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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