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"Enough with the Dwarves Already!"

January 22, 2007


It's how you become awesome. Reader Rhys Yorke dropped me a note about Friday's piece regarding the MMO options out there. Rhys has a Collector's Edition Burning Crusade sitting, unopened, on his desk ("Every time I consider opening it and installing the disks, I remind myself how many hours I lost playing..." he admits). He also writes a bit about how he was underwhelmed by Vanguard: "I believe Vanguard: SOH has an excellent concept, but I found it lacking in execution." He cites too many races/classes causing a game balance nightmare and a bland art direction that taxes his PC for little benefit. So, why is this die-hard MMO player so blah about the biggest games on the market? He answers:

"With WoW being what it is, why are fantasy MMORPGs flooding the market? Vanguard, Warhammer, Lord of the Rings, DDO, Lineage 2, etc... I'm getting a little weary of elves and wizards as I am sure are many people." -Rhys

So why does fantasy dominate the market? There is an answer to that question, and most people would be surprised to discover that it's not either 1. Lack of creativity among game developers or 2. Risk-adverse publishers afraid to publish non-fantasy material. The real answer lies at the very core of massively multiplayer online game development -- it starts with the game design, the decisions that are made on paper before a single line of code is written.

The Goals of an MMO Game Design

Currently, most massively-multiplayer games work under a similar business model: expensive to produce and very expensive to maintain, these games are meant to pay for themselves by retaining monthly subscribers long after the game ships. An ordinary game can afford to have a gamer buy it, play it for two weeks, and then put it down -- the financial model for an MMO demands that gamers keep playing it, with most requiring several months of subscription fees per user before they can break even on development costs. That means:

1. The game has to be big. If it can be explored overnight, players will churn too quickly.

2. It has to have variety. A game without a series of distinct locations or evolving gameplay to continually engage people won't keep them opening their wallets a month or more after they bring home the box.

3. It has to be relatable. I believe there's a market for 'niche' MMO games, but they have to be developed by very small, very smart game studios. For anyone trying to build a triple-A title that's going to hold its own on store shelves, a big audience is a requirement, and that means the theme of the game can't be obscure and hard to figure out.

4. It has to be repeatable. In order for a game to be big, it has to be populated with activities that people can enjoy again and again -- such as combat. (The tough part is doing this but still upholding guideline 2 -- variety! Player-vs-player combat helps here.)

5. It has to facilitate group play. The social nature of these games is a major hook to keep people subscribed. Naturally, if people aren't grouping together or don't have reasons to group up, the game will quickly pale.

6. It has to convey a sense of progress. One reason people stay subscribed to an MMO is because they feel they're constantly moving forward and evolving within the game world.

Of course this is a short list, since there are plenty of other concerns that occupy designers, but it illustrates why MMOs always veer toward familiar themes. You can see a lot of great game ideas don't hold up under this scrutiny. An online wild west game sounds awesome on the surface: Prospecting! Gunfights! Horses! Stunts! But it just doesn't offer enough variety over the long haul -- it's locked to a specific environment, with a limited set of enemies, unless you throw a fantasy twist to it. Science-fiction games have to wrestle with guideline number 3, relatability, since you have to explain all the technology to new players. I'm curious to see how Pirates of the Burning Sea solves these challenges: if you're fighting pirates, exploring jungle islands, and sailing ships in level 1, what are you doing at level 20? 40? Six months later? One year later?

On the other hand, the fantasy theme provides ready-made solutions to all these problems. People intrinsically understand the basic rules (chain mail is better than leather armor, wizards can cast magic, etc.) Fantasy worlds can be spectacular and full of variety. Fantasy literature is all about groups of adventurers going on a voyage together, so it's a perfect theme for multiplayer, with built-in class definitions to offer variety. Most importantly, there's a ready-made progression from a low-level grunt to a thunderous badass on a mount with glowing armor and weapons.

Of course I'm not the first to make these observations. One of my favorite presentations at an industry event in the last couple of years comes from Damion Schubert, who gave a speech entitled Moving Beyond Men in Tights at the Austin Game Developer's Conference. Although the speech isn't available online, summaries are available here at GamaSutra, as well as on Raph Koster's Blog. A longtime veteran of the MMO scene, Schubert delves into detail about why you see the same sort of combat systems over and over in RPGs and more.

Fortunately, there are games that buck the trend. Developers can address a lot of these issues with very cleverly-designed games that focus on the user community as an ongoing hook -- EVE Online is a great example (you can check out a free EVE trial at Fileplanet.com). In fact, to get back to reader Rhys and his letter that kicked this whole thing off, he's been playing a lot of the space epic himself: "I decided to give EVE a try once again - fantastic! Though it's not a hot brand new title, the developers have made strides in improving its interface, gameplay, everything. It's quite impressive and it's quite easy to see that they put care into their player community. It's a refreshing change."

As always, email me your thoughts. Digg This!

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Posted by at 11:21 AM PST
Edited on: January 22, 2007 11:27 AM PST
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