Thursday, August 12, 2010
Revisiting The Vision
Both Keen and The Ancient Gaming Noob are writing about Everquest Next, and in particular the idea SOE has to make a new Everquest which has "all the good parts" of EQ1 without having the bad parts. So they are happily listing what the good and the bad parts are, and it quickly becomes obvious that their lists are different. And that is just one problem of the "best features of" approach. Personally I do not believe in MMORPGs being a list of features, but there has to be a larger underlying philosophy behind it, which in a holistic way makes the whole bigger than the sum of its parts. And funnily enough that idea is from SOE during their EQ1 days, where they called their philosophy "The Vision".
I don't know if "The Vision" was ever actually written down in an official document, or whether it was just a general philosophy which was referred to often, but never solidified. I've never seen an official bullet-point list of what "The Vision" consisted of. But from the various references to it, and by looking at the design of EQ1 (and later Vanguard, which claimed to have inherited "The Vision"), I could make out one key philosophy: The game world should be harsh, so as to make players band together to overcome its challenges.
This aspect of "The Vision" has specifically been quoted to defend some of the features players liked the least about the original Everquest: For example EQ1 had a lot of "downtime" between fights, where players would need to sit and rest up to 20 minutes to regain their mana to full. And EQ1 had "forced grouping" (although in reality there was always some soloing). "The Vision" explained that if you forced players to play together in a group, and then forced them to sit idle for 20 minutes, they would by necessity chat with each other, and the social cohesion would be a lot better. Even people who aren't aware of the history of MMORPGs and don't know "The Vision" often make pretty much the same argument, when they complain about World of Warcraft Dungeon Finder groups running through a whole dungeon in 20 minutes without ever exchanging a word.
Now I don't want to make absolute judgements about features, most of which have been discussed to death already. But I would like to remark that most features, even unpopular ones, have both good and bad sides. Forced grouping is highly annoying if you only have a short playing session or don't feel sociable that day, but I'm not exactly convinced that soloing all the way to the level cap is the best possible model either. I have long argued that especially for this "group vs. solo" issue both extremes are probably less ideal than some compromise in the middle, and that this compromise could be achieved by carefully tuning the group xp bonus. If playing in a group would be beneficial enough to make finding a group worth your while, but not so overwhelminingly better that people felt they couldn't solo any more, maybe we could make nearly everybody happy on that point.
With features being part of a larger underlying philosophy, I am not sure that you can even theoretically get all of the good parts without having any of the bad parts. While I was never a total supporter of "The Vision" to make the game deliberately unpleasant to get players to huddle together, I do have to admit that to some extent the idea worked. When you hear veterans reminiscing about the original Everquest, the social factors of making friends and being loyal to your guild often feature strongly. But it isn't obvious how you could get this strong social cohesion after you removed all the "bad parts" of EQ1, like forced grouping or the harsh death penalty, if it was the very harshness of these features that make players need each other and therefore stick together.
World of Warcraft has a very different underlying philosophy, which is fundamentally opposed to "The Vision". WoW is based on universal accessibility, guiding players towards the content, and fast progress. When I played Everquest it was said that the average player needed 2,000 hours to reach the level cap, in WoW today the number is more like 200. You can't simply take the "best features" from WoW and EQ1, mix them together, and get a good game. You need to decide on what kind of a game you really want to make, and dismiss features even from very popular games that don't fit with that underlying philosophy. Every game design decision has to fit with the basic design concept, whether "this worked well in WoW" isn't at all relevant if your concept is not the same as WoW's.
I do think that a good MMORPG could be made recycling "The Vision", and creating a game in which players depend more strongly on each other, and form stronger bonds. But you could only make that game by incorporating features which the average World of Warcraft player would consider being too harsh and unfriendly. And you would get all the lone wolves howling complaints about lack of soloability. You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs.