Tobold's Blog
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Unbundling MMORPGs - Part 2

You probably guessed this was coming, the second part of my suggestion to unbundle parts of MMORPGs that don't really fit all that well together. In this part I'm going to talk about two very different games, the leveling game up to the level cap, and the raiding game at the level cap. There is an apparent advantage for somebody who likes the leveling game to have a raiding game at the level cap, because the alternative would be a game over screen. Even if you don't like raiding, it is still better to have the *choice* of restarting than to be forced to restart. But how about the other way around? There aren't really any advantages for somebody who wants to play only the raiding game to be forced to play the leveling game.

Some people claim that leveling is necessary to "learn your class". That is nonsense. If you want to see a good tutorial teaching somebody how to play his class, you just need to play the Death Knight starting area in World of Warcraft. At level 58 you know everything about Death Knights that can be taught solo. Level 1 to 54 for other classes, and 59 to 80 for everyone, don't serve any useful learning process. Most people level from 1 to 80 either completely alone, or they solo most of the time with only a few group dungeon encounters. That sort of gameplay isn't a good training for raid content at all. You can get to the level cap as a warrior without ever having touched the taunt button, so what good is that training?

And there is a big downside to being forced to level up all the way before you can raid: It prevents people from playing other classes. For example there is a notorious healer shortage in World of Warcraft. Now maybe there aren't all that many people who would like to heal in raids, but I'm certain there are some who wouldn't mind playing a healer in a raid, but can't stand leveling one up, because the healer is so bad at leveling. The people who *do* play raid healers usually leveled the character up with a non-healing spec, which puts another nail in the coffin of the "training" idea.

Why not create a pure raiding game with an extended tutorial? You create a character, and the tutorial has not only solo content, but also content with NPCs teaching you how to play your character in a group. After lets say 4 hours of tutorial, you can start raiding. As there are only dungeons and raids, there is no need for a huge open world to travel through, you just assemble the raid groups in a lobby. You can still have guilds, but pickup raids would be much easier to find too.

And in some aspects the people who like leveling would profit from a pure leveling game too. There would be no need to rush through it, if all there was at the end was a game over screen. And an expansion adding 10 more levels would actually make the game longer, and not like now shorten the lower level experience. There would be more people around at all the levels, making it easier to find groups for dungeons etc.

For game companies unbundling has the big advantage of being much cheaper. Assuming you don't have the same kind of money as Blizzard, your limited resources are spent better on a game that doesn't offer everything, but does do one thing extremely well. People would play a pure raiding game, but not necessarily another cheap WoW clone.
This reminds me of when I first played Guild Wars. The first few quests are the usual solo fair, but after a while, all possible levelling up is done through grouping, with NPCs picking up the slack if you can't find other people to play with.

Unfortunately, the group NPCs were woefully underpowered, and because I have little patience with finding other people to play with, I stopped shortly after. However, it's definitely a workable possibility.

Disclaimer: I barely played it past lvl 10 or so, so don't blame me if I got this terribly wrong.
Why not create a pure raiding game with an extended tutorial?

That's close to what DDO was at launch. Not raiding, per se, but pure group instances. And people mostly didn't seem to like it.

I agree that the EQ/WoW model isn't ideal, but I don't think soloing and raiding need to be divided into separate games. I'd like to see games with equal amounts of solo and group/raid content throughout the game, starting even at low levels. Then players could enjoy their preferred type of content without having to go through a grind first.
It wouldn't work at all. The only reason people stay in games and deal with raids is by then, they have a lot invested in their character and relationships with others gotten through levelling and non-raid activities. I've never really got the sense that raiding itself is fun enough to spend the amount of time on it that people do. They do it because of their crew, or the drops.
Why not create a pure raiding game with an extended tutorial? (...) but also content with NPCs teaching you how to play your character in a group.(...) there is no need for a huge open world to travel through, you just assemble the raid groups in a lobby. You can still have guilds, but pickup raids would be much easier to find too.

this game already exists and it's called Guild Wars.

