Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
 
Perfect MMORPG: Design fundamentals

In the open Sunday thread there was a discussion whether a developer should design a MMORPG by following his vision, or whether he should make what the players want. Well, I have a rather healthy distrust of both of these methods. When I think of developers with a vision, I think of Paul Barnett and the famous Bears, Bears, Bears story: I think the developers being very public about their great vision for Warhammer Online, and the actual game not living up to that vision, has hurt WAR far more than it helped.

Doing what the players want is downright impossible. What they players *say* they want, what they *really* enjoy, and what they end up doing in an actual game are three very different things. Half of what everybody thinks that players want is simply not true, and based on observation of players who by various in-game rewards got persuaded to act against their own best interest. For example a great number of people, including professional developers, think that "players want to solo". I'm pretty sure that players enjoy the *option* to solo, and a few lone wolfs solo all the time. But given half a chance, most players would group a lot more, if the incentive structure and logistics for that work out. Just look at World of Warcraft pre-Dungeon Finder and post-Dungeon Finder: The number of people spending time in a group has increased dramatically, both while leveling and at the level cap.

So I think the way a game should be designed is from the bottom up, with solid engineering instead of nebulous visions and misconceptions about what players want. A developer needs to be able to answer questions like: The game has launched 6 months ago, it is 8 pm, prime time, there are 3,000 players on the server; where exactly are these players, why are they there, and what exactly are they doing?

To answer such questions a developer needs to "map" his game. Instead of having just a list of features, there needs to be a diagram showing how these features relate to each other, and what the flow of gameplay through these features looks like. A MMORPG has "basic repeating units", like combat, which are the core of the game, and which most of players will spend most of their time doing. These basic repeating units are held together and motivated by the next layer, e.g. quests that tell you to kill 10 monsters and give you some reward for that. And in the outermost layer there is the virtual world with its zones, quest hub locations, dungeons, and lore.

Every possible feature has to fit into that map. You can't just take a developers "vision" of "I want player housing", or follow some players' demand for such a feature. You need to be able to answer questions like what players are supposed to actually do in their houses, whether there is a basic repeating unit of gameplay like crafting or redecorating involved, and whether lots of players sitting in instanced houses will not make the open world look deserted.

And while in my examples I used descriptions of that map which correspond to many current MMORPGs including World of Warcraft, I do think that to make a really successful game, the gameplay map of it has to look significantly different from World of Warcraft and similar games. That starts with the most used basic repeating unit, combat, having to be noticeably different from "target mob, hit the same sequence of hotkeys over and over". On the next layer there should be motivation different from "kill 10 foozles" quests, and so on.

I do believe that the success of World of Warcraft is due to the solid engineering of their gameplay map. But the answer how to make an equally successful game is not to do reverse engineering and then using a copy of that same gameplay map for your own game. It has to be designing a *new* gameplay map, from the ground up.
Comments:
This is what I always debate on the forums, but it's hard to break away from the "customer is always right" mindset that most players have.

They tend to think that players know best, and developers should listen to their suggestions and implement them. It doesn't work that way.

Developer should definitely listen to the feedback given and act based on that. If someone says "X is too slow/boring/hard/easy because of X" the developer can work on trying to make the feature better.

But they shouldn't copy players' ideas at least precisely. It is still developers game made for players, not a game made by players for the players. Developer is still the king, and you have the choice to play the game if you like what they're doing or not play the game if you don't.
 
"Just look at World of Warcraft pre-Dungeon Finder and post-Dungeon Finder: The number of people spending time in a group has increased dramatically, both while leveling and at the level cap."

As a recent returner to WOW, I've gone from 90% Solo / 10% Group to 90% Group / 10%, purely because the Dungeon Finder makes it SO much easier..


Good solid, polished, bug free mechanics are what I look for, and then I can decide if the game is for me. If a game doesn't work properly, how I am supposed to decide if it is the right game for me?
 
