Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Time for a New Vision

"The Vision" is a MMORPG design philosophy which was created by developers of Everquest. As these developers, and players that grew up playing this Vision, later developed other games, you can find back the Vision in nearly all level-based MMORPGs of today. Even World of Warcraft is based on a softened version of the Vision. "The Vision" was frequently mentioned in interviews, and Brad McQuaid even used it as marketing for Vanguard, but there is no publicly available document describing the Vision in detail. Nevertheless by all the mentions it got, and by the games that were made following it, one can come to a pretty good understanding what "the Vision" is about:

"The Vision" describes a virtual world as a harsh and unfriendly place, full of challenges. The challenges have a clearly defined "level", from easiest to hardest, and a good part of overcoming these challenges consists for the players to raise his own character level. At some point the challenge becomes too hard for a player to overcome alone, and he has to seek help, in the form of a group. The hardest challenges, and the accompanying biggest rewards are reserved for the largest of groups, the raid groups. The idea behind this concept is that by forcing players to work together, social interaction is fostered, friendships are formed, and players end up playing the MMORPG forever because they don't want to abandon their friends.

In its purest form the Vision has been proven to not work as well as intended. The latest Vision-centric game, Vanguard, apparently has big problems of player retention, with decreasing subscriber numbers already a few months after release. World of Warcraft's most popular parts are those where the Vision has been diluted, and players can solo all the way up to the level cap, while the end-game, which still is very much Vision-based, is often criticized. While people still form guilds to have raids, with time this has become a much more mercenary affair, resulting in little loyalty to your online "friends" or the game. In many cases the Vision even destroys social bonds, with players ditching their friends for a more advanced guild. People keep playing as long as the game still has challenges to offer, but as content is never endless, the dream of a game that people play together forever is still far. Many people recon that World of Warcraft has reached its peak in subscriber numbers. And as games like LotRO or AoC or WAR only vary the same theme, for example concentrating on PvP challenges instead of PvE challenges, or using a well-known license, it is unlikely that these games will ever beat WoW in subscriber numbers. What we need to really take the next quantum leap in MMORPG game development is a New Vision. And by observing what features people like, and what they say they want, I have some ideas how such a New Vision could look.

The New Vision should paint the virtual world in a friendlier light. There are still lots of challenges to overcome, things to achieve, but these aren't so linear from easiest to hardest any more. There is no more defined "top" to reach, no more "end-game", but instead there are many different and equally valid tops to reach in different categories, plus lots of goals that players set themselves. There are many stories to experience, and gameplay is more story-driven. The virtual world itself is a living one, which can change over time. There should be events with variable outcomes, for example an orc invasion, where the actions of the players decide whether a village is burned down or the invasion is beaten back for a few weeks. And most importantly by having everything strictly level-based, there should be more opportunities for players to play together. Not because the game forces them to, but because the game doesn't stop them from playing together just because they don't spent the same amount of time in the game.

The focus in the New Vision is less on beating the game than on living the virtual world. If the old Vision can be compared with the Tour de France, a race to win, the New Vision would be a family bicycle trip through France. Superficially similar, but with a totally different purpose, and more accessible to a much larger audience. The gameplay of the New Vision is more open, with many more different activities than just killing monsters. But each of this activities still has goals and challenges, the game isn't completely unstructured like Second Life is. If you spend less time in the game, you can still take your pride from mastering one thing, and aren't relegated to the bottom of the heap. Somebody spending a lot more time in the game can master more different things, without running out of things to do at some level cap. A New Vision game would combine the best features from classical MMORPGs like World of Warcraft with those from social virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel. There is a space for epic slaying of dragons, but that isn't the only purpose and thing to do in the game.

I think something similar to this version of New Vision I described will be developed in a few years. Not necessarily totally replacing the old Vision games, as these are valid options for players that only play to achieve. But World of Warcraft showed that the more accessible you make your games, the more customers you get, and MMO games will have to target a broader audience. And with the "social spaces" attracting large amounts of people, but little revenue, a convergence with MMOs would just be natural. But for this to happen the game developers have to look a good bit beyond of what they did in the past, and introduce some real innovation into the genre.
Tobold, you opened my eyes. After explaining the history of the vision now I understand why WOW is such an enjoyable experience from 1-60/70 and starts to become a mind-grind after that.

