30 Apr 2011

Designing My Own MMO

A while back I was challenged on Twitter to design my own MMO. I can’t remember exactly who threw down that gauntlet, but I have a feeling it was Razorbug. In the weeks that have passed I’ve been kicking the tires on this idea, thinking of how I could make a game unique enough to sound interesting yet familiar enough for players to be comfortable with it.

I wanted to share this idea with you partly to see if an “armchair designer” like me can come up with something that you might find interesting. I also want to pass the challenge on – to see what you would choose if you had a development team waiting for your MMO ideas. It’s a great exercise and it challenged me to think in a different way to my normal consumer-critic mindset. If you’re up for the challenge then give it a go!

So without further ado, let me share what’s been in my head these past few weeks…

The Setting

I really wanted to think of an MMO with a rich steampunk setting, where the industrial revolution is in full flow. Machines and contraptions can be found everywhere, from factories to ferry boats. It is a time of great change as the products of industry collide with the historic countryside, and not everyone is comfortable with those changes.

Luddites and doomsayers would rather turn back the march of progress, doing what they can to sabotage and distrupt. Exiles and schemers hide away in the wilderness, working on their own inventions outside of the moral restrictions of society. Other forces plot their own agenda, looking to influence events to their own ends

Steam power is the most commonly used technology, although each nation has a preference or focus for their own style. Electricity is also occasionally present, although it’s use is more specialist than commonplace. Radio does exist, but tends to be expensive and thus restricted to a few uses.

The industrial revolution kicked into high gear in recent times with the discovery of a rare mineral. This mineral had unique and incredible properties; with just a small amount it could be used to empower armour or allow a person to perform miraculous feats. Devices and augments using the mineral became increasingly complex, allowing all manner of possibilities.

In high enough quantities it was even possible to use the mineral in devices that would anchor the very essence of a person, effectively enabling them to cheat almost all death bar old-age. The process is expensive and complex though, restricting it to those who can afford it or gain access to it some other way.

The many uses of this rare mineral mean that personal technology has suddenly become incredibly useful. It’s become commonplace to find people wearing goggles, powered gauntlets or augmented clothing as they carry out their daily lives. After all you wouldn’t want to be mistaken for a Luddite, would you?

The World

I wanted to get away from the two faction split seen in many MMOs, as it creates a “good versus evil” split regardless of the moral focus of each. It also means that slight imbalances between the two factions become amplified. As a result, the world consists of three nations that share one common language as well as having a national tongue. They each have their own currency as well, although money changers (and possibly other players) will happily trade one for another.

Each nation also has a central city which acts as a PVP sanctuary, while most nation lands will be ‘bluewall’ where PvP can be enabled or disabled as desired. In between each land are neutral areas where free-for-all PvP can occur. The only safe places here are neutral cities, which will take almost anyone in as long as you don’t start a fight.

The first of three nations is the Empire. Ruled by a single person, the empire prides itself on running by clockwork – literally. Their preference is for brass and steel constructions filled with intricate ticking mechanisms. Elsewhere they have a very Victorian feel, with ornate detail and luxury being paramount.

The second nation is the Republic. Ruled by an elected government, these people put their trust in steam power above all else. Favouring cast iron and the red glow of coal, their cities have the gritty and grimy end of change.

The final nation is the Council. Ruled by a council of elders, this nation is built on harnessing the power of water and wind to drive their machines. As a result they have a natural preference for wood and sail, a respect for the wisdom of time and the handing down of knowledge.

The world is currently enjoying an uneasy peace. Previous wars have all been localised in particular areas, with no two nations going to all-out war for several decades. But with the discovery of the rare mineral all that could change. Incredible power is available to those who control supply of the mineral, attracting interest from both nation and entrepreneur alike.

You’ll find steamships of various sorts heading between the known lands, while the occasional airship can be seen in the sky. Beyond the safe borders you’ll find all sorts of characters, from those would end all invention to pirates and privateers looking for opportunity. There have also been occasional skirmishes around some of the borders but otherwise relative peace… for now.


I think it’d be cool to allow you to pick which nation you would want to be a part of. I’d also like each nation to be made up of unique races, meaning that each nation’s characters have a unique “silhouette” and makes them easy to identify. Other than that, I’d focus more on hairstyles and facial shapes than skintones and eye colours, as I’d want to encourage people to make distinctive characters.

