It is rather difficult to make a player feel like a hero in an MMO. Could you imagine the world of Beowulf, for example, if Beowulf slayed Grendel only to go back a week later and find Grendel terrorising Heorot all over again? What’s the point? The fact that end-game raiding is, by modern definition, a grind of killing the same bosses over and over again to get enough loot to fight the next boss which will have to die several dozen times, etcetera, ad nauseam is a problem which can be solved.
Unfortunately, this is not the only problem facing world designers in MMORPGs.
The way I see it, there are 3 central problems with MMOs.
- The player is a unique and special hero, just like every other player in the world.
- MMO worlds are more or less static. Players cannot make lasting changes to the world which is problematic since heroes, by definition, make lasting changes to the world they live in.
- Solving problems (or killing monsters) is essentially a static, scripted, affair that, once figured out, is trivial to solve over and over again.
So how does a game designer deal with these problems?
For starters, abandon the premise that the player is “the chosen one” or whatever equivalent fantasy mechanic games use to make the player feel special. Heroism is for those who go after it. Some players are farmers, and others are blacksmiths, and you need those people to give your world a sense of life. Otherwise, you have a bunch of people “playing a single player game together”. Using World of Warcraft as an example, some folks like to PVP all day. Others like to do daily quests. Still others are trying to stay on the bleeding edge of end-game content. Part of the reason WoW remains so popular is that there is something for everyone in the world of Azeroth.
Next, we deal with the issue of “static” content.
Referring back to my “Beowulf” example above, the whole reason that heroes assemble to dispatch a monster is to get rid of it. Using a really simple example, if you were to kill a mob boss in Chicago, that person, and all of his individual characteristics, is gone. Someone else moves in to take his place. That new mob boss may have different personal traits which would make him a different kind of threat or a threat to a different group of people.
Translating this into the world of MMOs, if you go into the cave on the mountain to kill the dragon, maybe a wandering tribe of orcs moves in once the dragon is dead. Different kind of threat, but something still worthy of heroic action. The upshot of this is that changing the bosses who inhabit an area gives the world a sense of change. It helps keep the game from feeling static and boring. It also allows players to have a lasting impact on the world. One of the things in Everquest that was both extremely cool and extremely frustrating was Sleeper’s Tomb. Once any guild on a server woke Kerafyrm, the content of that dungeon changed for good. Now imagine if every adventure zone could change like that, multiple times. (Maybe a quest to put Kerafyrm back to sleep… Just an idea.)
and speaking of static…
To call monster AI in MMOs stupid would be an insult to people with low intelligence. There are really only two ways that a game designer can address that. Spend lots of money and programming time making monsters smarter, or put some human intelligence behind those mobs. Lots of games have toyed with the idea of letting players play monsters. Why not put in more mechanics to encourage that? Why not make some of the staff available to play monsters in certain encounters? It can’t be that hard to implement and it would certainly make fights more exciting. Why not take it a step further and have people available to play NPCs in the world. Make players actually think about the dialog they are engaging in. There are all sorts of possibilities that would make a game more engaging without having to implement “Boss Mob 5.0, this time with flashier spell effects”.
Technology has advanced to the point where server shards are no longer necessary. Even World of Warcraft has so many “cross server” implementations (LFR, arenas, LFG) that the line between server shards is nearly blurred into non-existence. EVE Online has been doing it for years. How cool would it be to see a world like Azeroth with millions of players milling around at one time? (Ok, not so cool in Orgrimmar… might want to rethink the whole “hub” issue first.)
I’m going to try and get the fourth and final part of this series done while wrapping presents this weekend. I would very much like to hear your feedback on these ideas and I’m just spitballing them out there.