Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Why do we play? - Gameplay
As I mentioned in the previous part of the series, a basic model of a MMORPG is that there is a lot of repeating gameplay, like combat, connected and held together by non-repeating content like storytelling. So for the purpose of this post I'll call all the repeating elements, the basic repetitive units of a MMORPG "gameplay" for short. Gameplay can have different elements, for example there can be combat gameplay and crafting gameplay, but typically combat is the element you'll end up spending the most time doing. Gameplay is of extreme importance to the question of why we play: If you try out a new MMORPG, and you totally dislike the way combat works already in your first fight in the newbie zone, chances are that you'll abandon that game quickly. So it is curious that in the many discussions on player motivation (Bartle, Nick Yee, etc.), gameplay is never mentioned. It is just taken for granted.
Lets take an extreme example: We take World of Warcraft, and leave all the other features and elements the same, but completely change the way combat works. For example combat could work like in a first-person shooter, or combat could be replaced by a Bejewelled-like puzzle game, like in Puzzle Quest. What if World of Warcraft had a combat system like Luminary, where you just click on an enemy and automatically exchange blows until either you or the mob drop dead, with no other interaction than to drink potions? Or if WoW combat were based on some sort of trading card system, like in Wizard 101? Just thinking about these examples makes it obvious that what the "basic repetitive unit" of an MMORPG is, and much fun it is to do this over and over, is extremely important to our playing decision. You would love to play some of these mentioned WoW variations, and hate to play others, in spite of all other supposedly so important player motivation elements remaining the same.
The extreme importance of gameplay, and the lack of discussion what exactly makes good gameplay, is both a risk and a chance for the MMORPG genre. The risk is that developers don't know what is fun, and choose the safe option of copying what worked in the past. There are *far* too many games out there in which for example combat all works in the same basic way: Target enemy, press the auto-attack button, and use various hotkey bar buttons for spells and special attacks. The chance is that somebody might come and develop innovative, very different and good gameplay elements, and by that means grab a large part of the market.
When discussing gameplay, it is important to point out that there can be more than one form of basic gameplay in the same game. Nearly all games already have both combat and crafting gameplay elements, but usually crafting is treated as a stepchild. There are very few games in which pursuing a pure crafter career, without leveling up through combat, is even possible, not to mention as interesting as an adventuring career. This is part of a movement away from "sandbox" virtual worlds with complete freedom, and towards linear "directed gameplay" games, in which there is one pre-determined path towards the top. Games after Ultima Online often offered crafting careers that were simply far more boring than adventuring careers, up to the completely useless Image Designer (hairdresser) career in Star Wars Galaxies, and then concluded that people weren't interested in crafting because nobody wanted to play those classes. But I would say that having several equally viable and interesting modes of gameplay could be a big attraction, and do hope that the pendulum swings back from linearity to offering more alternatives. Free Realms is doing quite well with such a model of having lots of parallel careers with different gameplay, and such games have the added advantage of being more easily horizontally expanded by adding new modes of gameplay.
This year a small game company, producing a MMORPG with a much smaller budget than the existing triple-A games invited me specifically into their closed beta to ask me for my opinion on the game. I only played the game for a few hours, but could tell right there that the game wouldn't be a success: Gameplay was just a bad copy of World of Warcraft, with combat working pretty much exactly like in WoW, only less polished and less responsive. I told them, but of course once a game is beta playable it is far too late to change such fundamental things as combat. So I can only advise everyone who wants to design a game to spend a lot of time and thought right at the start on the combat system, or whatever other basic repetitive unit of gameplay the game has. There is no use at all in developing a huge world, or tell stories through quests, if basic gameplay isn't fun. If you just copy for example WoW combat, you not only enter into a competition with WoW which you can't possibly win, you also enter into competition with a huge number of other games that work the same way. If your basic gameplay is different, like it is the case for Puzzle Pirates or Wizard 101, it is easy to answer the question why somebody should play your game, and not WoW or one of its clones, even if your budget is low and you can't compete in terms of size, graphics, or polish. If your basic gameplay is the same as everybody else's, you'd have to compete in terms of doing the same thing better as the competition on a lower budget, which is bound to fail.
Among those not designing games, but only talking about them, like me, I'd love to see more discussion of what works and doesn't work in terms of gameplay. Taking gameplay for granted and discussing only motivation factors beyond it is ignoring the elephant in the room. There must be lots of ideas out there for alternative gameplay systems. And even inside the existing forms of gameplay, modifying factors like cooldown times, or making the outcome of a given ability more random or more predictable, can have a huge impact on the enjoyment. Given how much time we spent for example in combat in these games, it is strange how little we talk about how combat could be improved.