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.