the "Missions" in GW are a chain of raid instances connected through a story line in an unlockable order and after that you have some even harder instances with flat (i.e. not consecutive) order;

the first GW - Prophecies even had instances that teach you the basics of the PvP Modes (after 20 lvl, in the Crystal Desert)

with the next chapters - Factions and Nightfall you get different modes of "raids" including competitive ones - i.e. with statistics for the mission displayed on a global ladder where you can compare with other teams that did the mission/instance;

anyway - i don't want to make it a "Simpsons did it!" post. just to note that such a game (to a great extent) exists and i don't subscribe to your particular point of view that leveling is not tutorial. for me - it is (the whole WoW is a glorified tutorial where you start actually playing the game at max level + gear)

it may seem otherwise because it's a bit overdone in wow - yes, the leveling is much more extensive than the absolutely necessary for a tutorial, but it's not only your class mechanics you learn in the process - it's the mobs and areas mechanics that you get to know too. basically the whole leveling process is like an attunement to the world where you'd play your endgame eventually.
I sometimes get the feeling you don't know what an MMO is, Tobold. An MMO is more than the sum of its parts. While I do agree that the extensive leveling is a waste of developer time, the world the leveling takes place in, is not.

I play MMOs because it is 100 games in 1. One game to rule them all ;) - and it works if you listen to people who say that they haven't touched any other game for months of even years.

Much more important than the fun the single, isolated activity grants you, is the context of a much larger collection of activities, the MMO world.
It's a good question though. Would the hardcore raiders be interested in a game that offered content specifically tailored to them and nothing else?
Tobold: "There is an apparent advantage for somebody who likes the leveling game to have a raiding game at the level cap, because the alternative would be a game over screen. "

Um...what? I don't even know where to begin with how wrong that is. I began playing EQ in 1999. I've played it ever since, alongside many other MMOs, and for several years I played EQ 40+ hours a week.

My highest character now is 2 levels from max, but for a couple of years I had two max level characters and in all that time, I've never felt the need to raid. Any good MMO has more things for you to do than even an ovsessive player could get through in a lifetime of playing. No-one who's the least bit open-minded and imaginative ever HAS to raid, or take part in any other specific activity. That's the whole joy of the genre.

And I know that isn't just me. Back when I played more socially than I do now, I was in good-sized, active guilds in EQ, EQ2 and DAOC. None of them had any serious interest in raiding and rarely if ever raided. Those guilds all had many max level characters.

They logged in for several hours most days of the week for the couple of years I was in them and no-one ever complained that at max level the game was "over" or that they were bored or had nothing to do. Everyone had tons of goals that they were working on, when they weren't just taking things as they came.

I'm currently playing EQ2 and in the chat channel I frequent the picture is just the same. Max level is just another achievement marker, no more, no less, It doesn't need to have, and for many players doesn't have, any impact on future gameplay.
I think a well executed version of an only raiding MMORPG, that continued to have content available (even possibles WoW like catches, such as hard modes) would catch.

It may not catch new users, but bring in a lot of competitive players and current/previous MMORPG players.

The idea of a progression/competitive raiding game with rankings and continuous content would be some people dreams.

To balance it of course - crafting / major cities / continuous stream of new and finely tuned raids would have to be available.

You would also have to test internally only to keep the details of the "new" encounters to a minimum prior to release of the content.

The gear grind would likely still need to be there.
Nice idea in theory but I think the great draw of WoW is the wolves and sheep thing.

The raider feels superior to someone who just pvps or whose schedule doesn't permit raiding, considering gear proof of skill.

The pvper feels superior to pve-ers because he can smash their faces in. Resilience just emphasises that.

The auction house daytrader feels superior to regular players because he keeps score by counting his gold.

The achievement whore feels superior to anyone who doesn't have 50 minipets.

Your idea would level the playing field. It would be a game for only raiders.

Let's suppose 30% of WoW players are relatively serious raiders and you're about midway in achievement. You're in the top 15% of players.

Go to a game where everyone is a serious raider and being midway only puts you in the top 50%. Now the player will think "wtf, I went from 15th to 50th???? This game sucks" and go back to WoW.

Having said all that I do think there is a niche for a pure raid game. But I don't think it will draw a large proportion of raiders, it will just be pve Darkfall.
I'm tempted to say that MMORPGs have lost their way. I don't believe they were ever designed to center around raids but instead were meant to be full, vibrant worlds in which every step along the path is fun and exciting. Unfortunately human tendancies have changed that and competitive nature of people has meant they many just see the leveling process as a way to get the raid content. I think MMORPGs should focus more on the path rather than the destination.
I see a few problems with a no levelling game. If you were to create a new character you'd have to do all the "old" instances to gear up for the newest ones. And who wants to do deadmines > naxx to be able to enter the newest instances? Now a new expansion means a reset for everyone and new players can pick up raiding.

