Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 03, 2009
The illusion of impact

The discussion in the last open Sunday thread was about making MMOs more dynamic, less static, with the players having an impact on changes in the world. In the current situation, players feel more like stuck in Groundhog Day, with them evolving every day, but the world around them always remaining the same. Why is that so?

The main reason why having a real impact on a virtual world is hard to implement is that it would affect other players. Imagine Hogger or Onyxia or Kel'Thuzad being permanently dead after the first players killed them, or mobs generally not respawning; after a few days the virtual world would be void of monsters. Game over. Imagine *players* not respawning after being killed in PvP. Game over. Imagine an RvR game in which one realm wins, there is no reset, and due to having control of everything the winning side keeps getting stronger and at some point can't be overthrown any more. Game over. Everything resets in order that the next player can still play the same game.

What we are left with the possibility to create an illusion of impact. In its most simple form that is created by the player moving through content and not coming back. You got the quest to kill Hogger, you go there and do the deed, you see Hogger lying on the ground and loot him, you go back and get your quest reward. As there is no real reason for you to go back to the little peninsula Hogger roams, you have the illusion of having killed Hogger, when in reality of course he respawned 5 minutes later.

The more advanced method of creating the illusion of impact is by using copies of parts of the game. If you killed Onyxia or Kel'Thuzad today, they will still be dead tomorrow. Unless it's Wednesday, and the raid dungeon reset and they are all back. This was much expanded in Wrath of the Lich King, so if you do the quest series in Conquest Hold in Grizzly Hills that leads to a different chieftain becoming the boss there, or if you do the Wrathgate event in Dragonblight, you will see these places permanently changed every time you go there. What you can't do is go there with a friend and show him "look what I have done", because your friend will see those places as they were before the quest, until he does the quest himself. In some cases that can also lead to two players being unable to cooperate on a quest, because they are in different phases, and see different things.

Another illusion of impact is a location that exists in two (usually) states, and alternates between those states based on player actions. In PvP that is places like Halaa in Nagrand, or keep battles in WAR. You conquer the keep, and it is yours! Then nothing happens. You get bored and log off. Then the other side comes and conquers the keep and it is theirs! And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. That could theoretically be done for PvE too, for example questing for the villagers to chase away the wild animals from the forest, so the lumberjacks can log wood there; and other players later questing for the druids to chase away the lumberjacks from the forest to restore natural balance. I just can't think of any game that does this right now.

Thus the best possible case of a dynamic world is one where everything exists in several states, which are in some sort of dynamic equilibrium that can be influenced by the players. Fight a lot of orcs, and the village prospers. No players doing those quests for a while and the orcs burn down the village, opening up new quests to reconquer the place. Moving frontlines in PvP, with some balancing factors that prevent one side permanently dominating. We could have player run cities, that evolve with the actions of the players, but following certain rules. We could even have unique events planned by the devs in which the world is permanently changed, but following a script balanced by the developers. What we can do is to make the illusion of impact very good, very convincing. The question is whether players will be happy with that illusion.
Interesting post. I always get nervous when I hear people talk about the "illusion" of having an impact on the world. I think many players would like to have an actual impact on the world in the sense that other players can see it. The question is whether there is a good way to do that.

Of the possibilities you mention, I really don't like using separate copies of the world for each player. The problem with this is that it's not a real change. If you log on with an alt, that dragon you killed will be back alive and waiting for you. It also means that you can't easily group with other people unless they're at the same stage of the story. This type of mechanic might appeal to people who are really interested in a single player game, but for people who like the massively-multiplayer aspect, it's a mistake.

Alternating states is a good idea. It's at least a real change, even if only temporary. It often works best if there is some real consequence to the change (e.g. opening up a mine that your faction can harvest in, gaining access to a raid instance, etc.).

Another approach is player-created structures. Even decorating an instanced house is a "real" change in the sense that you can invite other people over to see what you've done. I think Darkfall allows creation of entire cities with facilities like banks that other players can use.

One other possibility is cooperative world events in which players work together to make some sort of permanent change in world, like opening up a new area.

Anyway, I'd like to see more creative thinking about ways that players can actually change the world in ways other people can see. The trend of instancing players into private versions of the world misses what MMOs are all about, IMHO.
I wish there was more stuff like Halaa and Wintergrasp. Ultima Online (yes, I'm sorry to go back there yet again) had a decent system in that major cities were up for conquest by different factions instead of just certain places in the middle of nowhere. One faction (of 4) might have controlled half of the major cities in the game, while another might have had none.

