Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 22, 2009
MMO Redux

I am reading various MMO blogs, and one thing that struck me recently was how different the basic gameplay activities in a MMORPG can be, and how different people enjoy different gameplay modes. So I thought I'd list various gameplay modes of MMORPGs in general, without reference to specific games, or even specific sub-games like "PvP" or "raiding". Instead I'll reduce everything to what players are actually doing in the various activities.

1) Arcade gameplay mode: This is the type of gameplay which challenges your eye-hand-coordination and reaction speed. Things are happening fast on your screen, and you need to react. What you have to do is not terribly complicated in itself, its often not more than moving to the right place at the right time, or using the right ability at the right time. But the fact that you're not given a lot of time to think makes it that this is what is often considered to be "challenging" in MMORPGs.

2) Planning gameplay mode: This is a completely different type of challenge, which also exists in many MMORPGs. But in this case you have all the time you want, and the challenge is in taking the right decision in complicated circumstances. This type of gameplay often requires planning, including taking notes (or using an addon that takes notes for you), and sometimes even Excel spreadsheets. Often it is the economy which gives rise to this sort of gameplay, buying low, selling high, or finding which sort of crafting turns low-value resources into high-value goods. But planning could also be involved in long-term character development, planning "builds" etc.

3) Relaxed advancement mode: Now we moved away from challenge, but still are in the world of character advancement. I'm talking here about the kind of gameplay you might prefer when you get home after work, are too tired or not in the mood for any big challenge, but would still like to advance your character a bit by playing. This often involves questing, or "farming" monsters at low risk for xp or loot, or the forms of resource gathering where you have to move around and gather stuff by clicking on resource nodes. Things you can do without really exerting yourself, or taking much of a risk, but still slowly improving your character by gaining points or currency.

4) Hanging out mode: Finally we arrive at modes of gameplay where you aren't even trying to advance your character, or doing anything useful. Instead you're just chatting, hanging out with friends, or wandering around like a tourist looking at things in areas that aren't dangerous at all. Maybe you're waiting for something, or are just socializing, or you are trying to grab the attention of others with unusual behavior or by parading exclusive possessions.

I think that is more or less it, or did I forget any major modes of gameplay? I would say that most players play in all of these modes at various times, but have their preferred modes. I definitely prefer planning challenges to arcade challenges, often engage in relaxed advancement, and rarely just hang out doing nothing much. How about you?
Organisation of Social events (e.g. raids) is missing.

Otherwise points 1 and 2 are really the same for me. Ever tried to reach top dps levels with a feral druid on a 200 ms connection in a fight that needs you to move and change targets frequently? "Challenge" is too harmless a word for that, and yes, it requires long-, mid- and shortterm planning.
PvP isn't just arcade gaming, it's a lot to do with second guessing both groups of players and individual players.
I'd be really interested in slightly more tactical gameplay. Taking WoW as a baseplate for my explanation, let's pretend everyone's got the three talent trees and can build one set of talents exclusively in each (as in no hybridization). Then, in longer fights, players could switch between styles as the need arose. Perhaps a new style doesn't kick in for twenty seconds after you choose to switch, so until then you have to make do.

It would allow players to explore complete mastery of their class and in-combat reassignment of roles.
How about exploration gameplay (looking around the world to discover things)? Or is that subsumed in other categories?

There also may be a gray area between arcade and planning gameplay. Wizard 101 combat has a little bit of time pressure but isn't really reflex-based.

I prefer a combination of the last three categories (planning, relaxed, and hanging out). Arcade gameplay isn't really my style.
Organisation of Social events (e.g. raids) is missing.

I'd say that it's covered by #2 and #4, depending on the expected intensity and size of the event.

Otherwise points 1 and 2 are really the same for me.
Depending on the game, #2 can be a prerequisite for #1. For example, if the enemy doesn't telegraph it's moves, you'll need both. Case in point:

PvP isn't just arcade gaming, it's a lot to do with second guessing both groups of players and individual players.

PvP has a lot of strategy to it, but has a high barrier of entry in the form of twitchy reaction times
Well, you didn't mention roleplaying :P

Then there's Home improvements.

If you visit the Norrathian Homeshow forum on SOE's website, just to give an example, you can see that there are players, and plenty of them, who spend hundreds of hours decorating. I'd call that a separate playstyle rather than just an activity. For serious virtual homemakers, the room is the "character" and the "character" is just a gofer to get stuff for the room.
I love the way you deride option 1 as mere button mashing with syncronism.

You misunderstood, or wanted to misunderstand. I'm separating gameplay into various elements. I'm not saying that lets say PvP or raiding is pure element 1, only button mashing without planning. I'm saying that there is challenge which only relies on reflexes, and challenge where you need to think. Most activities are a mix of various elements.
I think I'd rename 'planning' as 'resource management'
I don't know what exactly to call this, but I will try Metagaming. That is, people that try to 'master' a game's design by finding loopholes, exploits, or secret techniques in order to get massive amounts of in-game money or to advance a character farther than anyone else on a server. Or another way to put it, they are not playing against the game, they are playing against the game design/programming.
How about turn based combat or the interaction that occurs during a MtG game (Atlantica Online, Wizard101)? While there is certainly planning and longer term, strategic gameplay in these titles, selecting the right moves in a TCG, chess, or turn based RPG does not seem well represented by your categories.
Ahah,. thought of another mode of play. Collecting stuff (ie. pokemon style 'gotta have 'em all')
Very apt summary of playstyles I'd say. Now the questions are, which is the most popular and do developers target certain audiences?
Have a look at this, which takes a slightly different tack by looking at types of "fun" as opposed to types of gameplay...interesting nonetheless:

To summarise, they identify 6 types of fun, which I will paraphrase:

Achievement (ding!)
Exploration / immersion (sense of wonder)
Socialization (with people we trust)
Challenge (going through repeated failures usually, in exchange for a big pay-off of fun when you succeed)
Arcade style (the "rush" of fast-paced action)
Strategizing / solving puzzles

Now, standard MMO's have the achievement, exploration and socialization type of fun in spades, and nobody really has offered a better experience than in WoW.

The strategy department is also offered quite well, but due to wiki's and flavor of the month builds it seems to be missing these days. I think we need to see more short-term, dynamic strategies to bring back this sense of fun to MMO's.

I'd say most MMO's are quite lacking in the arcade department in that very little in the way of reflexes or dexterity are required (I'm sure some will disagree, but I'm speaking about the majority of players of games in general, not just of MMO's).

The challenge department is interesting, as MMO's can quite often be difficult, but it's a kind of "pseudo" difficulty, as there aren't any avenues in the gameplay through which you could win - if you're not geared up enough for the fight, nothing you can do will effect the outcome. For me, this robs all the fun out of the challenge aspect.
Very nice analysis. I think you could add a people dimension:

Most obvious is the number of people - solo questing vs 40 man raids. But also your interaction with them: You have Arenas - zero-sum conflict, to BGs which are conflict, yet both sides have a hk/hour incentive to not let it turtle, to raids where they are on your side, at least until the loot rolls.

And I see a huge difference with #1 and #2 - #2 is intersting. #1 is some trivial pursuit where being 8 or having an IQ under 80 is not a show-stopper. YMMV :-)
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