Everyone’s Got A List

Someone forwarded me this list of OMG MMO NIRVANA feature sets. While this entire list can be succinctly summarized as “Stuff hardcore players say they want in theory, and no one really does in practice”, I thought it’d be an interesting thought experiment to run through each one and give my thoughts. Feel free to agree, disagree, or call me a clueless n00b in the commentary.

A 100% player-driven economy. NO npcs, except for possibly quest npcs, though only on a very limited basis.

My initial instinctual response: “Oh, HELL no.” To a degree, Asheron’s Call 2, and especially Star Wars Galaxies went down this path, and it just doesn’t work very well until the very top tier of the economy. After the first month of SWG, no one really wanted to sell CDEF pistols any more. You need an NPC backbone to the economy for people to travel to that top tier, and you need NPC buyers to establish a floor of inherent value for in-game items. World of Warcraft gets this almost exactly right: the first few days of gameplay, players deal exclusively through NPCs, then are weaned to the player market gradually, until after a month they play the player-run auction house exclusively.

So, player-driven economy, yes! 100% player-driven economy, no! Extremism in the defense of economy is, actually, a vice.

A Dynamic landscape. The lands that the game takes place in MUST BE ABLE TO CHANGE EASILY. Trees must be able to be cut down, rocks must be able to be moved, and the landscape must be able to display damage. (from say, dragon fire or cannon shot)

The land must follow real-world physics and cycles, and must be affected by them. When it rains, rivers and lakes rise. It becomes more difficult to walk on bare land, as it becomes slippery and muddy. When it snows, the rivers and lakes freeze (or CAN freeze) allowing characters to walk on their surfaces. After rain, fog must form above bodies of water, limiting visibility. Lightning must be able to strike tries and tall buildings, as well as characters (though the chance can be obviously low). 

Sure, if your engine can support it. Design in the absence of any technical limitations is cool! Also, we should have ponies. Remember – you also want servers and clients that support hundreds of people in close proximity. Smoothly supporting that trumps working ice floes.

That being said, real-world physics, in moderation, can be a cheap and effective way to establish immersion.

Day, Night, Seasons, and other special conditions must have a real impact on characters. In the winter, characters without adequate clothing must slow down and eventually freeze, unless they find a heat source quickly. Rain must lower visibility, as must nightfall. If it rains blood and meteors, characters must be able to be damaged by falling debris.

There should be some sort of natural disasters that can occasionally occur. Volcanos, hail, meteors, earthquakes, etc, that would ruin someone’s day or damage the land and cities.

This sounds like a very grim world. Like Shadowbane. No one ever smiles in Shadowbane. MMOs are SERIOUS BUSINESS. Blood and meteors rain down from the cold, dark sky.

One of the most common comments of why many players didn’t play the Norse Midgard realm in DAOC was that it felt so cold, dark and depressing. I wonder what would have been the reaction, if in addition to the grim world design TOXIC BLOOD FELL FROM THE SKY.

Immersion is great, up to the point where it harms playability. Day/Night cycles are great, until they get in the way. One of the things I *don’t* like about World of Warcraft is its day/night cycles. They mirror reality on the West Coast. Which means that whenever I play WoW, it’s dark. Azeroth is a very dark place to me. Thankfully, the only impact is that it’s not as shiny.

Players must be able to have an effect on the game world. Players must be able to construct buildings anywhere they please, provided they have adequate materials and time, and the ground is reasonably flat, and they have the required skills to do so. Players must be able to chop down trees, haul lumber, and process minerals, etc etc.

 Trees and other living features of the world must grow back over time. The rate that they return is variable, depending on how real the world needs to be. Obviously deforestation is a real problem, but in a fantasy world, perhaps they can be “helped” to grow with magic, or other means.

Buildings must be able to be destroyed. Castle walls must crumble, gates and doors must be able to be bludgeoned inward.

Fire should burn flammable things. Wooden walls are flammable. So are forests. So are people. On the same note, putting out fires should be possible if suitable actions are taken.

Sure, within limits. In Ultima Online you could build wherever you wanted. The inevitable result over time: Sosaria Suburbia, where trolls and ogres roamed forlornly, looking for prey in the middle of tract housing. Which was, actually, pretty funny, but probably not what the world builders had in mind.

That being said, in moderation, player impact on the game world is a good thing – arguably a necessary thing. Players want to feel as though they matter. Placing their stamp on the world is a path to this. The key is in limiting it so it doesn’t overwhelm the entire world.

 Players must be able to form governments and rule themselves. This means that at first, sheer anarchy will rule the world, until reasonable players form powerful guilds and leagues, and begin protecting others, forming a more civilized society. Players with similar views of morality will of course band together naturally, and form the beginnings of good and evil governments. Eventually they will elect officials, or simply claim the right to rule. They will send out tax collectors, to fund the kingdom from the people who are protected by it. None of this must be hard coded into the game. Sheer human personality will make it possible, provided that the game allow such things to occur.

Yes.  Next?

Players must be able to kill each other without game-engine based rules to protect weaker players. Modern society was ruled by the stronger person for years. A game will have to undergo this period also. Weaker players will be forced to either live on their own, and try to hide from the stronger players, or join more powerful guilds and governments, and remain under their protection until they are strong enough to venture out on their own.

