19 Mar 2016

Crowdsourcing MMO Design

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Today, I’m going to look at two related topics. The first came out of a new initiative from Carbine Studios called DevConnect, where the studio asks players for input on potential changes to WildStar. The first topic is about faction barriers – a subject that had grabbed my attention following Liore’s blogpost on it earlier this week.

Personally, I’m very pleased and encouraged to see Carbine open up in this way. It harks back to early days of WildStar’s development, where topics were shared and discussed amongst a curious and growing fanbase. WildStar Uplink, as it was known back then, led to one of my first blogposts about the upcoming MMO.

As for the second subject, that’s more about the current trend for studios to solicit feedback from players to help shape and mould the future of a game, and some of the interesting new mechanisms for doing so. While forums and social media might be a community’s bread-and butter, it feels as though studios would benefit hugely from an additional tool to call upon.

Faction Wall Jenga

Earlier in the week, Chad Moore (WildStar’s Game Director), posed some questions to players about removing faction barriers. These long-established tropes of MMO design are usually put in place to invoke some sense of conflict between two sides, although the split is usually along idealogical, rather than moral lines. Theme-park MMOs generally have a rigid split, while sandboxes tend to be far more lax about faction membership.

Moore asked four specific questions, which I’ve responded to in turn:

1) What are your thoughts on dropping the faction barrier? And why?

Let me be clear – I’m all in favour of a partial lowering of the faction barrier. To start with, this would be targeted in specific areas: removal of the language barrier; removal of restrictions with visiting player housing; and removal of barriers to cross-factional trade. This would encourage cross-factional social interaction, while preserving each faction’s purpose and identity.

Beyond this, I would consider supporting cross-factional queues for dungeons, adventures, raids and (gasp) even PvP. That said, I’d expect this to be a phased approach, supported somewhat by the evolving lore storyline. In a nutshell, it’s a sentiment already expressed on the forums.

Lore-wise, I would describe this as a growing realisation between the leaders of both the Dominion and the Exiles that the galactic threat posed by the Entity is too big to ignore, and will require their combined strength to eliminate. This might be a move championed by the Coalition of Galactic Scientists, and encouraged by the Royal Collegium and Exile Academy of Sciences, but most probably tempered by the Black Hoods and Imperial Corps of Intelligence. The idea of an uneasy truce is a well-worn trope, but also fits the current narrative. Added impetus might be generated from a sudden deterioration in Drusera’s state, with both sides putting their differences aside to avoid imminent peril.

All in all, it’s a similar scenario to what happened in Rift Update 1.10, deployed back in 2012. It’s also in-line with the approach taken in Guild Wars 2, where factions have been swept aside in favour of player-created guilds.

2) What are your thoughts on keeping the faction barrier? And why?

Factions currently serve to give players an identity and purpose. We use them to ground our characters within the game world, even if we choose to shun that origin in the later game. A good example of this is EVE Online, where picking Gallente or Minmatar dictates where you start in New Eden, but doesn’t control the path that you take or the goals you can pursue.

That said, the NPCs don’t have to like it. Animosity is likely to exist for some time, and that’s a good thing. After all, you never know if that Mordesh is going to throw you a heal or leave you bleeding out in the snow.

I also feel that there’s an opportunity for bringing some of the cross-player factions to the fore, either through story or through purpose. The Coalition of Galactic Scientists is one, and I can see that they’d start to solidify their claim as an impartial representation of order throughout Nexus. Of course, they’d need an opposition – perhaps something a little more chaotic, and backed by some of the more – ahem – entrepreneurial elements of the cosmos. Or maybe something a little more military and combative – maybe combining the strength of a couple of rogue squadrons. The key thing is to allow players to flow freely between them, and even gain benefits with both, over time.

3) If you were a developer for a day, what would your vision for what faction barriers be?