Basically, this idea of a new vision is similar to the reason why Sims/Sims 2 has been such a record seller. Take a game with a continuous evolvement (house grows), challenges (ever tried to manage 10 friends, job, leisure time for education, etc. all at the same time?) and fun graphics and you play it forever.

Many of the immersion things WOW misses are probably based on the game following much of the same vision after reaching endlevel. And hiring designers that learned the vision by heart from EQ 1 does not help, they cannot think out of the box.

I hope Star Trek Online might do the trick. I really do.
I believe Eve Online is leaning towards the New Vision you are mentioning, although it is a scifi and not medieval fantasy based game.
Didn't think Brad McQuaid out of his frame of mind? Vanguard has 2 alternate and completely seperate ways of advancement besides bashing mobs. Both are well done and alot of fun.
Blizzard introduced a cool thing with normal versus heroic dungeons. A new game (or an expansion to one) would do well to build on that. Imagine being able to enter Karazhan with a group of 5 instead of 10. Call it "starter" mode or something, you can make it quite hard but doable with 5 players. That would certainly allow many more people to see what is now the end-game.

Same goes for things like Onyxia, MC, ZG. To make these interesting to lvl 70 players would mean updating some loot tables of course. Give us an option to run a lvl 70 version of old raid-instances, with some nice blue loot and a very small chance of an epic drop. Tune the encounters a bit for a smaller number of lvl 70 players.

And the super-elite guilds could be given the option of having an "insane" difficulty setting.
While this isn't really closely related to the vision it has to do with some new ideas. Check out Croquet if you want. Still under development though.
While I haven't investigated it much it seems cool among other things because you can have the same avatar in multiple different games or worlds, and they can apparently be linked together.

It would be fun to hear your thoughts on that project Tobold. ;)
Another terrific post Tobold. I agree with you that a new vision is needed. In fact I think the vision that will finally oust WOW may be even more different than you suggest. I just have to watch my wife and daughters(who wouldn't dream of trying to kill a furry animal) get sucked into the apparently infantile Club Penguin to realise that Richard Aihoshi is probaby correct when he says that the future of Massively Multiplayer isn't us.
The game that breaks MMOS into the the mainstream hasn't happened yet. WOW has less than 10 million subscribers. Myspace has over 100 million.
/agree too.

I think one of the keys to make a MMORPG a long-living one is character development. The bad thing about the old vision games is the effort needed vs reward in endgame.

While leveling, you get new skills, new items, new crafing recipes, whatever... nearly every day. When you reach endgame you need to spend tons of time raiding to get an item from time to time. Besides the time , skill, cooperation with players, etc... needed, it's quite frustrating since the challenges usually are hard, and wipes while learning how to handle encounters are expected.

I hope new vision will take this into account, delivering new and different ways to develope your character without resorting to ridiculous time-consuming challenges.
You seriously comparing WoW to mySpace?

To bring some more rational facts and numbers into the discussion, let's try to illustrate how much market penetration WoW has. Let's considers games from the last decade and it will pretty much come down to Nintendo DS numbers. Software for the DS shows how big the market for GAMING software actually is.

The most sold NDS game is Nintendogs with more than 13 million units sold. True, those numbers are skewed based on multiple versions of the game. So lets take the second most most units sold game: New Super Mario Brothers with about 9.56 million copies. This is as much mainstream as you can get in the gaming market right now, for a single piece of software. I did not take the Sims numbers, cause those are way more skewed than Nintendogs. They claim to have sold more than 22 millions but with multiple versions of the same, it would probably boil down to SBM numbers, like 10 million actual users.

Now look at WoW numbers and realize, that trees do not grow into heavens. For something that is a game, WoW pretty much reached the limits.

If you want higher numbers take out every trace of game and leave a graphical IRC channel. Actually you have to dumb the content down to a level, that a chimp couldn't fail e.g. take out any content at all. Then you will see mySpace numbers, you wouldn't need subscriptions either and no client, cause a modern browser could handle it.

