Crafting My Ideal MMO

I’ve never cared much for MMOs. I’ve tried out several different ones, only lasting a few hours in each, among them Age of Conan, Rift, The Lord of the Rings Online, and even the most lauded – or nefarious, depending on your point-of-view – World of Warcraft. Although in fairness I only played WoW for about ten minutes while the guy who owned the account took a shower. It’s odd because I should adore the genre, as it grants me a massive, deep world that I may explore at my leisure, complete with guilds to join and giants monsters to slay. And the sheer volume of lore and well-hidden secrets should enable me to sink countless hours into it. So why am I not doing that, and instead dispensing my rambling thoughts here? The problem is two-fold, and the solutions are simple, yet extremely difficult to make a reality.

Too much stuff on screen! I is confused!

A few years ago, I went to school with some odd people. In addition to booze and sex – common topics for teenage males – the favored conversational topic was World of Warcraft. However, they didn’t tell much about their adventures in Azeroth, what dragons they’d slain and such. No, it was about how quickly they could get a character to level 80 and what strategies to use to achieve maximum efficiency. What did they do when they’d reached level 80? Why, they made a new character and started all over! The “hero” in this group of people was the guy who was best at leveling-up his characters. The guy who was the best at managing statistics was revered. I’m being very judgmental of them, which isn’t entirely fair – they were, mostly, alright people. I suppose if they enjoy the game in this way, I should let them. On my part, having the numbers shown directly to me diminishes any impact the world has. Instead of enjoying the exploration, it becomes something I feel I should prepare spreadsheets for to get the “most out of it”.

The first problem – and the most commonly cited from other people who dislike the genre – is grind. To get further in the world, you have to grind endlessly. You need to gather thousands of wolf pelts to get the needed XP to level up, so you can beat larger wolves, gather bigger pelts and get more XP. Rinse, repeat ad infinitum. Grind is just a necessity to get to the higher, grander altitudes of whatever world you find yourself in. At some point you’ll reach the more challenging dungeons, and achieve greater freedom as you are economically stronger.

When I stated earlier that I’d never gotten very deeply into MMOs, that’s not entirely true. I played a “game” called NationStates – a game where you sat as Supreme Overlord of a nation among a sea of nations – for a number of years in my younger days. I say “game” because it basically consisted of deciding on some political issues that determined whether your nation became a Psychotic Dictatorship or a Left-Leaning College State, or any of the other forms of government. The real game took place on the forums that practically every serious region – a larger collection of nations – had. There politics would be discussed, bills would be passed and elections held (personally, I held such glorious positions as Game Warden and Secretary of the Region!). Entire new forms of playing were conceived here, such as “invading” where players would take over a region’s founder’s account, thus taking control of a region and evicting the original inhabitants. The point is that the players of the game essentially co-created it. Without player involvement, there would only be an extremely simple political simulator that would be fun for a few minutes. I rarely see that kind of player involvement in conventional MMOs – except perhaps EVE Online, which is also well-known for players breaking the rules.

Bonus fact: Nationstates was loosely related to Max Barry's novel "Jennifer Government", which was a rather alright book. Read it!

That’s part of the second problem: the people. I’m not suggesting that other people should not play a role in MMOs – after all, that would take away what the genre is all about. The problem lies with the sheer number of people involved. In the major cities, I suppose it makes sense that there are hundreds of adventurers running around, trying to get rid of their hard-earned, but now useless loot, In the outskirts of the world, though, why are those hundreds of adventurers now still running around confusedly, trying to found out which monsters to kill? Why must I climb some mountain the developers had no intentions of me climbing just to get a bit of solitude? Even then I can still vaguely see the other players’ tags in the distance, and my chat log is still filled with racial slur. These aspects aren’t immersive, they’re the anti-thesis of that. Even intriguing lore, well-written quests and grind-free gameplay cannot save a game if the players seem like they’ve been teleported here straight from a CoD match.

Then, how would the ideal MMO be constructed?

The first problem to address is probably the hardest to solve. How do you create a persistent world that always has new, high-quality content for its players available? That would require a gigantic team for the developer to write new quests and create new areas continuously. Cryptic’s upcoming MMO Neverwinter is trying to prevent this by letting their players creating their own content for the game, a practice that could lead to some truly spectacular experiences depending on how well-implemented the feature is – personally, some of the best experiences I had with the old Neverwinter Nights was from its user-created content. However, while this could theoretically prevent grind, the core gameplay would still be the same. You’d still be using the same spreadsheets as before, albeit you were involved in some more interesting quests and areas.

Instead, the gameplay would have to change. Practically all major MMOs feature a fairly stiff combat system that relies more on just finding the right combo to beat certain creatures in combat. There’s none of the fluidity of more conventional games like in many action-RPGs such as Mass Effect or Mount & Blade. There isn’t even a hint of unpredictability in the combat, as it you can nearly determine the outcome mathematically. So, the solution would be to implement more fluid combat – Mount & Blade is actually a good example of how to create that without huge funds – and the challenge in that would be to implement it on a large scale.

The second problem has a more obvious solution: make the world bigger, and reduce the number of people on each server. One way I’m imagining this could work – bear in mind that it’s totally unrealistic – would be to open a considerable portion of the Forgotten Realms up for players to explore. Ideally the whole thing, something that’s going to be increasingly likely as technology shifts from focusing on realism to creating larger worlds. Without making some hefty compromises the level of detail this is something that lies in the fairly distant future. As for the smaller group of players, these would instead form adventuring bands – that could be formed and disbanded at leisure – whom they went adventuring with in the Realms. The smaller amount of players would hopefully also result in these adventuring bands being spread out over the world, meaning that they’d only occasionally interact.

