March 11, 2011

What Can Be Changed to Make the MMO Industry Produce Stronger Games

Currently, we are looking at a foundation for every single MMO game that has become outgrown. Developers see the genre as a three stage process consisting of an early-game phase, a mid-game grinding phase, and a late-game phase. We are going to be looking at the three phases and analyzing them. First we have the early-game phase.

Nearly every game will now start you off with a brief tutorial and some cool cut scenes, and this is done simply to make the transition smoother and keep you drawn into the game. Developers believe that if they can keep you interested past a certain point, you are less likely to abandon all of your progress and quit. As an example, let us look at Aion Online. When you start off in Aion Online, it is like your typical MMO. The graphics are still beautiful, yet no longer anything too special. You begin by completing your average quests and reaping the rewards to gain experience. Eventually you get into the meat of the early levels, developing a storyline of quests that must be completed to advance, along with your sideline quests from random NPCs throughout the world.

As you complete these storyline quests you are immersed into a fantasy world, and with the help of interactive cut scenes and interesting dialogue, as well as forcing player involvement with party quests early on, players are drawn into a game that resembles what they would hope from the late-game phase early on. When you get past the early levels however, Aion undergoes a transformation. The cut scenes become less frequent, and you finally achieve the ability to fly like you had been waiting for. However the game becomes less immersive, and there is no longer any special ability that you are waiting for, grinding towards. The game then leaves you grinding until you can enter the Abyss, the mid-game phase.

Now, it sounds pretty good so far right? Well that is the one part of the MMO foundation that developers actually work on, the early-game phase. This is the phase that is meant to trick you into subscribing, into playing for long periods of time. They want you to believe that the gigantic boss you fight at level three is the type of monster you will be fighting throughout the next forty levels, that the entire game is as fun and fast-paced as those early levels. However the problem is that this is almost always simply an act of deception. The fun ends eventually, and you are introduced to a phase where the game becomes less immersive and your purpose is then solely to grind upon boring quests with an actual interesting quest every few levels.

Developers need to carry over the early-game phase into the mid-game phase in order to keep gamers hooked. Deception is an interesting technique, yet it Is short-lived most times. In fact, the sheer change in game style between these first two phases is a major contributor in why gamers quit early on and never get to see the late-game phase. What developers need to do is make a game that is fun throughout the first fifty levels, not just the first ten. We need party quests, quest immersion, and boss battles the entire journey.

Next we have the dreaded mid-game, or grinding, phase. We are set in a land where we no longer feel as if we are part of a storyline, and we feel more like we are in an entirely different game. We look forward to new skills, new armor, and getting to the big raids and the player vs. player action. These late-game phase features are the only thing that keep us driven, that keep us killing orc after orc to gain small amounts of experience day after day until we finally level up.

Now, I am for one am proud to say I support grinding in games. Grinding is what separates gamers, and what gives us the feeling of superiority that we wish to achieve. Otherwise we would simply play a typical RPG game like Dragon Age, where we need not commit any particular amount of time because when we are not playing we are not falling behind. The game only moves when we move. In a persistent world, this is not true. If we take a break, we fall behind those who do not. Yet, there is a problem when grinding is not met with equal rewards and challenges. For every grind, there needs to be a feeling of accomplishment.

In Warhammer Online, they attempted to lower the impact of the grinding phase by providing constant player vs. player action. Castle sieges and instanced arenas made up the bulk of the game at this point in time, while players grinded on monsters and completed side quests while they sat in queue. This system seemed to work for a long time, however it was simply not enough. Like most games, the incentives provided during this phase simply do not come often enough and this is where most games fail. Like most gamers that are reading this article, one of the things that I hate to see in a good MMO is a lack of skills and armor. Having to grind eight levels for every new piece of armor and every new skill is an action that painfully pulls my heart away from every game I try and become attached to.

What we need to do here is provide incentives that last throughout the entire phase. A dynamic event system that provides party quests and player vs. player events randomly and uniquely can keep the system fresh for many levels. Partnered with a skill system that provides constant updates to skills and a system that allows users to have to choose between which skills to upgrade, not allowing every skill to be used immediately when it is available is a good solution. If we took the skill system from Vindictus or Runescape, or even the old-school FlyFF system where skills were trained as you used them, this would provide a reason for gamers to keep playing. Coupled with a Borderlands style system of weapon and armor upgrades, we could see a real decrease in the pain the grinding phase causes all of us.

Lastly, we have the late-game phase, the part in the game we all look forward to. However it hardly ever is what we are hoping for. Games like the World of Warcraft have perfected this phase, incorporating a system of competitive arena combat against other players and challenging teamwork missions such as raids, the late-game phase they have used for years has managed to still keep players involved. However, most games are unable to even successfully copy this system, so what is the real trouble, why are these companies failing here?

The problem lies in the ability to make something challenging without losing the social aspect created by having a game that anyone and everyone can play. The main question is, how can we design a raid that requires teamwork but encourages everyone to try? In Warcraft there are several ways to work around this, since there are so many raids and since each raid can have large parties, everyone can find a place in a raid. However, what many games need to do, is expand upon the dynamic public quest system and use this in their late-game phase. Dynamic events with large boss monsters that scale in difficulty depending upon the players present and providing great rewards for those who contribute the most along with a small random probability for those who don't contribute as much, players can be kept active in the game and the community and have something to do after experience is no longer a necessity to them.

Now we have discovered the biggest problem of the late-game phase; replacing the necessity of experience. When you no longer have any levels to gain, what can you possibly seek? My solution is a combination of the mid-game improvements I mentioned. Improving the level of your skills as well as learning even more new skills, as well as providing a ranking in player vs. player and large-scale player vs. environment events that gives items and skills allows users to still have a goal after their level has been maxed out. We must remember, unlike console games, a MMO should be open-ended. We cannot be striving towards a particular ending, because the ending should always be unwritten.

The foundation we follow in games is to setup a series of main and sideline quests, provide experience bonuses, and give out new skills and equipment every few levels. After the first few levels we ditch player in an open-world grinding competition to see who can kill the most mobs in the shortest amount of time, and then transition into dungeons and other repetitive actions that help us out on our grinding journey. Eventually we reach the end of the game where the action slowly dies down and the community begins to take longer breaks since less attention is needed, and when every raid is done and player vs. player no longer becomes fun, we ditch the game and move on until a new expansion comes out.

We must redesign this system to provide a continually updating challenge even after the max level has been reached. Skills should be in constant overflow as should armor, in order to truly provide players the ability to create a unique identity within a game. We should never have to grind upon normal mobs for no reason at all, and the gaps in quests experience and experience needed to advance a level should be cut down to provide less downtime. We should reward players for community involvement and not for time spent clicking mouse one. The foundation must be broken down and equipped with these strategies to truly keep gamers involved and entertained.

Credits: Dominic Strohmeyer

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  1. I think the problem is being creative with what is allowed in an MMO. If i designed a MM0 there would be a) no level cap. b) new quests each moth via update c) constant skill increase and many other options. I recently stopped playing MMOs because a never ending game was getting on my nerves. I needed to feel accomplished and couldn't get that feeling with a game that never ends.

    Julian Moretti
    Game Design Undergraduate

  2. @jmoretti

    "If i designed a MM0 there would be a) no level cap."
    "...because a never ending game was getting on my nerves. I needed to feel accomplished and couldn't get that feeling with a game that never ends."

    Which school do you go to? I would make sure my son or anyone I know to avoid that place.