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Underneath the Underneath: A Theoretical MMORPG Discussion

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It's been a while but I'd like to start another serious discussion about whats in hold for the future of MMORPGs. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of threads talking about the dynamics of MMORPG games, their cultures, and what they mean for the future of gaming and game design. I started this discussion on the IGDA forums, posing the question: What are the underlying factors [in player motivation]? What are you really talking about when you speak about griefing or any other MMO issue? If you understand those underlying factors you can mitigate the bad and harness the good.
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craigp's post on IGDA: Well, the biggest question is how universal you want your theory to be. There's a bunch of pastiche theories which act as a kind of guide to some aspect of design. For example, there's the "four kinds of player" model which is very popular. There are a bunch of these kinds of simple heuristics. There's variants of the four kinds of player model, there's a bunch of things abount eight or nine or thirteen kinds of fun, and so on and so forth. The basic idea behind all of them is to get the designers to consider all the options. They allow you to either concentrate on a particular facet and really focus, or to make sure your design encapsulates all the facets. They don't really tell you how to build these kinds of things in specific, or how to balance them. They simply offer a guide to get you to remember that there's more out there than your personal favorites. The alternative to these high-level heuristics is a more mechanical approach. These are theories like "Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics" or cybernetics or self-selecting chaos or any of the various pattern recognition theories. They offer a more detailed prediction of how to make your games fun and balanced, and can actually drive your design and code directly, if you have that much faith in them. I think we'll start to see a bit of a holy war over what theories are "best", especially if designers start saying that they used so-and-sos theory to tweak the game experience. They will certainly start to shape MMORPGs in the fairly near future as academics start to either reach or become actual designers. My personal opinion is that WOW is the last great "monolith MMOG", and we're going to see a lot more niche MMOGs. Moreover, any MMOG over a certain size is probably going to be driven by player-generated content and will therefore be a bunch of niche MMOGs pretending to be a single MMOG. There would be two primary design concerns in this sort of game: the abilities and simplicity of the tools you provide the player, and the ways in which players socialize and share content. The "best" way to do these things? Well, that depends on your favorite theory...
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My response: Personally, I think that, although these types of 'guides' are good steps toward understanding MMORPGs and player behaviour, they fall short of identifying the true roots of player behaviour. The very fact that they divide players into 'types' shows that there is a fundamental lack of understanding that applies universally to all players. In my opinon, modern academics has become specialized to the point where the approach of aristotelian classification has completely saturated the dialogue in technology-related fields. I think that the MMORPG is the embodiment of a convergence of several academic specialties and a real symbol of a new wave of technology-facilitated social interaction. That being said, I believe that, though extremely useful and important, most academic discussion at this point fails to provide designers any reliable paradigm when it comes to creating a 'next-gen' MMOG. Why? Because it's too complicated to understand and may remain too complicated for some time. IMO, the methodologies derived from these 'guides' can only be restrictive. I get the feeling that a lot of designers work from a bottom-up perspective, focusing on tweaking various elements or implementing certain features to make the next MMO hit, but that those elements in the end become distinctly... distinct, and fail to come together in a comprehensive MMORPG experience. What I'm saying is that the approach to MMORPG design has become overly technical, targetting player preference on a superficial level as opposed to player desires on a much deeper psychological level. That's why I named this thread "Underneath the Underneath", because I want to try and really talk about what motivates players. I want to talk about their motivation beyond "they play to develop a character" or "they play to experience lore." Think about it. The best players in MMORPGs play these games full time, and the work ethic and dedication poured into these games goes far beyond what is "fun". For better or worse, these games have come to play a large role in defining the personal identity of some players. Why do people care so much? Why do these games affect people the way they do? Because when a player helps take down a raid boss in WoW, he is extraordinarily excited, not because he took down a raid boss, not because he was rewarded with an item, not because it was a challenging gameplay experience, but because all of the above took place in the context of an MMORPG environment. What is it that defines that environment, what are the factors? That's the question. I have a strong belief that, whatever these factors may be, they exist on a level that is rarely manifested in academic study. At the same time, I believe these factors make or break a game.
For this first thread, I think a very general and all-emcompassing discussion based on the above quote will be good. We'll see who is interested in the topic on these boards, and what the general, overarching opinions are before we launch into more specific debates. As you know, this is a very disputed and complex topic, so I have one very simple rule and one very simple guideline. Rule: Be nice Guideline: This is a thread about the future of MMORPGs and a theoretical discussion. It is good to enter the discussion with knowledge of previous MMORPGs in mind, but please do not be restricted by that knowledge. Let's operate on the assumption that MMORPGs can become much better, and that all current MMORPGs have areas in which major improvement is possible.

