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How to combine MMO community feel with a player-shaped world?

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I realized I hadn't come up with a new game design since before I played Skyrim, so I wanted to work up a concept incorporating what I learned from that game as well as my frustrations with it, as well as other games I've played since then, and especially game types I've wanted to play but failed to find any of.

 

I think the best thing about Skyrim, Fable, and this world-simulator genre is the fact that the player's actions shape the world.  The power of this can be shown by contrast; the most frustrating parts of Skyrim's design for me were those where I ran into a part of the world that was not shapeable by the player, or which undid the player's actions after a day or two. >.<  On the other hand, IMO the best thing about the MMO genre is the feeling of being in the same living world with other players, and getting to see the results of their efforts within the game (their mounts, gear, buildings, collections) because these help the player find goals and compare their achievements against others.  So I'd really like to come up with a game design that has both of these great qualities, but they kind of seem to fight each other.  When should other players be invited in for social value, and when should they be kept out so they don't muck up your own projects and territory?  Can shared and personally instanced game locations be effectively combined in an MMO?

 

Guild Wars 1 is one example of a game that attempted (and IMO failed) to combine these things).  It was highly recommended to me but when I tried it I didn't like it at all.  I only played it for 2 days before deciding I just didn't like it at all, so if I say something incomplete or wrong how the game worked, that's probably why.  Bat as far as I can remember, that system basically had shared cities and solo wilderness (unless you invited another player to enter with you).  This didn't work for me at all; I never got to see other players doing their own thing in parallel to me, which I think is essential to making a world feel real.

 

A Tale In The Desert had almost an opposite system - the wilderness was shared, and there were no cities or other population centers to encourage interaction with other people.  The shared wilderness was the worst of both feelings; desolate and too big, yet messed up by pollution and decayed buildings left by previous players.  Despite being an MMO, much of my play time felt the same as that of the single-player game Spore, or Creatures Docking Station - depressingly empty of any socialization except the occasional sight of an artifact left over from another player you'd never actually meet.

 

The third example I have been thinking about is Wizard 101.  The shared part of that game was pretty successful, except for a few problems with some areas having too few players and some having too many, which is a difficult pacing and balancing issue for any MMO.  The ability of players to join an existing fight was great (this feature was nice in Dofus too).  The blending of "what's a monster to be fought" vs. "what's an NPC to be talked to" made the world feel populated even when no other players were present, much like Skyrim does.  Most dungeons could be run successfully by a single player (yay!) or a full party of 4.  The personal/dorm room area was a good private space for decorating and sim-activities such as growing plants.  There were a few downsides though: the player could make very little impact on any shared area other than killing a boss which would soon respawn.  It was possible to visit another player's private area, but there was nothing to do there so it wasn't fun and there was almost no reason to do it.  Players rarely commented to each other about their accomplishments in these private areas, and it was easy for these areas to feel finished or futile even to the player they belonged to.  The crafting system, being 2/3 about these private areas, also fell under this shadow of feeling futile.  But, that game overall had a big focus on not giving players opportunities to harass each other because it was supposed to be child friendly, so they intentionally created barriers to a lot of potential interactive gameplay.

 

The fourth and final example I want to look at is the kind of MMO which has a lot of player-created content, including the ability for players to create levels with localized gameplay for other players to explore.  (Second Life?)  I've never actually played one of these games.  (*whacks self with a newspaper* Bad game designer!  No twinkie!)  From what I've heard their main issue is in directing the player to good content in a logical order and at a good pace, maintaining some kind of balanced economy of effort and reward for player-created content, and filtering out spam and trash.

 

 

Okay, that's everything that's been swirling around in my head.  What do you all think?  Is there an ideal way to balance the ability to affect (your version) of the world and have it react in a way that customizes it to you, the ability to not have your stuff screwed with by other players or constantly reset to default by the game, and the ability for people to regularly encounter each others' personal projects and be encouraged to discuss and compare?  Have any additional comments on one of these examples, or a different example of shared stuff vs. private stuff in an MMO?

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Is the root desire really to "make an impact on the world", or is the desire for "others to notice my accomplishments"?
 
You mentioned Skyrim and Fable (which are single-player games to anyone who isn't familiar) and how much you enjoyed(?) that the world responded to, and was shaped by, your actions. If the NPCs never noticed the world responding, would it undercut the feeling of enjoyment you got from the world's response? Would it become as much as a letdown as crafting in your designed house that your MMO friends find boring when they visit?
 
The world being shaped by you is the game system 'recognizing' your actions. Is that the key part of it that is giving you that enjoyment?

Well, I see the NPCs as part of the world, in fact one of the most important parts of the world. And I see the world as an "other who notices my accomplishments". Perhaps I got this idea from the concept in the field of fiction writing that "the setting is a character". So the two things you are drawing a distinction between seem the same to me. A game world might not be quite as bright or socially sophisticated as a human, but it pays more attention than another human player, gives rewards which another player wouldn't, and is generally more polite than a random other player. So, I think these weaknesses and strengths of the NPC game world equalize to make it roughly equivalent to another human for socializing purposes.

