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Infinite Beginnings
by Craig Ellsworth on 10/02/13 04:20:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

When I play MMORPGs, I make a new character and get plopped into a pre-chosen location to begin my journey.  In Tera Rising, everyone starts in the same place.  In Dragon Nest, there are two places to start, depending on your class.  In DC Universe Online, you get six starting locations, based on your chosen mentor.  In World of Warcraft, each race has a separate starting location, giving thirteen total options.

And a variety of starting locations is needed for MMOs and similar genres, because players are constantly making new characters and starting fresh, and the player may not want to see the same thing or go on the same journey every time.  And if they do want things to be the same, they can make a similar character.

But beyond the beginning, unfortunately, all of these games combine.  In Dragon Nest, for instance, it doesn't matter what class you pick, because by the time you get to level 10, you're following a story and quest structure that's identical to every other class.  Even WoW is guilty of this (despite it's thirteen starts), though much less so:  Trolls and Orcs, for instance, combine together once the player reaches the first city, as do Dwarves and Gnomes (I don't know beyond level 20, but I imagine that more races combine over time).

Yet oftentimes I feel that the content for unique character customization is far superior to storyline customization.  The first few times the player creates a character, they may feel that they are getting something unique... until they reach a point where their last character had been.

Now, I don't begrudge any game for being linear or having a linear story, since some of my favorite games are just that.  No one expects to pop in God of War, start up a game, and have Kratos appear in Egypt.  It's a linear story about a specific character, and his journey does not change, so a player restarting the game shouldn't expect to have a different experience.

But games that are heavy on customization, like MMOs, are trying their best to make the player feel like the game was made just for them, that they are an individual and are going on an epic quest that no one else has ever (or will ever) go on.  And surprisingly, thirteen distinct starting locations still isn't enough variety.

At least, not when it's predictable.

I've mentioned in an earlier article how MMOs can suffer from cloning because there is not enough variety is character customization, or in armor, etc.  But this is also very true for story.  If I know another player is experiencing an identical story, I don't feel like a hero anymore.  There is enough space between me and another player if I'm playing God of War, since I don't have to physically see another Kratos running around, but when I see another player completing identical quests (the worst offense is watching them kill a boss and waiting for it to respawn), I feel like a cog.

I think there are ways to fix this, and none-too-difficult, either.  Take a look at WoW, for instance:  there are clearly defined Alliance and Horde cities, where all races come together.  So let's take Alliance, just for kicks.  If you are Human, you start in a completely human area.  If you are Dwarf or Gnome or Night Elf, ditto.  They all start in areas where all players and NPCs are the same race as the player.

But if cities exist where all races join together, why should picking my race determine my starting spot?  It's not like choosing to be a Dwarf means I am born from a specific hole in the ground and by my nature I have to start there.  I could start in any Alliance city, outpost, village, etc., as long as those areas were set up for tutorial bits, and as long as the enemies weren't overpowering to a level 1 character.

The latter problem is easy enough to solve:  there is no reason today to have statically-stated (stat-ed? statted?) enemies.  Three words: dynamic difficulty adjustment.  MMOs use this concept already for PvP.  Players have their levels raised or lowered to average out teams and put everyone on equal footing.  This can be done in PvE environments, too.  A player who is level 1 might attack an enemy that appears to be level 1 to it, and deal out the appropriate damage, while a player who is level 10 looking at the very same enemy will see a level 10 beast.  And those two players can fight side by side, seeing the stats that match them.  This isn't impossible; it might not be the easiest thing to program, but the principle is there both in MMO PvP, as well as in games like America's Army where players see different things depending on their own circumstances.

The slightly less technical problem is the one of player tutorials being everywhere.  This however, doesn't need to happen nearly as much as you'd think.

Almost every stinking game I've played has a section where you have to test your first spell or skill on a training dummy, and there's no reason for it.  Half of the MMORPGs I've played also suffer from Glorified Exterminator Syndrome at low levels, where the player has to just go out and kill 20 rats.  Half of this nonsense can be eliminated.  Even if you are brand new to the world of MMOs, you don't need that much hand-holding.  "Click to attack, press the number keys for special stuff" is basically a combat tutorial for 90% of MMORPGs.  The tricky things for MMORPGs are those oddly specific mechanics like crafting which a non-gamer might not readily understand.  But everyone can understand "click on the enemy to kill them."

