12 June 2006

Why are all the MMORPGs the same?

If you are an MMORPG player, or even if you aren't but have friends who are, or have a keen interest in virtual worlds and societies, you already know that most of the MMORPGs are pretty similar, and they are based on the same abstract game mechanics.
There are, of course, many differences between the game settings, artwork, time period, theme, items, spells, power ups, level ladder, etc.

But they still have a few things in common:
1. A lot of repetition.
2. Superficial quests (not a lot of a storyline, many times randomly generated).
3. Unstable economies.
4. Lack of a "world changing" ability, where one player or group of players can forever alter the history and the direction of the game.

Now, let's analyze each point, and see why all the MMOs, from those created by small, indie teams, to those backed by big corporations, which require millions of dollars to produce, and see why is that none of them tried to solve those abovementioned issues.

The repetition, AKA "Level Grinding"
There are two distinct kind of online games: those where there is no persistency, and implicitly ingame-experience and ingame-skills, and those with a persistent world, experience, and skills, which are saved when you log out, and restored when you log in.
Games such as Counter Strike, Quake, Doom, DotA and so on rely only on the experience and skill of the human playing them.
The average MMORPG is part of the first category, where the ingame status is preserved between sessions.

Each type of game has it's fans. For example, Counter Strike is an extremely popular game, played by many millions each and every day, for many years.
WoW has millions of fans as well.
Some people play both kind of games; they are not mutually exclusive.

Every once in a while, someone on some forum, chatroom or article will come up with this very original idea of combining both worlds. For example, they envision a virtual world where you don't really have ingame-experience, and you would play the game the FPS style, only that instead of having 16-32 players on a server, you'd have maybe 1-2K players.

Unfortunately, this is not possible. Why? Well, the first thing is technical reasons. A FPS game requires a very low latency, preferably under 100 MS. FPS games are also very bandwidth hungry, because they have to send a lot of data, such as the position of every entity, speed, direction, bullets and so on. Unlike a MMO, the FPS has to send this data many times each second, because it is critical that "what you see is what you get". The MMO can get away with that, since it is less critical for all the players to be perfectly synchronized. The result of a spell or missile collision is often calculated by the server based on some formulas having to do with the distance, weapon accuracy, player skills, and usually a random number as well. Therefore, rather then attacking in the direction where a player is, hoping to hit, most of the MMOs will let you directly select which player you want to hit.

The second reason why a massive FPS is not possible has to do with the "fun" part. It would quickly becomes boring to play a FPS in a world with 1000 players online.
Now, I am not saying it wouldn't be fun to play some sort of FPS castle siege sort of game every once in a while, but playing it every day, for hours? The fun of FPSs is the teamwork, and teamwork is impossible in very large numbers. You can't coordinate people very effectively, you wouldn't remember their name, skill, etc.

On the other hand, a castle siege type of event in a MMORPG would be fun EXACTLY because of the repetitive nature of the game.
Think about it: In real life, where do you make most of the friends? For most of the people, the answer is: At school and at work.
Now, most of the people would agree that school and work are both boring and repetitive places, where you spend a lot of time doing things that are not so fun, but vital in the works of the society.
In a similar manner, the MMO players usually make friends in boring places. Do you want to increase your mining level? Well, my friend, you have to spend many days in the mines, mining for ore. This is quite boring, and for this reason many miners start chatting about various things. Eventually, you will realize that you have things in common, and become friends. Or, the opposite, you realize you hate this guy and become enemies.
Same thing with the other skills; you will need to interact, more or less directly with a lot of people. Some games require player cooperation, while other games make it optional. Either way, the player interaction in a MMORPG is frequent.
Now, after a while you will want to start a guild/group or join one. Obviously, you will want to have as many friends in that guild, which is why you will recruit your friends.
In games that allow guilds to build/buy territory, that can be attacked/conquered by others, it is normal for all the owners of that territory to come together and defend it against the attackers. So we have a castle siege, but this time the two teams (those who attack and those who defend) have a very strong motivation to defend/attack the territory. And unlike in a FPS, the defenders have invested a lot of time and pride in that castle, so they organize better, and put more passion and effort into defending it at any cost. Would they have such a strong motivation to defend it if they knew the game will be restarted once they win or lose the battle, and they will have to fight again, and again and again, to no end?

So you see, the repetitive nature is not something bad; it is something that, just like in the real life, motivates you to strive for more, and work more. It makes you put more value on your virtual possessions, and on your character. It leads you to make new friends, and have more goals. It gives you the reason to live in a virtual world. It is in the human nature to do the same thing every day, over and over again.


