Posts tagged ‘MMO’

When will the next evolutionary step in MMOs come?

I was hoping for Star Wars: The Old Republic to be the next step in the evolution of MMOs. Imagine my disappointment after playing for a couple dozen hours to discover that it’s basically WoW reskinned. Sad smile Sure, it’s got some things that are different and it’s cool to play as a Jedi, but at it’s core there’s nothing really new here. Certainly nothing that I’m going to pay every month for when there are tons of great games sitting on my shelves from the past two Christmases waiting to be played.

I keep asking myself why hasn’t a company taken the MMO genre to the next level? Are they afraid of the risk? That’s a good possibility. Publishers aren’t going to fund a game that deviates too far from what’s sold in the past. But anything with the Star Wars label slapped on it usually sells (how many people are going to waste their money watching 3Dified versions of the Star Wars movies? You’re not going to find me doing so). So why didn’t Bioware and Lucas Arts make it the game it should have been instead of just playing it safe? Would it have cost too much? Perhaps, but according to what info I could find it’s already sold over 2M copies so I think it’s safe to say that it’s going to be making a good bit of money despite what it cost to develop. Surely they could have taken a bit more time up front to make it WoW++.

Tech is at a point, both hardware and software, where it seems that truly dynamic worlds are possible. Why should gamers be satisfied with areas where mobs respawn every couple of minutes. Talk about immersion breaking! Why should gamers be satisfied with assembly-line quests? How is it realistic that I can deliver the same letter to someone that thousands of others players have already delivered or rescue an NPC that’s been rescued already? Why is grinding still necessary to keep players player a game and thus giving the publisher more money? (A side question is why do players keep finding grinding fun and are willing to spend money to do so?)

So what would it take to move MMOs to the next level? A couple things off the top of my head:

1) A total redesign of the quest system – no more Fed-Ex or “Kill [x] [mob type]”. The “Rescue [NPC]” quest might still be valid, but only for the first person to complete it. After that anyone else that’s on the quest would have it removed from their quest log and it would never be available again (unless the NPC wandered off and was captured again). What’s that you say? “That’s not fair?” Who said it had to be fair? Why does every player (or class of players depending on the MMO) have to have the same quests available to them? “Because that’s the way it’s always been!” < smack > Stop thinking like that. We’re talking new and improved here.

What’s that leave us with then? Some of it depends on the MMO and what kinds of things can be done in the game world. Which ties in to the next thing:

2) A world that’s as alive as can be made. This would require a lot of work. Any NPC should be able to be killed. Period. If it’s important that an NPC stay alive, that NPC should be sufficiently protected, just like you would expect. This means that serious penalties should exist for random killing of people, just like you would expect.

Factions and reputation exist in most MMOs to some degree, but this reputation has to extend to areas around where an act a player commits warrants that reputation change. If a player kills an NPC and is seen or it’s discovered that the player was responsible, authorities in the surrounding areas should be made aware and kill/attempt to capture the player on sight. The penalties for being captured would have to be seriously examined, again depending on the game world of the MMO. Death penalty, confiscation of assets, incarceration (not being able to play for a period of time – yes I said that!), etc. are all possibilities.

A more alive world would feed back into the quest system as things happened. Quests would be dynamically created for certain events. What kind of things? Let’s consider:

  • An NPC puts out a hit on another NPC for some reason
  • A player could offer a reward for rescuing their wife/husband/child that’s been kidnapped or captured by an enemy
  • An NPC wants to put a competitor out of business by having the player rough him up or destroy his business establishment
  • The Thieves Guild offers the player (who belongs to the Guild of course) an opportunity to steal something
  • An NPC hires the player to build or make him something (necessitating a good crafting system of course)
  • A king hires players as part of his army or a squad to wage war against a rival king.

The possibilities are virtually limitless, depending on the effort the devs want to put into making the world as alive as possible.

2a) Part of this more alive world would have to be a real economy system, which means the loot system has to be completely overhauled. I’ve never understood how I could loot a huge sword off a dead animal or even a giant insect. What were the devs thinking?!?

