This article was originally posted on http://www.talesoftyria.com/tales-of-ty ... morpg.html .
Deconstructing of the Never-Ending MMORPG
If I were to tell you about an upcoming Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG) that promised over 60 hours of content, what's your first reaction? I'd wager your first thought would be "only 60 hours?" MMORPG's, by classical definition, don't have an "end." You can't "beat" an MMO, per se. Why are MMORPG's suposed to be infinate? After all, creating enjoyable and novel gameplay takes a lot of time. How could any studio produce interesting and novel content as fast as we can consume it? The answer is that they can't, and I would argue that they shouldn't try.There's no such thing as "infinate" content. Creating a novel gaming experience at today's graphical standards is a long process. The triple-A games we buy these days can last us for 10-60 hours, yet they take 2+ years of development from hundreds of people to produce. Designers must set the structure of the game, artists must skin, animators must animate, composers must record, writers must muse. Quality games take a long time to make, and can be consumed by the player in less than a week. So if a studio simply can't do it, how do you explain games like World of Warcraft? How do you explain this expectation that people have? The answer is Simple: They Cheat. Those studios know they can't provide completely new and interesting environments/stories/enemies faster than you can play through it. So instead they re-use the same stuff over and over again. If you've played WoW you know all about this. The same model will be re-skinned and re-used in a higher level area. The same buildings get re-used over and over across the whole world. Worse yet, they reuse the same game mechanics over and over again. How many times are you going to "slay X number of Y and bring me Z mcguffins"? The number of quest types in games like WoW is limited. The number of enemy mechanics (poison/knockdown/etc) is limited. These get re-used over and over hundreds if not thousands of times in MMOs. Players grok them and the novelty wears off very fast. Pretty soon you're not even reading the quest text and just mechanically doing the same thing over and over again, without even a challenge. We can all agree that this experience (grinding fetch quests) is nowhere near as fun as other gaming experiences out there ( Portal or Arkham Asylum for example), so why do players keep going? Skinner Box Psychology can explain a lot, but often players keep going because they enjoy the other aspects of MMORPGs. They enjoy the social interaction, the exploration, and the immersion. It's enough to make up for the extremely repetitive and shallow game mechanics. Using these "tricks" the designers create the illusion of more content than is actually there, and you'll play through it anyway because you're being rewarded for it, and you enjoy the lore and the exploration. Yet in truth, you'll probably start running on auto-pilot fairly quickly, and will only have to re-adapt every few hours when you need to incorporate a new skill. There's still one problem though. What do they do when you hit max level and no longer have a carrot to chase? Once you have every skill there is, the game now has to stand on the merits of it's gameplay. Unfortunately, as we'd mentioned earlier, it's gameplay is very repetitive and shallow because they are attempting to stretch it out for as long as posible. Now they have to find some other reason for you to keep playing. They have to...wait a minute. What?
They have to keep you playing?
We need to back up a bit. Why in the world would a developer want to stretch out content, and take shortcuts on novel, quality content in order to keep you playing? The answer is in the business model. Classic MMO's all spring from the "Subscription" business model, where players pay each month to play the game. Originally these costs were argued to be required to pay for the massive hardware required to run the game worlds. Servers have gotten faster, however, and economies of scale reduce costs significantly once you get half a million to a million subscribers (assuming you break the population up into servers). Now the MMO studio has this precident (players expect to have to pay a large monthly fee to play) but the costs which used to justify it are now lower than they used to be. That monthly profit keeps getting bigger. Suddenly, the studio has a monetary incentive to keep you playing. The effects of this incentive result in further streching and re-use of content in order to release "new" content as fast as posible to provide a reason for you to keep playing. The MMO studio, of course, has to have some actual new content, or else the illusion will wear very thin indeed. Yet any actual new content they release will be tackled immediately and finished faster than they can design a single room for the next piece of content. Here they cut another corner. In addition to re-using content, they now include gameplay mechanics to make this new content last longer:
- The content must be extremely challenging (ensuring a low success rate)
- The content should be gated, requiring specific items from previous content to access (new carrot to chase).