BWAAAAHHAAHAHAHAHAheeheeheeHAHAHAHA. (finally breathes.) No. Next?

All skills, abilities, classes, and races must be completely balanced. Without this obvious step in place, a dominant race/class group will immerge based on broken game rules. 

Duh. It’s hard, y0. There’s even a company that is trying to make a business model out of doing it for you. But yeah, lack of balance in a game with PvP is hot death (and arguably so in PvE as well).

There must not be any “random item drops” from slain creatures, unless it is reasonable to assume that the creature would possess such a thing. Receiving a sword from a giant wasp threatens the immersion of the game, but finding a rusted sword on an orc is not unbelievable. However, creatures and players must be able to be skinned, field dressed, and cooked.

When a creature is created with items that can be “looted” from its corpse, the creature uses those items in combat. If there is a possibility of getting a magic sword off an orc, and an orc is spawned that carries one, then that orc should USE that magic sword in combat. 

Yeah, that’s one of my pet peeves, too. (Irrational item drops, not the lack of the ability to be a cannibal.)

Artifact items must be completely unique. Only one instance of each may exist in the game world at any time. Rare items must be rare. Perhaps there are 2-5 instances of a “rare” item for every 1000 players.

Someone didn’t learn the lesson of the Holy Water Sprinkler of Nem’Ankh, I see. Note well: if you make a cool game that is rare, all you are doing is ensuring that your entire playerbase will go literally insane, because they will all insist that they HAVE to have that rare item. Encouraging insanity amongst your playerbase is only good if you’re doing a game on the Cthulhu mythoi. tl;dr version: artifact rarity SUCKS.

No item gained from any creature can be more powerful than the more powerful player created items, except for artifacts and “rare” items.

In other words, “player crafted items should be the most powerful, except for the stuff that’s more powerful.” In this example, the hardest core PvPers will all go find the artifacts, because they’re more powerful. And they’ll resent it, because they have to stop PvPing to do it. And they will hate you. I mean HATE YOU. No. Really. They will hate YOU, personally. Trust me.

The takeaway you should get here is that the player craftables of your game will be the PvP baseline, because they will be the most accessible/least rare items. Balance accordingly, but also remember in general, making items terribly meaningful in a PvP context will cause a lot of resentment and hatred from your PvP playerbase.

Combat must be real time. A “push the button and watch your character engage the enemy” combat system may be required to keep dialup users in sync with the rest of the game world, but it is not realistic. Skill SHOULD play a role in combat, especially against other players. Like any good FPS game, weapons would need to have a short delay after each “firing” based on size and weight and magical bonuses.

Ranged weapons must be able to be fired at will at any place within range of the character using the weapon. A “target” should not be required to fire the weapon. Likewise, melee characters must be able to swing at any time, at any space within the range of their weapons.

Terrain, objects, and other characters should provide cover against physical attacks to some degree. Closed doors ought to block javelins, for instance. On a similar note, some attacks like magic or lasers might just go straight through. Other attacks like arrow volleys could simply arc over the wall to hit their targets. 

Ah, the eternal debate about skill-based vs stats-based combat. And people who believe they have skills, of course, want skills. Hey, everyone raise your hand who’s willing to admit in public they don’t have skills? Just me? Yeah, that looks about right. Guess what – statistical analysis shows 80% of you are lying your asses off.

There are games which have twitch/player skill in PvP combat (Turbine especially favors this design, as seen in AC1 and DDO). They generally aren’t popular, because people find out they don’t like being in the 80% very much.

That being said, auto-attack-and-wait-for-death has its own sin – being boring. Your combat should probably not be boring, especially if it’s what your players are doing constantly. Luckily most modern MMOs punish auto-attack-and-wait-for-death, well, for most players anyway. (guess who’s been levelling up a paladin in WoW! and is so bored out of their mind with it they retreated to Second Life! Uh huh.)

Characters must not be able to walk through other characters, trees, shrubs, rocks, or any other “object” large enough to reasonably halt an average adult.

A noble concept in theory. However, this adds a ton of processor cycles to your server. Is it worth everything cool that you’re going to have to ditch to make that happen? Server processor cycles are not an infinite resource. Server-side collision detection is VERY hard on your server. Client-side collision detection is your game wearing a silky red dress and saying “Hey, big boy, want to code an exploit? No, really. Don’t. I’ll hate it. Ooh.”

Characters must eat. Not eating must cause weakness after several meals are skipped. Likewise, characters must sleep. Going without sleep for some time must cause fatigue.

Yes, everyone *loved* having to regularly eat muffins in Everquest.

I thought we had moved beyond the “punishing your players is cool!” paradigm of game design.

Death must be permanent. Perhaps lower level characters could be able to respawn, until an average level.

You know, this could be a great interview question for a game designer. “Do you think permadeath in a persistent world, giving the customer a dialog box that says “You have lost the game, all your work invested in your character is history, you should stop giving us money now” is a good idea? You do? Thank you for your time, we’ll be in touch.”