It led to a constant fluctuation of power that I think would be good for WoW. It would be hard to implement, nearly impossible with just 2 factions, but if there was something legitimately worth fighting for (because let's face it, Halaa and Wintergrasp are hardly "impact zones" when it comes down to it), then players might actually find themselves caring who owns it for more than a single raid lockout of VoA.
The economic part (if well done) doesn't need this kind of illusions, by the way.

PvP could also be about moving 'borders' of their empires. (If well executed this wouldn't lead to one empire eventually owning the entire map.)

It's only really hard with those pure PvE stories. Especially if they want you to believe that YOU ALONE are the hero. Something extremely stupid in my opinion, as it shouldn't be too hard to make me think that I do some solo PvE stuff, but other player do the same, and together we achieve something. Instead these games till want to resemble the single player games, or Hollywood, for that matter. Aren't we grown up by now?
The problem really boils down to how many of the eleven million players out there would receive a scripted/unscripted set of events that coerce/force them to become involved in an issue that they may not actually care about in the first place. Events that really hurt low level players may not even faze high level players, and if it becomes a serious problem for high level players, rather than tackle the issue they may just whine until the event is removed.
Why are you overlooking sandbox games like *touches wood* *whispers*...darkfall.... and Eve online?

Players in those can have a huge amount of impact on the world without necessarily necessarily making it unplayable for other players. Look at the type of things that happen in Eve. All the game is, is player impact and player driven events.

Darkfall allows you to create your own cities from nothing. If that isn't player impact then I don't know what is.
I mentioned city building in my post. The main "impact" players have in EVE and Darkfall is not on the game world, but on other players. Guilds take over territory, then are destroyed by treachery, but the territory they controlled is actually unchanged and if you weren't there or didn't read the story, there is no trace of it in the game.
Well in DF or Eve pvp IS the story so the level of impact is high and in constant flux.

Sure there are quest texts and history posts on the Eve website but I don't think many Eve players see that as the story.

Maybe that's the answer: the best way to create the illusion of impact is to deal in player-created content.

Now how do we solve the problem for pve players if we can consider it solved for pvpers?

Possibly Star Wars: Galaxies held some of the answers. Excellent player housing and player city system, a hardcore crafting system which led to the top armoursmiths and weaponsmiths becoming brand names like Calvin Klein or Gucci, two classes that only entertained other people leading to highly innovative and social gameplay (when the cantinas weren't too crowded with botters).

One area I'd love to see impact gameplay is in the field of technology. Hardcore guilds could invent something at huge cost and then would own the secret of making it for a while. Imagine if a guild had invented and patented flying mounts and you had to pay their prices or walk!

The main "impact" players have in EVE and Darkfall is not on the game world, but on other players.

You are right. But I think there is more to it:

Theoretically Hoggers death also has an impact on you, the player, and not on the game world.
But, since you are not stupid, you know that Hogger respawns and this really destoys immersion, credibility, etc...

If you ask another player what happened before you killed Hogger, he will tell you that somebody else killed Hogger.

If you ask somebody in Eve what happened before he will tell you a rich story that took place in the (fantasy) world.

What happened in the game world doesn't only exist on the monitor, it also exists in the memories of the players. That is why, although Hogger and the downfall of an empire in EVE both leave an almost identical gameworld on the monitor behind, they still have completely different impacts on the overall game world (that also exists in the minds of thne players).
The problem with MMOs is that they have no end. Very few do have a set victory objective(s). MMOs also do not have an end, they just run out of new content.

So what to do?

Beej already mentioned that one could conquer major cities in Ultima Online. The impact on players not participating in the Faction War was not there, there was none, on the other hand.

I can imagine a system of fighting for limited resources, cities, regions and so on. Items decay and players could also decay, get older and lose stats and so on.

The objective is to kill the opposing realms/factions.

The game ENDS once one faction managed to do so. Then the game starts again, you roll a new character and can join another faction.

But this is problematic. First, I believe in MMOs more being about playing together with than against other players.

Combat is a huge part of MMOs, but IMO it should never be the predominant game mechanic, all the game is about.

Combat also tends to limit all other activities besides combat. Running a player event (marriage, roleplaying, whatever) in pvp zones of Ultima Online was always open to disruption.

We recently talked about the inertia of players. If people already call the zombie invasion event a GRIEFFEST, what would they say about a more dynamic game?

