Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

23 September, 2006

Weekend Design Challenge: Biggest challenge
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:49 AM

So, I’m gonna get a little meta this week. The design challenge is to consider some of the biggest challenges facing online games right now.

Bonus points for thinking of something that hasn’t already been discussed to death yet. Of course, that’s almost a fool’s challenge, isn’t it?

My thoughts after the break.

I’m not going for bonus points this time around. I want to harp on an old subject: innovation. No, I’m not talking about innovation for the sake of innovation. Rather, I’m talking about developers doing something besides the tried and true.

To quote Dr. Bartle from a recent interview (using the appropriate name “Progenitor”):

Progenitor says, “The thing is, the developers at the moment are following basically 3 approaches.”
Progenitor says, “1) they’re copying WoW.”
Progenitor says, “2) they’re saying they’re not copying WoW but they’re so stuck in the paradigm that they’re copying it anyway.”
Progenitor says, “3) they’re doing something wildly different and hoping for a niche success.”
Progenitor says, “The future lies with 3), but it’s so expensive at the moment to create these games that there’s a danger most of them won’t break even.”

I think number 2 above is the biggest problem. It ties back to what Damion Schubert talked about at AGC. The problem is that people want to do something different but they don’t understand what they can do different. “You have to know the rules in order to break the rules,” is how I was told this lesson. People don’t understand what really makes WoW a success, so they end up copying it anyway because it’s what they know.

I think part of the problem here is what Dr. Bartle says: it’s expensive to create these games and that means it’s expensive to experiment like this. I think we also need to take a bit more formal approach to how we develop these games. Instead of just leaping in and making something “cool”, actually understanding the design process is important. Note that this doesn’t mean being mechanical or draining the creativity out of it. Just because an artist knows color theory or a writer understands how to construct effective plots doesn’t mean they cannot be creative. In fact, it is when they intentionally break the rules and understand how and why they are doing so that you get some of the absolute best results.

So, what do you think is the pressing issues of the day?

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  1. I’d also like to see a little innovation in MMORPG’s. I make it a point to at least look into (and often try briefly) new MMORPG’s as they come out. I’m still searching for one to call home for a while.

    It’s not that I need anything extremely different … most of the elements I *think* I’d like have been done before. Unfortunately, no-one seems (please let me know if I’m wrong) to offer them in a single quality package at present.

    I also believe that there’s a sizeable segment of potential players out there for a game such as this. I’ve noted many other players wishing for similar features. Unfortunately, it’s probably impossible to truly tell how sizeable of a segment it is. And at multiple millions to make a MMORPG, it’d be quite the risk for a company to take.

    So I’d say a big issue facing MMORPG’s is this “Cost vs. Risk” issue, especially for the established studios. Assuming this is true, I’d derive two more specific issues that perhaps could be solved.

    The first is a technical issue based on an assumption. I assume that the production of graphics (models, animation, texture, shaders, etc) is the lion’s share of cost and effort pre-launch. Am I wrong?

    In the past, there were other technical challenges: networking, clustering, zone-less worlds, trees and plant life. In each case, middle-ware has sprung up, offering a pre-made solution.

    Is there currently a speed-tree for characters? Or buildings (interiors and exteriors)? Or dungeons? Does it already exist? Is it possible? Would it help reduce costs? Would anyone use it, given that most teams probably envision a particular style of model, art, animation and texture?

    The second issue I’d suggest is one of process. Why is it that MMORPG companies, especially the big ones, always go right for the gusto with a multi-million title? Assuming an established studio has both an ‘engine’ to run the game and ample art, I wonder if it would work to produce and RELEASE proof-of-concept games with novel game play.

    Rather than a multi-million dollar project, cap the team at just a few people with a small budget and short timeline. Insist on re-use (especially graphics). Charge them with producing a playable game with some very innovative feature (or innovative combination of known features). Focus on the innovative aspects, cut out all else to keep costs down. Could it be done for, say, $500, 000?

