Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

29 March, 2007

The appeal of MMOs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:25 PM

Sara Jensen Schubert points to a recent Gamasutra article where, as she put it, “Former EQ GM complains that we keep rehashing the same old shit.” The blog entry is appropriately entitled “Not Again“.

The interesting thing is that the author of the original article showed up to try to defend himself. Or, as we say in the business “to chum the waters.” I figured I’d give Mr. Sorens a small education about MMO games that he seemed to miss in his time as an EQ GM.

First, I’m going to point out one of his erroneous assumptions: that MMO designers think the “massively multiplayer” aspect is the most important and popular part of the game. As someone who has disliked the term “massively multiplayer”, I definitely do not think that is the appeal of online RPGs (or MMOs, or PEGs, or whatever other stupid acronym you want to use). Instead, let’s go to a post I made in the past, What is an MMO? In it, I say

I think the core element is Communities. Without a community, our online spaces are devoid of anything unique.

Mr. Sorens states that he thinks the persistent aspect (or “cumulative character” as Jonathan Baron put it and then pointed out as the reason why MMOs fail to evolve beyond beating up walking bags of xp) is the appealing part of these games; this was his justification for coming up with a new, completely unnecessary acronym. After all, Diablo 2 and Guild Wars are pretty popular but aren’t MMOs in the traditional sense. While this is true, Mr. Sorens seems to miss the point of why these aren’t MMOs in the strictest sense.

But, let’s really look at the appeal of MMOs. To his credit, Mr. Sorens is correct, but he only sees part of the picture. For me, there are three distinct stages to MMO appeal.

1. The Beginning. This is when the player picks the box up off the shelf. The appeal here is pretty similar between MMOs and offline games. The player thinks it looks fun. (Whether it is or not is a completely different issue.)
2. Established Player. This is where he gets it right. After a few months, it seems like a bit of a shame to give up what you have invested in your character. So, you stick with the game a bit longer until….
3. The Honeymoon is Over. You can’t believe you stuck with that stupid game for so long. But, you probably keep playing because of one specific reason….

Of course, experienced MMO players and developers are chomping at the bit to mention the one thing trumps these motivations every time: “Because my friends are playing that game.” Most experienced people pick up a game because that’s what their friends are playing. How many times have you heard people lamenting, “I really don’t like the game anymore, but that’s where my friends are.” Yep, we’re back to that whole “community” thing I talked about above; it’s the one thing that trumps every other aspect of these types of games. To the inexperienced online game designer, it can appear that we’re simply in love with the “massively multiplayer” aspect when the truth is that we really respect the “community” angle in our games and know that’s the most powerful aspect.

Now, let me get a little (more?) snarky; I’m an MMO developer and you know I’m full of that. Mr. Sorens complains that MMOs miss the chance to be innovative. I find this humorous coming from someone who points to his work on a baseball sequel as his main qualification for being treated seriously as a designer. And, yes, that is a cheap shot on my part because I’m sure that he had little control over that project getting greenlighted. Yet, one might assume that with his work on that title he might understand why MMOs (and the games industry in general) don’t embrace wild innovation.

The problem here is the same as it always has been: money. MMOs have been ahead of the curve when it comes to the cost of development. While game projects were starting to go over the US$1.5 million mark, MMO projects were already costing multi-millions of dollars. The sticker shock for the price of “next gen” console titles has experienced MMO devs chuckling. As the console developers are now figuring out, when someone is paying a lot of money to see a game made the last thing they want to hear out of you is, “I have this unproven idea that’s just wacky enough to work!”

Unfortunately, Mr. Sorens also seems to ignore the fact that there are some innovative games out there. A Tale in the Desert and Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates are two of the most notable examples in our industry. Notice how these original and interesting games aren’t taking the industry by storm? Notice how few people are falling over themselves to make ATITD clones? Yes, part of the issue here is that these games are made by relatively small companies on modest budgets. But, this brings up the old Catch-22: you need big money to make an impressive, appealing, and well-marketing project and get noticed; but, big money is but its nature conservative and risk-adverse and not interested in “innovation”.

But, I think we’ll start to see some smart money being put into alternative projects. As Damion pointed out in a recent blog entry, DFC thinks that most competitors in the fantasy MMO space will fail. So, coming up with an original alternative is a good idea. The current (unfortunately, “hush-hush”) project I’m working on is definitely staying away from competing directly with WoW. But, we’ll do that by focusing not on persistent character, but rather on what really matters: community.


