31 Dec 2010

The Future of MMO Control

A modified action bar set from World of Warcraft

As MMO players we have a fond familiarity with the traditional keyboard and mouse interface. We use the mouse to click on something then use the keyboard to perform an action to it. Sure, we might look at getting a fancy mouse to perform more actions or a snazzy keyboard to automate some sequences, but the principle remains the same.

The question is: do we still need them? Would it be possible to streamline the interface and bin the old keyboard-mouse combination or are MMOs just too complex to simplify? Is voice chat viable or do we still need text based chat these days? Would we get any benefits for making this change?

A Bit of History

To be fair I’m probably being a bit mean about the humble keyboard. The origins of text based commands and chatting with other players can be traced right back to the early multi-user dungeons from some 30 years ago. Internet Relay Chat helped to further develop many of the chat concepts found in MMOs, from slash-commands to channel management.

Games developers have also attempted to refine the traditional MMO interface. Phantasy Star Online used tricks like Symbol Chat and Word Select to reduce the need for a keyboard to talk to other players. The symbols and selected words would then be translated to the player’s own language, allowing different nationalities to play together easily.

Age of Conan borrowed from the Street Fighter school of special moves, with some classes being able to build combos with their abilities. While it was mainly used to provide access to more powerful variants of existing spells, it’s easy to see how it could have been used to reduce the number of buttons a player has on their screen.

Replacing the Pushbutton

By now you’ve probably seen the University of Southern California’s video on using the Microsoft Kinect to play Warcraft. The technique builds a skeleton of the player, allowing for analysis based on movement of any point on that skeleton. Think of it as a piece of software that can work out if you nod or shake your head, but can’t figure out if you’re smiling or sad. There’s also some simple gesture recognition in there, so you can map hand movements to key bindings and control almost any game as a result.

Although this is cool to watch none of it is particularly radical. It’s essentially taking the same old virtual reality interfaces and revamping them to take advantage of the new technology. That said, it’s a great starting point to show how MMOs could evolve.The key element is integration – designing the game to use tools like Kinect from the outset rather than just a way to translate key presses

The driving force has to be in reducing the number of buttons we’re left to push. There’s an old design mantra kicking around that players like to have a number of buttons to push and that they like to push them often. I’m not sure I agree with this – while I agree with one or maybe two actions being boring, I think five or six could make it more interesting. Start incorporating modifiers to abilities (chakra anyone?) and you start to develop complex patterns out of a simple set of options.

The Roleplay Reasons

I also think that roleplayers will really benefit from this new technology. Being able to accurately portray gestures and body language from one player to another will help to form more engaging experiences. Instead of being limited by the standard animated emotes or the clumsily typed /me command, you’ll be able to show other players what you really mean.

Even voice chat isn’t the limitation it once was. The Creative Warcraft Headset comes with the ability to change your voice with a number of presets, making you sound like an orc, gnome, demon and so on. I can see this also emerging in other games, allowing you to select your character’s voice in the same way that you’d choose skin tones and hair styles.

Beyond the Current

The future of MMO gaming as a whole is what will really help shape and drive the control mechanisms of tomorrow. Evolving traditional elements such as classic questing into more interactive experiences could be one way of doing this. We’ve already seen the offline RPG developers produce NPCs that react differently to you depending on your race, class and dialogue options. How about allowing questgivers, townsfolk and so on the ability to react to what you say and how you act? Would we get to the stage where your reputation is not just measured by the number of internet dragons you’ve slain?

There’s also the ongoing conflict between those who see gaming as a social group experience and would like a rich fantasy world to immerse themselves in, and those who want to be able test their abilities and reaction times by overcoming challenges and performing heroic deeds. There’s no reason why the two need to be mutually exclusive, but any control system needs to be able to support them both. There’s no point having a fancy motion recognition system for the easy stuff when you have to fall back on button mashing to do anything practical.

Getting There

The thing I love about video games is that they constantly evolve and change. I remember being wowed when 3D graphics first made an appearance, or when realtime reflection and lighting effects made their debut. I remember being amazed when I first heard full orchestral music for a game, the first time I heard really good voice acting. These things just keep getting better.

Sometimes though, you need a radical change to really shake things up. Like the steps from text-only games to graphics, or from beeps to music, how we control our games is set for the same overhaul. While MMOs might take a while to catch up to these latest trends, you can bet that these changes are coming.

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