    At least one company offers an all-access pass to its games. Release the mini-MMO to these players. Justify your proof-of-concept cost as R&D and added-value for your all-access players. Maybe it will enhance loyalty among your core players. Get your player’s feedback on the POC. If your innovative game play works, invest in a larger project to produce the multi-million AAA title.

    I’d say a proof-of-concept process would be the way to find (evolve) both new market-leading games and smaller (yet profitable) niche games.

    Comment by Tuebit — 23 September, 2006 @ 12:40 PM

  2. That’s an interesting point about companies always seemingly aiming for phenomenal sales. Perhaps as tool creation and licensing becomes more commonplace and streamlined over the next decade or so, MMO publishers will be able to ease into the model of many film publishers…using a few major products per fiscal year (or other time period) to fund smaller, more explorative projects.

    MMOs keep aiming for the massive environments of the first generations, but we could also create MMOs on a smaller scale with increased replayability as the replacement appeal.

    Comment by Aaron — 23 September, 2006 @ 1:09 PM

  3. Even if developers know the “rules”, it still doesn’t solve the problem completely. They still aren’t sure how well their new approach, X, will work, even with the rules for guidance. How do you go up to the money holders and say, “We have this really cool idea. We think it will sell millions. But then again, its never been done before so it might only sell thousands.”

    Instead, the design is changed so that, “It’s like WoW, which has sold millions, but it has a few extra features.”

    Just has no one ever lost their job buying IBM, no one ever lost their job making a Diku/EQ/WoW clone. (I’m sure someone has lost their job because of it, but more have lost their jobs trying something original.)

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 23 September, 2006 @ 3:05 PM

  4. The most pressing issues in today’s MMOs are how developers handle restrictions on player behavior and how they plan for a games longevity and/or lasting appeal. As much as I hate to reference the obvious, EVE Online’s sub numbers are growing faster than ever after more than three years, a phenomenon can be largely attributed to the freedom afforded its players to organize socially, economically, politically, and militarily within the game.

    Comment by Wizzel Cogcarrier Wizzleton IV — 23 September, 2006 @ 8:02 PM

  5. Along the lines of

    Bonus points for thinking of something that hasn’t already been discussed to death yet.

    Dynamic content is often cited as a most wanted feature in a future MMO. What pressures will that apply to the over all design? While I’m sure there is more that can be added to it, I can only hope that I have given it a good kick start. (link)

    Comment by Lost — 24 September, 2006 @ 11:54 AM

  6. Challenges of MMO Making

    [...] Psychochild often runs a weekend design challenge. This week’s is “to consider some of the biggest challenges facing online games right now. Bonus points for thinking of something that hasn’t already been discussed to death yet.” [...]

    Pingback by WorldIV — 24 September, 2006 @ 6:53 PM

  7. The most jaw-dropping innovations, I think, will come from people completely abandoning or reshaping the adventure style that seemingly all MMOs have embraced so far.

    I keep thinking there’s got to be a way to make an MMO solely focused on sports. Some would play, some would spectate, some would organize, some would bet, etc. If we could just get all of these fantasy football fanatics interested in something similar for an MMO…

    Comment by Aaron — 24 September, 2006 @ 8:42 PM

  8. I’m hoping to see massive advances in middleware and out-of-the-box infrastructure for MMOs over the next 5-10 years.

    That will help address what I think is one of the biggest challenges facing MMO developers today — building MMOs is too hard! It takes too much time, too much money and too much effort. Invariably they have to cut corners and make compromises. The result is beautiful games like WoW, where if the Auction House or e-mail system mysteriously eats your hard-earned mount money (as happened to me), there is no practical way for the developer to figure out what happened and whether it was legitimate or a bug in the game.

    I don’t expect to see any MMO provide the level of customer service that players would expect from other industries (their financial institutions for example) until there are standardized, flexible, high-quality, MMO-specific infrastructure products. Works-out-of-the-box, end-to-end solutions. As long as game companies have no choice but to roll their own, they will never have time to do as good of a job as they should have on the infrastructure parts.

    Comment by moo — 26 September, 2006 @ 6:41 AM

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