- These items must have a low drop rate (ensuring content must be played over and over again).
- The content must require a lot of people (logisticaly harder, thus happens less frequently, than content requiring few players).
These mechanics have been packed together and called "Raids." Now raids certainly have some redeeming qualities. They are interesting to players due to their epic nature. I mean, where else in these games do you get to fight a dragon? Where else can you fight on a massive floating fortress? Here is yet another case where the drol and arguably poor design mechanics are hidden behind other facets of the game that players enjoy. The question still has to be asked: Why should anyone be forced to replay content they already experienced in order to get to the next piece of Epic and interesting gameplay?
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Many of you probably recognize this quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupry. You probably even read it in Leanord Nimoy's voice. It's the quote you hear when you complete the "engineering" technology in Civilization IV. It's always stuck in my head that it applies to game design as well as engineering. I have heard this sentiment expressed in game design terms as "Subtractive Design." Put very breifly, subtractive design is the process of removing extraneous gameplay mechanics in order to strengthen your core game design. Portal is a fantastic example of this. It doesn't have a HUD or an inventory screen. It doesn't have guns or a quest log. It also doesn't have levels which force you to re-use the same mechanics in the same way over and over again. Every single level in Portal is crafted to be unique and interesting on it's own merits. It doesn't re-use concepts the same way enough times that you get bored of them. Instead, it mixes old concepts with new concepts to give you a new experience and a new problem to solve. As a result, it is widely reguarded as one of the best games of all time, despite only being 2-3 hours long. The key here is that they *could* have made an 8-10 hour game, but they would have had to pad the game with a lot of reuse mechanics. Instead, the game is distilled down to only the most fun and interesting moments. Being short is a benefit to Portal. If you rate every 10 minutes the player is playing on a fun scale of 1-10, then remove all the 10 minute segments that are below 8, you're going to be left with a much shorter, much more fun game. This concept hasn't ever been applied to MMOs. In fact, as we described above, the opposite has been applied. They try to stretch content out instead of contracting and distilling it down to only the most fun parts. Imagine if you had a choice between two games. One game is 20 hours long and offers a few really amazing levels spread out amongst a lot of "samy" feeling levels that just had you going throught he motions. The other game is almost identical, but has contracted the gameplay (with no impact on story) so that even though it's only 8 hours, every hour is really enjoyable. Which would you choose? Think of some games you've played in the past few years. Looking back, how many of them would you think "man, that game was fun, except for that part in the middle, they didn't really need that." Bioshock is the example that comes to my mind. There was a whole section where you were stuck doing favors for a crazy culture guru (Sander Cohen in Fort Frolic). This section didn't advance the main plot, it simply acted as a roadblock to the main plot. Pushing through here felt like grinding against enemies that I'd already fought many times before. I always thought the game would have been a much better experience if you just pull this whole section right out. You certainly wouldn't have noticed anything was missing.
Bringing It Home
So considering all the above, what do you want out of Guild Wars 2? Do you want another game which stretches out and re-uses game mechanics in order to creat the illusion of infinate content? Do you want another game which forces you to play the same content over and over long after you've tired of it in order to continue? Wouldn't you rather have an amazing 80 hour experience instead of a sometimes lack-luster 120+ hour experience? Wouldn't you rather have a game with no monthly subscription, so the studio doesn't have an incentive to cut corners on the game design? I think Colin Johanson said it best in the ArenaNet Manifesto: I want Guild Wars 2 to have an End to the PvE content. I hope that I will run out of things to do. I hope it means the game was not padded with makeshift content just to keep me playing. I hope my gaming experience is enjoyable enough to keep going all the way to the end. I hope I get a nice break before the expansion comes out with new content (spending too much time with something dulls it's fun factor, no matter what it is). I hope the narrative and gameplay is contracted enough that I won't grow bored and stop progressing through the PvE content. I Hope. Thanks to Teste for the inspiration for this article.
It was originally an article relating to GW2, all the links in the article are interesting in and on themselves, you might want to check them out too.