  1. I dunno, Brian

    They do tell us that WoW’s biggest selling point is that it can be solo’d all the way through to wherever the level cap is this week. Solo play doesn’t exactly encourage a lot of community.

    Perhaps the true answer lies somewhere in between.

    Comment by Rich Bryant — 30 March, 2007 @ 1:06 AM

  2. From my gaming experience there is a dark underbelly of community, obligation, responsibility and hierarchy are words which might describe the problem a little. These are mitigated somewhat by the character centric gameplay.

    A lot of players who reach “The Honeymoon is Over” stage also realise that ditching their responsilities towards the community will give them back the freedom they got from starting to play the game in the first place. There is a whole, large, lot of players who become addicted to the rewards only the community can give them. And these often proceed to take on the dark underbelly as a game challenge, but very few of them are good players of that game and induce churn within their own hierarchies.

    A better game will make it easier to deal with the dark underbelly, in EQ something like one among a thousand players were reasonably good with keeping healthy hierarchies, in AO it was worse, maybe one per 10k and in WoW its the easiest yet with maybe one per a few hundred. A community game will need to have a dark underbelly that is so easy to manage that you get something like one per 25 players who are good at managing their social obligations.

    If you can make a game that teaches everyone to play the community game well you’ll surely produce a magnificent result.

    Comment by Wolfe — 30 March, 2007 @ 1:33 AM

  3. I think you make an excellent argument about how much of a draw the community can be, but I’m not totally convinced that it’s the biggest factor *for the majority the player base*. Here’s why (adding on to what I wrote in the article):

    - When you get to the point where you are only staying in the game because of your friends, you’ve often already gotten pretty far through the game. At that point, of course the social aspect is more appealing, because there’s not really much advancement left to appeal to you.
    - Building on that point, if you have something that makes the advancement factor unsatisfying, like an excessively slow/fast progress rate, rampant cheating, or storage/save reliability problems, you will lose a large portion of your audience (Anarchy Online, Shadowbane, etc.). If you have an immature community full of anti-social players who sorely lack any sort of people/communication/grammar skills, you can still have great success (Blizzard games).
    - The “casual” WoW player, in my estimation (and I could be wrong), does not have the same kind of close ties to in-game players he or she does not know in real life that an “experienced” player does. These players simply do not spend enough time in the game to forge the kind of strong ties to other players that would keep them around once the advancement isn’t enthralling anymore. While these people will still group, join guilds, and use other features associated with community, it is more a means to another end–namely, the rewards that the game design provides for combining your power with that of other players.

    All that said, you could very well be right, at least in terms of the current player base. It’s really hard to say–every player is a little different in what they latch onto, especially in MMOs, which try to appeal to players in so many different ways. But when it comes to expanding the audience, I am absolutely certain that non-MMO players as a whole, particularly in the console space, care more about the character building than the social elements. So I think the overall point of the article would remain valid even if you’re correct.

    I am all in favor of games where you can play together with a group of your friends. I think that online co-op play holds huge appeal for the average gamer and is one of the areas where MMOs have led the way (and where console games, in particular, have been slow to pick on the concept). However, I think designers should also consider the negative effects of putting too many people together, as well as alternate structures, in deciding what’s right for their particular game. A game like World War 2 Online or Shadowbane absolutely has to be massively multiplayer, because the scale of the battles is at the core of the design. Games where you get together in a small group for an adventure may not need to be massively multiplayer, as long as you provide good methods for players to find groupmates (Diablo 2 did the latter very poorly, while Guild Wars was somewhat better).

    Is it better for a game’s appeal to come from community instead of advancement? Yes! If you can design a game where people play for the people more than the game, that is a very good thing. I’m simply arguing that even though it’s bad to have a game’s appeal come mostly from advancement, it’s the unfortunate reality. I’m saying that community’s not really what makes >50% of 8 million people get hooked on WoW, and that what DOES play the main role (not the only role) in hooking that majority is building up the character. And then discussing how that appeal can be exploited properly in order to expand the audience to non-MMO players (and steal a goodly portion of the existing MMO market at the same time) with games where traditional game elements provide the primary appeal, and advancement the secondary appeal.