2b) Money would have to be earned mainly through quests or crafting if the player wants to buy better equipment or other things like a house/land, if that’s an option. For a game I’m thinking about, the former would be provided and I’m not sure if the latter makes sense.

2c) Politics and intrigue could make the game more interesting. We’ve seen MMOs with different races combating one another before, but this could still be taken a step further. Assassinations, kidnappings, rescue attempts, espionage, full-on wars, etc. could all involve the players and lead to rewards, notoriety and fame, or even elevate the player to a position of influence in the world.

3) Players wouldn’t be able to cart around tons of loot, unless they were carrying bags of holding. If said bags of holding were so commonplace that every character could buy on, there’s a problem however. For non-fantasy/comic book world settings, this wouldn’t be a possibility anyway. Useful loot from creatures would be relatively rare, unless the creature itself is rare or parts of it can be used somehow (potions, spell components, etc.).

4) This would mean killing things just to gain experience would be revamped as it wouldn’t be as necessary nor mean as much. Yes, a player’s skill with weapons might increase from killing things, but this would be limited and caps would have to be put on how far a character’s skill can increase through repetition of the same activity.

5) Magic, combat, and skills are all usually fairly well done in MMOs for my taste, but I’d like to see magic at least affect the world more. Spells that cause plagues or result in famine across the land, massive spells of construction or destruction, etc. would make things a lot more interesting if a player was able to cast them.

Of course, this would be at max level capabilities, which mean not a lot of players should be able to reach that level. It should be more difficult than it is to max out your level. Players shouldn’t be able to power-level for a couple hours and reach it, nor should they be able to chew through content quickly.

Obviously a lot of this is going to alienate a lot of players, but hopefully a company would think it’s more important to advance the genre than just produce another WoW clone and suck as many players as possibly from other MMOs. The question is, what company is going to step up to the plate and take a swing? Hopefully someone will make the attempt soon. The genre can’t keep going as it has, at least not if they want me to play.

It’s not my fault…

Really! I was on vacation so the blog has been a bit stagnant. That kind of stuff happens. Smile

Anyway, I’ve been re-reading the two books I have in the Massively Multiplayer Game Development series and one of the articles is on alternatives to the Grind. The book is 6 years old and it seems even then people were tired of grinding enough that someone attempted to come up with something better. I’m glad to know it’s not just me.

Most of the article talks about ways of limiting player access to content so they don’t just blow through it before an expansion pack is released. That seems kind of backwards to me. Why not come up with a method of ensuring that there’s always content for players no matter how much they play? I understand that in the beginning of the genre it just wasn’t possible, but surely there are devs out there that are smart enough to figure it out and hardware and software are up to the task.

This is something I guess I’ll have to mull over a bit more.

In-game Tutorial?

This subject popped into my head when I was thinking about what would need to be done in my (somewhat) hypothetical spy genre MMO that I’ve been fiddling around with the past couple of week.

When the player starts the game for the first time, their character has just joined the agency they picked and has entered that agency’s training facility. While this training is meant to get the player used to the gameplay as far as the types of missions, how the combat system works, how inventory and skills work, etc.

The question is, however, how much hand holding should the game do for the player? Are MMO players these days savvy enough to just be dumped into the game and expected to survive?

There are a couple of layers that I can think of (in no particular order):

  • A Help screen that labels the UI and provide screenshots of combat and other gameplay with tips on how to do things.
  • Specific missions that stop at points and say “Now do this” with arrows pointing to what needs to be interacted with to do “this”.
  • Tooltip type guides that pop up as the player is playing with an option to stop showing them.

The first bullet would probably be good to have no matter what. While I’d love to do both of the other bullets, the cost (time and effort) to benefit ratio may mean that I’ll have to let the player fumble through with just the first bullet to rely on.

I guess this is what playtest is for though. If I get to the point where I can let someone try the game out and they can’t figure out what to do I may have to revisit this. That means that I’ll have to try to ensure the game is designed to plug something like this in later.