 

So how about, "I want the NPC game world and other players to notice my accomplishments."  And the players should do so in the natural course of their game play, not by making an extra trip somewhere they'd normally never go where there is no gameplay for them to do.

 

While I haven't played Minecraft for awhile, when I did play it, I'd play it with either by myself or with one or two of my siblings.
 
Here's a casual observation of my experiences:
 
Playing by myself:
 - I enjoyed the challenge of surviving (which got old quick once you 'master it', and then you only die through carelessness).
 - I enjoyed exploring caves and finding cool areas or great wealth.
 - I enjoyed carving out, building, and designing my houses/fortresses/bases. That was always fun.
 - If I made something cool, I'd call someone over and want them to see what I made.
 
Challenge + Exploration with Discovery + Creativity + Appreciation of my creations

Calling someone outside the game to see one of my creations in the game is somewhat immersion-breaking to me. Also risky, as I've only gotten about 25% "that's cool" responses from the person called, vs. 50% "don't care" and 25% "it's dorky to be proud of something you did in a videogame". Sometimes there's nothing visual to show, like if the thing I was proud of was making two sims fall in love with each other, or soloing a dungeon intended for a whole party of players.

But yes, in single-player play I like pretty much all the things you listed, plus: when I find and master a new puzzle or strategic challenge, when a breeding or crafting experiment has interesting results, when I finally buy something expensive I was saving up for, when I make a lot of money being some kind of tycoon or playing the market, set completion/collecting bonuses and other achievements, and when I solve an NPCs problem and they express their happiness or gratitude to me.
 
 

Playing with one other person:
 - We'd work together. We'd survive together, we'd explore individually but in the same cave system, and call each other over in-game to share our creations or our discoveries.
 - We'd do our own thing, but we'd work together. We had our own houses, but within eye-sight of each other's, we explored individually in the same dungeon, and we'd together share experiences or call for help. We'd set goals together and work on building projects together - or we do so individually, but share the fruits of it, contributing resources to each other's needs as they arise.
 
Individuality, but shared appreciation of each other's accomplishments. We had ownership of our resources, but shared those resources freely with each other.

I've only played two games closely with another person: WoW and Dofus. In both cases I felt restricted, hurried, and stressed more than having fun. We occasionally helped each other do something we couldn't have done alone, but that didn't happen very often. They were sort of a captive-audience for game-related conversation and showing off, but still not necessarily interested in what I had to say and show; I would have gotten more legit enthusiasm about the topic by posting on a forum within the game or outside but specific to it. But I'm an introvert who hates having my activities scheduled in any way, so it's predictable that a lot of cooperative play is more stressful than fun for me. I'm happier in MMOs where there is always plenty of solo play to be done but I can also casually participate in guild chat or go to a location where it is predictable that lots of people would be hanging out and looking for someone to do a joint activity for an hour or two, then go their separate ways again.
 

Playing with two other people:
 - We'd each go off doing our own thing, each separated, hide our shelters, hide our resources, and plan how to find and destroy the others' work.
 - We rarely found anyone else's shelter, because we hid them too well and the world was too large.
 - We ended up disguising our houses with disguises nobody else saw, rigging traps that were never triggered, covering tracks that were never followed.
 
Not very fun.
 
What I'd like to see addressed in an MMO, is non-combat gameplay that the game is designed to encourage the community to share with each other. Cooking, alchemy, clothing designers, artists and painters, map-makers, writers, hunters, gatherers, furniture makers, tapestry weavers, miners, forgers - where the community appreciates your contributions, recognizes your achievements, and rewards you for participation as part of a larger whole by sharing resources and knowledge, without taking away individual ownership, individual achievement, and individual creativity, and that has such a breadth of possible combinations of food or colors and designs, and equips you with enough options, that your work can actually be unique compared to the other 20,000 clothing designers making blue shirts with gold buttons.

With that kind of set-up one would have to be careful to give shoppers all kinds of tools to find what they want, otherwise shopping for all these unique items would be a nightmare. For example, I've been playing a dragon-breeding game recently, and been quite frustrated by the fact that there was no way to filter the for-sale dragons to see only those which were currently ready to breed, because many of them had more than 10 days of cooldown to go before they could be bred.
 

tldr:  I like creating really cool things, but I like those things to be appreciated by other people. Without the appreciation part, the act of creation almost seems pointless to me.
 
I still get enjoyment from creation (alot of enjoyment), but once the creation is created, there is a need within me to share it.

Yeah I can definitely agree with that. I've spent half my life looking for people to be an appreciative audience to my various creations. I love systems such as fanfiction archives and image galleries where readers and viewers are encouraged to leave comments through a really easy-to-use system, and I've also seen a few cool in-MMO objects where passing-by players were able to leave comments on a sculpture, display case, or paddock containing bred animals.

Edited by sunandshadow

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In case you weren't already aware, I wanted to bring EverQuest Next to your attention. When I read the thread's title and then saw that the initial post was today, I thought for sure that this thread would be about EQ Next. The questions you're asking have no doubt been some of the very same questions that they've asked themselves over the past months and years. Perhaps it also is a game you should consider playing (or applying for beta, if you're so inclined) as it may blend together the some of those aspects that you enjoy.

