the player to customize anything, instead of an avatar the game usually gave the player the predefined main character of the game's story. This is the second type of non-avatar-focused game. A predefined playable character is great for storytelling, as long as the story doesn't need to be interactive at all. Predefined main characters are a characteristic trait of jRPGs. (Japanese-style RPGs) It's actually quite difficult for a writer to tell a good story when they can't dictate the main character's personality and actions. If you took a survey to find out which single-player games of all time are felt to have the best stories, most of the winners would be linear RPGs with predefined main characters. Though there would be some adventure games in there too.


However, predefined main characters can interfere with one of the main appeals of games as a medium, which is that the player can take action rather than just reading or watching. Players can find it frustrating or uncomfortable to be put in control of a character who is taking actions the player wouldn't choose or saying things the player wouldn't say. So, in an effort to avoid imposing a personality on the player's character which might be contradictory to the player's own personality, some games try to compromize between avatar and non-avatar playable characters by having a main character whose appearance is pre-created but whose personality and dialogue are left blank. This is a 'silent protagonist', a character who is given no lines of dialogue. In the Zelda series in particular, the main character Link is not only silent but almost uncharacterized, because the designers of this series wanted Link to be more of a silhouette that the player could step into than a character of his own. Amnesiac main characters were also a common way to try to give players a character who is a blank slate personality-wise, and as clueless about a fantasy or science fiction game world as a new player is.


Type 3: I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes (Walt Whitman)
The third type of non-avatar-focused game is any game where the player in put in control of a whole group of characters. (In terms of gamer psychology, these are quite interesting because players make statements like "I'm the red team." or "I'm Cloud, Vincent, and Tifa right now." showing that players are capable of putting themselves into roles that don't correspond at all to their real existence as a lone human being.) The group of characters under the player's control can be an army or a sports team, but in RPGs it is most commonly 'an adventuring party'. They also often include compromizes where a more avatar-like silent and/or amnesiac protagonist is in an 'adventuring party' with vivid precreated characters – Final Fantasy VII is a well-known example. The sheer popularity of adventuring party RPGs is most likely due to J. R. R. Tolkien. (Though he in turn was probably inspired by the tales of the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood, among other sources.) Video games didn't exist when Tolkien was writing, of course, but his books were a major influence behind the creation of the first tabletop roleplaying games in the 1970s. However, from the beginning it was standard for each tabletop player to control only one character, usually a self-created, customizable avatar. That's the tradition that went on to spawn MUDs in the 80s (MUD stands for multi-user dungeon, and a MUD is a text-based online RPG), and MUDs are what evolved into the first MMORPGs in the 90s.


Some single-player RPGs, mainly wRPGs (western-style RPGs), did try to stick with the tabletop model of avatar-style characters, despite the development costs. Roguelikes were lone-adventurer dungeon-crawlers which commonly had simulated dice which the player 'rolled' to randomly generate the main character. The player was generally able to choose a gender, race, class, and name. Some wRPGs adventuring party games allowed the player to recruit party members from randomly generated characters (usually found in taverns); this was sometimes combined with allowing the player to create one custom character as the party leader. As hardware evolved, and storage space became cheap, especially on personal computer platforms, the virtual paper doll system was invented. This system used image layering to allow a player to combine an avatar base (a blank body, usually with a choice of gender and skin color) with customizing elements like hair styles, clothes, and weapon. (As a personal note, the single largest solo game-related art project I have carried out was creating a virtual paper doll system.) In its basic form this system only generates a still image, not an animated sprite. But when 2D MMOs were created, the paper doll system was expanded to create a full animated sprite set including all the visual customizations. This is still the base of all 2D MMO avatar systems today, though technological advances like color-pickers, vector graphics, bone animations, and ragdoll physics have all modified the under-the-hood details of how 2D avatar systems work.


Forget TESO, I Still Want My Skyrim MMO
It has only been in the past decade that we've really begun to see avatar-focused-games overcome all hardware limitations and some development cost issues to really show what they can do in single-player games. The Fable series and Skyrim are two of the major examples of recent developments in allowing players to control their character's appearance and to some extent interactively affect where the game's story goes. Usually MMO design lags behind single-player game design due to the extra-long development time of MMOs, which in turn is due to the greater complexity of enabling player interactivity. Giving players the ability to customize their characters has been one of the few areas where MMOs have consistently out-performed single player games; but Skyrim made such a big splash partly because it was clearly able to compete on equal footing with MMOs in the area of visual character customization, and surpass them in terms of story interactivity. AAA games aside, even indie games can do great things with customization now because it has become possible to buy whole 3rd party avatar systems, both 3D and 2D.