Superficial quests
The reason so many MMORPGs have little or no quests, most of them being: "go kill 10 rats", is not necessarily because the developers lack the imagination to create a big storyline, revealed in quests.
Most of the time it is due to the players themselves. Let's admit it. You (I am talking about the average MMO player) do not think the storyline is very important. You never bothered reading the stories on the website, or going to the game's library and reading all the books about the history of the world.
If a quest is too demanding for you, you will go to Google and search for an walk through. Or perhaps just go to a site with 'tips' and read which is the fastest way to solve the quests, and what the prizes are.
Yes, I know, some of you would really, really like to have good quests, with a lot of story. You like to read everything about the game world, it's history, and even go and read fan fiction stories. Unfortunately, you are a minority. The development teams have limited resources, and so many things on their "to do" list. A lot of their "to do" list is already taken by stuff such as find this bug, fix this bug, verify this bug report and see if it's there and if it can be reproduced, adjust the drop chance of an item, adjust the stats of a monster, and so on.
The little remaining time has to be divided between adding new features (such as spells, weapons, monsters, locations, skills) and writing/implementing a new quest.
Given the fact that pretty much everyone likes a new location/monster/skill, only perhaps 20% of the players would truly appreciate a new quest. From this 20% percent, some will like the new quest, while some will criticize it, and complain about various issues, such as: the quest is too easy/hard, the story line takes a turn they don't like, etc.
So, in conclusion, the MMORPG quests are lacking due to the fact that most of the players would rather have the development team focus on other issues.


Unstable economies
A lot of complaints are targeted at the fact that the MMOs have a very fluctuating economy. Some people consider this a bad thing, while a few of them see this as an opportunity for them to affect the economy of the game in their favor.
The reason why the virtual economies are so fluctuating is the fact that the number of players is usually constantly rising, while the number of resources is usually the same (infinite). I am talking about resources that can be exploited in a reliable way, for example the ore in a mine. The monster drops are not reliable, therefore I do not consider them a resource.
Why are the resources infinite, unlike in the real life? Well, the number one reason is that the real life and the MMORPG life are very different.
For example, in the real life you die once, and that's it. No more respawns. When you die, you become, again, a resource, so all your minerals return to the environment. The quantity of everything is finite, which makes some resources very valuable (such as the gold). Because of this, many people are very poor, and a lot of them die of hunger every day. A lot of wars are started to control the resources, and in those wars a lot of people die, and even more have their lives turned into a living hell. There is a lot of misery in the real life.

In a MMO, on the other hand, you want to avoid this misery. People play games to feel entertained, not miserable. As such, the developers must implement different rules, and distribute the resources in an equitable way, so that everyone can have access to them.
Limiting the quantity of resources to an arbitrary number each day would make a lot of people unhappy. Limiting the quantity of resources a player can harvest each day would create an artificial barrier and wont help that much either, as one player could for example just go kill monsters after he can't harvest anymore for that day. And by killing monsters you still get some drops, which contribute to the "infinite wealth" problem.
In many games, there are NPCs which will buy items from the players. Those items can come from loots, or, if the game permits it, from the manufacturing process, where the player creates his own items using resources. This will cause a limitless influx of money in the game, because if the resources are infinite, so is, in theory, the production.
Such a limitless influx of money will of course create inflation. And the inflation will create some discontent with the players, which is why they are often heard saying: "the economy of game X suckkx!!11".

Are there ways to control the economy, so it won't quickly degenerate to a point where it is irrevocably ruined? Sure, there are some ways to do that, and, indeed, many games implement some countermeasures. But given the fact that the players have this affinity for finding ways around those countermeasures, and the goal of the developers to make the game fun, the result will be, inevitably, a very fluctuating economy.


Lack of a "world changing" ability
I heard some complaints about the MMORPG developers not giving their players the ability to "change the world".
Now, I am not going to get into the technical implementation of such a design, but I am going to answer with a question: "Do you want OTHERS to be able to change your world? Or do you perhaps want only YOU to be able to change the world?"
Let's imagine a MMO so advanced that it replicates the real life.
How would you feel if, after working a few years with your friends to build this greatest city ever, The Griefers Guild decides to sneak in a 50 GigaTon nuke in your city and destroy everything? Would you like that?
Sure, it would be very cool if that would happen to someone's else city, but not to yours.
How about if the development team spends a few weeks to create this brave new, world changing quest, where, of course, only one player can win? Obviously, nothing else will be implemented in the game during that period, because the development team was busy over their head working at that quest.
So with great anticipation you prepare for that great quest, and just before it starts, your Internet connection goes down? Or maybe you live on another continent, and the quest takes place at 4 AM, and the next day you have to finish a very important project at work, or have a decisive exam at school?
What if you are in a small vacation, on some tropical island, away from the computer?
Would you like to come back and find out you just missed the event of the year?