But, let's suppose for the sake of argument that we really do need those early tutorials.  Do it basically the way DCUO does it:  the tutorial sequence is the same for everyone, and then the player gets placed in their individual starting location after the first ten minutes.  It's not ideal, but it's an example to go by.  And if that must be done, making it skippable would be better.  No need for hand-holding the fifth time you play.

The opening level of a game has always been regarded as the most important, just as much as the opening chapter of a novel or opening scene of a movie.  In each case, it's to grab the audience and make them want to continue playing/reading/watching.  Games have an additional reason:  it's the part that's going to be played the most.  It needs to be good enough that it can withstand being played over twice as much as the rest of the game.

Multiple starting points fixes that, to some degree, but players do blast through them all if there's only a handful (and the most I've seen is only thirteen).  But if the entire game world were an option, with every town or city or outpost or any civilized area at all, the number of options would rise exponentially.

Then a player who makes a new character will certainly never get bored, and we can finally say they'll never play the same game twice.

To see this article with pictures and jokes, as well as other articles, reviews, and development logs, check out http://scattergamed.blogspot.com/


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Comments


William Johnson
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What you are suggesting regarding dynamic difficulty adjustment in mmos would, in my opinion, kill the sense of accomplishment. If I leveled up to level 10 and I'm fighting the same monster that I did at level 1 and it's not easier but actually more difficult, yes that is challenging but it also makes me as a player feel like I haven't really progressed other than new skills and spiffy equipment. The only way that this could work in my mind is if you can start from a random place on the world map and build yourself up over time making your own story as you go. Possible? Maybe. Coherent, progressive, and/or meaningful? I doubt it. Though it would make for an interesting concept.

I see where you are coming from about giving players more options and individual stories because it feels good. Starting a new character that is supposed to be different but having to play through the same area with another character previously gets old...I'm looking at you Diablo 3. I'm not saying that the way WoW does it is the best way and hand-holding kill 20 of whatever is lame, insulting, and makes the game feel more like an exercise than an experience. But short of taking each of the 13 races and having a very distinct storyline that may or may not weave into the storylines of other races without being the same, what you are asking for it hard to throw together. What makes WoW successful(at least in this case) is that yes you start out as a troll but then you are no longer just a troll you are a member of the Horde. The Horde calls upon YOU to do what needs to be done, and as you progress through the game the things that you do become more and more meaningful until you get to the point where you are pretty much a walking demi-god among other demi-gods toppling old world gods, demons, dragons, dark entities created from the emotions of people, etc.

I think the way they handle it is good, coming up with an immersive storyline where you actually care about the characters. A lot can be said about WoW's current direction but when players can name most if not all of the races' leaders and know most of their backstories and what drives them, I think you've done a great job as a developer because players care about your characters. That's something you don't really see in most of the newer mmos. Though I would admit having a few more racial or class specific truly meaningful and rewarding quest lines would be nice. A return to the town of origin as a hero to train new recruits that idolize you then save it from a dragon attack, just spitballing here.

Craig Ellsworth
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The other aspect of dynamic difficulty adjustment that you're missing is that you can also show players different monster models. If you recall America's Army, for instance, two teams of players go against each other. To the player on Team A, he and his teammates are American, and Team B looks like terrorists. To a member of Team B, the opposite is true. So each player is being fed different graphics. This can work in an MMO, where a player at Level 1 sees a level 1 critter, while a level 10 player sees a level 10 critter, even though they both are fighting the same object behind the scenes; it's all just the presentation. This is most easily accomplished with a texture swap, using the same model, but it would be more of a challenge to replace the model completely and still have the same hitbox (though who knows if it would be more rewarding).