OK, if they know it would be more dynamic right from the start they might accept it... still...
"Imagine if a guild had invented and patented flying mounts and you had to pay their prices or walk!"

Sounds fun. Not.

I think that PvP type settings have this sort of thing modelled. But you're right, Tobold, if you aren't online when the dynamic content is happening or if you arent' in one of the involved guilds then you'll miss it.

If you want to guarantee that every player can see everything then real impact isn't the answer.

I'd like to think PvE can go further with some kind of cooperative storytelling device. Not sure how, but we do have a model for cooperative gaming in RPGs.
"Imagine if a guild had invented and patented flying mounts and you had to pay their prices or walk!"

Sounds fun. Not.

A typical reaction :)
"They got something that doesn't cost them anything and I have to pay for it ? ?? " *quite game*

I remember the days when you had to level echanting in WoW and it costed *a lot+.. When you finally achieved max. skill, people came to you and told you: To enchant my staff doesn't cost you anything!! Why to I have to pay ?? f*** you."

Most people get their IQ reduced to half while they play MMos. So, although I'd love this idea of the to patents in an MMO; I do agree:
There are too many pleople out there like Spinksville. Therefore it's not gonna happen.
I just don't think a game where hardcore guys get to operate a monopoly (get to operate all the monopolies really) sounds very fun. Draw whichever conclusions you like from that.
I've already posted about a world where you have an impact without harming the play of others (and would also solve the "low levels are empty" problem):
Guilds having exclusive access to technology is already in WoW in the form of recipe drops from raids. Not quite flying mounts but still worthy stuff.
Nice idea, Gevlon. But my gut tells me this won't be implemented anywhere.

I'd love it, but there are a few issues:
Blizzard likes to have total conteal about WHEN they make a boss easier. This mechanism takes the control away from them. (At least theoretically. They might still want to 'adjust' the boss every now and then).

It's a lot of work the find out teh right scaling factor. The speed at which monsters become easier.

What I ABSOLUTELY love about this entry is you suggestion to introduce more honesty into the game world: If people and monsters ressurected, because of reasons given in the lore of the world, I finally could sleep well without thinking about these stupid credibility issues of resurrecting mobs.
The raid gear is mostly useful to raiders, is the thing. Others can get it if they want but it's not really comparable to being the only source of flying mounts.

The monopoly thing sounds like good fun if you would be on the hardcore end, and think you're likely to be in a guild that could hold a monopoly like that. Patents are great if you can get a good one, pretty sucky if you have to spend all your time paying out to someone else who got lucky instead.

But hey, if you guys think it sounds fun then maybe there's a market gap for a game like that.

I don't appreciate being told that me thinking it doesn't sound fun automatically means I'm some kind of lazy slacker though.
I sort of feel like pointing out that the emperor has no clothes here. Or in other words, the only reason the game world would become ridiculously depopulated is because the current system is to have a bunch of functionally retarded, in the most literal sense, ai actors that literally stand around waiting to be killed. The addition of even the most basic tactical ai - group mechanics, organized retreat, high ground, etc. - would actually cause a significant proportion of the players to be simply unable to kill anything on a regular basis. And it's not because "most players suck" but because the ai is specifically designed to fall on your sword right now.

It's also conceptually easy to build in a scaling factor for enemy numbers if you present the initial world as only being part of the world in the first place. Or you could say they're getting reinforcements from another plane of existence, or dropped in from other planets, whatever works for your lore so long as you can have variable rates for mob creation. Once you have that, the enemy basically scales up it's own size inverse to the "land" it currently controls increasing over time. So players can always push in and take more land, but mobs will automatically push back harder. Making the "battle lines" exist in a constant state of flux, while also not cheapening the player's accomplishments since they are always free to keep defending their gains.

The bigger problem is that you wind up attacked from a few different sides of player psychology. The first is that a certain number of players don't want to be placed in a situation where they feel they can't win. However the fundamental stability of the system requires that players, especially the least skilled ones, need to loose at least as often as they win. Otherwise the balance of the world is destroyed, or the changes trivialized.

The second is that you have to change from viewing content, especially quests, as efficient ways to please everyone, and instead as one shots or part of the fundamental reward structure. It's back to the basics of dynamic storytelling, and honestly we've just never been all that good at it. Even worse is that since it'll only be available to certain segments of your population, there will be a constant grating buzz of people wanting into that. The problem of course being that the only way to make it high enough quality is to also limit access to those it would actually make sense to. I suppose you could circumvent this to some extent with a reasonably large crew of GMs to manually write and tell the stories, but that's an expensive option overall.