For me this genre will remain on "the vision"'s ground. If you want to pay a monthly fee to chat with 100 million elfs and dwarfs, more power to you, but this is not a game anymore, especially nothing i would pay for. And please be serious about the business. Look how much simple genres have evolved in the last 10 or 20 years. Not think about how fast complex systems like MMOs will improve. 10 years from now, we will still grind orcs.
10 years from now, we will still grind orcs.

Yes, but in a game where there are other things to do than just grind orcs. Something which is closer to Ultima Online than to Everquest.

I'm talking about convergence here. It's neither WoW nor MySpace, but a mix of the two. It has elements of WoW, of MySpace, of Club Penguin, of Habbo Hotel, of Puzzle Pirates. And there is a chance that there won't even *be* character levels in that game, more like skill levels in UO.

As some people remarked, the idea isn't that new. Even Vanguard tried to have alternate advancement, but only ended adding this to the long list of things it tried and failed to achieve. A New Vision game would have becoming the highest skill-level possible blacksmith to be exactly as hard as becoming the highest adventuring level warrior, without the blacksmith being forced to level up as warrior or the other way round. No ore nodes guarded by level X monsters, or crafting materials dropped by level X mobs, a separate game that can be leveled up without grinding orcs. And a Vanguard-style Diplomacy might also be part of the mix. But the game also has Sim's style player housing, and lots of communication functions. Just like not everybody is a programmer in the Real World, not everybody will be an adventurer in the New Vision virtual world.
Brad McQuacks "Vision" can probably be boiled down to something like this:

1. Group-centric gameplay
2. A steep leveling curve that makes non-endgame content relevant
3. a high challenge level to give players a sense of achivement

The problem with Vanguard is that the Vision may be there but the implementation sucks.

In order to have group-centric gameplay, on which the other two points depend heavily, you have to carefully design the game to make it work.

I'm still a firm believer in group-centric gameplay, mainly because it's just much more fun than solo-grinding crap or running retarded FedEx quests.

Cooperative group gaming is IMO the very essence of what makes MMORPGs great. It's sure as hell not gameplay itself, because I have yet to play a MMORPG that doesn't utterly suck _as a game_.

I believe you can make a viable MMORPG that is group-centric, maybe not to the total exclusion of soloing, but with grouping being vastly more attractive than soloing.

The game has to be carefully designed to pull it off, though. Vanguard isn't. Maybe the most important thing is to engineer social hubs where players congest, with plenty of group-content nearby. Players have to be directed to these hubs where they can find plenty grouping opportunities.

Think Firiona Vie/Dreadlands (with Karnor's dungeon) in EQ1 Kunark. There was a central outpost hub and a dungeon and a number of good outdoor zones right next to it.

If it wasn't for the horrendous "Holy Trinity" class design in EQ1, it would have been easy to rapidly find and build groups there.

This sort of intelligent word design in completely missing in Vanguard. Content is scattered all over the oversized world, people wander around aimlessly and have no idea where to go to find groups.

Instancing can be considered a major enabler for this, as it allows a lot of players to utilize the same content.

Group-centric gameplay can work. A non-trivialized journey through the levels can work. Devs just have to be smart about it.
I think you just invented Animal Crossing.
or sims online ;)
Or Harvest Moon meets EQ/WoW.

Remember the start of Dungeon Siege #1? When you picked up that Hoe and began beating down the attacking goblins. Imagine if, after driving off the Goblins, you resumed working as a farmer and shunned the life of an adventurer. Imagine being allowed to have that choice.

Now imagine Thorg the Warrior rocking up to the Blacksmith and asking him to repair his gear and the Smithy says he can't, because nobody has provided him with the necessary ore.

Imagine being a Farmer/Miner/Crafter and playing just as important a role in the game world as the strongest adventurer.

The original SWG perhaps?
Well, geez, could the New Vision be something like this?

No, no, it can't possibly have been thought before Tobold did ;)
Well, its a mix of many old and existing ideas. Games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing are certainly a part of that. And talking of more dynamic worlds is as old as Asheron's Call.

The thing we need is developers taking alternative occupations to killing orcs serious, and not tack them onto their orc-killing games as a badly designed added feature without much thought. Why aren't tradeskills as well designed in WoW as the quests are?
Your vision is too vague. It would also require top flight designers and a massive budget, and that still might not be enough.

