Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 19, 2012
 
Linearity

Imagine two level-capped troopers of the republic sitting in a cantina in Coruscant and exchanging life stories: They would find that their life stories are to a very large degree identical; they visited the same planets in nearly the same order, they got betrayed by the same people, they had the same companions, and probably even the same romantic partners. Their life only differs slightly in what bonus series of quests they skipped, and in what decisions they took during dialogues, although they will find that these different decisions did not lead to them having different lives.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is an extremely linear game, even more so than previous level-based games like World of Warcraft. Not only aren't there enough different planets at the same level range to really allow a choice of visiting one or the other (which could be fixed over time), but the class quest line doesn't allow much variation. That linearity has two consequences: It lowers replayability, and it makes the player less engaged with the story. You aren't playing through *your* story in SWTOR, you are playing through the fixed story of your class.

While linearity of storytelling is very much "in" at the moment, people are beginning to see the negative effects. The high-level zones in Cataclysm are very linear, and Blizzard is starting to call that a mistake. Edward Castronova not only says that linearity causes SWTOR to be "dead", but also cites a counter-example of a virtual world which seems much more living, for being not linear: Skyrim.

I think many people would be delighted if there was a MMORPG which had a structure similar to Skyrim, where you can go wherever you want, and find bits of story everywhere. Your overall life story might still consist of canned bits, but the order of those bits is probably very different between any two players. And because there is no linear main story, the actions of the player can actually change his personal story. In Skyrim, for some players their companion Lydia died, while in SWTOR you can't kill your companions even if you want to.

What tends to get into the way is the current structure of MMORPGs as games of character advancement. Your character today is stronger than yesterday, and that changes what is appropriate content for him. Skyrim gets around that problem by cheating: To some degree the mobs simply gain levels in parallel with you, so it doesn't really matter at which level you discover that forgotten cave. A MMORPG could do something similar, but only with instancing. Or we would need systems where characters don't get stronger, but instead develop horizontally, getting more choices of abilities over time, but not necessarily stronger ones.

What would be the purpose of all that? Both from the point of view of the players and the point of view of the game company, the question is how to increase the longevity of MMORPGs. That depends on giving the players something to do, a living world to inhabit, which inherently lasts longer than a story with a fixed beginning and end. As quoted from Bartle yesterday, the goal is to have virtual worlds as places you like to return to, not just because you have a purpose there. It would increase the appeal of virtual worlds as social networks, if these virtual worlds were places you could explore and experience at your leisure, and with your friends, without quest lines and levels getting into the way. Games like Skyrim show that this is possible, and that these open worlds can sell extremely well. It is just a matter of time until somebody realizes that this could be a way to make a MMORPG which really differentiates itself from World of Warcraft without being less successful. Unless Blizzard gets there first with Titan. But I think the concept of the linear MMORPG has been tried and found wanting. It is time for more open structures, with individual stories that engage the players more, and worlds you would want to live in.
Comments:
I absolutely HATE when MMORPGS start you off as the hero of the universe. Like SWG after the NGE: it feels strange to think that everyone in the game met Han Solo and Chewbacca and escaped the exact same space station.
 
Personally, I dont actually like the Skyrim-type games. I find that there is just too much to do and get paralysed by choice. Should I do xyz before abc or the other way around? What is better for my character? What is better for gameplay?

The counter-arguement to this is normally "it doesn't matter as there is no right or wrong way". If that is true, then the choice is not a choice. Having no "right way" there is no "right choice"

Playing in Swtor I feel more attached to my character than ever before in an MMO/RPG and I am building it in the direction I want. It worries me not that in the end it will probably be the same sawbones scoundrel that everyone is running, except that is a rare combination choice to begin with.

However, i want to play through ALL the story. Which is difficult as I am already outlevelling areas :/
 
Guild Wars 2 comes to mind.
http://www.arena.net/blog/guild-wars-2-design-manifesto
I only wish something like that to be made in SF setting though.
 
