Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) are not new. The first I remember playing is the Legend Of the Red Dragon (LORD), but before that, of course, I’ve played other (real-life) multiplayer RPG games as well, and they were never quite the same thing.
Of course, at that time the graphic cards couldn’t quite compete with our imagination (not to mention connection speeds), but a lot has improved in both fronts, and lots of very good looking games have arrived, but still, there’s something missing. For years I couldn’t put my finger on it, but recently I think I nailed the issue: user driven content.
Most of the MMORGP are war games. World of Warcraft, LOTR online, Vendetta, Star Trek Online, Regnum and so many others rely on war to be fun. Of course, all of them have the side issues, some trade or silly missions, but the real fun is going to the battlefield.
If you look from the technical side of things, this is not surprising at all. Aside from good graphics, one of the hardest things to do in a game is a good interface. Very few games are perfect like Tetris. I gave Tetris to both my sons when they were about 2 years old and after about a minute they were already playing. There is no need to instructions, tutorials or any training and still today I find it quite fun. This is why it’s probably the most successful game in history.
But it’s all about the interface. It’s easy to create a seamless interface for Tetris. Try to create an interface for a strategy game that doesn’t require some hours of training, or an interface for first-person games that actually allows you to know where you are, or an interface for adventure games that doesn’t make you click in half-dozen places to get anything. Many have tried, all have failed.
At the dawn of internet games, strategy and quake were dominant. That’s because the internet wasn’t so fast and both were quite good in saving bandwidth. Quake had a special fix to avoid sending one packet for every bullet and only one packet when you press the trigger and another when you release it, the rest was up to the client.
But in war games, the interface is pretty much established. World of Warcraft didn’t invent anything, they just mixed Warcraft with Lara Croft (rubbish interface, by the way). Space ship games got the interface from Wing Commander (Vendetta got it from W.C. Privateer), Lord of the Rings and Regnum mixed Second Life with old-style RPG (even with the same deficiencies) and Star Trek Online copied from everyone above.
Now, the interface for a good strategy or adventure game is somewhat complicated. For a first-person 3D RPG, even worse. It doesn’t have to be mind controlled to be easy, nor you have to use 3D glasses or any immersion technology to be fun. Simplifying the game is one way, but then it’s even harder to make it more interesting.
It’s the user, stupid!
I can see only one way to add value to a game that is simple but still fun: user driven content.
You can enrich the world in which you’re immersed into. For instance, Zynga is quickly gathering an impressive amount of users by adding a lot of content. I don’t play those games, but people around me do and I can see why it’s so addictive. There are so many things to do and the frequency of updates is so impressive that it’s almost impossible not to be driven to it.
You might think that the games are too simple, and the graphics are average, but the interface is extremely simple, the challenges are simple, yet still challenging, and the number of paths you can choose for your character are enormous. In this case, the user experience is driven by his own choices. The content is so rich that each and every place is completely different from every other, solely driven by user choices.
Not many game companies (certainly not the indie ones) have time or money to do that. So, why are indie games generally more interesting than commercial ones? They go back to square one, simplify the game and optimise the interface. EA would never release something like Angry Birds or World of Goo, and yet those are the two best games I played in a long time. But, world of Goo is over and Angry Birds require constant attention (seasonal versions) to keep selling or making money (from ads).
They are missing the user content. It might not be their style, nor objective, but that’s a difference between Deep Purple and a one-hit-band.
Back to MMORGP
So, from all MMORPGs, there are many good looking, some with good challenges and a lot of slaughtering fun, but I tire quite quickly from playing them. The last I played was Vendetta. Quite good graphically, it has some reasonably accurate physics simulation (what drove me to it) but not accurate enough to keep me playing. The content tires too quickly to be fun after a few hours and even though I had 8 hours of free play, I spent less than two and dropped it.
This was always a pain, since Final Fantasy and the like, building up the character, hitting slugs for XP, fight-heal-run until you level up. Though Final Fantasy was better, as it normally would throw you on level 10 or so, so you didn’t need too much of levelling up. But why? Who likes beating 253 slugs to get 1000 experience points, going to level 2 and being able to equip a copper sword that doesn’t even cut a snail’s shell?
One of the best MMORGP experiences I had recently was Regnum. This is a free game made in Argentina and has a lot of content, good interface and a healthy community. They do the normal quest levelling up technique and it works quite well until level 15 or so. After that, it’s hitting bears, golems and phantoms for half a year until you can go outside and beat other users.
I got outside prematurely (couldn’t bother to wait) and the experience was also not great. Huge lag on big crowds, people disappearing in mid-air and appearing a few meters away, etc. But the most annoying of all was the content. It was always the same fort that we had to protect, always the same keep we had to attack, always the same talk on how our race is superior to your race, etc.
I haven’t seen Lord of the Rings (which sucks on Linux) or Star Trek Online (which doesn’t even run), but I bet they can get a bit further. They’re there to compete with World of Warcraft, not Regnum, but the fate will be the same: boring.
So, after quite a big rant, how would I do it?
First, a memory refresh: all free first-person shooter I know of are a re-make of Quake. They use the same engine, the same world builders, the same techniques. On Debian repositories you’ll find at least a dozen, all of them running on some version of Quake. Nexuiz, Tremulous, Open Arena, Urban Terror, etc.
Not only the Quake engine is open source, but it was built to be extensible and that, even before the source was opened by ID. I made some levels for Doom, there were good editors at the time (1994?), probably there are full development suites today.
The user has the power to extend, create, evolve and transform your game in ways that you never thought possible. To think that only the few people you hire are good enough to create game content is to be, to say the least, naive.
Now, all those games are segmented. Nexuiz levels don’t connect to Tremulous levels. That’s because the mods (as they’re called) are independent. To be able to play all those different games you need to download a whole lot of data (objects, music, game logic, physics settings, etc) and each game has it radically different. Sarge with a rocket launcher would be invincible in most of other quake variants.
But that is, in my opinion, the missing link between short spurs of fun and long lasting enjoyment. I want to be able t build my world (like Zynga), but in a world with free movement (like Quake) with quests (like MMORPGs) made by the users themselves (like no FP-game I know) in a connected world. It cannot penalise those that connect seldom, or those that connect through text terminals, Android phones or browser users in any way.
As some games have started to understand, people like different things in games. I like building stuff and optimizing structures, some like carnage, others like to level up or wait 45 minutes for a virtual beef pie to be ready. You cannot have all that in one game if you’re the only content generator.
Also, if the engine is not open, people won’t be able to enhance it for their particular worlds. It doesn’t have to be open source, but it has to have a good API and an efficient plugin system. Tools to create mods and content is also essential, but the real deal is to give the users freedom to create their versions of the game and be able to connect them all.
If every game is also a server, people can create their small worlds inside the bigger world, that is in the central server. A business strategy would be, then, to host those worlds for people that really cared about them. Either host for free in exchange of ads and content generation, or paid hosting for the more serious users. You can also easily sell content, but more importantly, you can create a whole marketplace of content driven by the users! Read Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and you know what I mean.
I think Apple and Google have proven over and over that a market with apps generated by the users is very effective indeed! Intel is just following the same path with their new App store, so yes, this is a good business strategy. But, it’s still fun for a wider range of people, from game addicts to casual gamers, from heavy modders to passive Facebook users.
There are many ways of doing that, maybe not all of them will be successful, but at least from my point of view, until that day arrives, no game will be fun.