Wouldn't it, maybe, be better for the developers to spend their time adding normal quests (the trivial, non world changing), or perhaps working on some bug fixes or balancing issues?


In conclusion, the MMORPGs are done the way they are because people like them as they are. Yes, many people complain, but when you put so much work into a product, you kind of want to please the people who appreciate it, not those who just spend their time criticizing it.
Those who want more quests, and "save the world" stories, they should perhaps play a single player RPG, such as Fallout 1&2, the Ultima series, or whatever else you like.
The MMORPGs are not for everyone, and you shouldn't spend your time playing a genre that you hate in the first place.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article, and feel free to leave comments.

Radu Privantu

11 Comments:

Anonymous Er Lern said...

Thank you for the insightful article :) I always wondered what would it take to put the RPG back in MMORPG. What do you think about RPGing capabilities, like those introduced in Neverwinter Nights that allowed players to conduct their own private RPG sessions? Would it be possible to scale such functionality upwards for an MMORPG?

12/6/06 23:58  
Anonymous Drakos7/Awn said...

Re: world changing
"Do you want OTHERS to be able to change your world?"
I think this hits the nail right on the head. Sure it would be great to be able to make roads (spelling your name), massive castles, ... but there will inevitably be at least one person that wants to spoil the fun of everyone else and deface/destroy it. From a dev perspective I think getting the occasional "feature request" is much nicer than the limitless complaints of people's work being abused.

13/6/06 15:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: World Changing

I agree with your views, however, you could always take it in smaller proportions.

Example: You have goals,unknown to players, set on the server. Once those goals are met, something changes. Like "Shivar has killed 10,000 trolls in Carmien Manor, and has attracted a new weapon merchant" (Announced to everyone online.) At that point, a new NPC would be available there, perhaps putting the new invisibility to use. Another example... "Shamara has healed 500 people in the past 24 hours. Aluwen has granted a new fast regeneration spot in the pond on Isla Prima". I'm not saying use these exact ones, but those possibilities can make the game more fun, and they can also be for any skill or hobby (like Joker hunting, exploring, collecting).

14/6/06 02:02  
Blogger Donny said...

Applaud, what a great article. It explains so much about the MMORPG's of today. I'm sure down the road someone will come up with a way to implement some of these idea's that will work in a way that won't ruin everyones game world. You could always add consiquences for such actions, there are always ways to counter act things thats the nice thing about being a dev. I agree with the quest stories I do enjoy reading them but sometimes games have just so many quests reading every single 2 page quest gets annoying but it is nice to see what is going on in the NPC's head and see how NPC's feel about their situations in the world and what is going on and sometimes you even miss certain things that could be important like an explanation of how to do the quest or where to go.

15/6/06 11:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No mmofps??
-PlanetSide
-Infantry:Online
-War Rock

27/6/06 07:03  
Anonymous Martholomew Mind said...

A fluctuating economy is good, and very entertaining if acheived, but an economy out of balance is not "fun" for the average player (yes there are a few who know how to make it fun for themselves but they are a minority and nobody likes them). Understanding the difference is vital to continued success in an MMO. No one wants to play a game that has a predictably unreliable economic setup.

However, as you said, no one wants to play a game where inflation/deflation is so bad that everything has a rediculous price. Boundaries must be set, and prices fluctuating within these boundaries will be entertaining to even the most "average" player.

27/6/06 21:25  
Anonymous jcanker said...

Generally a good article, but your comments about the state of MMORPG economies is not accurate. While it is true that a number of middle-to-low end MMORPG productions lack an intelligent approach to the economy, it is wrong to say that 1) the problem is infinite resources and 2) artifical "braking" controls are the only methods of stabilizing the economy.

Every economy by it's nature is based on scaricity--just because a resource does not ever run out does not make it an infinite resource: implementations such as WoW make the vein dissappear after a few strikes; additionally (and more importantly) I have to choose to go to an area where I can find the gold, and I have to be able to access that area by being high enough lvl, and I have to willingly spend my time gathering that resource instead of questing of PvP'ing. It may be a *bountiful* resource, but hardly infinite. It's scaricity is dictated by how many players are willing to spend time to collect it.

