At their Austin GDC lecture on Friday, Sony Online creative directors Chris Cao and Jens Andersen talked creative considerations when creating multiplatform MMOs, building the framework for a PSP/PC Spy Vs. Spy in the process.
Cao, formerly lead designer on Everquest II and here representing a veteran of PC MMOs, and Andersen, a ten year console vet on games like Battlezone and Clone Wars, kicked off the session with a specific claim that MMOs weren't rightly a genre like RTS or FPS, but rather a category of game that can contain elements of the former.
With the distinction out of the way, the two said that your primary consideration in creating a cross platform MMO were two simple lists of 'why's and 'how's that people play. The 'why', said Andersen is a constant, it's what keeps people playing, while the 'how' is malleable.
Cao added that it's "important to recognize that you can separate the why," and that it's "something to serve separate from the how."
So what exactly are the 'why's? The first is the scene itself -- the game world, with Cao saying it's important to have a public space for everyone to gather in, as it gives your characters and items an objectivity -- the value of your in-game stuff seems more real. "The stronger a scene," said Cao, "the more people are going to be invested."
The next is "stuff" -- in game items, money, collectibles -- as everyone likes having our possessions, with the added benefit to the game by nature of their permanence. Also, "status" is an "indispensable part" of an MMO experience, as people can compare themselves to others.
Said Cao, "It has to do with social nature. Giving people keys to status, whether it's your level or something more complex, is the key to culture," making players feel like they have a place within the world.
Finally, there's "sharing," a key difference in MMO play to other kinds of play. Doing real, tangible, valuable things for other players is a key to forming relationships and friendships.
Next, Andersen focused on the 'how's, which by definition are specific to each game and platform. "Controls" are the most obvious and the most important as they define how you move around in the world and serve both as the gateway to the game and its barrier to entry.
The next is the "challenge." "Fundamentally, this is what hurdles you have to go over to get the 'why's, the barrier between you and the 'why's," said Andersen, adding that while this generally boils down to combat, it could be a wider variety of activities like crafting and resource gathering.
Next, "communication" will vary greatly from platform to platform, with text chat being most prevalent in PC MMOs, but voice chat being more important in games like CounterStrike and on console and handheld platforms.
Finally, "collecting" too is going to change by platform. Collecting is simply gathering "stuff" from actual in-game gear, to cards in a collectible card game, or real life items given out from playing the game. All of the above factors boil down to a game's core gameplay.
The two then gave their formula for building a new cross platform MMO, starting with IP/theme -- the actual story and setting. To that you add your platforms, and here, the two said, they may diverge from marketing, which wants to put the most games on the most platforms, and instead look at their target audience and see which platforms that audience is play. Those two factors together represent your gameplay genre.
To illustrate the point, the two created a fictional Spy Vs. Spy game that they wanted to create for PSP and PC, and went through the process with audience help.
The first step, said Cao, is to assemble experts not just in technology and art, but with specific platform and genre experience. For this, said Andersen, a studio would want to find an MMO expert, someone experienced in long term play and with dealing with players in live space, and a handheld expert, someone who's done anything on any handheld, not necessarily the PSP itself. Finally, they'd want an 'evil spy' expert -- a creative person who knew "how to tie all this stuff together," and would have knowledge of the genre as a whole.
Cao said next the studio would specify the game's hows and whys in a very detailed manner, keeping in mind the intended platforms. Andersen notes that when he was working on Battlefront, which originally was exclusive to the PS2, the company looked at the controls of successful shooters like Halo and made specific concessions to that platform.
When a PC version later was planned and ported, gamers were disappointed when they didn't get a hardcore shooters -- they were disappointed with the targeting and the level of gameplay -- its Halo style targeting assisted system. If the team had known they would eventually be doing both versions ahead of time, other plans could have been made to customize more per platform.
In general, the two said, it's extremely important to assemble your experts and pass whys and hows through each other. "Abandon labels and make your game," concluded Andersen, reminding the audience to remember that MMOs are not a genre in and of themselves, but simply a category, and to make the game fit within that category.