I think to address your other concerns about storyline, I'll be writing another post at some point. Originally this one was meant to explain all about customizing storylines, but it grew too long just talking about starting locations, so I cut it there. But I have my ideas :p

Josh Duncan
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So if I was level 1000 and came back to a starting zone, I'd see all these new players killing the same mobs I worked so hard to be able to kill? And they'd be killing the creature in just as much time as I am? What if I decided I like this starting zone, there is a decent number of mobs, I'll just stay here. So I grind all the way up to level 1000, do the mobs just keep changing with me? Why are these new higher levels mobs filling up the area suddenly? What if I see a lowbie on the side of the road, nearly dead, so I want to swoop in and save him, can I? Or does my damage get scaled to match? What if I'm trying to heal him?

I'm trying to get at a couple things here.
1) It can be a huge immersion breaker if you're supposed to be this powerful, dragon-battling hero, but you return to visit new players only to seem them killing the same mobs at the same speed as you.
2) It's incredibly more complex to scale mobs in the background than to just scale player ability based on location. If you're upfront about how you do scaling, players will be more accepting of it than if you lie to them about how powerful they're becoming.
3) Like William Johnson said, it kills the sense of accomplishment, even with the added features you mentioned.

I personally don't think scaling based on player level has much place in theme park MMOs (outside of the option to scale yourself down to play with friends). Guild Wars 2 has done the best job of it, but I still really never felt like I was accomplishing much.

At the end of the day, you either have a lot of content or you don't. If you could solve all the problems with scaling, that might help let your players explore areas in different orders, but if you don't have enough content, you still don't have enough content. Going from forest to mountain to desert isn't that different from going from desert to mountain to forest if you're doing the same quests in each zone.

Craig Ellsworth
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@Josh Duncan:

You have a few great concerns, so let's see if I can address them adequately:

First, suppose you are level 1000 and come back to your starting zone, and suppose you did see level 1000 beasts all over the place. Your errors would be in assuming new players look like new players to you, and that there are a lot of them because your starting zone is the same for many players. Remember that if starting zone were randomized throughout the entire world, there would be far fewer new players in that area that you see traditionally. But even ignoring that, new players (and any level players) would look like level 1000 players to you as well, so you appear to be fighting alongside your peers, level-wise.

Your second concern is "what if I want to grind in the starting area for 1000 levels?" Then, instead of scaling "with the player", so to speak, the monsters scale with the quest structure. So say you're plopped in area A to begin the game. The quest structure allows you to level up around 5 levels in area A, then sends you to area B to continue the story. Now those area A creatures appear to be locked at level 5 until you leave area A, and continue on your quest. Then if you do come back to Area A sometime, because of your quest structure, monsters have raised in level with you (and look different to boot), so, like another commenter said, you feel a sense of accomplishment in that you can now save your hometown and be a hero against creatures you would not have previously been able to handle. Think about it like when Frodo comes back to Hobbiton, and has to stop Saruman from purging the Shire. (The books, that is; it was not filmed). I think it would be rewarding to save your hometown; that would make things feel far more personal.

Barney Harris
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This is actually, I think, one of the less considered reasons behind the popularity of World of Warcraft. I played for several years, but no matter how many characters I made, I always enjoyed the first 10 levels. Sadly, they've removed what made it so great, the majority of class-specific quests don't exist in the new zones.

There were enough small differences as any class and race in the starting area, to give it the replay value it needed.

Patrick ODay
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Some very interesting ideas but I think you've focused too much on a unique early game experience to the detriment of other concerns.

Dynamic difficulty is really hard to pull off well. Look at Oblivion for an example of what can go wrong. By having the monsters always be close to the player's level there is no sense of progression.

You need a tutorial. People that are playing a video game or MMO for the first time need their hand held to explain what the different aspects of the game mean. And people that are experienced in other games need to be shown the specifics of this game to prevent them from making incorrect assumptions and getting even more frustrated later. Could tutorials be better? Definitely. But showing a new player how to attack in a non-threatening patient environment is required unless the game wants to limit its user base to the hardcore.

By having each race start in their own area it helps storytelling / role playing. When someone chooses to play as a race it helps if you show them what that race means in the game world and by having each race start in a unique area is the easiest way to distill the race's attributes. If the player then cares (and the art team is good) the player can see their race's influence spread throughout the game by comparing it to that starting area. However if a player starts in a generic area then choosing a race simply becomes an ability/stat choice.

