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Fixing MMOs Is Hard

Tom Chick: MMOs are broken! Fix! The Narrator: No, you mean WoW is broken.

And now we have:

Trembling Hand: Oh come on, they’re broken, fix plz.

So I thought I’d share my jaded, broken-on-the-wheel-of-pain response to the above. A caveat: if someone released a game with all 10 of those points implemented, I’m sure it would be awesome. However — the devil, as always, is in the details.

Thus, I’ll hit these out of order, because some of them are such obvious truths it’s hard to disagree with (even for me, and I’m a professional curmudgeon.)

10) Launch when it’s finished

Yes, that’d be swell. When is finished? When the game is fun? That’d be great. When you run out of money and are going to lay everyone off unless you shove it out the door prematurely? True more times than I care to remember, including some eventual market successes.

But yes, in an ideal world we’d be free of budgetary pressures and, through beneficent overlords careless with cash, or even more unlikely, proper and experienced project management, a game would be developed well, QA’d throughly, beta’d for both fun gameplay and crippling bugs, and release on time and on budget.

Heh. Hah. muahahHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAH. There, I’m done now.

8 ) Make subscriptions cheaper

Hard to get cheaper than “free”, which is rapidly becoming the price point for a lot of new games. But yes, asking for a credit card is a pretty crucial hurdle that is difficult for a lot of games to surmount. So, sure, cheaper is good. Hopefully you can afford to keep that team running and throwing cash at them so they don’t have to release things early!

7) Quality of life 4) Don’t make me grind

Totally agreed here, on both of these. In fact, I’m tempted to combine them and call this the Blizzard Rule. Namely: if your players are playing your game and suddenly think “you know, I could be having more fun playing World of Warcraft right now”? It’s time to break out the “maintenance mode” budget spreadsheets.

3) Make combat smarter

It’d be great if we could. Unfortunately, the Internet intervenes.

Both in terms of lag time (the more complex the interaction between client and server during a time-critical action like, say, combat, the more lag breaks the immersion, or more accurately the outright lie that you’re actually engaging with a game in realtime as opposed to a half-second or so delay) and in terms of, well, people on the Internet aren’t that enamored with complex things. Take Dungeons and Dragons Online – which has precisely the type of combat the original poster proposed. DDO is not, by any stretch, a market success. Now, that’s probably not due to the complex combat system – but by that same token, it didn’t exactly close the deal for selling the game either.

Players, in the aggregate, tend to enjoy simplicity. Sorry. No, really, I’m sorry, I’m the guy who likes insanely overcomplex rules systems. Unfortunately you and I are outliers.

1) Make the worlds more engaging

Also make them fun. And finished. Also, profitable. Anything else? Oh yeah, blue. They should be blue. Blue is cool.

OK, enough sarcasm on that one. Yes, plenty of games fall down in inducing a sense of wonder or even a sense of place that’s critical for the success of a virtual world, probably through a tunnel vision imposed on deathmarching your way through an insane production schedule so you can “release it when it’s finished” before the entire company is laid off. And a lot of that is due to the unoriginal design of many games tasked with “cloning WoW”. It’s really hard to make a coherent world when you’re working off a xerox machine of game mechanics and interfaces.

(By the way, there is not a single MMO designer on the planet who wakes up in the morning with “I’d love to clone WoW” as his or her personal dream. There are many executives, however, who wake up EVERY morning with that dream. Protip: Executives outrank designers.)

By the way, if you’re keeping score, I start tossing bombs in earnest right about…. now.

2) Ditch classes and levels

If I had a quarter for every armchair designer (or actual designer for that matter) I’ve listened to that began their “How I Would Save The MMO Industry Singlehandedly” speech with “ditch classes and levels”, I could fund World of Progressquest singlehandedly. It’s the quickest way to indie cred: instead of saying you really like Angry Johnny and the Killbillies, you say you really wish someone would make a game just like Ultima Online (which effectively had classes and eventually patched them in explicitly) or Asheron’s Call 1 (which had levels as well as implicit classes) or Game No One Has Ever Heard Of But Makes A Ton Of Money And Has No Classes (but does have levels and an insane soul destroying grind) or My Favorite MUD No One Ever Heard Of But It Totally Ruled. Saying “I wish someone would ditch those damn levels and classes” isn’t proposing a game design. It’s proposing the absence of one.