Start by stepping through each element of the game, and ask if rigid factional barriers improve or diminish that capability. This reaches all aspects of an MMO: chat, commerce, combat, crafting, and content. If it happens in game, is there a solid reason why they shouldn’t do it together.

From there, map out the story arc for each faction. Do they unite, or fade into the background. Do splinter groups form that try to maintain the status quo? Should players be able to migrate from a starting faction to ally themselves with a different group? What role should player guilds have within factions?

For a heavily theme-park based MMO like WildStar, I feel that the Exiles and Dominion have an incredibly important role to play in setting much of the scene behind WildStar – how the players arrived at Nexus, and what their overall goals are. But it’s been over a year, and the Entity still looms large. Sometimes, other groups need to take the initiative and show leadership, in a way that the factions are unable to. Whether it’s saving the world while it’s still spinning, or making a quick coin while the getting’s good, there are other causes worth fighting for.

I also think that having these softer, more flexible factions could also breathe new life into WildStar’s Warplots. Instead of being a Exile-vs-Dominion battle, these could become testing grounds for new weapons and combat tactics, either against the Entity, or for some Protostar game show. The possibilities for chaos are limitless. But if it’s easy enough for a player (or wargroup) to swap sides and build reputation with them all, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t hop around. This isn’t a new idea – Rift brought it in with Conquest for open-world PvP in a specific zone – but I think that it can be retooled and repurposed.

4) How should PvP flags factor into faction barriers, if at all?

I think that if someone flags for PvP, it’s as if they’re declaring themselves a loyalist of their own faction, and all the barriers should go up. No cross-faction language support, either in-guild, or in chat. You should also be restricted from joining cross-faction instance groups as well. It also means that you’re declaring yourself a target for the opposite faction, whether consciously or otherwise.

Capturing Player Ideas

Whew. There’s roughly a thousand words on player factions. But what about future ideas for WildStar, or for other MMOs? Players are often keen to feed ideas on how their favourite games should develop, often making blogposts and forum topics on the subject. Community managers then have the thankless task of separating the wheat from the chaff, consolidating it into bullet-points, and sharing them internally for consideration.

Trouble is, this can be painstaking work. Forums are great for getting responses to a particular question (as Carbine has done in the sample above), but what about collecting and assessing a broader mix of ideas? Like it or not, ideas are also subject to our own internal biases when it comes to judging them as good or bad. Ideas can also come in all kinds of structures, from

‘I want better NPCs.’

to

‘During holiday events, I’d like to see a cluster of three bitter citizens, each of them named, and each of them complaining about the shenanigans going on around them. Make the dialogue different for each holiday event, and place them in a different location for each one. The task is to inject a touch of comedic cynicism and world-grounding into each event, and give players some characters to look out for.’

Internally software houses use tools to manage requested features, breaking them down into a bundle of requirements that can be assigned, built, implemented and tested against. The hard part is isolating those popular ideas, and translating them into features for analysis.

One solution is to implement a crowdsourced idea management tool, much like Runescape uses for RuneLabs. Players are invited to submit ideas, with emphasis made that fleshed out ideas that go into some detail are more likely to gain popularity than throwaway one-liners.

Other players can then easily lend their support with a single click, and respond with their own thoughts. Either comment replies or forums can be used to refine the idea further, and developers are encouraged to post replies. Crucially though, it means that the studio has a key list of ideas that players themselves are eager to see implemented, and can assess for feasibility. A studio can also steer discussion by setting particular challenges, either based around a particular theme or planned content update.

The key angle is that good ideas are encouraged, and tend to float upward. And while crowdsourcing has fallen out of fashion in recent years, it’s still a very powerful tool to mobilise a passionate player base, giving them a sense of participation in the development cycle of a game. And you never know, it might improve some skills in clearly articulating and defining ideas, features and requirements, leading to better quality specifications and implementations.

After all, developers and community managers are constantly asking for player feedback, and several tools for crowdsourcing idea management already exist. It could be worth a shot, right?

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