Tobold's Blog
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.
I think one MMO gameplay paradigm we should question is the idea that MMOs are character-driven. The genre is slowly moving away from being character driven: Attunements are largely gone from wow, alts are encouraged instead of condemned, and account-wide microtransactions are slowly being accepted as a viable revenue stream.

What if you had an MMO designed to have an account/player focus, rather than encouraging a "main" character into which your pour all your resources?

Guild Wars had this to a limited degree (change your build for free, change your sub-profession for free, account-wide skill unlocks), but what if we had an MMO designed to be consumed in smaller chunks that encouraged players to shift their play styles rather than have their next hundred hours worth of gameplay be determined at the character selection screen?
Very interesting article. But moving from the predefined combat systems brings a lot of work to the developers. They need not only to create new concepts but to make them work. From our experience there are always specific scenarios that come up that we didn't expect or know how to handle. All these extra "stuff" makes development harder and more error prone. So I see why developers want to follow existent combat models. It saves a lot of design work, and most of the time, there is a great rush to put the game on the market. This view is as a developer.

As a gamer... sometimes when we're used to something we have a lot of inertia to change. It's like the movies. Why do we keep seeing new action movies when they all have the same concepts? It's all the same, with some minor story twists, new actors, new effects, etc. But the base plot lines are very similar.
Another nice post. For me, gameplay fun consists mostly of mastering the mechanics. Once I know how to play my class well, the game starts to get boring unless the encounters become more challenging. It gets really tedious if all you do is kill an infinite stream of monsters using exactly the same sequence of skills every time.

Here are some things I'd like to see:
(1) Come up with variations on the standard combat system, or at least variations on the standard set of skills. For example, Guild Wars had a much larger variety of skills than the average MMO.
(2) Increase the level of challenge over time. For example, in Wizard 101 the worlds become gradually more difficult, starting you off facing one opponent at a time in Wizard City, and progressing to tough instances like the clock towers in Marleybone.
(3) Design the risk-reward structure to give people an incentive to take on new challenges. Many MMOs specifically encourage people to take on easy content. For example, in WoW solo questing was the fastest way to progess. Players should be rewarded for taking on challenges that test their abilities.

In short, devs ought to read Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun." ;)
I think that WoWs combat system offers a good start. I had a lot of fun with the death knight class where you had to use priority based system or rotations with ten buttons or so. I didn't have a lot of fun with playing a mage in the original game or a warlock in TBC. There you just had to push frostbolt or shadowbolt x 1000.

Just give the player a lot of things to do at the same time. Watch out for circles on the ground, try to position yourself correctly. Watch your cooldowns and use them when they're up. Use your super spell once a trinket procs. Micormanage your pet. And all that while continuing your rotation. No time to get bored.

Reactive skills might improve the gameplay. I'm reminded of Conans shield system where you can do more damage if you hit the right button. But this can lead to a dance game where you just have to push the buttons shown on the screen. It might be fun but leaves out much of your free choice and thinking.

And a big FPS mmorpg would be something for my tastes too. I think they're quite hard to make technically though. Any good ones?

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.

Actually, I think it is not that strange.
Gameplay just needs to meet a few criteria:

- It has to be smooth an responsive. This is extremely important.
- Gameplay needs to offer an easy, relaxing experience. Otherwiese people won't play your game for hours.
- Gameplay needs to offer a challenging, rewarding experience. Otherwise people Will become bored.

WoW offers all three. It meets (1), offers (2) in solo PvE and offers (3) in PvP.

Raid PvE is either (2) or (3), depending on class and specc.

Now, what would be interesting would be a discussion about combat systems, like: rage, energy, mana, rune power.
IMO mana, for example, doesn't make much sense for pure DDs, like mages in WoW, for example. But this would lead this discussion somewhere else :)
I don't have the answer yet, but the question is, if when developing a new game should one embrace and extend an existing gameplay model, or seek to grow a completely new one. There are dangerous pitfalls for both.

If one were to come even close to the WOW model of combat gameplay, even with changes and improvements, wouldn't the potential playerbase immediately lump it into a pile with 'WOW Clones'. Possibly annoyed by either the differences from WOW (if they enjoy the WOW model), or by the similarities to WOW (if they are trying to get away from WOW). There is always the possibility that a new game can luck into a few players that have never touched WOW before, but those will be the outliers rather than the norm.

Now examine the dangers of picking a completely new gameplay direction. Firstly there is financing (which is sometimes also lastly). If you can't convince backers that what you are presenting will be a hit by giving examples that they can understand, there will be no financing. Then there is an initial customer base, no matter how much fun your proposed gameplay is, you have to convince at least enough people to try it before you can generate that critical mass that becomes self sustaining... not an easy task.

People say they want change and then turn around and grumble about how everything is different.

I hope to see interesting ideas put forth in response to this topic, but the best one I can come up with myself is to diversify in the same manner that Free Realms has done by allowing parallel independent gameplay styles that a player can explore depending on mood. Are there any other suggestions?
Glad you're back, Tobold!