What would be interesting is a Quest-hub Finder..... with teleportation to the quest hub, auto-sharing, and something similar to CO's Crossover Mission system, allowing the sharing of previously done quests.

Also, fixing the drop item quests, so that mobs that drop an item, drop one for everybody (each person gets to loot one).
 
I was also hugely disappointed with WAR after expecting much more from that video of Paul Barnett talking about those retrospective bear quests, and that was before even realizing that everyone else was disappointed too.

About the solo vs. group thing, I’ve mentioned it before but I found WAR’s public quests a huge step in the right direction. Being able to casually work together for a common goal without serious obligation was wonderful. Today if you start a new character in WoW and while you’re questing come upon an ally doing the same quest, you can usually group with him really quick, finish together, and then go about your business. In vanilla WoW if you sent someone nearby a seemingly random group invite they would probably decline and say “I’m just going solo for now” because grouping was a bigger deal, more tedious.

I’d love for them to implement some kind of automatic public quest system for people in the same area with the same quest.
 
My point being, btw, that I agree people enjoy grouping. They just don't enjoy the responsibility and obligation that could often come with it.
 
Actually, I believe that developers needs to design the game on what players want. It's just that this definition of "what players want" may mean differently to different people.

For example, a Warrior player may want an "i win" button, but this is not what the majority of "what players want". A game is successful because it manages to cater to the majority of what the playerbase wants.

In the end, what I believe that players want are accessibility and depth. If we look at Tobold's example, I believe that is very applicable. It is not enough to have a "list of features". Rather, it is important that these list of features are mapped together to ensure that there is depth.
 
Scenario: Jimmy the rogue searches for the infamous hogger to kill for his quest. He encounters Bob the warrior already fighting hogger.

Does he stand back while Bob kills his quest objective alone? Then wait for Hogger (the bad guy he was sent to kill) to once again be alive so that he can kill him?

What if upon seeing Bob fighting hogger, Jimmy rushes in to assist him and they both get credit.

Yes this is possible currently, but requires one of the two to be intelligent enough to initiate joining a group before the quest mob dies, and the other to know what is going on and accept.

There are two ways to achieve the more believable situation: raise the IQ level of players, or program the game to auto share credit if they are working on same quest and help each other.
 
Two things you have wrong, I think.

"But given half a chance, most players would group a lot more, if the incentive structure and logistics for that work out. Just look at World of Warcraft pre-Dungeon Finder and post-Dungeon Finder: The number of people spending time in a group has increased dramatically, both while leveling and at the level cap."

The average player is using the Dungeon finder while leveling simply because it is a fast way to level, and exposes them to better gear. It is not because they really want to group more. (Though some people really do love grouping). If they could get the experience and gear faster solo, then that is what they would be doing.

They use the dungeon finder when at max level for the gear. And mostly because THERE IS NOTHING ELSE TO DO if they want to gear up. Actually, in WoW there is very little to do at max level. Period. Which is why the game dies off right before an expansion. (It's really boring right now).


"The game has launched 6 months ago, it is 8 pm, prime time, there are 3,000 players on the server; where exactly are these players, why are they there, and what exactly are they doing?"

If they are still playing the game, then they are doing exactly what the devs let them do. Nothing more. If there is no housing, then they aren't there. If there is no 'sandbox' then they aren't there. If there is no solo content then they aren't there. That question is only valid if there is an extraordinary amount of content, and the devs free the players up to use it creatively. Otherwise the question has no meaning. Most games (the great majority) do not give the players that much freedom.
 
I really don't think WoW's success can be solely attributed to solid design fundamentals.

It is well documented that the situation leading to its success was completely "aberrant". I would partly attribute it to combination of indirect factors including:

-Gamers (especially PC) becoming more aware and accustomed to the MMORPG genre, which had previously been regarded as somewhat "super-nerdy" even among the nerds ;)

-The massive audience for Blizzard's past titles, especially stemming from the enormous success of WC3 and its rabid fanbase. Disregarding console sales, Blizzard is many, many more times as known, popular, and ubiquitous as say...Bioware or Warhammer ever could be.