Fun times. 🙂

Decisions… Decisions… Decided

Wow, several days without a post. I can’t start slacking now!

I think I’ve come to a decision about developing the spy game, at least for the initial proof-of-concept. I’m going with XNA and a minimal graphic set. I’m talking programmer art that makes programmer art look good here since I’m highly graphically challenged and I’m not about to put out money for something like this. If everything pans out I’ll move to Hero Cloud and pay someone for content.

I’ve actually been fiddling around with some things. I’ve got a solution started already and some bits working:


Probably not the best way to organize things, but for the “let’s see how this works” type project I can probably get away with it. I’ll probably separate out the tools from the game from the server at some point.

So I’ve got a basic server project that is just a plain Windows Forms project with a textbox and a couple of buttons:


it’s basically just the server code from the XNA Game sample in Lidgren dropped into a WinForms project. I didn’t mention that I was using Lidgren for the networking code, did I. I guess I did now. It’s probably the best codebase out there for a PC XNA project, since you can’t use the Live networking piece in XNA when doing a PC game.

I threw together a quick SQL Server database for holding some of the data that’s going to be needed. At this point it’s just a couple of tables that holds game version info for the patcher application and a Users table for validating logins.

I’ll be adding some tables for holding basic players’ character information to allow the player to select the character in the character selection screen. This won’t be like most MMOs where the player can have several characters going at once, but since we need to maintain historical information for players the one-to-many player-to-character links have to be done and it’s nice to show the player what the character’s current status is before just dumping him into the game.

On the client side I have some basic screens – splash screen, login screen, the aforementioned character selection screen, and the main game screen. I’m using the Gamestate Management Sample of course.

Once the character selection screen is finished, I’ll need to do some work on the game library and tools. That’ll probably take a couple of days and it’s the most fun type game code to write but it’s vital.

I’ve an idea for another post that should come quickly after this so be prepared! 🙂

Bad Guys Don’t Play Nice

This post goes along with the previous post on combat. Besides being short and sweet (or not so sweet if you get yourself killed) when thinking about combat it needs to be remembered that bad guys aren’t going to fight fair. Unlike MMOs today where the mobs will just stand there and trade blows with you, “real” bad guys don’t want to do that. They’ll set up ambushes, traps, run away if the fight goes sour on them, etc. Players will need to change the way they think about taking on the bad guys if they want to come out on top, let alive just survive.

Any time a player has to enter into hostile territory, he needs to start thinking about several things:

  • What in the immediate area can kill me?
  • What in the immediate area can hide things that can kill me?
  • What in the immediate area can let the bad guy know I’m here?
  • Is the immediate area even the best way to go?
    The last is something that needs to be considered by the area designer. The bad guy is almost never going to want a direct route that leads to him that’s easily discoverable by players. This is part of why mission planning is going to be important. If the player doesn’t know how to find the bad guy, he shouldn’t just be able to follow a path to him.
    The first 3 are also things that need to be considered by area designers, but in a different way. Even if the area the player is in doesn’t lead to the bad guy, it needs to appear that it might and thus, needs to have things that are hazardous to the player, although not overwhelmingly so. Thinking like a bad guy means that the stuff the designer puts into or near an area of the bad guy’s lair costs money and bad guys are probably going to be cheap about what he leaves lying around, unless the bad guy is a multi-millionaire, which shouldn’t be common, obviously.
    What kind of cheap but deadly things might players encounters in an area? Things like mines, pits, things that a character might touch that are electrified, trip wires that release gases, etc. are all usually staples in a bad guy’s arsenal, though they’re also all pretty cliché. Still, some of the usual suspects should be used to satisfy the player’s expectation.
    The area designer is also going to have to consider how players might be able to escape or evade these things in order to keep things fun for the player. A trap that is unavoidable that kills the character 99% of the time isn’t going to be fun and if the game isn’t fun the player will not continue to play. Typical building architectural pieces like ventilation shafts, fire escapes, rear entrances, and roof accesses are all things that should be options to be considered when designing the area a bad guys makes his HQ in. Most bad guys in the game are going to use regular buildings as their lairs so these things should be present, although possibly booby-trapped in keeping with the thinking above.
    Depending on the bad guy, he also might not want to kill agents that come knocking at his door, so traps may be non-lethal. Not only does this give the player a better chance of making it to the bad guy it also means the designer has to plan for what happens if the traps incapacitates the character. Is there a part of the lair that can be used as a holding cell? How thorough are the minions of the bad guy going to be in making sure the character doesn’t have anything on him that will allow him to escape? How escapable is the holding cell going to be (again, it might just be an office in the building the bad guy has holed up in)? Is the bad guy going to want to interrogate the character and, if so, how is this going to play out in the game?