Unless you have a pretty compelling alternative for explaining how people can develop their character without being intimately familiar with the game’s rules (which, mind you, are almost never well documented in any MMO, it’s like some sort of conspiracy industry-wide to refuse to hire a decent web team), you’re simply taking all the design work you’d already have to do in creating skills and abilities, and instead of building them into coherent class sets yourself are saying “screw it – let the players do it. They know better anyway. Plus there’s none of that annoying game balance to worry about! Everybody can be everything, amirite?” (Oh wait, you have this really complex series of checks and balances to make sure you can’t screw up your character or become God of the Tankmages that will mean the game will take 2 years to learn instead of 1 year. Right.)

Ditching levels and classes won’t magically eliminate The Grind: Ultima Online was a horribly, horribly grind-tastic game (hello, GM Blacksmith TWICE, cry for me) and World of Warcraft is pretty grind-free despite being chock full of both classes AND levels.  It’s simply another rules system, and by its nature an inherently more complicated one, both to design and more importantly, to play. That doesn’t mean it’s BAD – there’s plenty of successful MUDs that do very well with mature skills-based systems. But just tossing that out as “well, hell, why hasn’t anyone ever thought of this besides ME” ignores, among other things, the fact that this gets proposed and wildly argued over and finally shouted down violently by the experienced and probably drunk senior developer in every MMO designed to date.

Of course, just rehashing D&D over and over again is pretty insane, too.

5) Make mobs smarter

It would be ridiculously easy to make mobs smarter. “Hey, I need to always kill the guy healing people. No, really. Screw you, taunt skill. I’M KILLING THIS GUY. Oh, I’m getting some friends to help. In fact we’re going to loop around from behind to take them by surprise. AND WE’RE NOT STOPPING TILL WE WIN.” It would be the equivalent of That Dungeon Master Guy you all hate who takes great, sadistic, and Aspergian glee in making sure “his” players always die horribly.

This is not an experience people will pay for. Game design, in many ways, is convincing players that they won a struggle against imposing odds. It does not mean actually creating imposing odds.

Also, I have seen metrics prove conclusively, time and time and time and time again, that in a game that *does* have monsters with decent AI and that use strategies that require some thought to defeat, that players will avoid them in droves and seek out the ones with the most brain damaged AI possible.

Players dislike challenge. They SAY they like challenge. They lie.

6) Encourage grouping

Yeah, let’s not go there.

9) Listen to, and engage with, players

The players are often WRONG.

What’s more, they will lie to you.

DIRECTLY.

TO YOUR FACE.

No, really, their class is horribly underpowered, any fool would know that if they only played the game and that bug you’re talking about is really a feature and anyway you shouldn’t remove it because our entire side is underpopulated so it’s only fair.

The players are not the ones at financial risk if your game fails. They simply move on after consuming all you have to offer.

Of course the players are also often right. There’s a whole discipline of development which revolves around figuring out which is which. At least until they figure out they’re the least paid people at the company and move on to junior worldbuilder so they finally get some respect in the break room.

But engaging with players entails the willingness to do some very fundamental things which, to date, have been unpopular with both developers and players.

* Telling players they are wrong.

* Telling dev teams they are wrong.

* Telling players and dev teams that YOU have been wrong.

* Being honest with both players and dev teams.

* Not taking sides with one against the other.

* Not playing favorites with certain players or groups of players.

* Not playing favorites with certain devs or groups of devs.

* Not building up your own personal reputation at the cost of your teams or your community.

* Having skin thick enough to deflect radioactive waste.

* Having the ability to process thousands of often contradictory voices, cleanly, quickly and professionally, without hearing them in your head as an insane cacophany driving you to murder small children.

If you’re not willing to do that – all of that – then the point you ignored will be the point that will hoist you on your petard and do more damage to your community than if you had never engaged with them in the first place. And that is why most dev teams of late just take the path of least resistance and not bother. Because it’s SAFER.

But yeah, you should totally engage with your players, because, hey, they are kind of the reason you’re there. Just be aware you’ll screw it up and cause more harm than good. Also be aware you’re not the first.

So… yeah. Hopefully this gives some idea of the long and brutal path between good intentions and attempted implementation.

It’s HARD, yo.