Interesting point of view in stating that the question is how to increase the longevity of MMORPGs. I'm coming from the other direction. After 6+years of a casual/raiding/casual/raiding cycle with WoW I genuinely don't EVER want to play a single game for that long, with that amount of dedication ever again. I missed dozens of amazing games during that time due to the all consuming nature of WoW, and I don't want to do that again. The fact that I might play two or three characters to level cap in three or four months and consider myself 'done' with SW:TOR until the next major expansion is a huge plus from my point of view.

It could just be that I've personally seen enough 'end game' to last me a lifetime.

As an aside, I saw a player in the central fleet last week who was level capped, top to toe in epic gear with full 5-piece set bonus. It just made me sad to think that someone had put that amount of time into getting to that stage less than a month after official release. And over the Christmas and New Year period to boot.

Different stroke for different folks, I suppose. I'll be happy to return to SW, when the next expansion lands.
 
Yeah, most popular mmo's are complete themeparks these days. Everything feels dead and static. I regret buying swtor and have not played my chars past level 12. Wow is in the same boat and only survives by people being addicted to logging in to see if something new has happend or whatever. the DS raid is laughably bad. Extremely bad voice acting, extremely chidlish story (always been, but not like this) and extremely boring fights! I found myself wanting to ragequit out of boredom during the madness of deathwing fight.

I think this form of mmo where everything is on rails, is really the old way of mmos. It has just become too boring for people. We want the next level of mmo, where the world feels alive - because it is. Not some thempark ride like wow and swtor.

Blizzard keeps using the word awesome about everything they do. But they fail to realize that they are only awesome at making money for their coldhearted owners.
 
Games like Skyrim show that this is possible, and that these open worlds can sell extremely well. It is just a matter of time until somebody realizes that this could be a way to make a MMORPG which really differentiates itself from World of Warcraft without being less successful.

I don't like generalizations like this. I play MMORPGs since UO and i hate all the Elder Scrolls games, cause of their lack of focus on gameplay. Combat even in Skyrim is horrendous compared even to single player combat in MMOs. Sales numbers alone don't tell the whole story. The lack of clear goals leads to drops in time played for the mass market. I dare to say, we'd be suprised to see actual time played for the average Skyrim player. Just cause it sells well, does not mean it is played a lot, wich is key for a subscription based MMO.

I absolutely HATE when MMORPGS start you off as the hero of the universe. Like SWG after the NGE: it feels strange to think that everyone in the game met Han Solo and Chewbacca and escaped the exact same space station.

Wich is the whole point of those sandbox Elder Scrolls games. There's nothing else besides the feeling of being a hero. Introduce multiplayer and even that breaks down revealing a combat system that stoped improving since the late 90s. Hey Skyrim, Hexen wants it combat back.
 
You pretty much nailed it down.
 
IMO the trick would be to provide lots of open content at max or near max level. Give people plenty of sideways storylines from about L40 onwards. It establishes a common base, but gives people at max level some semi-challenging content to work on once they're there.
 
"if there was a MMORPG which had a structure similar to Skyrim, where you can go wherever you want, and find bits of story everywhere"

Eve Online?
 
I would say that the difference between Skyrim and EVE Online is that Skyrim does not rely on other players to provide the story. There ARE quests, there ARE pre-made stories, only they aren't lined up like pearls on a string.
 
I would say that the difference between Skyrim and EVE Online is that Skyrim does not rely on other players to provide the story.
Maybe the reason for that is that there are no other players in Skyrim?
If there were I suppose that the game would turn up closer to EVE then WoW, with people wandering around hunting, smithing, enchanting and leveling within player-founded organizations.
 
100% agreed. I pinning my hopes on Titan, surely if anyone has had the greatest opportunity to learn from their mistakes it has to be Blizzard.
 
If there were I suppose that the game would turn up closer to EVE then WoW

Neither EVE nor WoW are actually very good at player interaction, because the range of interactions you can have with another player in these games is so limited compared to real life interactions. In many cases in comes down to players killing each other, which isn't really the most attractive form of human interaction.
 
Everyone has stopped talking about Second Life but SL certainly had the open world bit cracked.