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Two words: Eve Online.

 

The world is shaped by player interaction, politics, economics, military and social influence. There is a large room for exploration, various kinds of activities and professions for players. However, the setting is not suitable for everyone and the game has quite steep learning curve. 

 

It brings competition and interaction between players in the first role, and up-to-day it is the major real working sandbox universe. It ultimately creates a lot of activities and self-generated content by players to entertain themselves, find new ways, the universe is open for exploration, conquests, negotiations, and so on. It brings about a lot longer life-span to the game, better feel, higher risks and higher rewards.

 

This is something that every MMO should strife for: real challenge, real emotions, equal opportunities, living world, unknown future, dangers, discoveries. Hopefully, the new project World of Darkness by the same CCP will follow the same trail, now in a more common setting of the Vampire: The Masquerade universe (similar to Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines world and atmosphere).

 

If you are, as a game-designer, haven't played Eve Online, I strictly recommend at least checking out its trial period. 

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I second the above.  EVE ONLINE is good inspiration for a solid design in a good interactive MMO design.

 

The game has been going a long time as well which is a solid indicator that its designers did something very right.

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EverQuest Next - If this is anything like the original EverQuest it will not be similar at all to the design I'm working toward, which isn't very sandboxy, and more jRPG than wRPG.  EverQuest Next might be a great game, and I do see how it exemplifies a player-shaped MMO world.  But I think I failed to explain that the type of player-shaping I mean is that done by an individual player.  The Landmark thing seems to be the most directly related to this, but as far as I can tell it's a game in its own right, and players won't be able to build buildings in this way in EQN???  And I'm even more directly concerned with making the story and NPC portions of the world customize themselves to each player in reaction to that player's actions.  The way Joe Player and Jane Player can both start Skyrim in the same place and end up with quite different worlds shaped by their individual actions, that is AWESOME.  That's what I want to figure out how to do in an MMO.

 

Eve Online - From everything I've heard, this game doesn't have any protections against players messing with each other's personal projects?  I definitely do want to have some such protections in place, I'm just trying to figure out how to balance players claiming a portion of a landcape as their own vs. players needing to shave a landscape to play the game together and see each other's stuff as part of their natural gameplay, not requiring a special trip somewhere they'd otherwise never go.  From what I've heard Eve Online also has no story, so like EQ Next it wouldn't be useful as an example of how to balance individualize interactive story with other players playing their own stories on the same terrain.

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Everquest Next, from what I understand, has these things in common with this discussion:

 

1) Players can literally shape the physical geometry world. (Minecraft-style digging down and finding caves)

This isn't permanent, though, and the world will 'heal' itself, and the procedural caverns underground will get re-randomized every 24 hours or so.

 

It's important to underline the temporary-ness of the effect, which is at odds with what I desire.

 

2) Cities and such will be built (and stay permanently built for the rest of the game) over the course of 3-month long quest arcs, where based on the actual actions of the mob of players, the end result will change. (Did more players side with the orcs? Maybe that city was destroyed instead of just damaged. Did the other group of players recruit the giants? This city was successfully built).

 

Emphasis on recognizing mob-actions rather than individual actions, which is a step in the right direction, but not the same as your personal achievements being recognized.

 

3) NPCs do remember you as an individual (supposedly - EQN isn't released yet), and permanently change their behavior towards you based on your direct interactions with that NPC as well as your interactions with the rest. If you did side with the orcs in burning down a city, and the human merchants who survived that city found out, they will react differently to you as an individual.

 

This is good - and a great leap in the right direction, if they can implement it well, and if the NPCs react correctly. (It's interesting to note that Dave Mark is helping greatly with that, and is working on EQN with StoryBricks and Sony Online Entertainment in a highly-visible and highly-public consulting role, afaik. He gave some presentations to the Sony Live conference a few days ago, and did some interviews representing Sony speaking about Everquest Next)

 

This thread is talking about alot more than those three things, but those three things are somewhat related, and it will be interesting to see how well EQN executes on them.

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2) Cities and such will be built (and stay permanently built for the rest of the game) over the course of 3-month long quest arcs, where based on the actual actions of the mob of players, the end result will change. (Did more players side with the orcs? Maybe that city was destroyed instead of just damaged. Did the other group of players recruit the giants? This city was successfully built).

 

Emphasis on recognizing mob-actions rather than individual actions, which is a step in the right direction, but not the same as your personal achievements being recognized.

Mob-actions is the big one for me.  I actually hate mob-quests in MMOs.  Hate them passionately. angry.png  I'm very much a do-it-yourselfer or renaissance woman.  I hate in-game goals that are impossible to accomplish solo.

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Yeah, I'm kinda with you there. I think there needs to be alot of both though. Tons of single-player quests, alot of group quests that can be solo'd if you're good enough, some guild-quests that involve an entire guild, and a few world-event type quests occasionally used to unlock/release new content or explain dramatic game world changes.

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