MMORPG Design Principles

For a while now, I’ve been ranting about one aspect or another of MMORPGs (and other games) that I dislike, to anyone who would listen. Time to formalize that into a small post.

Let’s start with the premise that games are supposed to be fun. As far as I am concerned, that primarily means that they do not place any pressures on me that I don’t want to have placed on me. That games should include pressures appears fairly clear to me, given that without pressure there is no challenge, and overcoming challenges is a good way of generating fun.

But they have to be the right kind of pressures, and that’s making things tricky.

For example, take the Uncharted game series: they include primarily climbing puzzles and (predominantly gun-driven) combat, as well as a smattering of other challenges.

When playing the first game, I vividly remember being sometwhat disappointed by two things:

  1. Combat disturbed my relatively fun climbing puzzles far too often1.
  2. Climbing puzzles were a bit too straightforward: where you could and couldn’t climb was clearly marked, and climbing paths through a level were almost entirely linear.

It surprised me, then, that other peoples complaints seem to have been along the lines of demaning fewer and less difficult climbing puzzles. Naughty Dog managed to strike a good balance for the sequel, but where you can and cannot climb has, if anything, become a little more obvious2, and they satirize the amount of climbing by humorously letting the characters voice their frustration with it.

It’s all good. But clearly, people’s perceptions of what’s easy or difficult, as well as their interests in one challenge or another differ greatly.

Enter computer RPGs.

Role-playing games are a slightly different beast from most other games in one particular aspect, in that they expose the numbers that drive the game more or less directly to the player. All games are number-driven, of course; the health bar in your fighter game represents a number of hit points, you just don’t know how many hit points each character has. But RPGs expose these numbers, and invite players to manipulate them.

Suddenly preferences can be expressed not so much in “I prefer climbing over combat”, but in “I put more points into sniping than grenade throwing”, or similar metrics that influence gameplay for you. The popularity of role-playing games… scratch that, the popularity of this particular element of role-playing games is such that it’s found it’s way into social games and first-person shooters.

The pen&paper afficionado in me needs to point out that this is not the defining feature of “real” RPGs, but only of their computer counterparts. But that’s not the only reason for pointing this out.

The ability to express one’s preference in this manner is useful, and personalizes the gaming experience in a way that games like Uncharted hardly can3. I can see why it’s become popular beyond CRPGs.

The downside is that this personalization sets expectations that computer games cannot fulfil: in a paper&pen game, if something happens that the players cannot or will not deal with, there’s a human arbitrator that can improvise a solution to this deadlock. In computer games, that’s not possible. Any eventuality needs to be programmed in4.

Enter MMORPGs.

When you take games online, most notably in the form of MMORPGs, you’re adding an element to gameplay that compounds the above issue: you now have people competing against each other, directly or indirectly. And what is or isn’t programmed into the game determines how successful each player is in relation to all others. It can be argued that the defining piece of “fun” added to the MMORPG experience is precisely this competition, though that’s ignoring many of Bartle’s player types.

If the players are at all competitive, then, the developers’ design decisions have a direct impact on their experience of fun, beyond the question of whether or not the game mechanics of each mini game generate fun or not.

For MMORPGs, developers tend to take what worked well for CRPGs, namely the visibility of statistics and tweaking the game experience to one’s preferences, and apply that more or less verbatim. You can still decide whether you prefer levelling your character through combat, through quests, or whether you prefer crafting instead of levelling. You can decide what skills to buy or use, within limits. The single-player experience in MMORPGs is just about as customizable as it’s been offline.

It is somewhat surprising to me, then, that the multi-player experience isn’t. It seems that when putting metrics that can be observed and advanced on the multi-player experience, developers seem to have found, by and large, only one method of doing so: pitting players against each other in combat and have leaderboards for that.

And that’s fine, for those players who are competitive and prefer the combat part of MMORPGs to all other aspects. But it’s really not as varied as the single-player experience. And it could be, without much effort. And I think it’s down to a fallacy in thinking.

  1. I should note that I still loved the game. I’m not really complaining here, just stating my preference for the climbing. []
  2. With brightly coloured red and blue pipes reminiscent of Mirror’s Edge. []
  3. This is not entirely true. The difficulty level in the Uncharted games, for example, influences only the combat part of the game; for a climbing fan, it’s possible to play the game through with little or no combat challenge. []
  4. It’s possible that we’ll get sufficiently good AI in future, or that we mitigate this issue somewhat by providing user-created content, but for the time being, this limitation is very real. []

  • Andy

    MMORPGs though have to focus on a particular aspect of the game to appeal to a user base. Look at the game Warhammer which was highly (almost exclusively) PvP oriented. The game designers clearly made the choice early that the game experience would be made in favour of the competitive gamer who wants to kill, gank, and generally decimate an opposing faction. They had a system but still heavy pvp was the name of the game and if you didn’t like it, you left. Coop gaming has been built into games like Guild Quest, and Ion, but solo play is not really factored into many MMOs because they are multiplayer as the name.suggests. I’m actually waiting for the day when AI game masters exist and they tailor the game experience in real time according to your play style and preferences. All I need then is to retired or unemployed to enjoy it to the full.


    • unwesen

      Well, the Warhammer MMORPG all but failed. I could argue that trying “to appeal to a user base” could be just as easily called “ignoring the fact that not all players play the way the designers imagined”.

      I’m not trying to argue against PvP play here. If people enjoy it, that’s fine. What I am saying is that PvP play as it exists in MMORPGs is terribly one-dimensional, and it really doesn’t need to be.

      But even that’s not the main point; the main point is that it’s easier to cater to varying audiences if you step back from the underlying assumption that all types of gameplay must be based on the exact same mechanics.

      If all you concentrate on is combat, then the only PvP you can think of is pitting players against each other. And the only PvE you can think of is pitting players against mobs. And then you must design your combat system such that it’s equally balanced in PvE and PvP, and that gives massive headaches, apparently.

      Decouple the two, by — in the extreme — having two completely different skill trees, equipment sets and user interfaces for each type of gameplay, and that balancing becomes much easier. If it’s easier, it should be possible to make each experience richer in the same amount of time.