Could the future of mmorpgs be something like Second Life in a fantasy setting but with better graphics and decent controls?
 
I would argue that Cataclysm took Linearity much further than any game before or since (including SWTOR) since you were forced to do all quest hubs (i.e. stories) in a strict order in every single zone.

Other games (again including SWTOR) allow you to at least choose what side quests to do and in any order - yes the main questline has to be done in order but then that's the point. If you could do those quests out of order then there is no room for plot twists or secrets.

I find Skyrim bland because of its openness. The NPC interactions are very repetitive and annoying, especially when they talk over one another. I'd much rather see player characters interacting as that gives a sense of life to the game much more than scripted NPCs.

I've given thought to a Skyrim MMO recently and I'm not so sure it would work well. I do like the idea of a sandbox PVE game but there are serious issues with implementing one if we want scripted stories rather than just grinding mobs or crafting.
 
You may want to check out the Secret World then.

No levels at all, as xp builds up you use it to unlock abilities, of which you can only actively use 14 at a time.

At the same time, each 'zone' has it's own story and concept but due to the no levels, you can change and go wherever you want at anytime.
 
MMO's are basically a dead avenue. If you are betting on Titan you will be disappointed big time. Titan will be about a new business model for Blizzard and how they make money without monthly subscriptions. Gamplay and story will be pretty much a rehash. Just look at what Blizzard has done in the past to confirm this. They don't innovate they take current concepts and then improve upon them.
 
Is that really healthy though? I feel like the more we ask "how can we increase the longevity of MMOs" the more we move away from "what is fun?" I enjoyed the hell out of Skyrim, the first 70 or so hours, I didn't even touch the main quest line.

Linearity is not something I am a fan of, but if it is well paced and well-timed, what does it matter if the gentleman next to me in the Cantina has similar life-story? I do agree there there should be meaningful sub-courses off the beaten path, but the moment we get into "how do we increase this MMO's life?", I think there is trouble afoot.
 
You can't take one component of a game and look at it separate from the rest of the game. Changes to linearity would destroy things like balance, which is not nearly as important to a singleplayer game as it is to an mmo. Skyrim has that flexibility, SWTOR or any other MMO does not.

MMOs require balance, if your best companion died in SWTOR and you wanted to be the best that you could be, you would reroll your character and not let your companion die the next time. Providing non-linear story and experiences without disrupting balance is probably one of the most challenging things a developer could hope to achieve.

The attitude that this is a no-brainer and can easily be done is a little misplaced I think. Creating a game like that which you describe is likely very costly. This would translate into higher prices, which would translate into gripes about price...
 
They could probably 'Skyrim-ize' WoW today with not too much effort.

If the NPC's adopted the level of the player they are attacking, you could go back to those old zones that are standing empty today and find a decent challenge. Combine that with a good random quest generator, and you could always find a quest that takes you to older zones, provides you with some money or appropriate items (random valor points, trade skill component, gems or enchantments).

They could probably add companions too, and let players 'solo' older dungeons that adjust to player's levels. Maybe as part of a random 'epic' quest. Maybe random NPC's fight at a higher level when you have a companion present. I really think having a companion adds a lot to the gameplay, and enjoy the games I have played where they are present.

A nice touch might be to allow people to write their own stories, using in-game low-rez screenshots and player-provided captions, that you can read off-line via the armory (maybe as part of a 'best story' type annual or semi-annual contest).

There are a lot of things that could be done to a game like WoW to make it less linear and more re-playable.
 
@sonny
You could say it's sad to see the guy decked out in one month but others might think playing for 6+ years would be sad as well.

While I imagine it took many sleepless nights to finish in a month he got the most bang for his buck. Saw the story, progressed his character and only has to play when something new comes out.
 
Personally I don't think a Skyrim type mmo would be successful at all because there is too much.