To me, gameplay in MMORPG is about taking a decision that leads to a desired result/ success/ gratification/ reward.

That means at least 2 things:

1. If I can't take an informed choice, it's no fun to me. In combat, the opponent's strengths, weaknesses and actions need to be recognisable so I can adapt. Don't let completely different abilities look alike.

2. If whatever I do doesn't influence the outcome much, that's no fun either. Both sides should have a chance to win if they play well enough (no matter whether it's PVE or PVP). This outrules pure luck and very unequal opponents.

But maybe that's just me :-)
I'm uncertin we'll ever see MMORPG's stray to far from the choose target, click button method of combat.

I say this beause at its core, those rules have been taken from Table Top gaming like Dungeons and Dragons. You move your character, choose a target and use an ability and roll some dice. Video games do the dice rolling for us but the rest remains the same.

The reason I'm skeptical about any massive changes is that over 30years later that is still how DnD works. Not only that, its still how essentially every Pen and Paper game I've ever played works. Sure there are different skills, and different numbers you need or your rolling more or less types of different sided dice, but at their core combat is still resolved in a move character, choose target, choose action to do to target.

I'm not saying you won't see different types of MMO's. I'm sure at some point someone will make another game like Planetside that does well. But as for mmoRPG's I'm not sure. The few cases we've seen where they change things have proved interesting perhaps, but largely failures.

This is not to say that the core system cannot be improved on. Everything can be improved on. One thing, perhaps the only thing I enjoyed playing in the Aion beta is that while combat played the same as WoW and other games. It was visually more interesting.

I don't think developers should underestimate the effect making one's character look cool can have on endearing players to them.

Even beyond something as simple as making combat more visually interesting there are countless ways to improve on WoW's combat system while remaining true to its core. WoW's combat is at its core the same as EverQuests, but I believe no one would argue that WoW's is more fun and interesting.
On combat:

I would love to see a game that really dove into their AI development, giving you enemies that reacted to your choices. In keeping with the WoW theme, my priest used the same 3-button combo while grinding most "kill 10" quests, what if my targets all of a sudden tried rushing me to interrupt spells, or running off to grab friends, or evading through Line of Sight, etc? All of a sudden you're engaged with the fight again, needing to pursue/change tactics/react (without the split-second trigger finger antics of a FPS control scheme). I think that would meet the current control scheme, which works very smooth and well in WoW, halfway.


I like that you brought up the non-combat classes that Galaxies used to have (still has? I stopped playing before the NGE). I really enjoyed having my combat job and then my doctor job (the hospital side, not the front lines) with some crafting on the side, as it created more of a gaming society: your world wasn't just fights, there were live players out and about with errands and hobbies, performing support roles that didn't involve running out to the dungeon with everyone else. That touches on my personal "main reason" for MMOs: persistence and identity, but I'll save that for later :)
One reason I stopped playing WoW (raiding) was that I felt I was spending too much time and effort getting better at something transient and without outside value. I'd like to see gameplay involve either a musical instrument (similar to drums in Rock Band) or physical activity like the Wii or Microsoft's upcoming Natal.
The current combat systems you see in MMOs are all about dealing with technological bottlenecks.

Here we are, its 2009, I'm streaming a Russian pop station through my iphone, and Blizzard is patching Wintergrasp to keep people from doing it too much. In the premier MMO, a game that makes so much money Blizz probably has Scrooge McDuck-style money pools, can't handle a hundred people fighting each other. The tech is just not here yet for these games to reach their full potential.

Bandwidth or processing power is simply not where it needs to be for the true blossoming of the MMO.

I suspect the mmos of 2019 are going to play a lot more like a regular video game, as they will hopefully not have to design all the game mechanics around keeping the server from choking to death.
A few unrelated comments:
* There is no movement away or towards sandbox gaming. I don't know where you got that from, Tobs. I completely do not see it and I've been paying attention.

* There are a significant number of blogs and blog posting that discuss gameplay and what is fun fairly directly. I don't know where you get the idea that it's rare. You just have to find it, the same as you have to find anything else on the internet. For one, my blog does it.

* It would be nice if players actually took an interest in game design and spent some time thinking about what makes the game mechanics works (or be fun) or not work. Most user feedback for MMOs is just awful. I'm surprised that developers have as much success as they do when their communities (the vast majority of the time) are routinely giving them terrible advice and useless feedback.
Looking over the responses, I'm wondering to what extent people agree about what makes gameplay "good."

Under traditional game design principles, in a good game:
(1) The rules should be simple. For example, chess, Tetris, and Portal have simple rules.
(2) The rules should be transparent to the player. Chess, Tetris, and Portal have no secret rules that are hidden from the player.
(3) The game should be deep, in the sense of providing players interesting choices to make and opportunities for mastery. For example, chess has been played for centuries and still hasn't been fully mastered.