Even including Bioware's success with KOTOR, I would hazard a -completely unverified- guess that Blizzard was always much more in the hearts and souls of gamers.

-Continuing from that last point, I think the fact that WC3, SC, and Diablo were all extremely successful as multiplayer games. Blizzard has always shown a well-honed and amazing knack for making multiplayer both balanced and fun.

This meant that a large part of their fanbase was grown and raised on MP, and pretty much set the stage for them to enter the MMO genre.

-When WoW launched, it had the massive advantage of entering a relatively undeveloped market. The greater portions of the PC gaming community had never tried an MMO (remember this group is not represented here very well). Blizzard basically had the well-earned opportuniy to draw in the MMO, RTS, and the single-player RPG crowds 'in one fell swoop'.

Basically, they were looking at a much less diluted, fragmented market then there is today. The modern mmosphere is a highly individualized and specific world now, with games to suit countless interests.


Anyways, the point I'm really trying to make here is that crafting solid, enteratiaing, balanced, and fun gameplay is simply not enough.

While of course this and other "controllable" factors will generally determine its ongoing viability and reception, I strongly believe that achieving a success even comparable to WoW is reliant on many indirect, "uncontrollable" factors.

Personally I doubt the 'stars will align' again. There will be successful MMOs, and eventually WoW will be dethroned. But I definately don't think WoW's success will be reached, at least in the foreseeable future. (Of course the mmosphere could expand dramamtically, who knows!)
 
Forgot something, too bad about the edit ;)

I think you make a great point Tobold, the "design-map process" is something I believe should be integral to developers after reading your post.

It is always a disappointment to find out a "feature" of a game is completetely irrelevant and disconnected from the "real game", providing no advancement, challenge, or even fun most of the time.

For example, to really please players who want the option of crafting one night a week, you should really make crafting an activity that is just as -or near as- interesting, fun, and challenging (mentally!) as questing. In addition, as Tobold points out this feature must not be irrelevant. Throughout the entire game crafting must be meaningful; it must be an important and justified aspect of the economy.
 
[quote]
Actually, I believe that developers needs to design the game on what players want. It's just that this definition of "what players want" may mean differently to different people.
[/quote]

Players have no clue what they want . What they saying they want and what they will play and have fun with is 2 different things

Only a tiny segment of players are intelligent enough to actually understand game mechanics and it' s relation to gameplay and "fun".

Design of an MMO is a vision of a complete system. You must have a target audience and know general preferences of it but how to full fill those preference this audience will never tell you(they will tell you loads of stuff but its 99.9% garbage)
 
Point 1: Every possible feature has to fit into that map.

Point 2: Just look at World of Warcraft pre-Dungeon Finder and post-Dungeon Finder: The number of people spending time in a group has increased dramatically, both while leveling and at the level cap.

I'm using this as an example since it's mentioned. The addition of Dungeon Finder in WoW meant that we can separate WoW into pre-DF and post-DF like Tobold said.

Does this mean pre-DF WoW didn't have everything fit into the map because there was no Dungeon Finder for 5 years?
- If yes, how come WoW was still hugely successful even without a fitting map? Does this mean that fitting everything into the map is simply unecessary?
- If not, what's the value of adding Dungeon Finder into an MMORPG that has already had everything fit into the map?
 
Remember meeting stones?

The LFG replaced the site on that virtual map that meeting stones used to have.

The point is that Blizzard "knew" they needed a LFG tool and through iteration eventually arrived with one that worked (prior iterations being Meeting Stones, LFG chat, LFG interface...)
 
Tobold, I think you can only use WoW Dungeon Finder as an example of whether or not players want to group if the rewards for doing so were the same pre- and post-Dungeon Finder.