My friends bought skyrim and liked it but stopped half way story-wise because they got overwhelmed with side quests and such. It would captivate you for a good 40-60 hours playtime and then you're burned out.

while I agree some more variety or alternate leveling paths should be in games, you will need to have some linearity or you'll lose all your 2million subscribers before the 2nd month
 
Three things:
1. The living world you see in Skyrim is made alive mostly by it's inhabitants, who all act within they roles. Buiding an MMO upon that would require two things: first a player should have all the abilities and limitations NPCs are told to have in the story layer of the game - they should be able to band up and form groups of bandits as well as expand the city, build it's walls, defend it well, create businesses and exchange goods - a band of bandits should not be able to raise and burn a city without a long siege and the city should not be rebuildable within hours of being obliterated. The second part of this is somehow enforcing on players the will to actually use those possibilities the proper ways.
2. The only way to really make an MMO everlasting is to randomply generate the story of the PC. Not the quests he gets, but the story behind the quests, allowing go'n'kill quests as well as those more complex, both morally challening and epic. Storybricks or any system akin to that will be the answer, and I bet Blizzard is cooking up something just like that.
3. The living world of Skyrim knows death, while the worlds of MMO never do. You simply cannot die in an MMO, and hence the story told by the game is a completely different one. Player respawns are like a constant retcon for the story, and hence the world telling that story will never be as alive. Players will not be afraid of dying, and some of the interactions between them will always circle around that (like the 'How Many Wipes' discussion or 'I killed that noob ten times').
 
If you start off in Guild Wars 2 as a Human Commoner, you will have different friends and a different personal storyline than if you start off as a Human Noble (and so on for the other four races). Ditto if your background story involves different regrets and different values.

I know that most of the readers of this blog couldn't give two hoots about following GW2's progress, but it is fascinating to me that people argue that one MUST have this kind of linearity in a themepark MMO, when there are games coming around the corner that eschew this theory, and yet they have no interest in learning about them.
 
Mbp: "Could the future of mmorpgs be something like Second Life in a fantasy setting but with better graphics and decent controls?"

My thought is that MMOs are most fun when they're about halfway along a scale which has the openness of Second Life at one end and the linear gameplay of SWTOR at the other.

I don't want to feel like there's no game; I don't want to feel like there's no virtual world.
 
@chrismue: Skyrim can do that because you are the center of the universe. In MMOs, you will soon realize there are a 100,000+ "chosen ones" out there hanging around, and it kind of throws me out. I prefer games where you are just a person in the world. You can be a hero, but not be a "Ultimate Hero Chosen By The Gods".
 
when there are games coming around the corner that eschew this theory, and yet they have no interest in learning about them

A decade of experience proves that it is wiser to get interested in a MMORPG only at the date where you can actually play the game, at least the beta. Otherwise you get all excited about the promised "bears, bears, bears", and end up rather disappointed when the game either doesn't deliver on all those promises, or doesn't even come out in the first place.

I am interested in GW2, but I reserve judgement until I played it.
 
I myself did not like skyrim, just because the myth and legends is very generic when it comes to those sort of middle age fantasy games.
While an open world such as fallout has much more imagination and allows for things that no one would expect with a rich, yet somewhat twisted story.
SWTOR has already become boring, very quickly I mgiht add, the linearity did indeed kill the game by the time I reached level 50, in reality the game would have played better as a single player game with multiplayer aspects than an MMO.
 
The important part with linearity is that you can discuss shared experiences with the guy next to you. Like 'What did you do at the Battle of X'? And 'Wasn't that questgiver/companion a jerk?'
 
I think you could have an open world without instancing where the MOBs scale with your level. City of Heros already does something similar with open world event MOBs. The amount of damage the MOB does to you depends on your level and the damage you do to it is also adjusted for your level. This allows both a level 30 and a level 10 to fight the same event boss without being grouped or sidekicked.
 
"I am interested in GW2, but I reserve judgement until I played it."

I know, I was more referring to other commenters asserting that themepark MMOs must be linear in this way as though it were an immutable or even defining attribute, as if to say "what can ya do about it, eh?"

Skepticism makes perfect sense. Complete disregard, not so much.
 