Most MMOs aren't designed this way:
(1) The rules are like the rules to D&D; they're very complicated.
(2) The rules are often opaque. In many games even basic things like the to-hit formula, critical hit percentage, and the effects of stats aren't disclosed. In fact, a whole hobby of "theorycrafting" has arisen around trying to figure out what the rules to an MMO actually are.
(3) The actually gameplay often isn't very deep (especially solo gameplay). Players choice is usually limited to selecting talents or traits. PvP sometimes requires skill, but not to the same degree as, say, chess.

So here's my question: To what extent to people agree on what makes gameplay "good," and to what extent to people simply have different tastes? And are MMOs different from other games in way that makes traditional design principles inapplicable?
I am one of your long time lurkers and for some reason this post struck a cord. I began to think of what was different in the combat styles of the games I have tried over the past couple of year.
Note: I am a bit of a games dilettante (tried a lot, few in depth). I am not including "1st gen" games as I came to the MMOG party late...
WOW: assume this as "standard"
Guild Wars: set number of skills that could not be changed within instance, also includes character blocking
Tabula Rasa: ranged WOW with cover
Conan: active shielding/openings
Warhammer: WOW with blocking
Wizard 101: create spell deck
Puzzle Pirates: mini-game (not played)
DDO: active combat - push to swing sword, character blocking
Aion: WOW with z-axis (in some areas: not played)
LOTRO: WOW - can queue up 2 skills, delay in hot bar response compared to WOW (IMO allows for changes in tactical decisions)

Now that is off the top of my head. I am sure other's can add to the list. One question though: whuy is control responsiveness so important to some? In some PVE games I like the fact that there is a moment between pressing the hot bar and the skill enabling. It feels like it gives me time to think then respond.
Very interesting and thought provoking post.
In response to Gord: I think that control responsiveness gives you a sense of direct character control. This is one of the things I missed the most when I played EVE online. The first thing I tried to do in game was use wasd and the mouse to move my ship. In EVE this isn't how you move. Ships are moved by right clicking and sorting through a menu. I feel like you lose the sense that this character onscreen is an extension of you when you lose direct control. Direct control helps the player relate to the character and gain a sense of relationship between player actions and avatar actions.

On another subject: Someone mentioned the fact that most companies will stick to the "standard" WoW formula for MMORPGs for a long time. I think this immediately drives potential players away from games of this type. As a 20 year gamer I reject so many games within the first five minutes because I have played other games that they are ripping off. Whenever a game company goes out of it's way to create a new genre or a twist in an existing genre it grabs my attention.

Guitar Hero is a great example of this. How amazing was it the first time you picked up that little plastic guitar and tried this new form of gaming? Fast forward to today. Now we have Guitar Hero 5 coming out soon, along with Rock Band 2, and however many band specific variations they have. It's not as amazing anymore. If you didn't like Guitar Hero 1 you can basically try any new variation for less then 5 minutes and realize that it is the same game.

In the world of MMORPGs we honestly haven't moved that far away from Everquest. We need some innovation.

The only way to get gamers into your game when following a tried and true genre is to have better graphics and more polish. Think Halo or Gears of War. Compare that to all the generic FPS games that come out each year and you'll see what I mean.

Third subject: Theorycrafting. I feel like we can do better than making our characters so formulaic that we can look up the "perfect build" and "perfect rotation" online. Shouldn't each character be a unique individual in the world? None of us want to be a cookie-cutter hero.

I hope that Champions Online is taking a step in the right direction with this (I don't know, haven't played it yet). They are letting players pick and choose from multiple power sets and create their own hero. I'm sure there will still be optimization involved, but this leaves a lot more wiggle room to inject individuality into our characters. It will also be harder to tell someone to follow a "best build" if they create their own unique variation by combining multiple sets of powers. Like I said, I don't know yet, but it has potential.

Lastly: If you are interested in new gameplay options in an MMO keep your eye on Global Agenda. It, too, has potential.
This is exactly the problem that LotRO had for me. I LOVE Tolkien and LotR and desperately wanted to love the game but the combat system was terrible! WoW-like but slow and unresponsive with some unintuitive details (actually using your abilities as much as you could lowered your DPS, wtf?). I know some people don't mind this or manage to overcome it but it just killed the game for me. That basic repetitive element meant I couldn't enjoy the cool quests and world.
Pretty much every concern listed here is why I play Darkfall.

Forget for a second that it's a full-loot open PvP game and look at the repetitive combat gameplay.

I actually have to aim my bow, spell, sword when I shoot / swing at a target. The mobs run away and pull help. They try to counter what you're doing (sometimes it looks great, and others it looks like the mob was confused, but still better than rush & die tactics of most MMO mobs).

Also, as mentioned in the story-telling post in this series- the players make the story.

If my clan sacks another clans entire city, or even takes it from them. Then they have to move to another location in the game world. The combat has lasting effects and therefore creates it's own long-lasting ever-changing story.
Like the poster before me suggested: give Darkfall a try (after reading the wikipedia article on it and watching some videos of course).

It's a relatively tiny budget fantasy MMO that thoroughly departs from the WOW formula in many ways, including permitting full-looting of players you kill, friendly-fire always on, and every attack, arrow and spell must be manually aimed.

It's really refreshing and you might just love it, as I do.
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