An MMO Without a Focus on Loot

I was having one of my regular MMO discussions with a friend yesterday when we brought up a subject that started to make a lot of sense. MMOs didn’t used to be about the loot; sort of, but not really. The following are just thoughts we came up with while having this discussion.

We started thinking about a few examples of the older games we played extensively, and tried to identify in as few words as possible why it is we played — what was our drive or our reason for logging in each day.

Ultima Online – We were essentially living life. We made houses, started careers, accumulated wealth, and everything centered around making the act of living life easier.

Asherons Call – The world was constantly changing and we wanted to see it evolve; all about seeing what happens next.

EverQuest – Building relationships and creating dependencies on others was what kept us logging in. EQ (before Velious) wasn’t about raiding or looting as much as it was seeing how far we could advance and what challenges we could overcome.

Dark Age of Camelot – We lived in the world to defend our realm.

Loot can’t be the focus in a MMORPG that is going to recapture our attention. An MMO can and should have loot; we decided to nix the idea that maybe an MMO didn’t need loot at all, but can’t be the center where all roads lead.

When loot isn’t the focus, the other aspects of the game suddenly because exponentially more important and visible. There’s a reason players don’t participate in things like exploration, socializing, housing, or care about things like “realm pride” anymore. Those things do not actively drop epics, nor should they because that doesn’t make sense.

An MMO without a focus on loot is set free to be so much more. Design becomes a slave to gear when too much focus is placed upon it.

Smedley: Daybreak is Focusing on Shorter Session Times

Daybreak Games Company Logo

In a recent interview discussing mostly ‘company vision’ stuff, John Smedley made the following statement: “I firmly believe the days of the WoW-style MMO are over.” He went on to discuss how he believes the days of long arduous raids in World of Warcraft are over, and people now prefer shorter play sessions. That statement caused a bit of an uproar, and gave Smed cause to post the following on the EQ2 subreddit. I’m going to paste bits of it below.

I’ve read some of the threads about my comments in that interview. I wanted to clarify what I was talking about. I was asked in the interview about what things we’re doing differently for our new games going forward and that’s when I said we’re focused on shorter session times because not many people have the time anymore to spend on a 4 hour raid. [… insert minor back-pedaling and we will still support EQ/EQ2/EQNext raiding] […]

However, when we’re choosing what new games to make we’re focused on games with shorter average session lengths. Why? Because that’s the way the gaming world has evolved and we need to adapt. That’s precisely why we aimed so high on Everquest Next. We know we needed to change our aim on these games. We can’t just expect our users to want to grind through an epic 8 hour raid encounter or treat these games like it’s a second job. We need to make sure our games are just as fun in smaller time increments. […]

Well John… AMEN.

I completely agree that play sessions should be capable of being shorter, and MMOs should be designed in such a way that we do not have to wait for the fun to begin. HOWEVER, there is a caveat: Those shorter sessions must still have the same depth, investment, and experience of the longer play sessions. That’s a challenge for MMOs, and that would be a huge step forward in their design. Single-player and console games do this quite well. Why? Because you can just hit save and pick up right where you left off — often right in the middle of something epic.

My average play time now on a week day is roughly in the 1.5-2hr range. That’s much shorter than my 5-8 hour range, which was shorter than my 10-15 hour range. My time to play games has shrunk, but my desire to enjoy them the same way hasn’t. I don’t want to go on an 8 hour raid or even a 4 hour raid, but I want the same kinds of experiences of killing big monsters and getting loot. Etc.

If Daybreak wants to be the company to try and let me have my cake and eat it too, then I’ll happily cheer them on.

Broken Systems Were The Funnest

Over the past week I’ve done a lot of thinking back to older games I’ve played like DAoC, SWG, EQ, etc. Raph Koster’s posts have been particularly enlightening since they discussed the hows and whys of their decisions, and even revealed what they were actually trying to create when they delivered something entirely different.

I started to think about the fun I’ve had in older games, and then realized a lot of that fun came from systems that were completely broken or so stupid they should be considered broken. Despite that fact, I still enjoyed them. In fact, I think the games might have been less fun without them!

Here are just a couple examples.

SWG’s HAM

The health, action, and mind bar system of SWG was both brilliant and horribly designed at the same time. Using different abilities depleted these bars. Being hit by certain abilities wounded those bars. Let’s say my pistol used my mind bar, and someone shot my mind to wound it and thus reduce my total available mind resources. I could then use fewer mind abilities. The result was that you were killing yourself every time you used abilities.

I’m laughing right now thinking about how stupid this system was, and how much I wish it was like what Raph describes as “bouncy” where your resources regenerated and the entire thing was a rock paper scissors game of undermining your opponents weapon choice and tactics.

All that said, it worked even by not working. Yes, I enjoyed being able to see someone who clearly didn’t work on their mind pool enough. I would one shot them with my pistol.

EverQuest’s Mob Camping

I remember standing in a single spot for 15 hours just waiting on the right monster to spawn. When it finally spawned, it didn’t drop what I wanted. The wait began again. People would stand in line for these monsters to spawn. It could take weeks for it to be your turn. Yeah, it sucked.

At the same time, forming lines and relying on the honesty of others meant you were communicating and building a community of players who cooperated. If you broke the rules, stole a spawn, etc., you were ostracized; your life was over on that character and you would probably never get a group again.

Screwing Up Character Stats in DAoC (or any game)

Who didn’t screw up a character in a game at some point in time? It was a right of passage! It was also completely stupid. To be able to ruin a character and start over without some form of fixing it? I remember in DAoC back in the early days when you messed up your character’s stats or skills or whatever it meant you … screwed up. They eventually added respec stones so that you could undo a mistake and reallocate those skill points.

