1 Sep 2011

The MMO Blueprint

The recent game conventions have shown us that there’s a collection of top-tier MMOs heading our way over the next two years. It’s a great time to be a fan of the genre as there are some really interesting concepts emerging, both in the game worlds we’ve seen and the mechanics that have been revealed.

As the convention euphoria fades away I’m left with a lingering doubt. Only one or maybe two of these games will ultimately be successful. The rest, while being technically adept, will struggle to reach the same level of popularity. I wasn’t sure why though – it felt like a gut feel.

I decided to run a Twitter poll asking a single question – what are your three most important features in an MMO? Thanks to everyone who replied back and took part, I really appreciate your help. The results are in, and it’s these results that I wanted to share.

Building a Model

While I was assembling the results I started to construct a blueprint of what the ideal MMO would look like. What components were needed to make a good game in the eyes of the players? Was there a secret formula for MMO success? Would it help us to understand why certain MMOs failed?

There’s a traditional model that seems to be used when analysing most modern non-MMO games. Each game has four elements – graphics, sound, gameplay and content. The game’s overall performance could be described as a function of graphics and gameplay, while a games lifespan could be determined by looking at gameplay and content. An overall weighted figure is calculated to give the game a final verdict.

The trouble with this model is that it doesn’t really fit with how we look at MMOs over the lifespan of the game. It’s fine when you treat the game as a single player RPG, but this then ignores the things that attracts gamers to MMOs in the first place. I decided to try and build a new model based on the feedback from the Twitter poll.

MMO Component Model

As I was putting together the model, three things became quickly apparent:

  • People want to play with friends. This didn’t come out as “raiding” or “heroics”, but just simply being able to spend time doing fun things with other people they know.
  • Story and lore are important to players, which seems to contradict the standard view that players skip quest text.
  • Players want a tailored experience unique to them, which seems to be a contrast from traditional non-MMO games.

While it’s easy to over-play the significance of group interaction models, it’s also worth noting that interaction models as a whole were also regularly mentioned. How players interact with their characters, the game world and other players (both friendly and hostile) is important to them.

Building the Future

There was a further theme that came out of the Twitter poll – players want innovation. We’re getting tired of the same concepts being reused and rehashed with only a new graphics engine and a different art style to tell them apart.

It’s not like there’s no room to innovate in MMOs any more either. As I started to pick through the responses to the Twitter poll, it became fairly clear that we’ve become a bit conditioned in our thinking about what an MMO should contain.

We need to create new interaction models, particularly around grouping players with people they know. Traditionally this has been things like dungeons and raids, but they don’t have to be. There’s a huge untapped space of ways in which people know each other could play together that designers can explore.

Players want an increasingly customised experience from their MMOs. Part of this involves allowing players to tailor their character in both appearance and ability. This doesn’t have to mean using classes and talent trees as long as players have a level of control they’re happy with. Going beyond this, players also want to have tailored experiences in-game. This is a tougher aspect for designers to handle, but not impossible.

Finally, developers need to look beyond quest text at how they play out the game story. It’s already clear that some are looking at ways to solve this, with a good example of how not to do it being the cut-scene overload in the Uldum zone in Cataclysm. For me this feels like pulling on techniques used in the film industry to explain story points while keeping the action flowing.

This doesn’t feel like anything new to me, but does look at existing problems with current MMOs in a different way. I think that’s fairly important if we’re going to encourage innovation in the genre, as I think that by expanding our focus we’ll start to see ideas that are truly new.

A Big Gamble?

For me, the biggest risk to an MMO is the issue around being able to play with friends. If your friends don’t play the same game you’re left with either playing a game you don’t like just to play alongside them or making new friends because your old ones won’t join you.

It’s clear that Blizzard recognised this when they introduced RealID and the ability to chat between games. It’s clear that this tool will be the main thing that keeps players in contact while some are in Warcraft and the rest are in Titan. It also amazes me that MMO houses like NCSoft and Funcom haven’t plugged into this yet and developed their own systems.

I think that this clause is also why we see large hype machines emerging whenever a new MMO is emerging. There’s a keen belief that by having friends to play alongside a game will be a success. While that’s certainly true in the short term it doesn’t keep them playing to deliver the long term success that Warcraft’s enjoyed.

For now at least it’s likely that we’ll continue to see large quantities of hype to entice us to the latest games. It’s also likely that we’ll see perfectly good MMOs fail because of our own fickle tastes and willingness to compromise to play with people who matter to us. I don’t see either of these changing until what we want from an MMO changes as well.

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9 Responses to The MMO Blueprint

  1. Mynsc says:

    Easiest way to keep a group of friends all tied to a game is to offer a complete experience. Even if we’re part of the same group and we probably share a few views on how a game should be, our preferences are usually far apart.

    I like doing quests but one of my good friends hates them and always looks for alternative ways to level up. I love Arenas, while another friend of mine always looks for open world pvp. And so on.