And if not gear dependant then how will you make sure the new content is hard enough?

Questions, questions...
"I'm tempted to say that MMORPGs have lost their way. I don't believe they were ever designed to center around raids but instead were meant to be full, vibrant worlds in which every step along the path is fun and exciting. (...) I think MMORPGs should focus more on the path rather than the destination."

I could not agree more. Raiding is a plague that has befallen modern MMOs.

The hate towards the world and levelling up is really odd, as this was once the thing people were interested in.

Are the few high level raid dungeons really the only thing worthwhile about a MMO?

Definitely NOT...
I agree with the sentiment that an MMO is the sum of its parts. I honestly think that Tobold is on a grail type of quest to design the perfect MMO that doesnt have those things that he dislikes, such as timesinks, leveling treadmills..ect.

By unbundling MMO's you are doomed to design mediocrity in my opinion, and the laundry list of those games that have tried just keeps getting longer, and longer.
That would just seem so empty. I like lvling a lot more than raiding but if I didn't have something to do with my character once he reached cap I wouldn't lvl a character.
I think many players, myself included sometimes, forget that the leveling process is FUN and that is why it should always remain. One of the main differences that set a RPG apart from regular games is the concept of continued growth by attaining higher levels, although the line has blurred a bit with some of the cross-genre games in recent years.

Starting out weak and slowly gradually gaining power over time through a series of tasks and adventures is part of the reason we play these games - or am I wrong about that and we should all just go play Halo or L4D?
Modern MMORPGs need several persistent forms of advancement. This does not mean they have to have to have 90 levels of quests.

People become so obsessed with levelling that they forget it is not the end-all of character advancement. It's a game of catch-up first and foremost. Continuous advancement can be done as good if not better by having a world where you can always make a difference by playing the game.

I think a basic problem with the end-games of current MMOs is that you aren't really doing anything. You aren't leaving your mark on the world. You're not a part of something greater beyond relatively small and impotent player-run organizations. You are just a little avatar that does stuff that has no effect on anyone beyond the scope of a few game sessions. Your decisions only have meaning as far as you see their meaning, because there will always be another Naxx, there will always be another spawn of whatever camp you just killed, there will always be another group of teams fighting in the arena, etc.

And you don't need to make a hardcore PvP game to realize what I'm saying.
The point is this:
Why do people 'farm' in MMOs.
Why do they do things nobody would ever do as am isolated single player game?

The answer to that question is what makes an MMO more than the sum of its parts.
[i]People would play a pure raiding game, but not necessarily another cheap WoW clone.

Some people would, but most current MMO players would not.

It could be financially viable like other niche games are, but I don't think it would approach the numbers of the most popular MMOs simply because raiding is something many of the current MMO players do not participate in (either because they don't like raiding, or because they can't commit large blocks of time to it).

You can have games that are exclusively PvP with no PvE, no leveling or whatever, but they are almost all free (no monthly sub at least) games such as FPSs or RTSs. If a game is purely instanced raiding, where do people meet up with other people? In a chat room environment like Battlenet? A large city? It doesn't sound like a very good game, even if the raiding was quite well done.
I think the trip to 80 is roughly like the many jobs that require a University degree of any kind. Certainly, the company doesn't really expect that you've learned anything applicable to their particular business while getting your philosophy or art history degree. However, what you have demonstrated is a general aptitude and the ability to commit to and complete assignments and long term projects. This is what level 80 signifies. You have demonstrated a general competency in the game (even if it wasn't with raid specific abilities) and you have demonstrated a commitment to your character and the game.
Games like WoW are in desperate need of tutorials. The most stressful part of raiding is having people that don't really understand what they need to do.

But we'll never see such tutorials. WoW is an easy game, and only substantial barrier to success is the ignorance and inability to practice without wasting people's time in the longest and most inefficient way possible. And I'm increasingly convinced that this is what they want.
I couldn't really see that working, but it's more for a personal reason.

I consider the leveling part of the game to be a substantial part of the journey and regardless of how tedious it is, it's a fundamental part of the design.

