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RISKY BUSINESS

So in the middle of the "UO Old Man" name calling a valid point was raised – namely, in the antiseptic New World Order of the idiot-proofed MMO, where’s the Hero’s Journey in all of this?

First, a point of order – my initial discussion of UO’s flawed first years were almost entirely from the viewpoint of customer service, and how some fundamental design failings caused customer service issues (otherwise known as "idiots")\’c3\’82\’c2\~to overwhelm the game. For example, take house looting. Generally, from a CS standpoint, allowing total strangers to break into your players’ homes and steal everything not nailed down may be a bad idea. Now, if you want to enforce how much your players can squirrel away in their personal attempts to monopolize your games’ data storage, there are a few less punitive ways around that. And if you want to give home ownership an element of risk (which, viewed strictly\’c3\’82\’c2\~from a retention standpoint, is about on a par with making guilds randomly disappear) then there are probably ways to code that, that could even be viewed as interesting by both parties. Say, you allow your players to go over your draconian storage limits, but at the risk of the roving bandits pillaging your house. For which you hire guards. Hey, look, gameplay! And, like all well designed player-vs-player elements, it’s opt-in, not opt-out. (For those not familiar with marketing lingo, "opt-in" is the equivalent of your visiting Amazon.com to look for books, and "opt-out" is the equivalent of Mormon missionaries visiting your house. Again.) There’s many ways to regulate PvP conflict in this manner; take\’c3\’82\’c2\~Planetside, for example, which handles the teamkilling problem of other online shooters very adeptly, with "grief points" that quickly decay, but serve well in punishing those who can’t seem to stop aiming at the guy on their side.\’c3\’82\’c2\~ Given that the design of an MMO is at least aware that a good solid minority of your playerbase is in need of behavioral counseling, there’s still a lot of originality and depth that can be done.

What I think a good many people, quite rightfully, are afraid of is that we are looking at a time when risk in itself is bad. And I’m not talking about the players. The cost of creating a mass market MMO is climbing with every release, in an exponentially frightening manner. World of Warcraft’s server outlays on launch week alone could have funded an MMO a few years back. When you start talking about real money, people tend to look very askance at taking risks with the game. And the most successful games have also been the ones that took few risks. Risk taking is great for a design seminar, but not so great when you are responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of people.

The logical conclusion here is that the true innovation is in the small market – the online games with less than 50,000 players. And we have seen some innovative designs in this space. But we’ve also seen the average game player turn their nose up at them. We expect the eye candy and the monstrous marketing budget and the ads on Monday Night Football. We complain that the resulting game is mind-numbing pablum – but we buy it anyway. The aphorism "do as we do, not as we say" comes to mind here. If the market so completely rejects the smaller innovators, where is the encouragement to continue?

Ubiq’s post on this subject takes the view that creating innovation actually makes a jiu-jitsu sort of business sense – if the elephants are going to continue stomping around the jungle, then maybe you shouldn’t build a house there. And I agree with him that in the game-vs-world discussion, worlds clearly make more compelling games. The problem is, as he said, doing them right takes a good deal of thought that inexperienced developers tend to ignore.

Really, this comes back to customer service. It’s not glamourous, it’s a money sink, and no one ever gets kudos at conferences for coming up with a really cool CS plan. But when you’re dealing with holistic world design, you HAVE to design around people – customers – and understand the tradeoffs between risks and assured failure. A risk is in the miner going to an unexplored mountain range and possibly running into PKs, but possibly ending up with very valuable ore that they couldn’t get anywhere else.\’c3\’82\’c2\~Assured failure is the miner being killed outside of their house.

This is really important – the most important, in fact – feature of online worlds to wrap your mind around. If you offer risk, you start to arrive at emergent gameplay. The miner wants that valuable ore. Maybe he’ll hire some PKs to guard him on his way out there, because it’s worth his while to get that ore. Maybe then those PKs won’t be PKs after all, but part of your game world. Maybe your world can subtly reward them for that, and before you know it you’ll have the beginnings of an organized society. If you offer assured failure, you teach the players that the only way to win is not to play. This isn’t a lesson you really want to encourage.

I realize that we’re dealing with very basic stuff here, the game design level of "2+2". The problem is that too many games lately have ended up with 5. And until we learn very boring, customer service-level addition, we’re never going to get past the first grade. And I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really sick of that homeroom teacher.