One of the key things that separates players from most NPCs is that they’ve received the benefit of a Soul Anchor, and as such cannot die permanently except from old age. As a result, I’d like players to be able to choose how they became “anchored”. Did they win it in a competition, or make a major discovery and get rewarded? Were they a merchant who sunk their life savings into it? I’m wondering if this should be tied into an origin story, or if it should be left up to you.

Progression is through questing, experience and gaining levels. It’s a mechanic that people seem to be familiar with and can work well in helping to tell stories. The only concern I have with the mechanic is people skipping the story to rush through content and how to make it feel different enough that it avoids the old ‘kill ten rats’ cliche.

Augment System

You’re probably wondering what classes I’d include. The answer is simply that I won’t – I don’t think it’s right to restrict players to pidgeonholed classes that work in set ways. After all, you sink a lot of time in a character, so why force you to roll additional ones just to try out different playstyles?

Instead I wanted to use an Augment and Ability based system – something that works really well with a Steampunk setting. Augments are physical objects that you can attach to things like clothing, gloves, headgear and weapons. They also give you access to related abilities which define your playstyle. Start using defensive augments and you’ll gain tanking like abilities, while offensive augments will give you access to damage dealing ones. Restorative augments will help you with healing abilities.

Why do things this way? I felt that in a game that is all about invention, you should be encouraged to invent things for themselves. By providing you access to every single augment and ability I’m hoping you’d try out new things and generally tinker with how things work. It also means that chucking in additional augments with variations is easy. You can be a specialist, a hybrid or a jack-of-all-trades, it’s really up to you!

Your gear has the ability to hold a number of Augments. Low level gear might only have space for one or two Augments while higher level gear would hold many more. As you progress you’re able to use more augments. You might be given augments as a quest reward, find them as loot items or even be able to craft and sell them. Augments should be tradeable and you’ll be encouraged to go look for them.

The Vortex is the result of being anchored – it basically means that as you stack up augments in a particular direction you get access to further related abilities. You’re limited to the amount of augments you can stack in a given direction the amount of augment slots the gear at your level has, as well as the augments you’re able to activate at your level. There should be enough scope though to allow for creative use by twinks.

Art Style

I’d plump for a cartoon-style art direction for this game for a number of reasons. I like the vibrancy and richness that exists in games of this type, instead of going for the ultra-realist brown-on-brown-on-brown. I’d bump up the detail and craftsmanship of the game, but I’d also keep the exaggerated proportions and unrealistic clothing and weaponry that define this genre.

I’d also use this style for accessibility. Providing a high contrast between characters, monsters and background makes it easier for all types of player to be able to enjoy the game, including those with visual impairment or poor visual acuity. I’d use the modern graphical effects to run riot with the cartoon theme, but I wouldn’t get in the way of keeping distinctive shapes and contrasting colours.

All The Rest

There’s much more to an MMO than just the above, and I’ve only really scratched the surface. I’ve got further ideas on realm design, content schedules and updates, PvP, instancing and raiding, crafting/gathering, trading/reputations and more besides. I’ve not included all those as I wanted to give you a flavour of what I’ve been thinking. but I’m happy to share further ideas if you’d find them interesting.

I’m interested in feedback on these ideas too – what do you think sounds interesting and what do you reckon won’t work? Is there anything you’d add or change yourself, given the chance? It’s all just an experiment anyway – it’s not as if someone’s going to make this game.

I’d also encourage you to have your own go at this challenge if you feel up to it. Think of a setting that you think could work for an MMO and describe how you’d build it. Focus on the areas that interest you – don’t feel you have to cover everything! As yourself what you like about the games you play and what you’d change given the chance, and try to incorporate it. Would you do anything radical or make any fundamental shift? It’s all up to you!

If you do take up the “Design an MMO” challenge then let me know – I’d be interested to read your ideas!

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8 Responses to Designing My Own MMO

  1. Tufva says:

    I’m not a steampunk fan, but I think your ideas sound interesting – if I saw a game like that I would try it out.
    I definitely like that you said that you would go with the cartoon rather than realism style as I am put off by most games that try for realistic looking characters. They are never quite right, so to me they end up looking creepy instead.
    Also, the class-less idea sound very intriguing as in WoW I have lots of alts so I can try out the different styles of doing things.