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What is common about MMORPGs with reasonably high levels of success?

Avatar: Players create an Avatar who embodies themselves in the game. There are, as yet, no MMORPG lemmings/TheIncredibleMachine games out there.

Progress: Players "upgrade" their Avatar by playing the game. An "upgraded" Avatar allows the player access to different content, makes old content easier, and in other ways provides feedback of success. Progress can be in the form of "skills", "levels", "money", "virtual estate", "gear", "faction" or "character points", and possibly other things as well.

Challenge: MMORPGs have some content that is difficult, and other content that it easy. Typically the harder content gives more reward by some amount (sometimes the harder content isn't considered to be "worth" the extra difficulty).

Social: MMORPGs contain, at the very least, a chat engine where people can socialize with other people. Often they contain other socialization mechanisms (friends lists, multiple channels, guilds, etc).

Exclusive: Some part of the content is excluded from most player's consumption. For most players, there is content they have not "progressed" to. In many cases, this exclusive content is simply content that most players have not yet progressed to -- in other cases, it is content that players never expect to progress to.


Now, I'm probably wrong, but I'm interested in how I'm wrong. :)

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Current trends seem to be towards new ways of milking the players for cash rather than improving the underlying gameplay. However, this has led to some games that are user-content heavy. User generated content is probably the way to go in future games, like craigp states (like Spore, also, though that's not quite a MMOG) - this also adds to player immersion since it forces players to care more by emotionally investing more into the game. A great example is Neverwinter Nights, which is still going strong primarily due to the multiplayer experience driven by user content. Having placed powerful tools for content creation into the hands of the user, and by continuously engaging the userbase and the content creator community, Bioware has prolonged NWN's life cycle signifficantly.

The MDA approach is not really restrictive imho - in fact it seems to promote a top-down model of development, something I think you are trying to emphasize. I don't really see it adding much in the way of ideas however; seems like a very basic model (especially for the timeframe stated) and perhaps a bit too abstract.

Bartle's article on the other hand is more interesting. I don't really see it as restrictive though - we should keep in mind that it presents mostly stereotypes, albeit useful ones when thinking about playerbase composition. I think you are trying to oversimplify by generalizing the players. The fact is though, players play these games for various reasons, which are sometimes so diametrically opposed that they can't be brought to a common denominator. What we should probably focus on, then, in the design of a "revolutionary" multiplayer experience (as opposed to the next cash cow), is how to cater to various interest groups in such a way that a dynamic, thriving community can develop, and how to engage and empower the users and raise their emotional investment in the game world.

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Summary:
The future of MMO's include Player created content, a greater sense of immersion that what is offered now, and I'd like to see a huge overhaul of the chat system, or at least how people talk in the game.

A problem that design can be tested against is what happens when the players don't follow your design and essentially break the immersion of the game. Equivalent to someone running around yelling L33T talk in a Roleplaying server.




Long winded version:
You need money for an MMO. Lots of money. Unless you're using a very outdated engine or going for something simple. But it still costs a lot. Getting a company to invest in an MMO is usually an all or nothing thing. I've heard rumours that Blizzard put everything they had into WoW. If WoW wasn't a success, there would be no more Blizzard, or at least the next release would look like Warcraft 1 again.

With that said, most companies I know of will not allow any MMO to break from the cookie cutter because it's too risky. Basically, for MMO's to evolve, they have to do it one feature at a time... unless someone has the guts to make a radical change to the entire format, and have it a success.

My own personal view for the future of MMO's is one of immersion. I get more of a sense of immersion in games like Thief, Republic Commando, and StarCraft. I liked Earth and Beyond but it didn't last long enough for me to get a sense of what it was all about. WoW, while I bought the game, I feel as though I'm more holding the hand of my character and poking him every now and then to do something. I don't feel like I'm "part" of the game. I play it, then I get bored of the grinding and running, and farming and grinding, and the lagging near auction houses / banks, and grinding and farming.....

I guess (because I actually don't know) that Player Tools are more difficult to create in a game than making content themselves. My only guess is that the player tools would have to be almost flawless, or at least not be able to break the game. This is probably seen as the first major hurdle in making player createable content. Much of my own game is player created. Infact, one game is 99% player created. Maybe some game masters will be creating the content until there's enough players to do so.

I also want to get rid of the chat. I'm not sure if that will negatively affect the game, but I see it as breaking part of the immersion of the game. I don't know how many RPG games i've played or fantasy movies ive seen that use an Inn / Tavern as almost a story telling place or simply a social gathering area. Nobody hangs around the Inn in WoW. They all hang around the auction house.