Ultimately, building a world that is both fun and exciting for the player for several years of game playing time and one that is also not just another standard MMO is going to be challenging. I think it’s something that has to be done though, to bring some freshness back to the genre and pull in players like myself that have given up on MMOs that devolve into grindfests and new players that are looking for something different.

To MMO Or To Not MMO, That Is The Question

In thinking about how player interaction is going to work in the spy game, I started thinking about player interaction in the genre in general. How many MMOs really need the first “M”? From my experience, not many. What use is it really to have a couple thousand players running around in the same world if they don’t interaction and their actions don’t affect the world for other players? More often than not, having that many players running around in the same world is a hindrance for players when you have to deal with issues like spawn camping.

Is it just to make things easier for developers? I know the more players the game has the more money developers make, but can’t you get the same number of players in the game in a way that makes things better and more interesting for the players? I think so.

There’s a couple of things that could be done:

  • Make the game so that player actions affect the world in a meaningful way.
  • Make the game so that there are fewer players in each instance of the world, but more instances.
  • Allow players to jump in and out of instances as needed (for example player in U.S. city HQ instance doing a mission that takes the character to a European city instance).

Doing option two doesn’t mean that option one can’t be done as well. Ideally the world would be affected by players no matter which way you went.

I’m trying to think of how a game would be less attractive to players if the world didn’t have a thousand or so players running around in it. I can’t really think of a down-side assuming you let things like auctions and such still be done. That doesn’t require the actual character’s presence in the world. Of course, this assumes the game doesn’t have missions that require hundreds of characters to take part in it. I know there are dungeon raids in MMOs these days that require a large number of players, but I think that’s a design decision that doesn’t need to be done to make the game fun and exciting.

I know I’m probably missing something in my scattered thoughts on this subject so I’d appreciate hearing some other viewpoints. As always, I’ll be posting links to this post in the GP Wiki and App Hub forums:

An option for indie MMO development

I’d forgotten about this, but wanted to mention it quickly. A version of Hero Engine has come out that makes development of an MMO for indies very accessible. Hero Cloud trades up front licensing for royalties. I’d started to look at it months ago, but other things took priority. I’m back to thinking that it might be the way to go for the spy genre MMO I’ve been thinking about.

I’ll be taking another look at this in the near future as things develop and I’d urge any other indie to do so as well. It’s not XNA, but it does mean I wouldn’t have to do a lot of writing of systems or an editor to create areas.

Spy Game Design – Idle Time

What do MMO characters do when you log off? Are they just frozen where they are, incapable of doing anything? Do they disappear into another dimension? Am I really thinking coherently?

One thing that most MMOs don’t do is persist your character when you’re not playing. Why can’t your character be productive even when you’re not? “What kind of activities could a character do without your direct input?”, is the most important question to ask when considering this.

I mentioned training to raise stats in the last post – this is one possibility. What about research for preparing for a mission? If the mission system requires a number of hours or data gathering and preparation before a mission this could be a possibility. If the player is actively playing this preparation could be lessened so the player isn’t just sitting around twiddling his thumbs, similar to crafting systems in most MMOs (which I really don’t like but I understand). If the player doesn’t have time to complete this before logging off, this is something that could be handled by the game, especially since most crafting is simple button mashing anyway. As missions get more complex this could be handy.