    • Gazimoff says:

      Thanks for your feedback! I agree with you about the art style – I think that going for something that’s deliberately unrealistic can be a huge bonus. If you look at many western MMOs, they all try to push for closer realism in order to visually differentiate themselves from WoW, but I’m unconvinced that it helps them.

      I’m glad you like the idea of a classless MMO too. I think that class rigidity is one of the big bugbears for any game, and that having complete freedom means that you end up with complete flexibility. I’m also aware though that some people create alts to give them flexibility, so removing this cuts down the replay value of an MMO. I’m still thinking of ways to replace this without making the game grindy.

  2. Mr. Robot loves this exercise, he’s thought about what a good MMO should be. His main focus is on leveling, and raiding. Games haven’t figured out a really fun way to level yet… sometimes you want to level alone, sometimes in groups, sometimes with friends of different levels, etc. There has to be a way to make it all work, and work well.

    His other big question: how do you make PVP meaningful… where there are consequences to dying and rewards to killing someone, while putting checks in place so ganking someone 10 levels lower doesn’t occur. He’s toyed with the idea that if you die, you lose a random item and the other person gets it. But to put that in check, you can put beacons on your most valuable items, then track it down to get it back (if you can kill that player). But, what if you aren’t good at PVP? No problem, you can put a bounty on getting that item back.

    • Gazimoff says:

      These are two tough questions to answer.

      The levelling game is tricky enough. Create something that favours solo questing and you’re pretty much providing a single player game. You might just as well be playing Dragon Age or another RPG, as you’ll get a richer experience. Grouping is fun, but how do you encourage group play without making it mandatory and creating a roadblock for the player? I think this is why we’ve ended up with Crucible of Carnage style group quest hubs in WoW, to provide that element of group questing without making it compulsory.

      PvP is a harder one for me to answer – I don’t play on PvP realms and I don’t actively PvP. Yet I feel that some of the richest combat experiences are from player versus player encounters, where it makes sense to do so. I don’t think that what WoW has done is the best solution – effectively dividing the PvE and PvP game with different armour sets etc in order to turn it into an esport. It’s something that I’d need to think on much more in order to come up with something that sounds good while being fun for everyone to participate in.

  3. Stubborn says:

    Sounds excellent. I love steampunk, and haven’t played a good steampunk game since Arcanum (did you get a chance to play that several years ago?). I like the triple factions; I’m tired of there being only two. I also like the skill based progress (not to avoid using your lingo, just to keep it simple). I like the versatility of skill choices; Fallout games always did this well, as did Fallen Earth to some extent (although it did have “focuses” like crafter, melee, and ranged). I also prefer the cartoony style of WoW to the “realistic” games like DDO and Rift. While the graphics in both were beautiful, I just prefer the WoW style for some reason. Borderlands, too, to a very “comicy” approach that I liked.

    Sounds great!
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  4. Razorstorm says:

    I LOVE this idea, and so does my wife.
    I like the Augment system. One comment. In lack of a class system, I would highly recommend a skill-based system to define your charatcter. Otherwise, your character is entirely defined by their gear, something which I find somewhat un-heroic. I’m sure you’re aware of them, but I’ll point our GURPS PRG system as probably the best implemented example of this. The one thing that gets really tricky in these systems is equitable balancing of skills. “Sure I could points into Medicine, but they really don’t get me much benefit compared to dodge!” Or, “5 skill points in skill X lets me do Y, but 5 skills points in Z lets me do Y+50!”
    I really like skill based systems, so long as different skills are an important element of the game, to drive differentiation.

    Love the idea! Keep writing about it!

  5. Straw Fellow says:


    This sounds incredibly similar to an idea I had not too long ago about a tabletop setting. Bizarre.

    Regardless, I’ve always loved the Victorian and Steampunk settings and really like your take on it. I’ve always been incredibly surprised how few developers have gone this route. Sci-Fi doesn’t always need to have lasers, yaknow. Travel by Zeppelins and railroad would fit just as well.

    I’d like to echo the comment of the poster above: Three factions, in my opinion, are far superior to two. The conflict is well established and makes your faction choice really mean something.

  6. Tesh says:

    Sounds good so far. I’m especially fond of the theme and the tripartate politics. I like that each could easily be themed strongly but all fit within the overall world. (As an artist, this is the sort of thing I’m especially sensitive to.) The classless system sounds good as well. I’m interested in seeing more of that angle on the game design.
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