I do agree that each character should have a unique hero story but when dealing with numbers that MMOs pull in it's hard to create/test/balance all possible content and ensure it's compelling. (If there is a 0.1% chance that a player could have a horrible random starting selection then 5,000 wow players would see it).

William Johnson
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As I said in my earlier response, I think that the way WoW does it is good but a way that I see to improve it is to reference your past experiences once you've become an established hero. Instead of forgetting all about an early area once you've progressed to the higher levels, I think it would be nice to be remembered and maybe have a quest line in those areas where you train new recruits or save it from an attack(or both).

A sense of progression is nice and in MMOs we usually get that sense by seeing the numbers rise in our levels and damage as well as the number of skills and how cool our equipment looks, but to further reinforce that sense of progression through storyline I think would make the player feel good about the whole experience.

"I remember when you were still running through this village picking fights with local bandits and here you are staring down dragons and saving us all."
or
"You are a living legend, you know?! To think you actually started out as one of us...it gives us hope that some day we can become as powerful as you! That we too can save the world!"

So instead of making a very specific experience for each player, doing something like THAT might have the same effect. Making it personal. Making the player believe that his actions meant something and are remembered. Then again they could just skip it and move on like most in MMOs these days, haha but for those that'll take the time to read the text, I think it would be good for them.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Craig Ellsworth
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I agree that the way you've laid out on "how to play an MMO" is a valid one, and one that was certainly not addressed in this article. However, I don't think it's the only way to play. I love MMOs and I play plenty of them, and 99% of the time I solo through it, and I wouldn't ever say I'm playing the game wrong. Much of the quest structure of MMOs is designed with soloing in mind. Both WoW and Tera, for instance, have very specific quests that say "do these in a group", while the majority of the game can be played by oneself. I think they are designed with soloing in mind much of the time, especially if the player picks a DPS class. Indeed, in WoW, when you're picking your class, the Hunter description even says "Good for soling". The story of Tera also attempts to make you out to be a unique hero, being given solo instance boss fights, and cutscenes where you are honored uniquely.

There are plenty of ways players in MMOs can play together: forming groups, joining guilds, raiding and other PVP activities, etc. But I find there is a conflict between an MMO that focuses on solo, and one that focuses on groups. You and I are both seeing that in games, where such a tear splits games up and makes neither side satisfied. Perhaps there should be two kinds of MMOs: ones which follow the multiplayer criteria, and one which follow the solo criteria. I've also written another article about creating a "Massively Singleplayer Game" which is linked up in this article somewhere. "Infinite Beginnings" is a more of a followup to that previous article, supposing one is looking to design an MMO with a focus on soloing and being the hero.

Masaru Wada
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@Craig Ellsworth:

I'd get into why dynamic levelling and behind the scenes perspective manipulation is bad but that seems to have been covered pretty well: 1) It defeats a sense of progress 2) breaking of immersion, and 3) don't think this was explicitly stated, but you do know most MMOs offer a way for the players to interact/communicate with each other right? "Hey, help me kill that giant blue spider!" "Huh? You mean that big yellow scorpion?"

It worked in America's Army because it was a simple FPS game, where everything resets in each game and you couldn't talk with the enemy (at least in the middle of the game), and everyone you COULD talk to saw the same thing.

Regarding tutorials and the learning curve, I agree that Glorified Exterminator Syndrome (gonna use that from now, I like it) is awful. I couldn't stand Lineage 2 because of this. They had me killing hundreds of rabbits within a few minutes of entering the world... But WoW wasn't as bad. They gave it a sorta interesting backstory and the quantities of whatever they demanded weren't attrocious, often less than 10, rarely more than 20. The quests could be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, and there were enough of them and made you go places enough that you were almost never required to grind at all, just do quests. By the time you were ready to take on bigger and better things, you were probably already at one of the capitol cities. You could reach this stage easily in a couple of hours, less if you knew what you were doing, making doing it over not such a big deal, and even then choosing a different class gave you ample new quests to take on. Even after this, where the races converge, the two factions had their own zones for cutting noobie teeth even after this, so switching factions later also added variety.

