Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 25, 2004
 
Basic repetitive units

Last July I wrote a piece about content, the non-repetitive part of a MMORPG. Of course content is important. But even more important is the repetitive part. Every MMORPG has these basic repetitive units, like combat, or making an item with a tradeskill. The idea is simple: By offering these basic repetitive units of gameplay, you can occupy your players for many hours, without having to offer them any expensive-to-create content. Of course this only works if people are willing to repeat the same action over and over. For that to be fun, each basic repetive unit has to be a mini-game in itself.

With combat, that is easy. Combat has both risk and reward, and slaying an orc or dragon is intrinsincaly interesting. Nevertheless, solo combat in MMORPG games is often boring. The problem is that the designers have to account for lag. You don't want a game where the guy with the best ping has a definite advantage, while a guy with a bit of lag loses out. So MMORPG combat is often of the one-click-combat kind; you click on some sort of "start attack" button, and your character hits the monster once every x seconds, until either you or the monster are dead. You can even leave the keyboard and go and get a coffee while fighting. Only spellcasters have it more interesting, as they have to chose which spells to cast. To create something a bit more interesting for the melee fighters, they usually get some sort of special attack, so they have a button to hit once in a while in combat. Very predictable, very boring. MMORPG combat only gets interesting when fighting in a group, as fellow players are a lot less predictable than AI controlled monsters. Group combat is all about cooperating to control what the monster is doing. You try to make the monster hit the guy with the best defence (the tank), while the other players either heal the tank, or deal damage to the monster.

Not much progress is in sight for MMORPG combat. One idea, used in Horizons for example, is combat stances. These work like rock-paper-scissors, if you chose the stance that "beats" the stance of your opponent, you deal more damage. Another possibility is being able to chose between more aggressive and more defensive combat modes. Skills like "Berzerk" exist for that in some games, like FFXI. But the world is still waiting for a really good idea how to improve MMORPG combat, without forgetting the lag problem.

While combat is more or less okay in most games, the basic repetitive unit to create an item, usually called "tradeskill", is bad in most games. The only game that can claim to have turned tradeskills into a sort of game is SWG. But even there the mini-game actually consists of gathering the resources, while turning the resources into an item is as boring as in all other games. One problem is that the player usually has no influence on the degree of success. There is a risk, failure to create the item, losing the components, but this risk is just linked to a random chance which happens invisibly in the background. There is also a reward, in increased skill, and possibly in creating wealth, but most MMORPG designers seem to have problems with that concept. In all games I have played up to now, the skill increase was far too slow. You had to create thousands or even tens of thousands of items to get the skill to maximum. And that in turn totally kills the economics of tradeskills, as there is no market for these thousands of items. Designers are often unwilling to allow you to make a profit on items sold to NPC. And making an item for players is often only profitable once you have a relatively high skill, meaning AFTER you repeated the creation process several thousand times.

The only improvement to tradeskills promised by the games of 2004 is that World of Warcraft scrapped the concept of random failures when making items. But they replaced it with a simple "every try is a success", which is less frustrating, but not necessarily more fun. The fundamental flaw of tradeskills is that the process still consists of chosing what to make, and selecting the ingredients, and then just clicking a button. Once you know what to make, this degrades quickly in a repetitive click-feast. A good indicator for that is that people often try to macro tradeskills, to at least minimize the number of clicks per item, and ideally to run in a loop without having to be at the keyboard. That is a sure sign of a part of a game which is badly designed and boring. What is missing is the mini-game part in the creation. Players only do tradeskills to get to the final reward of being master, in spite of being bored by the actual process to get there.

That could be something as simple as a sliding puzzle like this one. I chose this example, because you see how you can make sliding puzzles from easy to hard by simply increasing the number of rows and columns. So the easiest items to create could be a 3x3 puzzle, while the most complicated ones could be a 6x6 puzzle. To make things really difficult, there could be a time-limit, or better a limit on the number of moves to avoid lag problems. Of course other sorts of mini-games would be possible. But the player would be actually involved in the creation of the item. It would be impossible to macro. And the difference between an easy item and a master item would not only be the number of skill points required to do it, but it would actually be more difficult for the player to make the master item.

After combat and tradeskills, in most games there are no more basic repetitive units. Some games offer fishing, but that usually suffers the same fate as tradeskills, in that there is no actual game involved besides pushing a button and waiting for a random chance. Not that random chance is bad, the problem is that it is usually invisible. If there was a little pop-up window with a slot machine like display, and fishing consisted of getting 3 fish in a row, it would already be a lot better than now. And there would be a lot of other basic repetitive units like that which could be added to MMORPG, each of them a different mini-game.

One of the worlds most successful single-player series of role-playing games, Final Fantasy, is famous for being stuffed with mini-games. One of them even had a complete fun fair full of games included. It is unfortunate that MMORPG, not even FFXI which is ostensibly from the same series, do not take up that concept and make their basic repetitive units into better mini-games.

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