Trust me. I’m a professional.Understand that what’s being proposed here is a departure from most modern MMO design. The intent is to create a very different experience, with an emphasis on the living virtual world rather than on the static theme park or on the strict systems of the game. The results of what I’m talking about here would be more like a hybrid of Puzzle Pirates, EVE, and Facebook than they would WoW. In fact, for many of these, you don’t even need a heavy, processor-intensive 3D world client. That sort of graphical presentation is just gravy on the cake (to mix a metaphor in a pretty disgusting way).
Not that there’s anything wrong with making a game like WoW. Just acknowledge that you’re making a version of WoW with different static quests and that you’re never going to unseat WoW, and you’re good to go.
But I don’t want to make a reskinned WoW.
Let the Player Do It
You know that statement I keep making here? I mean it. Players like to undertake tasks that add depth and flavor to a world. If you think a task is boring and no one will do it, well, then 1) you’re wrong, and 2) why the hell are you designing such a boring game? Remember, if you make it possible for people to do, people will do it, so everything that makes it into your game needs to be compelling for someone.
For example, look at the Paragon Taxi Service in City of Heroes. (Thanks, @fauxreigner!) The Infinity Taxibots offer transportation, sightseeing, and help to players of the game, and they do it because they like interaction and helping make the world a unique place. Here’s an example of something in-game that people want and like to do not for the sake of advancement, level-grinding, or loot, but because in providing their services, they’re forging relationships and they’re making the game world an interesting place.
This goat-headed thing is an NPC and thus a game piece, and in a static-content environment, no matter how many times you kill him, he’s going to respawn with the same non-goals of his own at the same stage of not doing what he says he’s doing.More specifically, ditch doing quests for NPCs. Put the goals and objectives in the hands of the play— that’s right, you guessed it, “let the player do it.”
This is the simplest, most fundamental element of living world design, and it’s the one that almost no one does at all. In fact, I feel so strongly about this, I’m going to go ahead an make a declarative statement. Achilli’s Maxim maintains that
A task undertaken for a real person in a virtual world signifies that the inhabitants have a stake in the condition of the world.
By way of corollary,
A task undertaken for a computer-controlled entity in a virtual world signifies that the inhabitant may make no significant change to the world with regard to the terms of that task.
These are universal truths, and any disagreement will be punished by horsewhipping in the streets.
Simply put, another player cares when you do something for him. A task you do for another player gives that player something he wants in the world (and you hopefully gain a reward from him, even if that reward is non-monetary or otherwise not a virtual item). An NPC doesn’t care, and the results of a task done for him at best create an illusion of change, and more likely result in no change at all.
So if you want players changing the world you’ve created for them, if you want an evolving virtual world rather than a static theme park, you need to have the players doing things for one another rather than doing things for imaginary people who don’t really care one way or the other if the task is completed.
What this means is that you’ll still need a tool by which you can create and verify the completion of objectives (and probably provide rewards). The twist here is to put it in the hands of the player. You shouldn’t have a legion of content devs writing quests. You should have a simple, player-available tool by which a player can create a task and shop it out to other players. No more bringing rat tails to apathetic NPCs — in a living world, your players are performing tasks for other players, and only when those other players want them done.
A strong attempt, but CoH’s Mission Architect doesn’t break free from the yoke of static content.Admittedly, player-created content is a grail quest in MMO games. The problem thus far is that it’s been implemented incorrectly. Second Life, for example (while not a game by strict definition), places no limits on what users can introduce into the world, and likewise gives them no directive as to what’s “supposed” to be happening in the world space. It’s a complete free-for-all there, and the experience reflects that, with its flying penises and furry sex romps in place of content that’s… well, less appalling and more consistently themed, to be charitable. The other side of the coin is City of Heroes’ Mission Architect system. This system allows players to write new missions for CoH — but they’re static missions and they don’t relate to player goals. In effect, they’ve made their story editing tool available to the players, but the players aren’t allowed to set their own goals or directly affect the world with the tool. The players in this case are just quest writers working for free (or for notoriety, etc.). It was certainly an interesting and laudable step for CoH’s devs to take, but the results are limited by the fact that they don’t really create content that benefits the players of the game over the course of their playing.
EVE has a system that’s similarly ambitious, but limited in practice. EVE’s contract system allows players to create a binding agreement by which the guy who wants his stuff taken somewhere leaves the stuff and sets the price, and the guy who transports the stuff gets paid on completion. It’s a great way to get a player to move items for another player. The only problem is that’s it’s effectively limited to courier tasks. There’s a “free-form” system also available in EVE, but all it really does is allow for player text input and price setting. It doesn’t actually check to see if stipulated objectives have been achieved. Thus, it’s little more than a verbal agreement, not much more robust than players chatting in the context of “do a thing and I’ll pay you for it.”