@William Johnson:

And it's after this point that I think what you mentioned about coming back to old areas and helping noobies really stuck out. WoW had this, *sort of*. It wasn't intentionally implemented, but it was fun as hell. After the teeth cutting zones, you finally went into mixed zones where the two factions could meet. Sometimes high-level enemy players would come and harass your faction's outpost, either for fun or because some noobie decided to kick some shins. All the town's NPCs would be brutalized within seconds of spawning, rendering the town useless to would-be questers. This usually culminated in higher-ups from your own faction coming in to "save" the low level players from this harassment, which itself would become an awesome battle, and you felt a sense of allegiance and camaraderie in it. Everyone was part of it because the high-levels were busy battling other high-levels, so low-levels were also duking it out with other low-levels. It was this sort of spontaneous and organic PVP that made the game so much fun for me, that I still think could be a brilliant game mechanic. But Blizzard never came through with much with regards to open-world PVP, citing that people who just wanted to PVE would find it off-putting.

Balancing fun for PVP vs PVE is hard, but as mentioned in some of the comments, utilizing real human interaction I think is the key to a more dynamic, fluid and immersive experience. It's the massive playerbase combined with lasting, meaningful interaction, as in a persistent world, that makes MMO games so mesmerizing. This is why battlegrounds were kinda lame in my opinion in WoW. No persistence. No overarching effect on the world. Once the battle was over, it reset, like in an FPS. Changes like texture swapping and dynamic stats are going to be easily seen through in an MMO setting, but creating a world where what people do to each other matters and affects each other creates an ever-changing world that'll be unique every time you restart, with "territories" and layouts differing from when you last started, forcing you to take another path. But maybe that's easy for me to say and want as a PVP oriented MMO player.

Craig Ellsworth
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Ha, glad you mentioned you prefer PVP. I'm a PVE guy :p

I think one of the issues that comes up is that MMOs are somewhat split between these two kinds of players, and although I'm sure there's plenty of crossover between demographics, the design philosophy behind both kinds of gameplay are so different that it's a struggle to make both kinds fit within the same paradigm. I think it makes more sense to see some MMOs that are pure PVP, while others are pure PVE, that way those games can be tailored specifically for each kind without compromises.

So I should also preface all of my MMO posts to state that I'm a PVE guy, and my solutions for PVE problems ignore any PVP problems that arise from them.

But ignoring all of that for now, you are absolutely right in your criticism that two players communicating trying to take down the same BAM would break things. I am reminded of a tale of when there ads placed in an FPS that differed between players, and one player said "I'm near the Comcast truck" and another player said "There is no Comcast truck!" because the second player was being fed a different ad on the truck.

I think the reason I forgot all about such communication issues is because I almost never use chats in MMOs. I find chats distracting. I only ever use them when there is a player right next to me and I am lost about something. So I'll need to rethink that aspect :/

As for the other two points about defeating the sense of progress and being immersion-breaking, I hope you can give me a specific example of how this would be. In my head, I don't see either of those occurring. I suspect I'm making assumptions I forget to put in the post, so they didn't get communicated. I don't think you're the only one to say those things, but I can't see how they would happen.

William Johnson
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What you're saying about meaningful pvp actually reminds me of an old mmo called Shattered Galaxy from the days of starcraft broodwar. I believe the servers are actually still up, haha. In this game you have your units that you customize with weapons and equipment also putting them into strategic squads. There are skill points that you manipulate on your "commander" that allows you to mix and match different units and power them up in different ways depending on those stats. The main point of me bringing this cult classic up is that you have a world map, 3 factions(used to be two), and 50+ territories w/ 3 capitals for each of the factions. Each territory can be claimed by any faction but they must first fight it out with which ever faction has units/people in those territories. The driving force is to have more territories every cycle (which I think was like every 10 minutes?) and your faction would get more uranium(which was used to power up your units or buy rare ones). Ended up being more of a pride thing and most factions would try their best to "cap" other faction capitals or taking all territories surrounding a capital and holding it as long as possible. The game was well done, balanced, and even to this day is fun to play. I think we can learn from that kind of pvp. Just my two cents.


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