So, have advances in gaming tech and the availability of 3rd party game development resources created a situation where avatar-focused games have won out over non-avatar-focused games? Well, not really. What we've got is an increased ability to combine avatar-focused gameplay and non-avatar-focused gameplay into the same game. For example, imagine that Starcraft 3 comes out, and it's still all about networked strategy battles, but now it has a customizable avatar for which you can earn hats via in-game achievements? And from the other direction, we're seeing avatar-focused MMOs that have increasing amounts of minigame play where the player's avatar is irrelevant or would even get in the way of the player controlling their units, cards, or puzzle pieces. Though avatars can be integrated beneficially into some minigames, like racing and fishing.


This tendency to combine the two approaches does not make the question of whether to focus on avatars irrelevant. Cost and development time are still an issue, especially for anyone trying to make their first MMO, and there are always going to be benefits of either trimming off less-useful features (like an avatar system in a strategy game) or planning to add those features in the 2nd or 3rd update, after the game has a steady income. The issue of avatars can also help identify under-exploited areas of the MMO market – there are very few MMOs where the player can control an adventuring party or small army in turn-based combat, and the few that do exist are well-loved by their players, so to me that looks like an opportunity for a few more of these games to be made. Avatar appearance customizations are often totally wasted in the character creation phase of current MMOs, when they could be a lot more valuable if incorporated as earnable rewards within the game. Ugly avatar systems can severely interfere with players' ability to get immersed in a game or feel motivated to earn or by appearance customization items. Gender-locked classes are a big design no-no that we still see cropping up in new games like Crowfall because the developers apparently don't understand the problem with them. Understanding how avatars and precreated characters interact with roleplaying, storytelling, and interactivity are also very important for designers, especially of RPGs. Perhaps in the future we'll even see a game innovative enough to offer players a choice between a pre-created character with a scripted jRPG like story and an avatar character with less story and more freedom to explore, appealing to both people who like story and people who like the freedom to explore (or perhaps the freedom to avoid reading). ^_~


Finally, some questions for all of you! Are your favorite single-player RPGs avatar-focused or not? How about your favorite MMOs? Would you prefer to make or help make an avatar-focused or non-avatar-focused MMO? Topic suggestions for future blogs are still welcome too.

MMO: Spectrum Of Design - Part 0 Introduction

Posted by , 11 June 2016 - - - - - - · 257 views
MMO, design, genre

Spectrum of Design 0, 1, and 2 were originally published on MMOsite.com


MMO: Spectrum Of Design
a blog series by sunandshadow
aka Mare Kuntz


Attached Image


Blog #0: Introduction
Welcome! This series will look at the many choices involved in designing a game, and how these choices result in the wide spectrum of MMOs there are today, and possibly some new hybrids we might see in the future.


I've been involved with hobby and indie game design for over 15 years now. I've been very excited to see that in the past few years it has become easier than ever for gamers to get into game content creation. Some of you have supported the development of games to fit your tastes through Kickstarter. Some of you have modded games for the enjoyment of other players, or supported modders with donations or other help. Some of you bought the recent Humble Bundle of game development tools, or have supported various open-source projects from freeing Ryzom's server and client code to game-related art tools like Blender, Gimp, and Inkscape. Not to mention open-source games like The Mana World, where player voting affects how the game is developed. And many of you might be looking forward to the new crop of MMOs where player-created content will be the meat of the game, like Shards and Project Sansar, the planned 'spiritual sequel' to Second Life. You as game players will, more and more, have the chance to participate in creating the games you and I will play!


This series of blogs is for you – anyone interested in some free and easy education about how game design works, to help you get started doing your own game design and development. Whether your ambition is designing your own dream MMO, building a small location within a game that allows player content creation, joining someone else's game development project as an assistant designer or content creator, or going to school to learn about game design and development, this blog series should be able to give you a foundation of knowledge. Specifically, I'm going to talk about what types of MMOs there are, and how a few small decisions made when starting to design a new game result in the many different genres and subgenres of MMOs that exist. Chances are, you love some of these types of games and hate others – why? What type of player are you, and how do games please, or displease, the type of player you are? What other types of players are there, and why do they like different types of games? I'm also going to talk about how contradictory design decisions can result in something that annoys everyone. ^_~


The first interesting design decision I'd like to take a look at with you is the decision to make an MMO game. It's actually the second design decision made – the first is to make a game at all. But the decision to make a game is usually a tangled, impossible-to-verbalize mix of loving games, being frustrated with games, feeling the urge to experience a particular story or a particular type of gameplay, wanting to be part of a creative team, and wanting to see others reacting to one's creation. Like other artistic callings, either you want to create games or you don't. But assuming that you do, let's talk about why you might feel compelled to help design or develop an MMO, rather than some other kind of game.


MMOs hold the dubious honor of being the genre of game that people are most likely to discourage each other from making. Why? Well, MMOs are inarguably one of the most difficult types of games to bring from a concept to something playable. There are some exceptions – a text-based MMO would be less difficult than a 3D single-player RPG – but most MMOs start with a game genre that's already complex in a single-player version and then 'level up' the complexity by adding issues of player interaction and networking functionality. Massively, Multiplayer, Online – the defining traits of the genre are the ones that make it difficult to develop. It's a general rule of game design that the simpler the concept, the higher the chances of a playable beta ever existing. Coming at this question from the opposite direction, MMOs account for a large and growing percentage of hours spent gaming among teens and young adults; the same ages when people are likely to first decide they want to design a game, and also likely to want to design something similar to what they are playing. Coincidentally, the age when people are the most ambitious because life's failures haven't yet beaten into them the lesson to 'aim small'.