Just imagine playing a game of TESV:Skyrim and imagine that the NPCs at Whiterun suddenly start yelling things like "Dagger 15% fireresist 13-34 fire dmg 10kk" everywhere on the streets, and start suddenly appearing and dissapearing without an explained in-story reason, or imagine that despite the story telling you of peace and safety within the Whiterun Walls a group of NPC-bandits storms Whiterun killing anyone within city walls while spouting sarcastic comments, and then leaves while the city returns to business-as-usual without anyone explaining what was that about. And when you go to a shop, after a short wait the owner suddenly apears from thin air and says 'Sorry, they killed me but I'm back, how may I help you?". Or the captain of the Imperial Guard in the tutorial saying "We will now kill Ulfrik" "Oh no! Not that! He will have to wait 2 minutes before he can respawn!!!". Or maybe is it those things NOT HAPPENING that make the world of Skyrim so alive?
I dare say, that in opposition to most MMO worlds the world of Skyrim is alive because most of the time it actually makes sense. The story and various machanics actually corelate - a fact that seems barely true for most MMOs, where we tend to pretend that things like player respawn, logoff/logon or absurd amounts of repetition do not happen.
 
I don't disagree with what you're saying, as SWTOR certainly is linear, but I disagree with the implication that it is somehow worse in that regards than most MMOs.

When WoW was first released you could have made that same opening statement about two characters, but it would have been ANY two characters on the same faction regardless of class, not just members of the same class. At least SWTOR offers a different experience for each class as you level up. There is loads of content you will simply NEVER see unless you play the class the content was created for, or group with someone of the class who is doing their class quests.

I don't think a Skyrim MMO would work. Think about playing Skyrim, then imagine if there were 100 other people in the same area as you doing the same things, all with different power levels. Would that still be fun?
 
I like to think that it's doable. That each planet holds unexplored continents which could be opened up to shuttle/speeder access and exploration as required. Small quests in the bulletin-board format, perhaps. (It goes against their 'all quests are voiced' claim, but that ship sailed already.)

I like the idea that your class quest was just an introduction, it was how your epic character got their start in the galaxy, and that the REAL story is yours to tell by what you choose to accomplish in a vast, almost infinite galaxy...

But boy that'd take a lot of resources.

You could just plot out some vast, procedurally-generated terrain and set devs to peppering it with interesting things along common themes per planet/area, and let folks explore... Anyone who complained about how much jogging they had to do in their starting areas knows full-well that it's possible to hugely expand a world to increase travel time and the feeling of distance.

And hey, just look at Hoth. Or Tatooine. Who here hasn't run off into those exhaustion zones, just out of a desire to see what that stuff is on the horizon? I'd be very interested to see if they have stats on how many players run into exhaustion zones whilst exploring.
 
Something else that people longing for sandbox MMOs need to do is play Wurm Online.

Yes, the graphics and the engine are horrible. BUT. Wurm does – and has done for years – what a lot of folks are crying out for, and shows us the consequences of giving these people what they want. Especially folks who want persistent player housing, located directly in a game world, without instancing.

An open world, with a finite amount of space to settle, results in massive land-grabs by early-adopters, and burgeoning communities spring up out of these, with their own hierarchies and rules, usually governed by the one universal principle of ‘might makes right’. Anyone coming in late and hoping to blaze a trail and carve out their own little slice of land in a savage wilderness finds themselves wandering for hours through completely-occupied territory until eventually settling in a little slice of alleyway which has been left abandoned.

You can’t have that game, and have it multiplayer. Not massively so, anyway. Try loading up a new character in EVE and venturing out into the ‘unknown’ frontiers to lay claim to resources to forge a new empire... You’ll find yourself either shot on sight by the agents of a super-corp, or being forced to present your papers and explain why you’re there, if you want to avoid being shot on sight. If you do want to continue on out there, your only option is to sign on with a corp and hope you backed the right horse… which, a lot of the time, you won’t. And you still run a very good chance of being shot on sight anyway.