Another mini-game/crafting system might be establishing contacts. Possibly related to or a pre-requisite to mission research, players may have to find and maintain contacts in order to complete missions. Again, this might be simple a button-mashing type of activity if the player is online, but something else that might be handled even when the player isn’t playing.

What do you think? Can MMOs provide a way for the character to be productive even when the player isn’t playing? Is it worthwhile to examine the possibility?

Spy Game Design – Character Stats

What would an RPG be without some stats for characters? Yeah, it would probably just be a shooter or adventure game. 🙂

I’m thinking stats would be the basic ones – strength, dexterity, agility, intelligence, will, charisma, constitution. The important thing is that character development isn’t driven by increasing these stats to god-like proportions. In fact, there will be very little increase in stats, only what’s possible realistically, since this is a more realistic MMO than the fantasy based ones.

A character can increase their strength by working out and their dexterity by practicing things that use it (juggling anyone?). Things like intelligence can’t really be increased, if we take intelligence to mean the ability to learn things, not what the character knows. Agility, will, constitution – these things are mostly static once a character is mature. Charisma is theoretically capable of increase – take acting classes, get cosmetic surgery, etc. but in the reality of the game we’re talking about, not really something most players would bother with. If they want to play a charismatic character, they’d start him with high charisma from the beginning.

Stats are merely going to be a kind of baseline. The value of a stat will be used in conjunction with the level of ability for a skill to come up with a value that determines whether or not an action succeeds.

Of course, stats can be reduced through outside influence. Agility can be reduced by a leg wound, dexterity reduced by hand wound, constitution reduced by poisoning, etc. (charisma reduced by getting beaten with an ugly stick? Not sure about that one. 😀 )

An idea just popped into my head that crosses a bunch of different areas – stats, skills, cross-platform support. I’ll try to get the idea fleshed out and up today.

Spy Game Design – World Setup / Server Architecture

Disclaimer – I am by no means an expert in the area of MMO hardware architecture, so some of this is just wondering aloud (or in print as the case may be) about the logical way to set up servers for our spy MMO.

Normally in MMOs you have a bunch of servers that each are running a copy of the entire world, or part of a world with several servers grouped together to make an entire copy of the world. Some similar to this:

mmo architecture

The blue ball would be the world server that the player is handed off to from the login server (in the upper right) after the player successfully logs in, where he’s handed off to the server(s) where his character resides.

This is a must-have architecture when you have millions of people running around and the people can, at some point, get to every point in the world. What if you want to normally limit players to only a section of the world though? This is probably the way most spy agencies work, TV shows about spies not withstanding.

If there’s an operation that requires agents to go out of the local area, in the game it could be handled by spawning an instance of that area on a server dedicated just to spawn instances, which shouldn’t be too resource intensive so that many instances could be handled at the same time and agents from any area in the world could be handled. The mission areas probably wouldn’t be as large as the area where an agency HQ is located, which would be city sized or slightly larger possibly. I would imagine most missions could be contained to several city blocks and if the mission takes place in several locations, the areas could be loaded into the instance as needed.

The world server (the blue ball) can be used to allow area instances to communicate with each other. This could be represented in game by any UI needed, from a web site on a device that the character can look at that shows what’s going on in the agency in all the areas, to a bulletin board in the HQ break room that shows memos from other area HQs to whatever can be dreamt up.

Obviously this type of hardware setup is going to be out of the means of most indie developers. What do we do then? For test purposes this could be several instances of the server software running on one machine, or a couple of you have a network that’s available to you. Since we’re just in the “here’s what I’d imagine things would look like” stage right now, we can worry about the actual implementation later.

So is this kind of a setup logical from the way our game is going to work? What am I missing? I’m sure I left something out or my ignorance makes what I’m thinking of difficult or impossible. 🙂