Personally I love MMOs, and I have fun working on MMO designs even though I know I don't have the drive to lead a game development project or a funding campaign; in my humble opinion, armchair game design is a perfectly good hobby. Maybe someday I'll find a motivated leader who wants me to help design their game, or maybe I won't; either way I have at least as much fun making up game designs that probably won't become actual games as I would painting along with Bob Ross and the hanging the painting on my wall where hardly anyone but me will ever see it.


But anyway, and more importantly, MMOs are AWESOME. Why? Because they have the potential to include every other genre of game. Because they have the potential to be entire worlds that players can more-or-less live inside. They are 'real' worlds because you interact with real people in them. This virtual world aspect is one of the things that inspires the most genre loyalty from MMO gamers, and what motivates many of us to want to create our own piece of virtual world, whether within a game by doing some landscaping and house building, or out here in reality by participating in envisioning a new game or modding an existing one. So, now that I've briefly defined MMOs and why we might enjoy trying to design an MMO or a small part of one, tune in next time to figure out what kinds of MMOs there are for you to make!


Now, for your first chance to participate! If you have a request for what game design choices you would like to hear about in future blogs in this series, please comment! (For example, future topics might include avatar-focused games vs. non-avatar-focused games, sandboxes vs. themeparks, PvE vs. PvP, solo-focused vs. group-focused, or combat types and combatless MMOs. What do you want to hear about? What interesting possibilities aren't listed here?)

Part 2 of Developing a Game Idea: Fill-In-The-Blank Game Description

Posted by , 12 August 2013 - - - - - - · 315 views
sunandshadow, wildwright, guide and 9 more...
Fill-in-the-blank description of game's genre and other basic properties from my guide:

[NameOfGame] will be a [2D or 3D or ?D] [optionally name the art style, e.g. anime] [singleplayer or multiplayer] [VPS/RPG/SIM/etc.] game where the player has [a small number or a large number] of [type of pet if you know it already] which which they do [combat or other main activity of the game].

WildWright will be an MMORPSIM game where you fight to build up a collection of pets which become both your army and your workforce, and you can even use one as a mount. Sim elements of the game include your estate, where you tend your pets to produce crafting resources, and which you upgrade to increase your crafting and pet breeding abilities. RPG elements of this game include combat [tactical or real-time?], interactively building your reputation with NPC factions, and building friendly or romantic relationships with specific NPCs. WildWright will take place in a 3D world, beautifully illustrated with 2D anime/fantasy-style sprites. [Full 3D would also be acceptable if creatures can be modeled to look like they have lots of personality.]

More templates and fill-in-the-blanks from my guide:

The player will control/be [number and type of playable character(s)] who will be [profession] who [game's main activity such as fighting, questing, solving puzzles, or crafting] in the [description of game world] world of [world's name]. [Other important activities] will also allow the player to satisfy their urges to [explore/become wealthy and famous/play mad scientist/help someone/be clever/build something/investigate a mystery/save the world/etc.].

Other templates used from part 1. of the guide (only the ones I actually used are copied&pasted here):

2. A game where you fight to build up a collection of pets which become your army or workforce (units in your combat squad, cards in a deck, or part of your home base producing stuff for you).
4. A game where you have a farm or ranch where you raise many pets to sell, compete with, or build up to a complete collection.
5. An interactive story game where you talk to creature-characters, trying to befriend them or solve problems related to them.

You will create a humanoid avatar who will begin as a member of the WildWright race, just about to reach adulthood. WildWrights are a race of life spirits or fertility nymphs [Call them what exactly?] who have an affinity with life in all its forms, and can develop the ability to command monsters in battle, magically engineer new organisms, and change their own bodies to have more anthropomorphic appearances if they desire. The setting of WildWright is a fantasy universe composed of flat-earth islands floating in a "space" filled with breathable air, which can be crossed on the back of a flying mount or by a magic-powered flying ship. [Possible names for this universe: shardlands, fragments, isles, shattered lands, scattered lands, splintered lands, the wilds, etc.] WildWright will be a ton of fun and highly immersive because it will give you the opportunity to: explore a unique fantasy universe, play mad scientist, help NPCs with their problems and investigate mysteries(questing), fix up dilapidated areas, be a clever combat strategist quick-witted minigame player and mount-racer, collect an assortment of items including pet monsters, clothing, plushies, and NPCs (by building up a relationship with them until they want to come live with you), build and craft creatively and display your creations and collections to other players, play the game's market, and become rich and famous among the game's NPC population (ultimately, players can become god-like).