On the other end of the equation, instead of applying artificial breaks to the collection process, such as you suggest is necessary, a dev merely needs to allow one or more "drains" to open to sufficiently allow the money and bountiful resources to exit the stream. For instance, materials must be consumed at a high enough rate when crafting to limit the amount of excess material that is allowed to enter the marketplace so that others can purchase the mat and consequently increase their own skillset, which in turn allows them to craft weapons which can be sold for their own high profit. Dark Age of Camelot is a famous failure on this end in their early days as they had allowed crafters to dismantle armor to recover raw materias, but an error in their formula allowed the crafter to actually generate more raw material by dismantling some pieces than it took to craft the piece in the first place.

Additionally, requiring a large amount of money for important purchases removes large chunks of money from the economic stream and helps keep things in check. Finally, a player-driven market, such as WoW's auction house, acts as a great balance, because the prices will fluctuate based upon scaricity--just like a good economic design should!

16/8/06 15:54  
Blogger Janxgeist said...

These are really the points that I also consider the most important to think about when designing a mmorpg.

As for the economy:
The most important thing and what I would put the most time into, is finding sinks for resources and money, and trying to balance them with the sources from where you get them.

To be honest, if I had to come up with a mmorpg economy, I would most likely make it trade-based only, so there would be no currency.

The problem with money is that usually it comes into the world from NPCs, when players sell items to them.

However, that money is then mostly passed around between players because usually NPCs dont sell the best items in the game.
So no money is really removed from the world, or only a very small amount.
On the other hand more and more money enters the world, because by the nature of mmorpgs, players collect alot of items they dont really need, so they sell them to NPCs.

By making the economy trade-only, the money problem is gone, but there is still the problem of more and more items (especially the most useful ones) entering the world. So obviously there has to be a systems where items decay and eventually break.

An additional good way to prevent inflation is a system like the one used in DAoC, where player crafters can salvage items to retrieve the ressources. Usually those items return only a small amount, so overall resources are removed from the game, and players have something they can do with the crap items they pick up.

So: no money, trade-only system, item decay and crafters salvaging items would be the combination I would use.
Of course it would still take time to balance this system, but it could be adjusted later on rather easily, by raising or lowering the item decay speed and the amount of ressources returned when salvaging an item.


To your point of worlds that can be changed by the players:
This is really where I think the next big mmorpg title will be decided. Players where happy with being able to fight monsters, collect stuff and make their charakter stronger. However, many long term mmorpg players got burned out on this and realise that there are more important things.

Usually what you remember arent your skills or great items. Its your guild, the big important battles, the nice groups and fun adventures.

Server wide events, either in the form of quests, celebrations, conflicts, always seem to be what really a huge number of players enjoy and look forward to. Still most commercial mmorpgs do this once every few months at most..

I think one way for players to 'change' the world would be a territory system, meaning guilds being able to capture an area in the game world.
Of course there need to be benefits for owning an area, like free NPC guards, houses for guild members and so on.
Also it would be important to not restrict this system to much. Often the developers seem to think such systems can easily break a world, so they make very hard restrictions, like only 1 controllable area for each guild, and only unimportant areas are controllable.

I think thats a mistake, because it makes the players again feel like they have no influence: everything is in strict rules, so its really only another threadmill that doesnt lead anywhere.

If everything would be capturable and every guild could hold an unlimited amount of areas, players would know that at least in theory everything is possible. Maybe my guild will become so strong that we can controle half of the game world?
The predicted problems usually are regulated by the players themselves (not because they are nice and dont want to break the game world but just because it works that way):

If a guild gets to powerfull and controls to many areas, they have to split their power to much. Also with every powerful guild there will be more and more rebells (because its nice to be the one fightning the system) and eventually also the members of the big guild will get bored and smaller guilds will leave the big guild, and things balance out again.

This is just an example, but usually it's better to try to build the world in a way that the players themselves regulate things, not artificial rules.

Artificial rules only make the world seem static and everything meaningless. Its not important if players really can do anything they want. What matters is do they know that in theory they COULD DO and achieve anything they wanted.



Wow this got kinda long, but I'm into mmorpg theory for a while now, I think its a really interesting subject ;)

15/2/07 04:42  
Blogger Janxgeist said...

These are really the points that I also consider the most important to think about when designing a mmorpg.

As for the economy:
The most important thing and what I would put the most time into, is finding sinks for resources and money, and trying to balance them with the sources from where you get them.

To be honest, if I had to come up with a mmorpg economy, I would most likely make it trade-based only, so there would be no currency.

The problem with money is that usually it comes into the world from NPCs, when players sell items to them.

However, that money is then mostly passed around between players because usually NPCs dont sell the best items in the game.
So no money is really removed from the world, or only a very small amount.
On the other hand more and more money enters the world, because by the nature of mmorpgs, players collect alot of items they dont really need, so they sell them to NPCs.