People are grouping more for the Dungeon Finder because of Emblems. They are following the path of least resistance to the greatest rewards. Yes, players would be grouping more with LFD than without it, even if the rewards for doing so weren't overwhelmingly rich, but not to the extreme we see in the game now.
 
Tobold, I think you can only use WoW Dungeon Finder as an example of whether or not players want to group if the rewards for doing so were the same pre- and post-Dungeon Finder. People are grouping more for the Dungeon Finder because of Emblems. They are following the path of least resistance to the greatest rewards. Yes, players would be grouping more with LFD than without it, even if the rewards for doing so weren't overwhelmingly rich, but not to the extreme we see in the game now.

But you can phrase that exactly in reverse, people weren't grouping pre-DF because the incentives weren't there. My point here is not to discuss the exact percentage of players who prefer groups over solo, but to show that you can't just look at what the players do and say "oh, they all solo, so they must prefer soloing", like so many people did. Change the incentives and you change the behavior. If World of Warcraft had launched with better group xp incentives, today everybody would believe that most players prefer grouping.
 
@Tobold: Good point. Reading ftw. :)
 
A very good post and I agree very much.

Perhaps one thing: In some way the DF transforms players into NPCs. The problem is that these NPC are (mostly) even more predictable and boring than real NPCs.

And the even bigger problem is that the DF not only introduced a feature, but also weakend, if not replaced, another feature: Traditionell pick up groups that strengthened sever identidy.

Moreover, if I asked myself the question: What should players do six month in the game, and my answer were: "Wait in Dalaran and teleport", I'd be ashamed as a developer.
 
The Dungeon Finder was a god send for me. I soloed 99% of my way from lvl 70-80 and then spent the next 20 days of game play not ever going into an instance except VoA.

My decision was mainly because I just didnt want to sit around and wait for a group to form to hack through some repetitive content just so I could get some emblems. I was working on maximizing my PVP set anyway.

When the Dungeon Finder came out I run it ~4 times a week and have gotten virtually every dungeon achieve through it.

I would run dungeons with my guild or 10 years, but since they start earlier and already have their dedicated raid rogue, Im stuck running in pugs.
 
Point 1: A developer needs to be able to answer questions like: The game has launched 6 months ago, it is 8 pm, prime time, there are 3,000 players on the server; where exactly are these players, why are they there, and what exactly are they doing?

Point 2: to show that you can't just look at what the players do and say "oh, they all solo, so they must prefer soloing", like so many people did. Change the incentives and you change the behavior.

So we can't just look at what the players do and draw conclusion from what they were doing because what they do depended on the incentive. I think that's fair enough point.

But then what's the point of Point 1? Why bother answering questions of being in prime time and what, why, where the players are doing if we aren't supposed to see what they do and draw conclusions?

I agree that players do what has the most incentive in MMORPG (why solo when using Dungeon Finder nets you more exp, right?). If we go further, isn't that "what the players want"? Basically as a developer, Tobold will make a game that the players want. By giving the most incentives.
 
If you stop for a moment looking at what successful people produce and instead look at their approach to making what they produce it actually becomes easy to see that there is only one clear path to imitating successful MMORPG designers. The leaders in the field share a fairly common approach in the sense that they don't set out to imitate someone else. SOE didn't do that with EQ, Blizzard didn't do that with Wow. They both made the best possible version of the game they wanted to play and the market simply agreed with them.

The problem with trying to imitate someone else's success is that their success is often the result of applying considerable talent to making something they like. The fact it is ideally suited to their tastes is the only way they can easily judge how good the result is. Another developer trying to make a game that copies Wow is forever at a disadvantage because Blizzard knows what they think a good game is and can judge all games against that standard. The developer attempting to copy cannot judge as clearly and directly the quality of what they made, they can only judge it's relative closeness to the original and so it will never live up to the original.

It would be tough to name a single highly successful band, singer, painter, sculptor, dancer, movie directory, or TV producer that became a success trying to be like someone else.
 
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