Maybe Skyrim with multiplayer is really what I'm demanding

The dullness that I’ve experienced in the MMO genre could fairly easily be mended, if not for that bastard known as “technology”. Still, a man can dream, right? Isn’t that what idealizations are for?


  1. Andrew McDonald

    Sounds like you want, “Table Top Pen and Paper RPG: The MMO”

    It isn’t just technology keeping this from happening, it is also detail. You can have the best technology in the world, but if it doesn’t make unique and complicated randomly generated worlds, you’re going to need a huge number of artists just to model the world, much less fill it.

    But yeah, one can always dream.

    • Ramunas Jakimavicius

      Not necessarily. What about Dwarf Fortress? That’s pretty unique and complicated, and it does it all with a simple tileset.

      • Andrew McDonald

        Would you like an MMO made entirely of basic marks?

        What I’m trying to say is that a project of the scale you are talking about (large enough that small groups rarely encounter each other) requires random generation. But it requires random generation on a different scale than Dwarf Fortress. In Dwarf Fortress, a mountain is a mountain. A forest is a forest. With an MMO, each mountain is slightly different (we’re talking visually here). The forest needs to have each tree individually placed. There also needs to be mood lighting and changes in BGM so that the players don’t feel such an overbearing monotony. Then the encounters need to be more complicated than, “a bunch of monster come rushing at you.” Different strategies need to be used in different scenarios. These are some things that become iffy when you get into a computer generated world.

        There are certainly ways to deal with this, but it is a huge headache anyway. A group of developers would have to go and check everything the computer generated for bugs/random issues that arise when something is computer generated.

        While I respect what Dwarf Fortress (I personally hate the game), it isn’t necessarily a good example.

        Ok, I think I was rambling, so let me try to put this in a concise manner. An MMO requires a certain level of human effort that a game like Dwarf Fortress (which you say uses a simple tileset) simply is not capable of, because computers can’t think for themselves. Level design, encounters, and ambience are difficult to computer generate without being visually and game-wise boring. Dwarf Fortress does not need to worry about these things because A) it is ASCII. B) The combat isn’t meant to be complex.

        • Jonas Jurgens

          Just FYI, that’s not the author of the article you’re replying to 😛

          In regards to your first post though, I agree. The problem with creating a vast world the player is free to explore is to make it…interesting too. If it were randomly generated, you’d just end up with dull dungeons like those seen in Oblivion. However, the approach Mythic has taken with Neverwinter could be part of a solution, in that it allows the players to create the content for the game. How that works in an MMO I’m unsure of – you’d certainly get a lot of crap churned out too – but it would take the load of the designers so they wouldn’t have to create new content over the course of the game’s lifespan.

          • Andrew McDonald

            I totally pay attention to the names of the people I’m replying to <.<

            Anyway, the danger with user created content is not even a quality standard, as there are was to work around that (rating systems). The problem is integrating it into an over-world. Making it feel like it is a part of the world, and not just a user created instance.

            You wouldn't have ANY interaction with other parties outside of cities because everything has to be instanced, like DDO or Dragon's Nest. Either the devs would have to work on integrating content or the players would have to use a complex "connection" system, attempting to link their content to the rest of the game world (and then have it approved).

            On second thought, that sounds really cool. I want.

            Could you imagine a world with a small dev designed area that gradually gets expanded as players create more content? Each server could be an entirely different world.

            There would need to be a dev approving each addition to the world, of course. But the rest could go by an instanced system.

          • Jonas Jurgens

            Yes, I would imagine problems would occur when all the pieces would have to be assembled, and your suggestion with having everything instanced could solve that problem. However, I’m worried that the lack of freedom in the players’ movement might inhibit the intended feel of the game, i.e. one where the players’ have the possibility to influence how the world develops. On the other hand, it would probably be necessary to sacrifice some of that freedom to achieve a world that forms according to the players’ actions.
            It will be interesting to see what Cryptic* gets out of Neverwinter, and how much they focus on user-created content. They don’t have a super solid track record (besides City of Heroes/Villains), and relying too much on user-created content is also a bit of a gamble if you aren’t sure how many of the players will actually contribute.

            *I think I wrote Mythic both in my last reply and in the article. And that’s why you double-check simple facts!

    • Rob Harrap

      Agreed, and to elaborate, …

      It isn’t just the detail. Though that is a killer, agreed.

      When a f2f rpg is run, there is a dynamic between the players and the GM, one that evolves over time. There is both cocreation and dynamic scaling of content detail, difficulty, and focus.

      Sure, not all GM’s do this, but the good ones do.

      DND can be played as a MMO with set content (modules, maps, and that’s it) or it can be played dynamically where the story ends up a long way from the module’s intent, or where original content is either pre-created or evolves on the fly.

      Storytelling. Not just detail. Storytelling.

      MMO’s have essentially zero storytelling that the player can influence except the experience arc. Yeah, that’s a bit extreme, but…

      • Andrew McDonald

        Old Neverwinter Nights Zombie Apocalypse servers come to mind. If you have someone dedicated to providing an on-the-fly experience for a particular group, then yes, you can get the storytelling.

        It is hard to do (and pretty much impossible in a large MMO), but with a good GM can be loads of fun.

        Gah, now I’m having nostalgia pains.

        But yeah, computer generated dynamic questing is… a bit ambitious, as a computer can only do what it is programmed to make. It would require building in dozens of scenarios to every scenario that is already built into it… not really possible.

        Though I think the biggest reason why an MMO can never be a Pencil and Paper experience is that everyone is, at the most, a disembodied voice over the internet. The physical human interaction is nothing that absolutely can not be replicated by technology.