    Of course it’s pretty much impossible to please everyone, but you should at least try to cover all your basses. There shouldn’t be pure themeparks or pure sandboxes… these 2 sub-genres should always be combined when making a new game.

    Hype and social features are nice, but they can’t sustain mini-communities in the long term. You need a solid product.

    Innovation is also required, just like you said. You need to take some of the winning recipes the games before you created but to also make sure you bring plenty of new ones yourself. You need to take some risks.

    Best example for this is RIFT. The game is pretty darn good when it comes to applying established mechanics. But it lacks innovation badly. And this is why, even it had the absolutely hands down best launch window EVER, it had the hype, press and fans support… it didn’t really manage to build a solid foothold. It’s been declining ever since it launched, even if it pretty much has 0 competition right now (excluding Wow ofc that’s always lurking in the MOO space) and I can see it going F2P in 18 months max. If Guild Wars 2 (or any other game with more innovating features to its name) would have launched in march 2011, right now WoW would be at 7,8 mils players and falling.
    Mynsc recently posted..Activision Blizzard Analyst Day – live blogMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I’m not sure about not building a solid foothold – I’m seeing a lot of Warcraft players move to Rift (although a lot of that is out of boredom).

      I think you’re right though. Once TOR and GW2 come out Rift is going to really feel the pain.

  2. Syl says:

    A very interesting post, Gazimoff. Funny enough, I just wrote in my article today that I don’t believe a game that was all tailored around my ‘top 3 focuses’ would necessarily even make for a great game. because we’re dynamic that way, we know what we want now, but not tomorrow, and we also want change (and innivation as you said). that’s very hard to “put to paper” for developers.

    I think too, that one big danger is trying too hard; you can never achieve everything for your audience, you need to know where to prioritize and where it’s important to have boundaries (short-term vs long-term effects etc.). so I’d rather see future games give us the room and means to shape things for ourselves within their framework – so we can still all play side by side in the same world, with all our different focuses.
    we’ll see what happens next year. it’s certainly exciting times, now that WoW’s long shadow has started to fade.
    Syl recently posted..On the subject of subjectivityMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I think you’re right with it being difficult for MMO designers. And with us being a fickle bunch, chances are that we’d decide we didn’t like something because our friends aren’t playing it and leave a perfectly good MMO in the dust.

      I agree with you though – definitely looking forward to next year!

  3. Stubborn says:

    First, I think this is fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading this; conducting your own research like this (as self-reporting as it may have been) is a really interesting way to develop a topic, and it might make me even start checking out Twitter a little (something I have vehemently avoided up until now).

    That said, I have a few responses to separate portions. First, I don’t think it’s surprising that your results show an interest in story. In fact, there’s three reasons that I don’t. First, consider your audience; people who are attracted to written media; whether it be 148 characters or a quest text, your sample is going to want things like text. Secondly, story is supposed to be the new big thing, the fourth pillar, something so far “ignored” by the MMO developers (not that it was really, but that’s how Star Wars is hyping it), so it doesn’t surprise me that it shows up as popular. Lastly, in A Theory of Fun, Koster talks about people being interested in the fiction of a game at first, but as they develop more skill in the game, being less and less interested in the setting. I think this is probably true of all of us; we read the quests at first but eventually just scan for the “Verb number noun” of the quest.

    I also found the section on the big gamble very interesting. You did an excellent job covering the core of MMOs – playing with your friends. I can’t tell you how frustrated I’ve been in games that indirectly penalize you for grouping; Rift has been the best so far about this, both by auto-making public groups and by having quest drops be lootable by everyone in a party. I feel that we need a lot of friend-friendly innovation in games, and I certainly hope to see it in both Star Wars and Secret World.
    Great post!
    Stubborn recently posted..Rich Games for Poor Players, Finale: Loving Lovecraft (a.k.a. Cthulu Saves the World)My Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      I love Twitter polls because of the responses they give, even though they can be a bit freeform. Plus I really like asking for help putting together articles like these, partly because it allows me to challenge my own opinions.

      I’ll talk about SWTOR once the NDA goes down, but I do think there’s an issue of story being revealed through quest text that gets ignored by players. We need a better way of having dialogue with our NPCs.

      I think it’s also an insight into why models like LFG and LFRaid only partly solve the problem. We want to play with friends, but random people don’t always fit that category. There needs to be a better way of solving this.

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  5. Razerbug says:

    You might be seeing unexpected results from your poll because of the medium/sample set.

    It could be argued the quest-text-skippers/button mashers aren’t the type to read blogs about and interact with the greater community of the game world, even if they are in actual fact, the majority?
    Razerbug recently posted..Free to (Role)playMy Profile

    • Gazimoff says:

      Fair point – sampling bias is a distinct possibility. That said I’d be surprised if they were in the majority – there are cheaper ways of getting your RPG fix than paying £9 a month for it 🙂