A game based on grouping on raids solely, would have to have a lot of depth, or it would just feel hollow. WoW is a living breathing world and that's part of the reason it's so successful.
It doesn't really make sense to separate raiding from leveling. The motivation for doing them both is the same (making your character more powerful). For leveling it's mainly your actual character, for raiding it's mainly the gear on the character, but functionally they're both about making you more powerful. Hence, they appeal to the same types of players, so releasing 2 separate games just means you're going to be competing with yourself.
Leveling is a ton of fun. The first time. Quest design in MMOs is pretty atrocious, and while the lore might be engrossing enough for one playthrough, it's rarely enough to keep the process enjoyable for multiple alts.
Tobold, where does your research data come from? :P

Questing is for me only a time filler in between instances but also a necessity to level up. I leveled a healer in heal spec and earned my wings on the way from 1-80. Knowing the present and past experience of my guildies, I am not the exception but the norm. Alts are leveled up in tank spec for example, when someone with a healer or dps main want to give tanking a try.
@Samus: Level 80 is meaningless. It shows nothing more than a bare minimum of ability to press a button. Since there is no XP loss on death, given enough time, ANYBODY can reach 80. At best, it shows that the person could be a glutton for punishment, but that's not exactly a desireable medal of achievement.


Motivationally, they are the same.

Functionally, they are not. The skills required to do one are not exactly the same to do the other.

The question isn't "should we release two games instead of one"? It's: Given a limited amount of resources (like that of the cheap MMO devs), is it better to extremely focus on one aspect of the game, and ignore the other aspects, or should all these other things be included anyways at the expense of a compromised game?
The problem I see that this whole "unbundling" idea ignoring is the advantage of having most players all playing the same game: common community.
I think that unbundling would be a great idea for a small MMO. Not something trying to compete with WoW, but something that was Free2play, and used RMT.

DDO seems like a neat idea in that I'd be able to play for free, and download "instances" I'd like to do them.

@firefox: Leveling is NOT a tutorial. I've seen too many idiots at level 80 who no NOTHING about group play.
@Pangoria - tutorials teach you, you learn for yourself ;)
i've seen enough idiots graduating high school, that doesn't make their books not school-books :)
@ Pzychotix:

Assuming that the el-cheapo MMO development house that you speak of plans to make another game after their first one, it would be far more efficient for them to divert funds from their next game into creating a more full experience for the early game to appeal to a lot more people.

If you're gone to all the trouble to make the engine, the world, the lore, the classes, the combat system, etc, it is far more economically efficient to do both then to make a completely separate game.

Unless you hypothesize the development team who would go bankrupt before finishing a 'complete' MMO - in which case, let's face it, their MMO is going to be rushed out the door and is going to be crappy anyway.

You misunderstood completely. There ARE no plans to create a separate game. I'll repeat myself again:

The question isn't "Should we focus on building two separate games, each with their own focus and agenda?" That question is hardly something to ponder about. It's a terrible idea outright, since MMOs are naturally competitors against eachother, even if they dabble in different ponds. Players simply don't invest in a diverse amount of MMOs all at the same time, so creating multiple MMOs would be a big waste of time.

The real question is: "is it better to extremely focus on one aspect of the game, and ignore the other aspects, or should all these other things be included anyways at the expense of a compromised game?"
Pzychotix, I'm not sure if I'm getting my point across.

If a small MMO development house feels they don't have the resources to focus well enough on both modes of play, they should cut down on pretty much anything else than making the gameplay crummy. The last thing you want is for people to say "Oh, it's like WoW but half the game is missing".

Stuff they could cut if they're on a budget would be graphical quality primarily, also cut-scenes/voice acting/marketing hype etc. They might even re-use content and make the whole thing a grind-fest.

Anything would be better than having only one or the other type of play. You need to reach a certain "critical mass" of game to make a semi-successful MMO.
It will be interesting to see what Torchlight does. Their Diablo-ish dungeon crawler is apparently planned as a single player leveling game that will transition into an MMO experience.

I've noted on more than one occasion that I'd buy and play a one-time fee single player offline WoW with optional multiplayer dungeon suites, not unlike Diablo with its optional multiplayer. Chris F of ihaspc has noted that the "massive" in MMO is usually a lie; you can experience the entirety of WoW with 40 people. There's nothing massive about that.

Unbundling the leveling game and the raid game would be an interesting experiment, and it would be a good way to see what people actually would be willing to pay for.
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