By making the economy trade-only, the money problem is gone, but there is still the problem of more and more items (especially the most useful ones) entering the world. So obviously there has to be a systems where items decay and eventually break.

An additional good way to prevent inflation is a system like the one used in DAoC, where player crafters can salvage items to retrieve the ressources. Usually those items return only a small amount, so overall resources are removed from the game, and players have something they can do with the crap items they pick up.

So: no money, trade-only system, item decay and crafters salvaging items would be the combination I would use.
Of course it would still take time to balance this system, but it could be adjusted later on rather easily, by raising or lowering the item decay speed and the amount of ressources returned when salvaging an item.


To your point of worlds that can be changed by the players:
This is really where I think the next big mmorpg title will be decided. Players where happy with being able to fight monsters, collect stuff and make their charakter stronger. However, many long term mmorpg players got burned out on this and realise that there are more important things.

Usually what you remember arent your skills or great items. Its your guild, the big important battles, the nice groups and fun adventures.

Server wide events, either in the form of quests, celebrations, conflicts, always seem to be what really a huge number of players enjoy and look forward to. Still most commercial mmorpgs do this once every few months at most..

I think one way for players to 'change' the world would be a territory system, meaning guilds being able to capture an area in the game world.
Of course there need to be benefits for owning an area, like free NPC guards, houses for guild members and so on.
Also it would be important to not restrict this system to much. Often the developers seem to think such systems can easily break a world, so they make very hard restrictions, like only 1 controllable area for each guild, and only unimportant areas are controllable.

I think thats a mistake, because it makes the players again feel like they have no influence: everything is in strict rules, so its really only another threadmill that doesnt lead anywhere.

If everything would be capturable and every guild could hold an unlimited amount of areas, players would know that at least in theory everything is possible. Maybe my guild will become so strong that we can controle half of the game world?
The predicted problems usually are regulated by the players themselves (not because they are nice and dont want to break the game world but just because it works that way):

If a guild gets to powerfull and controls to many areas, they have to split their power to much. Also with every powerful guild there will be more and more rebells (because its nice to be the one fightning the system) and eventually also the members of the big guild will get bored and smaller guilds will leave the big guild, and things balance out again.

This is just an example, but usually it's better to try to build the world in a way that the players themselves regulate things, not artificial rules.

Artificial rules only make the world seem static and everything meaningless. Its not important if players really can do anything they want. What matters is do they know that in theory they COULD DO and achieve anything they wanted.



Wow this got kinda long, but I'm into mmorpg theory for a while now, I think its a really interesting subject ;)

15/2/07 04:43  
Anonymous Disstress said...

It is pretty obvious that the author has only played World of Warcraft.

So many MMORPGs are different, many are based around extremely rich storylines. Comparing games on the basis of :

1. A lot of repetition.
2. Superficial quests (not a lot of a storyline, many times randomly generated).
3. Unstable economies.
4. Lack of a "world changing" ability, where one player or group of players can forever alter the history and the direction of the game.

Is borderline retarded.
1.Every single persistent activity will have repetition by nature. 2.Only a few of the games out there have no storyline, usually just indie games. Your game, WoW, has a very intense storyline, you just have to be a hardcore raider to be involved in it.
3. Most games do have a stable economy, fluctuation is part of any economy. Supply/demand is important, you can only sell so many level 12 items before the market becomes saturated. This is pretty much common sense...
4. So you want to change the world? Like player cities and factional bases in SWG? Like the gigantic player cities in Shadowbane? Like castle sieges in Lineage 1 and 2? Like relic keeps and frontiers keeps in DAoC? Like the epic quest line in WoW to open up the Gates?

About your supposedly impossible genre known as MMOFPS, that, according to you clearly can not happen, here is a Wiki page about a few of the games: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MMOFPS
Planetside has been going since 2004. There are actually more on the list, and I don't really agree with calling all of those on the list "MMOFPS". One highly anticipated MMOFPS from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Garriott
is called Tabula Rasa, but obivously the genre will never work.

I am pretty sure that this will get moderated and never see the light of day, so I will just post it elsewhere with a link back.

9/5/07 08:12  
Blogger Radu said...

Actually, I never played WoW.
Can you point out to any of the MMORPGs with lots of really well done quests?

The Tabula Rasa is in the making for a few years now, and usually I don't like talking about games until they are released and live to their hype. A lot of companies have all kind of cool press releases and screenshots, on how revolutionary the game will be, then when it's released, it hs very little of what its makers promised.

11/5/07 03:23  

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