 A creature or other player that is able to deal damage to another player must be worth experience to that player. Any creature or player not able to damage another player may be worth no experience.

Bottom feeding is cool! Other then that snark I tend to agree. Of course that experience should be weighted.  Which may approach the theoretical limit of zero based on risk vs reward.  I wonder if this bullet point is just a reaction to some game’s risk vs. reward cycle being broken.

Except for an obvious magical field, the landscape should hold no boundaries, provided that a character has the required skills to “climb” or “swim”, etc. A vast ocean could be unswimable, but boats should exist, crewed by players with the appropriate skills. (and built by other players with the appropriate skills!) A magical field should only be a boundary as a placeholder for further expansion as the game grows.

Um. You do know that these worlds aren’t real, right? That they’re hosted on a game server that has to actually have the content for the world stored somewhere?

I suppose you could just track someone’s X-Y-Z and let them wander off into a THX-1138esque prison of whitespace. That sounds like a lot of fun.

 There must be a player-based resurrection system in place. (for instance, cleric or healer players can resurrect dead players) This helps the permanent death situation.

So, it’s permadeath. Unless you have friends. Sucks for you if you don’t have friends. Wow, I’d sure hate to be a new player in this game.

Once dead, any player can loot your corpse, taking whatever items they wish. This is how artifacts get redistributed

I tend to agree, within strict limits. Those limits make the design interesting. The limits are also necessary since the ability to steal items that took a player real-life hours or weeks to acquire are a permadeath-level “You Lost!” cancellation decision point. Of course, the author of this point I suspect would wildly disagree with my given limits. My guess is the word “carebear” would be used in a forum post.

Reasonably Intelligent creatures should be able to loot your body and use whatever weapons and items they find.

If not for the points listed above, this is actually almost funny enough to implement.

Creatures that are assumed to be “intelligent” should use tactics in combat. And yes, something a little more in depth than the “bring a friend” dynamics of the current crop of mmorpgs.

I tend to agree. With the following caveat: if you have smart monsters and stupid monsters, players will make a beeline for your stupid monsters, to the extent that you can use metrics to find your stupidest monsters simply based on killcounts.

Realistic Vehicles: Spaceships, speeders, and steeds shouldn’t just be a quick way to get from point to point. A horse that only follows a pre-programmed path is a waste of good glue. Players should be able to control the movement of their vehicles, as well as fight from within or atop them.

Sure. Willing to wait a year while your artists do all new animations and models so you don’t look like complete ass while fighting on horseback? Is my producer willing to wait that year? Again, the game of game design involves working within resource limits. Given that, horseback/vehicle combat is almost always the first thing lopped off because of that – it’s the low hanging fruit. Everyone always promises that it’ll get added in the first expansion. They lie like dogs.

The use of basic items should not be restricted to trained-only characters if it doesn’t make sense. Just because you don’t have any points in the “Shield” skill doesn’t mean you can’t figure out how to hold one up in front of you in a fight.

There’s a hell of a lot more to melee combat then “holding stuff in front of you” – watch fencing videos sometime, they’re all over Youtube. That being said, if you let everyone use shields – amazingly, everyone will use shields. Which makes the people who actually picked the Shield skill feel pretty damned stupid. Hey, I get a 5% chance to block blows for free! You paid skill points to get a 20% chance! Loser!

No global channels. Everything should be restricted to distance. Instead of a vender channel, implement a player advertising system, such as local billboards or something similar (be creative).

You do know these are social games, right? Inhibiting socialization in a game built on socialization as a basis may not be a good idea. Of course global channels should be opt-out (thank you Barrens, for reminding me to turn off /1) but restricting it (or even such insanity as removing /tells) based on “realism” simply lurches into “punishing your players for the sake of presumed immersion” territory. Which, if you have not been taking notes, is bad.

Players need to start out in a completely random area. This not only keeps things from being too systematic and unrealistic, but it also solves the problem of people just waiting for “noobs” to log it so they can take part in a slaughter. (Agreed, but with the addendum that random starting locations should be limited by the average zone level, if there is one. Starting new players off in a random high death area is a bad idea.)

I like it that the list author pointed out the reason why this won’t work for me. This blog entry was getting long anyway!

And finally, to close with the remainder of items to which my reaction was basically “yeah, that could be cool”:

Disguises: Some players could benefit from being able to disguise their faces and names with an appropriate skill or spell. Disguised players might infiltrate the enemy as spies, assassins, and saboteurs… or they could just dodge that bounty on their heads for a while. Maybe they could even get a shave and a haircut.

Multiple crafters and builders should be able to help each other make items and structures. Speed and/or quality of the craft could benefit.

I suppose I could be seen as too dismissive or snarky in dismissing most of this list. As dreams go it’s a fairly articulate one. But dreamy lists like this tend to ignore limits, like budgetary constraints, time constraints, demands of the market, and the sheer limits to what current server and client hardware can accomplish.

Of course in time all these limits will look like so much Luddite ravings. And a successful game will pick maybe one of these things, and say “this is how we are different!”. But most game developers aren’t literally stupid people, message board traffic to the contrary. Sometimes decisions that look idiotic were taken for very non-idiotic reasons.