Tobold's Blog
Friday, August 20, 2010
What this blog is about

In the English language, as well as in several other languages, the Genitive case gets somewhat imprecise when used for a compound noun. Thus “Tobold's MMORPG Blog” can be read as “Tobold's Blog about MMORPGs” or as “The Blog about Tobold's MMORPG”, as one of my readers pointed out when I was discussing my ideas of a perfect MMORPG. “Tobold’s MMORPG” technically doesn’t exist and would just be a hypothetical utopia, but I do like that reading of my blog’s title, because it might be a better description of what my blog is really about.

While my posts often are about specific existing MMORPGs, the underlying interest is in the larger general theory of MMORPGs, and the hypothetical "Tobold's Perfect MMORPG". When I for example use World of Warcraft as an example of what I don’t like about “kill 10 foozles” so-called quests and say I’d rather have large epic quest and no small errands to run, I am not actually suggesting that Blizzard change their game. Rather the discussion of something that works or doesn’t work in a specific game gives me ideas of what I would like to see in future games, or would consider as part of the utopian perfect MMORPG. The discussion of a specific perceived flaw, e.g. “paladins are overpowered”, should not only lead to a specific “nerf paladins!” battle cry, but hopefully to a more profound discussion on how to balance hybrid classes against single-role classes in general.

Talking about specific games and specific features in these games has the advantage that it helps us realize that often a design decision from a developer is a solution to a specific problem, and already an iteration and improvement over a feature from a previous game. If we want to further improve that towards perfection, we need to be aware of what problem the developer was addressing with his feature, and see whether our proposed better solution would solve the same problem as well as the new problems the feature created. If we don’t do that, the discussion necessarily becomes very limited, with the suggestions often being to keep things like they are, or a nostalgic “let’s go back to way things were in older games” alternative. Neither is likely to advance us anywhere.

Using World of Warcraft as an example in such cases has the advantage that I can assume that most of my readers have played World of Warcraft at some point, and thus are familiar with the examples I’m giving. The disadvantage is that of course World of Warcraft covers only a small fraction of the possibility space of what a MMORPG can be. Thus there is also merit in discussing a game like A Tale in the Desert, which is niche, and not many readers know it, but which is so radically different from WoW while still obviously being a MMORPG, that knowing it very much expands the possibility space for MMORPGs. WoW unfortunately is a kind of gravity hole in the possibility space of MMORPGs, and very often I get comments from people whose imagination can’t escape that gravity pull, so that their arguments tend to be “if it isn’t in World of Warcraft, it must be impossible to do, or at least impossible to sell”. As even developers suffer from that gravity pull having captured their imagination, it is helpful to describe games that do things differently than WoW and nevertheless work quite well.

So I’d like to encourage my readers to let their imagination fly, and not to approach every subject with the narrow vision of why any proposed change to MMORPGs can’t work, because it would mess up the class balance or something similarly specific in World of Warcraft or whatever other game I mention. Rather ask yourself whether you really think that the game already has the perfect solution to any given problem of game design; or whether by thinking outside the box of practical restrictions to game design one couldn’t possibly come up with a better solution. Even just admitting that a feature has drawbacks is a good first step, even if we can’t always come up with a better solution. But if we stop dreaming about the perfect MMORPG, we will not only never see it made, but also are unlikely to see future games at least approaching our ideals. We can afford to be dreamers here in the MMO blogosphere; we don’t have the constraints of budgets and timelines. And maybe by spreading our dreams some of our ideas get picked up and we’ll be able to play them in a future game.
I'm just curious, have you been hammering out a list of game features somewhere outside of your head? Have you tried starting to work on your own game (either on your own or working with indie devs)?

Also, I think a lot of what you describe as "people not being able to escape the gravity pull of WoW" is that many times you suggest things that are similar to reinventing the wheel. The post about changing up how quests feel seemed like this to me. As the old saying goes, if it's not broke don't fix it. It'd be nice to hear more about what you feel is so broken with these features other than "I don't like it".

The real trick with design for MMO's (imo) is figuring how to keep people interested while they're *not* playing. That is the time when they're most likely to encourage their friends to play so they can extend the game into their social network. A side note, I employ this strategy for my WoW guild by enforcing forum registration, and encouraging people to be around outside of raid time to stay tight-knit.

Keep up the good work, your blog provides me with interesting reads, so obviously something about your method works.
many times you suggest things that are similar to reinventing the wheel

There is a fundamental difference between the design of an entertainment product like a video game, and the design of a machine, like a car. When you design a car, of course you would *not* want to reinvent the wheel. When you design an entertainment product you *DO* want to reinvent the wheel.

If you create a new MMORPG using "all the features that work" from WoW, you end up with a WoW clone few people are willing to buy. So the much better approach is thinking "Why did Blizzard make combat this way?", identify the fundamental problems of designing combat in a MMORPG, and then try to come up with a different solution to those problems.