This brings me to another point. This i think, happens a lot: What happens when something a developer has designed is being use in the wrong way or not used at all because it doesn't help advance a character? Do you set rules in place to almost force the player to act a certain way? Or do you simply cry to yourself and say "Fine, play it the way you want!" I'm not talking about exploits or anything. Take my Inn for an example. It would be part of the design that players gather in Inns for restoring their character, sleeping (logging off), and socializing. But instead, players only go there to sleep and they get what they need for restoration and leave. Nobody stays at the Inn. They socialize around auction houses or entrances to dungeons or taxi services (gryphon riders in WoW or Wyvern riders).

My big problem is what do I do when the players don't follow my design

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I'm not sure exactly what you're asking here; you seem to be handwaving all the current theories of why people like MMORPG's aside and claiming there's something "bigger" behind it all?

I think the reasons people like them are pretty simple and have been laid out before:

- They create online personas, which are stronger/faster/smarter/sexier/cooler than they are in real life, and get to socialize with other "real people" in that environment, all of whom are also stronger/faster/smarter/sexier/cooler than their real friends. (No offense to any of my real life friends; you are all sexier than those night elf huntresses, really ;)

- There is a fairly simple and straightforward way to advance to the top and become rich and powerful, and be envied by other "real people", unlike real life.

- There is a level of anonimity protecting you from repurcussions in real life. "What happens in Azeroth stays in Azeroth". This allows people to act more recklessly and freely (and rudely) than they would in real life, without even needing to be drunk.

Basically, MMOs fulfill the need for human interaction that we all have, but allow us to play video games in our underpants at the same time.

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"what do I do when the players don't follow my design?"

Design, as you call it here, is really the game plan. The plan of how you intend players to behave. I compare the game plan to parenting. "What do I do when my children don't behave?". You teach them to behave, with love, understanding and patience. You punish grossly incorrect behaviour. You allow minor infractions. You reward correct behaviour.

In regards to the examples with the inn and auction house: It goes as it was designed. It is more practical to gather around the auction house or gryphon taxi service. Because those are two chokepoints, real meeting points. Everybody uses those while playing. In the real world people met in Inns because everybody gets tired and everybody has to sleep. It is the designated spot for meeting people. Blizzard may have INTENDED to have that interaction happen inside Inns. Their game plan may have been designed to have socializing occur in Inn's, but the design they ended up with focuses it around auction houses.

If they see anything wrong with this incongruity between design and game plan, they should change their design until it matches more closely.

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Quote:
Original post by makeshiftwings
I'm not sure exactly what you're asking here; you seem to be handwaving all the current theories of why people like MMORPG's aside and claiming there's something "bigger" behind it all?

I think the reasons people like them are pretty simple and have been laid out before:

- They create online personas, which are stronger/faster/smarter/sexier/cooler than they are in real life, and get to socialize with other "real people" in that environment, all of whom are also stronger/faster/smarter/sexier/cooler than their real friends. (No offense to any of my real life friends; you are all sexier than those night elf huntresses, really ;)

- There is a fairly simple and straightforward way to advance to the top and become rich and powerful, and be envied by other "real people", unlike real life.

- There is a level of anonimity protecting you from repurcussions in real life. "What happens in Azeroth stays in Azeroth". This allows people to act more recklessly and freely (and rudely) than they would in real life, without even needing to be drunk.

Basically, MMOs fulfill the need for human interaction that we all have, but allow us to play video games in our underpants at the same time.


Right on, but being aware of this, how can designers improve upon MMORPGs. More specifically, what do most of the more 'superficial' MMORPG issues mean from this perspective?

Don't get the wrong impression, I'm not waving all theories aside. I'm saying that this (yes it is simple and has been laid out before) underlying truth lacks emphasis in the MMORPG discussion. I think one major problem lies in an inherent contradiction that manifested itself in your second statement:
Quote:
There is a fairly simple and straightforward way to advance to the top and become rich and powerful, and be envied by other "real people", unlike real life.

This is completely true, but as we know everything is relative. Simple and straightforward, unlike real life, allows everyone to become rich and powerful. And if everyone is, then everyone is also not. Instead of adding layered complexity to make advancement more meaningful to players, a lot of developers have opted for a different solution: increased time-investment. I think this happens to be very clever and profitable, but in the longrun its something that decreases the value of MMORPGs in player's eyes ('i don't believe i wasted my life on that game'), and something that definitely holds back the potential of the genre.

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I think I can sum up MMOG's and everything I am about to say with this simple statement:

Drlzzt: "lol dude lol irl. i told u id get lvl 50 and a sobg before that n00b terris he is gunna be pissed lol irl" (SOBG= Sword of Blazing Glory)

(The above is not an actual line of chat, but I believe it could fit into most of the top tier MMOG games out there to date.)

Now what does Drlzzt demonstrate for us? First, he is showing that there is a sense of community. He is speaking to a friend or an acquaintance about a perceived enemy or someone he was in a competition with. He also accomplished three goals: First, he managed to achieve level 50, second he got a Sword of Blazing Glory and most importantly to him he achieved both before Terris did.

There are two things all the top tier MMOG's have in common: a sense of accomplishment and a sense of community. They operate based on the carrot-and-the-stick approach to gaming, where the player is constantly nearing the completion of some type of goal. It could be as simple as completing a battle, to gaining a level, completing a quest, or as complex as attempting to get into a well known elite guild. In the end, the player is always striving for something, there is always a reason to keep coming back to the virtual world.

It is that factor, combined with the sense of community and the ability to socialize with other people, that makes MMOG's so addicting. In real life how many chances do you get to be someone well known (without the consequences)? How many chances do you have to influence other people? How many chances do you get to be somebody important and to accomplish great things? How many chances do you have to share it all with your friends, while simultaneously rubbing it in the faces of all of your enemies? Very, very few and for some - never.

Yet, in a MMOG it happens everyday. Drlzzt may have won this round, but that may simply motivate Terris to do even better... or it may result in him taking revenge on Drlzzt by killing him... which may in turn result in a guild war between two guilds - causing political conflict and upheaval between two of the top tier guilds. (I've seen it happen many times before, completely reshaping a servers politics.)

The aspect of community means that the player, even if they are not apart of a guild, feels that they are a part of something greater than themselves, and the fact that they can visually see their accomplishments means that they feel that they - at least to some degree - can make an impact. That is, after all, why many people do level grinding. They want to get to the highest level possible and the best gear possible, so that they can participate with the most well known members of the community.

In the end, MMOG's give Humans what they crave the most; a sense of importance and the ability too socially interact with others in an environment in which they can, more or less, be themselves. This is why MMOG's are addictive to some people; those who become addicted are those who crave those things the most. We must be careful not to overanalyze things or make things more complicated than they really are, the success and appeal of MMOG's is obvious.

------

Now, as for where the genre is going, that is anyone's guess. Without a crystal ball I can't read the future, but I'll attempt to make a few educated guesses.

MMOG's are currently going down a path that mimics the path EverQuest and UO took, with only a few deviating from it to any extent. The main differences you are seeing in the new generation is ease of use, and the "softening" of the game to more casual players. There is less of a focus on the hardcore and more of a focus on the casual player, who is perceived as largely fickle and someone who needs lots of hand holding.

The top tier MMOG's are going to be driven primarily by market forces. Large corporations don't really care what is fun - they are only concerned with what players will pay for and as a result will make games designed to make money.

There may be some minor breakthroughs for less epic MMOG's, designed by smaller studios and perhaps even a few by indie developers. Eve Online has become a quiet success, for example, and Runescape is also highly popular. Last time I checked they had almost as many or more paying subscribers than FFXI. (That isn't counting how many people play for free.) I would highly recommend any indie developer who wants to develop a MMOG to look to Runescape for inspiration and not at WoW, EQ, or other perceived top tier MMOG's.

I believe that custom content will eventually find its way into the MMOG scene. Neverwinter Nights was the first major move into this arena and NWN2 is coming out soon. There may eventually be copy cat ideas if NWN2 is successful.

It will only be a matter of time before someone combines the ideas of NWN for a MMOG type game - although considerably less massive in scale. In this type of environment, the game company would provide the tools and the client, and dedicated players will design their own worlds, which people will sign on to play. The company will charge money to those who wish to host their worlds, providing ways for players to donate to keep their favorite worlds up and running, while simultaneously releasing for-pay content for game developers to play in their games. (Just imagine that content being a do-it-yourself expansion pack.)

...the above just gave me an idea which I'm going to write down for future reference.

Anyway, I can foresee the future of MMOG games looking like this: One or two major contenders compete for the top dog slot, having millions of users. Below them are the mid-sized MMOG's who compete among themselves, and try and not have their user base cannibalized by the top dogs. Then below them you'll have those MMOG's who appeal to niche markets, with the occasional big success story.

Then you'll find something that I am going to term MUCG's - Multiplayer User Crafted Games - in which players are given the tools and the power to create and design their own worlds in which other potential players can log onto and play. MUCG is pronounced "Mug" with the c silent - I just came up with the term. This as opposed to a MMOG - pronounced "Mog" with the second m silent.

I think you'll find that the market grows even larger, with players hopping from MMOG to MUCG and even simultaneously playing more than one at once. This will continue until technology advances enough where we will be able to create an entirely different type of multi-player gaming experience.

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