Ultimately, as long as developers continue to design mmorpgs that have no concrete ending, the problems will continue.
Oh, and another thing. The original vision has been blown way out of proportion. Let's not give Brad more credit than he deserves.

The primary reason EQ was a success was because - unlike UO - it had a pk switch.

Now, I adore EQ, but I consider it an accidental masterpiece (like the original Starwars); born out of timing, luck, and the good sense to expand on what Diablo offered.
@chrismue I think you are way too pessimistic about the future of online worlds. Mainstream isn't Nintendo DS - mainstream is TV or cinema. You are probably right that 10 years from now WE will still be grinding Orcs but we are a very small somewhat nerdy subset of the population. We have have however discovered a new medium of entertainment that is incredibly compelling and incredibly immersive. I believe that many many more people will discover this medium too but a lot of those people don't want to kill Orcs. Heck a lot of those people don't want to kill anything.
This might be off-topic to the original post, but I wanted to comment on some things I've seen in comments...

How many of posters have actually seen Dungeon & Dragons Online? I haven't played it to the very end-game, but here's what I know from playing it up to lvl 10:

- It got story/narration in many of its quests.
- It got selectable difficulty settings for almost all quests.
- It has "central hub" -- all quests are within a short walk.
- It got the best LFG/LFM tool I've seen yet.
- You can join any quest (if someone in a party meets prerequisites, you can enter the quest area/instance).
- Even if you don't have prereqs, going on a quest has benefits -- you won't get quest reward(s), but you still get the same amount of XP and drops.

Now DDO has its own problems for sure -- but it addresses many of the problems I feel plague WoW and the like games -- e.g. easily forming a PUG and starting a quest without having to spend rediculous amounts of effort/time.
I'm still a firm believer in group-centric gameplay, mainly because it's just much more fun than solo-grinding crap or running retarded FedEx quests.

I used to play Dark Age of CAmelot, where you could not level up solo unless you were either a Necromancer or a Paladin, and I grew bored of it really fast.

Point of fact is, your friends won't level at the same pace as you, whether you like it or not. Soon you'll end up stuck with people you don't know, a lot of which act like complete idiots (not just gameplay-wise, but in terms of insults, and general behaviour). I know because when I took a break from DAoC and then returned, I only had one friend to level with and I'd say about 70-80% of the few people we found there (as there was the /level command that people with level 50 characters could use to skip the first levels) were people I'd prefer not to play with, given the option.

I ended up leaving DAoC in very little time and never went back. WoW has me as a player for over 2 years now, and with only a couple of 1 or 2 month long interruptions. Only now am I starting to feel tired of it. And even so I'm going to keep playing WoW, but mostly just instance/raid, either to help out people or for my own personal amusement (or both), and instead of spending the time I spend soloing, I'll just play something else until I'm needed or asked to go somewhere (instance or group quest-wise) on WoW.

Anyway, I started diverging from the topic - my point was that what made WoW as successful was that it was soloable to level. If you want a MMO that's going to hold on to people for long, that's one of the things you'll have to include instead of pushing people into grouping if they want to level up. ;)

Sophia the Healadin
Vision is not a “recipe”. The term Vision, often typed as “the Vision TM” is rather how developers go about creating their world.

The come up with a game, it’s mechanics and think it’s best, it is their vision TM, and not matter what players say, or do, it will not impact the vision TM, because face it, most gamers can’t design for shit.

It’s a very arrogant stance for developers to take, whilst they are right that we can’t design for shit, we do know what we like or don’t like, and the vision TM can often go ahead and create very nasty results.

A prime example of the vision TM in motion was SWG’s CU patch. Brad is often associated with having a vision TM, the simple reason is vanguard goes back on a decade of improvements back to the grind fest days of EQ. More specifically, in the faq and various verbal diarrhea posts from brad pre release, he described a very specific game that scared away lots of people. It didn’t matter to him what people thought, it was his vision TM.

So yeah, the vision TM did come around with EQ, and it’s very much something that’s associated with SOE, but the vision is not a recipe, rather is a way of thinking and developing ideas/games.
In my opinion, the only modern MMO to really solve the level issue among players is City of Heroes. Their sidekick/mentor system is just flat out awesome. I can play with my friends no matter what speed any of us level at, we just find a sidekick and mentor combo that puts us all at the same level range and go out bashing villains.
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