Exploration isn’t really exploration if you have to pay tolls, read graffiti, and jostle with dozens of others (many of whom will be juvenile malcontents less interested in the landscape than in fucking up your day) whilst ‘exploring’. You can’t have trail-blazing in persistent worlds affected by players, because a handful of fanatics will do it all first. If you want to explore, you pretty much need to play a single-player game like Skyrim.
 
I think Arcanum, for all of you out there that remember the game (or Fallout, more Fallout 2 than Fallout 3) is a better yardstick than Skyrim for your example, Tobold.

In Arcanum, there is meaningful choice but within a sandbox-type world such that there are MANY ways to achieve end results (not all the same) without performing exactly the same quests, scripting, etc.

The game allows you to perform "quests" for individuals and build up a magic affinity or a technology affinity. It is on a sliding scale. The more attuned you are with magic, the better magic items work for you, but at a cost of the technology breaking and not working well. Or visa versa. You can be smack dab in the middle of the affinity and use both magic and technology, and be effective at combat.

In Fallout, only certain questlines become available, similar to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, such that a series of "good" moral choices lead to different endings than "bad" moral choices, and a series of both "good" and "bad" moral choices leads to yet a third ending.

The combination of both the "sliding scale" approach of Arcanum and the "morality compass" approach to determine one's goals and endings would be a great thing to add to an MMORPG to achive some of the nonlinear gaming you are talking about.
 
@Tobold
"That linearity has two consequences: It lowers replayability, and it makes the player less engaged with the story. You aren't playing through *your* story in SWTOR, you are playing through the fixed story of your class."

I think how 'engaged with the story' you are is a personal thing. It is rare for a single player game to give you much freedom, but these are still regarded as 'immersive'/'engaging'.

I would be interested to know some statistics on Skyrim. With the exception of the blogosphere, most people I know played for under a month before moving on. This was not because they had run out of content to tackle.
 
What is the basis of assumption that there are millions of people just dying to see the 'place to live in' in the game? Where's supporting evidence that these people are more lucrative market target compared to 'traditional' "play to win" (to defeat final raid boss or whatever) crowd?

I know I wouldn't want to log in just for the sake of logging in ('living in'). I prefer to strive to 'complete the game' (kill the final boss or whatever). And I paid for years of WoW -- and would pay for more if it didn't destroy difficulty of everything but raiding in WotLK and Cataclysm. So this model can work.
 
Where's supporting evidence that these people are more lucrative market target compared to 'traditional' "play to win" (to defeat final raid boss or whatever) crowd?

I would say from the fact that the overwhelming majority of players in WoW doesn't raid, it is clear that they are looking for something else in the game than winning. That it is a "place to live" is a theory from Richard Bartle based on his experience with MUDs.
 
I would say from the fact that the overwhelming majority of players in WoW doesn't raid, it is clear that they are looking for something else in the game than winning. That it is a "place to live" is a theory from Richard Bartle based on his experience with MUDs.

And where's supporting evidence of:
- 'Majority doesn't raid' -- is it even true now post-LFR etc.?
- Even if the above is true, is it proven that 'majority' doesn't "play to win" -- with them just defining "win" as not the killing the last raid boss, but getting character to max level and getting best gear they possibly can within confines of their playstyle (solo or small group)?
- Even if majority doesn't play to win, is there evidence that they are more lucrative that the "play to win crowd"? (Maybe "play to win" is numerically smaller but stays subscribed longer?)
- Even if all of the above can be proven to show that "not play to win" numerically pays more directly, maybe "play to win" crowd bring more other money into game via network effect, population, and such?


Or, in other words, I don't see any "proof" that "sandboxes" with little/no power progression would be a more lucrative market. Maybe they would. But I don't believe so. But then again I don't know any true casual players, so I can't really judge.

I know Minecraft made millions. But WoW made billions. Rift made quite a lot more than few millions as well (I think?). Had SWTOR better polished combat and good raiding end game (maybe it has this, not at 50 yet) -- it might still make tens if not hundreds of millions...

Or yet in another words -- don't underestimate the draw of character power progression and clearly set goals (reach max level, beat the end boss, etc.) -- stuff that typical sandbox/horizontal game has problems with.
 
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