Screwing up a character and committing to a path that ends up being terrible is… terrible. At the same time, actually having to commit to something and put up with consequences or having to care about how your character progressed gave us substance and meat to character progression. No decision was made lightly.

Strafing in EverQuest

Mob pathing in EverQuest was terrible, and pretty much broken. Characters could strafe (run at an angle) and that meant that mobs had to make an additional path to move into your path… something like that. I won’t pretend to understand it all (it’s probably geometry or something and I don’t do math) but it meant that mobs struggled to actually hit you. Exploit? Maybe. Broken? Yep.

While broken, strafing allowed us to circle kite, and avoid enemies (who always seemed to run just a little faster then us) from killing us when we flee. It became just something you did.

Okay, now that I think about it this post was sorta stupid and broken itself. But do you get what I’m trying to say here? These dumb features/mechanics, when combined with other mechanics (which were often dumb) made that game what it was and if removed would take away a huge part of the magic that made it all work.

New games can come out that refine those broken mechanics, but I think when we fix too much we lose a little bit of the heart and soul of these MMOs. Rather than remove them, I think they can simply be modernized. Modernizing =\= removing.

Of Society and Carrots

Raph Koster is still on a roll with his retrospective analysis of all things SWG. He’s written about TEFs, Dynamic Worlds, and now today he’s written about something that once again draws my commentary: Living Societies in Games.

While the entire post is enormous (only part one…), and actually worth reading, I want to focus on just one small and tiny quote. In fact, this is Raph quoting himself from well over a decade ago:

“A sad fact about you players, as a whole: you only do what you are rewarded for. You will do something less fun if you see a carrot at the end of the stick, and you will ignore something more fun if it doesn’t give you a “ding” or an XP reward or a title.” – Holocron (11-26-2002 10:55 PM)

This is why…

Battlegrounds are favored over Open-world PvP
Players endure Raiding
Exploration is dead
Combat is always king

I could go on, but I want to stop there and flip that quote upside down. Developers realize players only want to do things they are rewarded for, and despite being less fun and underwhelming/underdeveloped players continue to do so ad nauseam — and pay for it! This means that creating content that is more fun, and yes quite possibly much harder to create, is easily set aside and deemed less profitable, niche, and “not what the players want.” You see? Players seek the path of least resistance, but what they are seeking after is actually that which the developers themselves have done — the path of least resistance! It’s a vicious cycle!

The solution is, quite simply, to never have a situation wherein players are given the opportunity to chase a carrot that is contrary to a ‘fun’ and desired experience.  Yep, that’s one of those “WTF obvious” moments, I know. Yet Raph quite perfectly points out a similar phenomenon when developers come to him asking him to create a crafting system for them like that found in SWG. He has to go back to them and point out that they have already created their game, when in fact the game should have been created around crafting. This idea of working backwards or putting the cart before the horse is happening all around us every single day in game design.

As Raph says, “players flow like water around obstacles.” Yeah, but so do developers. While in the end quite true of both sides, I’m in the camp that believes it is up to the developers to take control as it is the developers who are creating the experiences through which players exercise their inherent shortcomings.

Before you think all of this sounds impossible, SWG — despite its shortcomings — managed to pull this off the best we’ve ever seen. Every activity matters. Every activity is connected to something else someone had or has to do. Everyone is tied together. It’s a world. It’s a society.

DAoC was about PvE

In yesterday’s post about Crowfall I mentioned long-term goals and driving factors for why players should care. What makes someone wake up at 3am to defend a relic? Why should I care if I lose my keep? Many games creating a PvP system these days seem to look to DAoC as an example. WAR, GW2, ESO, and Crowfall all have the keep capturing mechanics and really did/do borrow heavily from the system. While they miss many features like proper character advancement in PvP, map size, and the nitty gritty details of how sieging should work, etc., there’s one bigger picture key ingredient they’re all missing: A focus on PvE.

DAoC was about PvE. The game long-heralded as the best RvR/PvP game of all time was driven by the players caring about PvE and how their characters performed outside of the frontiers (where the realm war/RvR took place).

DAoC had relics which increased your character’s stats and damage. Owning these was paramount and the goal of RvR was typically to try and push hard enough that you controlled the keeps necessarily to make the relic vulnerable. To make players care a bit more about those relics, the realm controlling most keeps had access to the best PvE zone in the game: Darkness Falls. Darkness Falls was the best place to level characters, get gear (that wasn’t player made), and earn money.

I have memories of being in Darkness Falls grouping for Legion and hearing the announcement that Albion was advancing and taking our keeps. We bailed out as fast as possible and rushed to the frontiers to defend or retake our territories in order to keep our coveted Darkness Falls longer.

Player made gear was typically the best back in the day. You weren’t going to earn that gear by PvPing. PvPing gave you realm ranks and points to buy new abilities which made you much stronger, but you still needed that player made gear. Player made gear, like all gear, wore out and broke over time. There was always a need to earn money which meant PvE.

Perhaps I should have started with this, but getting to level 50 was through rigorous PvE. Leveling wasn’t quick (before people macro’d and abused the leveling system like they do in every game). Leveling could take months to reach 50, and you weren’t a ton of use before level 50 out in the frontiers. Leveling through PvP wasn’t an option, and the silly “scaling” systems of today (another way for these games to ignore Pve) did not exist.

Although the “end-game” of DaoC was PvP, and one could PvP the entire time they played (after reaching level 50 and gearing up), the core of the game still maintained a healthy focus on PvE. The key isn’t to ignore PvE or come up with systems to avoid it. The two play-styles needn’t compete against each other. A great game can and perhaps should utilize both in harmony.