    Puzzle Pirates and ATITD are both different from the standard MMO template, but they have plenty of design flaws of their own. ATITD’s focus on community was not enough to overcome its lack of interesting and familiar gameplay mechanics and its low budget (as you astutely note). It is a bunch of interesting ideas that add up to very little in the eyes of the average gamer, although it seems to have appealed to a niche large enough to keep the doors open. Puzzle Pirates lacks the flash, presentation, simplicity, and intuitive interface that puzzle games needs to have to attract their target audience.

    I completely agree that money is the biggest issue holding back the evolution/diversification of persistent-entity games. That is the main reason I wrote the article–to argue to publishers that not only is it riskier in the long term to stagnate, but it also offers smaller potential rewards than building a new sort of game. The choice of which direction to go is not one that developers usually make; it is typically one that publishers (SOE, NCSoft, etc.) dictate, while leaving the developers to work out the details within an established framework (see, console games aren’t so different in some ways).

    I still maintain that PEG is a useful term and prevents any silly arguments about “Is Guild Wars/Huxley/Fury/etc. really an MMO?”, although I am happy to use any alternatives that mean the same thing. PSW (Persistent State World — not mine) is another term that is kinda similar in that it overlaps a great deal with MMO but also conveys a sometimes-important distinction about a certain aspect of the game.

    I’m very much looking forward to seeing your game.

    Comment by Neil Sorens — 30 March, 2007 @ 1:37 AM

  4. Wolfe’s comment is interesting. How many times did you yank the cord or fake “OLS” in a marathon Plane of Fear raid/camp because you were afraid to tell people you wanted to leave? Does the time you spent online because of other people count as appeal, or obligation? The appeal vs. obligation situation could be applied to many aspects of MMOs.

    Comment by Neil Sorens — 30 March, 2007 @ 1:41 AM

  5. I keep coming back to UO when looking back at how things have been/should be done but there’s good reason for that…so it’s fine. UO had no real NEED for community. You could quite happily achieve everything you needed to on your own, with 5 character slots and a house to trade all your items in. However the subtlest things brought a real feeling of community, and some of these are directly related to the persistent world.

    For example, I could make a big cloth-formed guild tag on my roof of my huge tower and people would actually see it. I think nuances like this are missing from anything since. Just the little things the player can do that will have some form of impact on any players in the area. Games like WoW are too tied to your game experience being your character. In UO the game was so much more. God, I miss that game being good. :’(

    Comment by Steve Taylor — 30 March, 2007 @ 2:30 AM

  6. Interesting reads. One thing it made clear to me is the advantage of having an extended circle of gaming friends. I don’t need to worry about leaving my friends & guild mates when a game becomes boring; I’m going to run into old friends & guild mates in any game I go to…

    Comment by JuJutsu — 30 March, 2007 @ 7:24 AM

  7. Flame-retardant suit? Check. Fire extinguisher? Check…

    [...] Friday, March 30th, 2007 in General Design, Linkage There’s a bit of a flame war going on out there in the blogosphere revolving around a recent Gamasutra soapbox article (reg. required) which took a few stabs at the MMO status quo, and has received some less-than-positive responses in return at locations such as here and here. Other luminaries such as Scott Jennings (Lum the Mad) and Jessica Mulligan have chimed in as well in comments. Just figured I’d rant a little rant of my own… I’d hate to be left out… [...]

    Pingback by Voyages in Eternity — 30 March, 2007 @ 5:29 PM

  8. Blog Fight!

    [...] But don’t take my word for it; plenty of other folks have taken Mr. Sorens to task for his questionable conclusions and silly acronym, and more have promised to chime in. Sorens has defended his conclusions in long comment posts, so be sure to scroll down to see the fireworks. [...]

    Pingback by — 30 March, 2007 @ 7:53 PM

  9. MMO article up

    [...] Some interesting follow-up discussion here and here. [...]

    Pingback by The Robots — 30 March, 2007 @ 11:20 PM

  10. Neil Sorens wrote:
    If you have an immature community full of anti-social players who sorely lack any sort of people/communication/grammar skills, you can still have great success (Blizzard games).