What a player-driven task system requires is a way to set terms and a way to guarantee rewards. (It actually doesn’t need this last, and if you want your gameplay to have a lot of screw-you moments, or you want P2P tasks to become an issue of trust, you can skip it, but that’s an even more radical step than I’m proposing here. Human nature and all that….). For this system to work, the developer must expose a system by which a player can specify terms to be completed, such as with pull-downs, text-entry fields, or some other clever UI. Here, you’re basically constructing a sentence: Your task needs a noun subject and a verb to be performed on it. Bring Item X to location Y. Collect Z quantity of items A, B, and C. Protect player character D for a length of time. Kill player E.
None of these goals themselves are radical. If you’ve played an video game before, you’ve probably done any number of them for NPCs in the past. The difference here is that you’re doing them for another player, and those player desires create more content and relationships. You’ve double-crossed me in the past? I take out a contract to kill you. I want to perform a world-altering event, but I’m worried about the other logistics right now, so can you grab three vials of ectoplasm for me? If you do, I’ll pay you, or I’ll grant you the benefits of the special event. Et cetera.
The outcome here is that you’re doing something for another player that’s allowing that player to affect the world, and, in doing so, you’re building relationships that likewise affect the world because they give you common ground (and thus common goals, which equal gameplay content) with other players. EVE called this the butterfly effect.
Introduce Your Players to One Another
Oh, hey, look, a bunch of people who might want to play with me and who might even be subscribing to the service already. Make it easy to let your players take advantage of existing relationships.For the life of me, I can’t understand why this isn’t more prevalent in MMOs. Where it is present, it’s in a half-assed way. One of the quests in FFXI, for example, was to assemble a small group and stand in front of a statue. Kind of cool, in that it was showing players how to group and doing it in a context that fit the world, as they were supposed to be revering a statue. But all the quest did was say, “get some dudes together and stand here.” It never introduced you to “how to meet other dudes who are playing this game.”
Most games just throw you into the mix. WoW, for example, has quests labeled as multiplayer quests. You need two people to do this, it says in its conditions. Great. Where and how do I meet them? EVE falls a little flat here, too. New players begin play as members of a world-imposed starter corp… but they’re never told this and, worse, they’re never told that their gains are taxed as part of corp membership. You have to root through the corp tab to learn that. EVE does have a player-to-player introductory system, but I don’t know what it is and I couldn’t tell you where to find it, so, again, it’s buried somewhere in there and you have to happen across it.
Let your players search for friends via social media, make friend suggestions via interest, match players through playstyle analytics. (LOTRO does this last. Well, it shows a playstyle analytic in the social network, but it doesn’t actually suggest that players introduce themselves to one another based on the outcomes of those analytics.) Don’t just put a recruitment channel in there and assume that covers all your bases. Let them import their friends via outside social media, for example, and allow them to capitalize on the network of friends and other player’s they’ve already worked hard to cultivate. God bless you, Steam, for this wholly awesome feature.
Create Supporting Content
To paraphrase a discussion I had earlier this week with an individual whose secrecy at this stage I shall protect, the function of your virtual world content is to make people want to tell stories (or form tokens). The function of your virtual world content is emphatically not to tell those stories on the content’s terms.
The content in a virtual world must be places to explore, environments to affect, objectives to seize, mysteries to resolve. Virtual world content must foment player interaction and, if the players so agree, be the basis of crtain elements of player relationships. The content in a virtual world must not be NPC quests. NPC quests create dioramas, not worlds.
Let me find an item in your world that has a history attached to it, and some mechanical function. If the function appeals to me, I’ll use the item (probably on another player’s character…) or I’ll find another player who wants to use the item for her own ends. Remember those world-changing events and player-driven objectives above? They are the most valuable currency of your game. They create the infinitely refreshing content of your world and they are the vehicle by which you keep driving people back to your game.
And that’s what you want, isn’t it? People playing your game?
I say all this stuff like it’s a fait accompli, like you can just throw together a game that accomplishes all these things and you’ll be a millionaire.
The truth of the matter is that game development is hard. Extremely hard. The second-hardest thing I’ve ever done, behind being a parent. To put together a game that doesn’t do anything anyone has ever done before is even harder than extremely hard, because you’re making it up as you go along and you have to learn from your own design mistakes and the shortcomings of your actual game as it’s played in prototype, alpha, and beta. You have to listen to your players and accommodate their feedback — but not all of their feedback, or to the degree they suggest, because they’re likely primarily looking out for their interests first and foremost. (The best measure of this, so says my friend Sam, is when you have an equilibrium of complaints in your forum between “nerf X!” and “X is underpowered!” for each option available to players.)
But those are all concerns that happen later on down the line. It all starts with a good design, and a good design for an MMO is one that lets players play with other players rather than isolating them or restricting how they’re allowed to interact.