Most of these answers already exist, it's just usually not possible to reconcile them with the current paradigm of MMOs. Many difficult design decisions need to be made, and some of them are as unpalatable to the sandbox players as they are to everyone else. It's not bad, it's just not particularly in line with why most mmo developers want to make a game in the first place. And certainly not in line with any business plans the people with bags of $50 bills are looking to support.
Public quests in WAR may be a first step of players having an impact on the world. Why not imagine 2 days long PQs ?

I must say that the gradual opening of the sunwell island, adding vendors and quests depending on how the server as a whole did, was a great experience. However the problem is that once it's open it's over and done and newer players won't be able to see it. Just as I never saw the AQ opening. On the other hand..maybe it's someting newer players can live with, provided that new events with impact on the world will arrive in the future.

Just as I have to accept that I never saw any 40 man raid and never will...
@Spinksville: "I just don't think a game where hardcore guys get to operate a monopoly (get to operate all the monopolies really) sounds very fun. Draw whichever conclusions you like from that."

It's not fun at all. You just described EVE's original Tech 2 BPO lottery.

The process was completely changed into Invention, which lowered barriers to entry, and increased the protention manufacturer base substantially. Prices on Tech 2 items dropped by a factor of 10 as the price cartels were broken.
I think a vastly improved AI is the key to creating a virtual world in which players can really make a difference. As Sarah Pickell already mentioned AI right now is almost non existent, or designed to make the mobs mindlessly plunge themselves to death. Now imagine mobs that evolve and have a specific agenda, by means of genetic algorithms; in effect these mobs would do something which resembles learning, working toward achieving their main goal. This goal would be initially set by the programmers, but could change too, during the course of the game. The (purely theoretical) last generation of a specific mob would be (near) optimally equipped to achieve the (initial) goal, after which a new goal would be set. In combat, these mobs would change tactics, create defenses (or genetically develop resistances) against the most commonly used attacks, build traps, etc. The development of mobs would be slow (of course) and degeneration will occur in certain circumstances.
@ Spinks

Well I had in mind something more than simply a monopoly for hardcore guilds.

Imagine the tech tree system from games like Civilization and Warcraft. Add James Bond style industrial espionage for the action-oriented player. Add reverse engineering for other competing industrialists. Skew the research system so solo inventors can have a chance at interesting patents. Drop clues around the world for explorers.

For example recently WoW has added an alarm clock technology to its UI. Imagine if that had started life as a parchment found in an eagle's nest on top of a mountain, was researched for a couple of months by an interested friend of the finder then was patented and made available through in-game trade. You could of course use an external add-on for the functionality or do without it or use real world clocks but people who want it in game can pay the inventor's price. If it was making a lot of money Rogues could be sent in to try to steal the physical copy of the masterplan.

I think just paying Envidia 20k for your flier rather than simply buying it off a vendor for 5k would not be fun, that wasn't quite what I had in mind.
Your posts make me claustrophobic, Tobold, because you are always hemmed into the tiny world of ideas that can be seen in WoW clones.

The dynamic world problem is not one that can be solved by tacking new features onto WoW clones. Theme-park gameplay is directly opposed to a dynamic world.

You need to work from the ground up to build a game that suits the dynamic world style. This means rethinking a lot of your basic assumptions about how MMOs work.

I've got an article on it that outlines the ten strategies we have to pursue together to make dynamic worlds work and bring forth a revolution in MMOs.
I believe that player interaction is what is interesting, not this idea of making an impact on the gameworld.

Players think they want that world impact, but if you gave it to them, they would get tired of it eventually. I don't think it's a long-term formula for holding interest.

I really think there are two ways to hold long-term interest in an MMO:

1) A constant influx of new content from the developer.

2) Player-generated content. Players competing with other players in different ways.
I think the sandbox games like EVE are a better solution than WoW.

But before I encountered the sandbox games, I thought there was so much more that could be done in WoW. How about where the wolf spawns were not fixed; so if you did not do the thin them out quest, the number grew. Or have PVE objectives (mines, farms, nodes) that conquering them helped you and your faction. But the economics in WoW are so weak, I do not see this going anywhere in WoW or the clones.
If you want to see a game of the sandbox type where the players do have an impact on the world check out Wurm Online. Rock Paper Shotgun & I think Eurogamer have both had articles on it in the last month. On a recently opened up area some players were complaining about others killing a particular critter and making it possibly extinct.
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