Can New Designs Save MMORPG?

In this story, I will walk you through a path of frustration and hope around the MMORPG culture and brainstorm ways of living it up.

A word on credibility

I cannot be considered an engaged game player. In fact, the dream has basically died for me about 9 years ago when mom creeped me out into studying.

However, I still feel a great deal of passion for games, specially for Game Development. Even though this is not my main area of interest, I catch myself many times thinking about how great games are and how much we can learn from them. This post is not about that though. It is about how great games can be. I will be focusing on MMORPG, but I hope these ideas will seed reflections about other genres.

MMORPG has become boring

It feels like they are all stuck in time innovation-wise. The recipe is quite predictable: pick a class, level up, collect equipment, perform quests, talk to NPCs, buy items, kill bosses, etc. The list goes on, but it seems it does not variate much from game to game. I guess this endless positive feedback loop works (or worked) quite well for the industry. It’s as scalable as pop music — kids love it!

Before all of you, business educated fellows, throw rocks at me for not thinking thoroughly about the market, I want to state upfront that my goal is not to suggest new cocaine concepts that will brainwash children into thoughtless hours of game playing. I will be writing about design suggestions that would probably bring me back into the MMO world.

These ideas are not necessarily new. In fact, I am sure there are many great games out there that could be used as examples, but listing them out is not my focus here.

My main inspiration comes from — you could never guess — reality. Incredibly, I believe there is much to learn from it. I feel it makes sense to look at reality when making game design decisions, after all, what I find cool about MMORPGs is the chance to live experiences in an alternative world, but still keeping the social dynamics of the real one — remember RPG is about playing a role for fun.

I will list 4 of these ideas:

1) “Ability” outperforms “Experience”

“You are so good at games, Mark! You have such quick hands! I am not telling you should do so, but I definitely believe you can beat that warrior!”

Think about the set of all power ups a player can gather by “just playing”, like items, equipment, skills, etc. I am not completely against the leveling system, but in a real battle, a player should always be able to defeat less skilled others, no matter what is the level difference between them. I want to sit at lunch with my nerd friends and listen to incredible stories about how unexpected characters outsmarted others in battle.

It seems no one can beat this big guy.

In most MMORPGs, training is pretty much about performing repetitive tasks like “killing monsters”, “quests”, etc; to gather points to make your character stronger so you can do all the same again with an increased level of difficulty. Well, this is not what real training really is.

It is great to have a good equipment, a bag full of pricey items and a beautifully built skill set, but it is your ability to smartly control your character that really matters. Agility, intelligence and creativity are part of it. After all, what makes a good player?

2) Knowledge is power

After spending countless hours at the Great Library of Nowheria studying the old legends of the ancient Queterian people, Obrix found out that, by holding the Flower of Passion and the Peace of the Queen with himself, he would be able to jump right into the forever live Volcano of Pain and survive, gaining the skill of total immunity to fire.

This story just reflects how knowledge can be powerful inside games. Borrowing again pieces of the real world, players with great problem-solving skills will be rewarded if they put them into work.

“I finally know where the ring is”

How good are you at connecting the dots? The world will provide you with an overwhelming amount of information. This can come from a wide variety of sources: other players, NPCs, books, randomly dropped tomes, inscriptions on ancient thumbs and more. Only the most prepared players will feel and embrace opportunity when it shows up.

“Where did you find that sword?”
“Well, that is a long story.”

3) There are no “classes”

“This is such a cool hood man! Can I try it?”
“I am sorry, brother. This will only fit an assassin.”

This kind of conversation does not look close to real to me.

Just like life, characters should only differ by their starting point and the micro-decisions they made throughout their lifetime. To simplify, let’s assume these differences can be thought of like a skill graph. Anyone can swing a sword, but you will only do it precisely (and deliver some damage) if you have invested enough perks at the Sword Mastery. Nevertheless, you can always learn some magic fire tricks by spending a few perks in the Fire Mastery. If you do so, you will be able to wipe enemies with your own fire enchanted sword. In this case, are you a mage? Are you a warrior? Are you Gandalf? These classifications are all in your head! Of course you can wear any set of armor you want. That is just not encouraged since that cool assassin muffler will not power up your current abilities. Style is something that should not be discussed though.

This guy is good with a staff, a sword and a gun.

This degree of flexibility will only add another fun layer of complexity to the game, where players will be able to creatively build unique characters and work out their own battle strategies.

The common class system that exists nowadays follows much of a “rock, paper and scissor” logic, where you basically know what are the strengths and weaknesses of your enemy just by looking at him. In a real battle, you won’t know your enemy until you fight him!

As a party leader, I will select people based on what they do the best. It would be nice to have someone with healing skills, but I won’t be judging anyone by the cover.

Do you want to join my guild? Good! Show me what you can do!

4) Information Asymmetry

I am sure you know. This one I have stolen from Economy.

Do games really have to be predictable? Do you really believe that having the complete game database at hand is good for imagination?

In this world, people do not know everything. Information is scattered around and you definitely won’t ever be able to know it all, so, team up with the best names in your network and start cooperating.

Three friends gathered at the Nock Doc Bar to have a private conversation while appreciating the psychedelic effects of the famous Honey Bacon Beer. Sonata has shown the others a confusing map she found in a crypt while exploring the Desert of Darkness. She has faith it can lead to… something interesting. Kiber is really good at getting information out of people. He knows a kid in Nowheria called Micha that keeps bragging to him about being quite a specialist on maps. Lucas had nothing to add to the discussion. He is quite a marksman though, so he will probably be a useful fighter when they start looking for answers.

Let me clarify a few points about this story:

  1. Sonata only has the map because she was lucky. Let’s not take all the credit from her: that desert is not an easy place to explore and this item can only be dropped there with a very small chance;
  2. Kiber has only heard about Micha’s secret ability to read maps because he has spent an absurd amount of perks on the Speech Mastery. To other characters, Micha is just another useless NPC. Had Sonata approached him, he would tell her a great story about how his father was a great pirate;
  3. To be honest, Lucas has just been called because he tells funny jokes, which is the greatest trait of all.

My point here is that this great quest was only started because of the summed up knowledge of Sonata and Kiber. Collaboration was naturally enforced by the Information Asymmetry.

Brainstorm time at Rivendell!

Final thoughts

What all those ideas have in common is the need of better stories to tell, which I believe are the core of what we call game experiences.

Truth be told I just wanted to write a few fantasy tales and revisit The Lord of the Rings.

What do you guys think about those ideas? Do you have another suggestion that fits the list? Please, feel free to comment.

This story is part of my idea donation project. If you liked this one, you can check for more on my profile.

Special thanks to my old friends Alef Henrique for inspiring me to write this article and Lucas Viudez for helping me with his vast knowledge about the RPG world.

Best Regards,