That is called "innovation", and in entertainment innovation has a huge added value and tends to sell well. If you're just copying existing stuff, you basically admit that you aren't creative enough to come up with your own solutions and ideas, and you'll be punished for that by the players.
I think the car analogy works fairly well. WoW is like a very popular car. In an attempt to get a piece of that popularity, another car company might try to make a car just like it. But in the end, they are just offering the same basic car, but not as good.

On the other hand, you can't deny that the car that is WoW functions. If you don't know anything about choosing a suspension, the one used by the WoW car is a good place to start.

I absolutely encourage intentional change, but it should be intentional. There are lots of different aspects of a game, you don't have to change all of them simply because you want to "be different."

For the car analogy, building a truck with bigger tires would mean you'd need a different suspension. But there's no reason it has to have a different stereo, unless a better stereo is part of your concept.

It'd be nice to hear more about what you feel is so broken with these features other than "I don't like it".

Now, in what other way could a MMO be broken ? :)
You can describe your feelings in detail and try to give reasons, but in the end it is that feeling of 'I don't like it' that is essential.

I know the problem. It is the problem every developer faces and why MMOs need so much iteration. Most features cannot be describen on their own.

You want trade? Great!
You also want a world where you can teleport everywhere. Possible, but tricky. You want the game to have no crafting? To have crafting? You want different currencies in the game? You want different factions? You want RvR? Open PvP? Looting? No Looting?

All features are intervined with each other. It find it impossible to design a final MMO on paper, because of that complexity. I am not even sure I alone could design a good MMO on paper if somebody paid me to do it. It is hellish complex.

Some time ago I tried to circumvent the problem by just listing keywords of MMO creation. The list is far from complete, but it is a start.

You circumvent the proplem by using a existing basis (WoW) and then discussing modification/addition of features. That is a practical way.
Unfortunately there are too many people who do exactly the mistake you describe: They think that you are only talking about WoW. Duh!
I'd rather have no small errands to run and no epic quests either. If there's one feature I'd have in my own perfect MMORPG it would be NO QUESTS.

Bounties I am fine with.
Hi, i like your blog especially becouse of "what this blog is about" :-) - your quest for finding ideal MMORPG (at least ideal for you). I think if you want to come with something new it is necessary to take not one step back, but at least two or you'll end again with WOW-like MMORPG. It is like trying to make better transport, but still making variations of car (quests, XP, talent trees ...) instead of going one step back and make for example rocket. Going back to RPG roots and then create something not influenced by MMORPGs yet made is the solution (in my opinion of course :-))
I think WoW is vanilla ice cream. Vanilla is tasty and virtually nobody says no to a bowl when it is all that is offered. It is plain and unsurprising but it satisfies.

Too many companies try to inovate by simply taking vanilla and putting something on top of it like nuts or chocolate or whip cream. But at the heart of it, you still have mostly a big scoop of vanilla and most of the flavor bears that out.

Some companies go further and bring you a whole new flavor of ice cream. Some people will try them and decide they still like vanilla the best and others will switch over to strawberry and never look back. I think these are the games where they are designed to be something different from the ground up like how Lineage 2 is basically a mob grinder but makes that work for them because the world and gear and rewards structure is designed to that from the beginning. Still similar to wow in many ways but surprisingly different in others. So strawberry ice cream is still ice cream but surprising to someone who has only ever known vanilla.

Then a game like EVE or Tale in the Desert comes along and you suddenly realize that you are not being handed a different flavor of ice cream. You are not even being offered a sherbet, sorbet or frozen yogurt. You were just given a piece of apple pie and it is blowing your mind.
I think what makes this discourse so complex and somewhat dissatisfying is the question of whether we are discussing game elements within an existing MMO milieu (concrete), or MMO milieu design itself (abstract).

It's too easy to switch back and forth between the concrete and the abstract and contradict yourself.

Questing as a mechanic is a useful MMO tool to get players to spread out and encounter the virtual world. But I don't like questing in WoW because it feels repetetive and dumb.

It's like discussing the merits of a book and having someone say it would have been better if it was written in a different language.

Are we talking about language, or are we talking about the book?

Time for a drink.
Nils wrote: Now, in what other way could a MMO be broken ? :)
You can describe your feelings in detail and try to give reasons, but in the end it is that feeling of 'I don't like it' that is essential.

I completely agree. However, we see more of a description of the problem and less emphasis on possible solutions. That's what I'd love to see. Specifically using the "remove quests and increase grinding" post as an example, Tobold doesn't really go into detail about how this makes the game more fun. Instead, it just comes off as "this would be my personal preference" and kinda leaves us (the audience) high and dry.

I guess what I'm driving at, is that if you want other people to consider the implications of your opinions, it'd be nice to hear more about the "why" and less about the "what". Then again, maybe I'm too much of a tinkerer and just want to know how everything ticks.

For the record, I'm all for innovation. I like games and movies that blow the lid off of the industry. But that innovation has to be presented in an interesting way as well, and not just to be change for the sake of change.

To state an example, World of Goo is certainly not the average game, yet it's fun and quirky enough to be bold in a new direction. On the other hand, you couldn't just make a game where "hey there's no ground and you just fall all the time to your death, isn't that wacky!?" and be successful.
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