Here\’e2\’80\’99s some heretical thoughts about MMO design inspired by (frequently sleep-deprived) attendance of lectures and roundtables at this year\’e2\’80\’99s GDC.

The model for every MMO\’e2\’80\’99s content up to this point has been, with very few exceptions, non-linear, thin, time-dependent and relying on players to aspire to goals that many players never reach. All of these are hostile to many players \’e2\’80\ldblquote the mythical \’e2\’80\’9ccasual player\’e2\’80\’9d that the very structure of massively multiplayer gaming seems antithetical to. It isn\’e2\’80\’99t an accident that, when Gordon Walton used the term \’e2\’80\’9ccatass\’e2\’80\’9d as an aside in his presentation, he didn\’e2\’80\’99t see the need to define it further. How can we work on scaling down some of that \’e2\’80\’9cnewb hostility\’e2\’80\’9d? Possibly by exploring further some fundamental assumptions of MMO design which may need challenging:

Non-linearity. How can you create a linear game experience \’e2\’80\ldblquote \’e2\’80\’9ctell a story\’e2\’80\’9d, in other words — when it is shared by thousands of others? What\’e2\’80\’99s more, would you want to? Isn\’e2\’80\’99t a non-linear game experience unique to MMOs, in fact one of their most defining characteristics? Sure. But at the same time, it\’e2\’80\’99s used as a crutch. \’e2\’80\’9cWe can\’e2\’80\’99t tell a good story. We\’e2\’80\’99ll let the players do it instead.\’e2\’80\’9d Of course, if a single-player CRPG used the same tack, it would quite rightly be viewed as an abdication of story-telling, not a refinement of it.

Greg Costikyan wrote recently that games shouldn\’e2\’80\’99t even try to tell stories, because they\’e2\’80\’99re not nearly as good at it as movies are. Which is true. Nothing I write will ever measure up to say, Faulkner or Tolkien or even sometimes Franken. (Ann Coulter, on the other hand, I totally pwn.) But another liberal icon, Kennedy, stated that we do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. And writing a compelling story that a cast of thousands can become engaged in is hard. But it is not impossible. And it isn\’e2\’80\’99t done by instancing one story five thousand times, either. (We already do that. They\’e2\’80\’99re called \’e2\’80\’9csingle player games\’e2\’80\’9d) It\’e2\’80\’99s done by looking at the roots of where stories come from \’e2\’80\ldblquote the retelling of interesting times. World War Two, for example. World War Two was a non-linear story. It was a massive clash of ideologies, of good and evil and of the birth of the modern age. Somehow, I have a feeling someone could probably write a story or two from that. Moving it to the sphere of MMOs, and pretending for a moment we live in a world where one can have the SS and the NKVD in a role playing game without attracting the ire of revisionists, racists and lawsuits, the game designer can create a meta game of the clash of nations (possibly allowing for player control of these \’e2\’80\’9cfactions\’e2\’80\’9d, if moving high enough in each nation\’e2\’80\’99s military structure), and the resulting battles \’e2\’80\’9cspawning\’e2\’80\’9d missions for military-type players, espionage efforts behind enemy lines, and arms merchants hawking wares in Rick\’e2\’80\’99s Caf\’c3\’a9.

Such a game would require a great deal of theoretical and concrete design \’e2\’80\ldblquote how do players advance in each nation\’e2\’80\’99s military or political structure? How would they interact with one another? How would you encourage the players to remain \’e2\’80\’9cin character\’e2\’80\’9d since you would be relying on their interplay for much of the spin-off \’e2\’80\’9cplayer generated\’e2\’80\’9d content? And most importantly, how do you make it fun for the guy who just installed the game and wants to storm Omaha Beach 30 minutes later? How do you make experiences \’e2\’80\ldblquote \’e2\’80\’9cmoments\’e2\’80\’9d — in such a non-linear World War Two as compelling as Call of Duty did with their Stalingrad levels?

It wouldn\’e2\’80\’99t be easy. But if you did it right, it would be one hell of a success. And if you did it wrong, it would be one hell of a bad game. \’e2\’80\’9cOh gosh, let me level up on Belgians for 3 hours and then I\’e2\’80\’99ll join you in Smolensk. Anyone got a port to Liege?\’e2\’80\’9d You can create an incredible framework for a game and have a bad game, if you don\’e2\’80\’99t have enough compelling content to back it up. By \’e2\’80\’9ccompelling content\’e2\’80\’9d, I mean nothing more then \’e2\’80\’9cstuff that\’e2\’80\’99s fun to do\’e2\’80\’9d. Reading page after page of someone\’e2\’80\’99s purple quest prose may very well not qualify. Think about what you want your game to *be*. What would you do in the game that is actually fun? That\’e2\’80\’99s content.

Time dependency. Grinding. Levelling. Camping. It\’e2\’80\’99s all the same thing \’e2\’80\ldblquote you are exchanging hours of your time for the privilege of the game recognizing that your kung fu is in fact superior. Raph Koster, in his deeply, deeply depressing GDC 2003 presentation, noted, probably correctly, that time dependency is probably the most democratic of the ways skills can be measured, because if pure \’e2\’80\’9cplayer skill\’e2\’80\’9d aptitude such as twitch or applied knowledge is used, then the upper 10% will impose a tyranny of skill over the remaining unhappy 90%. But just replacing the sign on the gate to \’e2\’80\’9cteh fun stuff\’e2\’80\’9d with \’e2\’80\’9cRequires 3000 hours\’e2\’80\’9d instead of \’e2\’80\’9cRequires the ability to play hoops at NBA level\’e2\’80\’9d isn\’e2\’80\’99t the answer. Instead, just tear the damned gate down! Making \’e2\’80\’9cteh fun\’e2\’80\’9d being the reward for suffering through 90% of your game isn\’e2\’80\’99t just bad game design, it\’e2\’80\’99s sadism, for crying out loud. And not only that, it\’e2\’80\’99s stupidty, because only the upper 10% will bother to even try to get through the gate.

If you\’e2\’80\’99re spending 90% of your efforts on the last 10% of your game, something is wrong. The game should be fun. Not the endgame, not the final payoff, the game should be fun. If you\’e2\’80\’99re not consistently having fun 15 minutes after installing the game, something is wrong. And there is not a single MMO on the market today that completely meets that criteria. Period. And people wonder why they haven\’e2\’80\’99t achieved mass market success yet.

The elder game is going to be striven for anyway. That upper 10% is going to want to be there no matter what. There\’e2\’80\’99s no need to make a huge wall to climb for them to get there. Instead, design the game around what the player does after they finish the tutorial. What is *fun*? Where is the player going to go next? What are they going to do? How are they going to be engaged in the wider world around them, what goals will they have, and how engaging is the process that they go about meeting them?

If you\’e2\’80\’99re going to have a crafting system, don\’e2\’80\’99t make your players grind out paper hats for 5000 hours before they become a GM Haberdasher and can finally make a Really Nifty Paper Hat. Instead, give them the raw tools to be a businessman \’e2\’80\ldblquote stores, advertising, franchises, exchanging and transport of raw material, and enough ways for the players to differentiate their paper hats from everyone else\’e2\’80\’99s. Because the actual game of the crafting system is in what the player does with those paper hats. If all they want is to make their own damn paper hat, fine! They can make a paper hat and go on their merry way. But there are a small, devoted, and deeply troubled segment of the player base that wants nothing more than to be shopkeepers. Punishing them for it seems kind of cruel.

Mythical endgames. One theory that makes me want to throw things out of the nearest window is that it\’e2\’80\’99s OK if only a few people make it to the game\’e2\’80\’9
end, because they are creating myths for the little people to aspire to. By this line of reasoning, if you make a fearsome Dragon of Asskickery in your game that is literally impossible to defeat, and in the entire history of the game only one guild manages to somehow take it down after an epic battle lasting 5 days and 3 bio breaks, then that\’e2\’80\’99s fine, because everyone will tell stories about how the Feline Guild managed to defeat the mighty dragon.

I\’e2\’80\’99m sorry, that\’e2\’80\’99s not \’e2\’80\’9cepic tales of drama\’e2\’80\’9d, that\’e2\’80\’99s \’e2\’80\’9cI am only going to create content in my game for eight people\’e2\’80\’9d. While players do create epic tales of drama about the milestones of the game, if you create barriers of entry so high that almost no one can meet them, the main epic tales of drama will be played out on the message boards, where players will attempt to outdo each other in furious prose of how badly your game design sucks. Being told you are never good enough to actually play the game you paid for is not fun. And assuming that most people will be content to experience your game second hand is the height of folly.

A real metagame (I hestitate to use the term endgame because it implies a long hard slog before ever reaching it \’e2\’80\ldblquote and many politically minded players enter the meta game five minutes after installing it) is embedded in the myriad of ways that players interact with other players. This isn\’e2\’80\’99t something you HAVE to design for \’e2\’80\ldblquote it will happen anyway. (Anyone who thinks EQ isn\’e2\’80\’99t a PVP game hasn\’e2\’80\’99t read any server message boards for it.) But a good game will design around it \’e2\’80\ldblquote create the structures within your game to allow your political players to exert their charisma. Guilds (dear god, the thought that a major MMO was even contemplating launching without guilds makes me cry inside), cities, nations, whatever. And the more you give those players control of the narrative structures within your game \’e2\’80\ldblquote the \’e2\’80\’9cin game\’e2\’80\’9d nations or whatever \’e2\’80\ldblquote the more you leverage those players to assist in telling your narrative. Believe me, there are HUNDREDS of players just dying to play those parts. Leverage that, don\’e2\’80\’99t just blindly count on it to exist.

Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet that you can fire to \’e2\’80\’9cmake the damn thing fun\’e2\’80\’9d. Storytelling is hard. Compelling storytelling is really, really hard. Compelling storytelling in a massively non-linear environment has never been done, ever. So if you want to do it, you have to be really, certifiably insane.

Now if you\’e2\’80\’99ll excuse me, I need to go find a nice stylish straightjacket. Preferably cotton, polyester makes me itch.