    And, as a self-professed part of that community, you knew how to fit in well, right? ;)

    You’re sadly mistaken if you think there’s someplace where all the smart people hang out. Any group of significant size is going to have a significant population of mouth-breathers. Blizzard games have the curse of being successful enough to draw the largest group; even if relative populations of assholes are similar, WoW is still going to have 4x the assholes that EQ ever had. (That’s only counting North America, because we produce assholes better than anyone else!)

    Even offline, we all have a “friend” that other people find abrasive. (If not, then you’re it. :P) Just because there’s idiots and miscreants in the games you play doesn’t mean you won’t find people you like. Or, that you won’t go play these games with friends you’ve already made in other games or are friends with offline.

    Now, let’s settle this “persistence” vs. “community” issue once and for all. Which game would you rather play?

    A) EQ (or WoW) where you keep your character but nobody else ever plays, or
    B) EQ (or WoW) where you log in with a reasonably equipped level 40 character every time (and lose all accumulated xp and equipment at logoff), but that other people play.

    If you answered “A”, send me $100 and I’ll tell you how to get that experience without paying a subscription fee!

    Finally, I think you’re right in that there is promise in these games you’ve labeled “PEGs”. You’re correct in pointing out that Diablo 2 and Guild Wars are impressive games. But, when you take away the community angle you’re talking about a completely different type of game. There’s a reason why most people don’t consider D2 an “MMO” (and some people don’t consider GW an MMO).

    To put it in terms of single-player games, it’s like me talking about what it would be like if we had an RTS, but instead of directing multiple units you control one character with very precise controls. Maybe change the perspective to a first-person view. These new games, which I call “Free Perspective Simulations” (FPSes for short), are better because they don’t focus on resource collection! Don’t RTS makers realize they could be doing things so much better by ignoring resource collection and focus on the finer control of a single unit?

    Now can you understand why we’ve taken you to task for your Gamasutra article?

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 March, 2007 @ 3:38 AM

  11. [i]Diablo 2[/i] does not generally classify as an MMO because it wasn’t designed to make the avatar much more than just an instrument of power. It has as much chatting and grouping as [i]EQ[/i], but players don’t define their avatars in the same ways and don’t connect on the same roleplay level with those avatars. Hence, the online gameworld feels less like a virtual society than online society, more between players than characters.

    I think people underestimate the importance of (1) scope and (2) sandbox gameplay in MMOs. What first attracted me to the genre was the idea of such a huge world to explore and so many different paths I might take. Still today, that sort of gameplay is rarely available in single-player RPGs. Single-player RPGs tend to be much more constricted and limited in replay value.

    In [i]Neverwinter Nights[/i], playing as a sorcerer is very different than playing as a fighter, but both start in the same place and are funneled into the same adventure. In [i]EQ[/i] or [i]WoW[/i], playing a different character means experiencing a different setting and course. That doesn’t only affect players who are interested in beginning again. It also means that one’s character is more personal; not necessarily symbolic of the player’s own identity, but intimately connected with the player is some way.

    As Rich pointed out, [i]Warcraft[/i] and other MMOs are full of players who solo and who group only when/because it serves self-interests. While I agree that community is very important to MMOs, that importance seems greatly overrated. If single-player RPGs regularly offered worlds that take several months to explore and the ability to shape one’s own story, many MMO gamers would be playing those instead.

    But I don’t claim to know the demography. Without those elements being more separate, it’s difficult to estimate what rough percentage of MMO gamers consider community the deciding factor as little as I do.

    Consider this though: In non-gaming life, few people regularly submit themselves to boring activities just to be around friends. Generally, friends meet up around activities that provide mutual enjoyment. Enjoyment of the social [i]setting[/i] may not be a peron’s focus during interaction (that is, the person’s focusing on society itself), but it is still a necessary condition that usually precludes social engagement.

    Comment by Aaron — 31 March, 2007 @ 9:36 AM

  12. Brian,

    I’ll readily concede (again) that persistence is far more appealing in a multiplayer setting. Without the multiplayer, it’s still an interesting concept but not worthy of being hyped as the Next Big Thing. And I’ll go one step beyond that and say that a larger player base will also make the persistence aspect more alluring. I see the multiplayer setting as a catalyst, if you don’t mind the chemistry analogy, rather than a reactant. The multiplayer setting gives meaning to the advancement, which is what drives the addiction. And you see it the other way around: the advancement enables and encourages social interaction, which is the meat of the game’s appeal. Both are valid views; I just happen to think that your group’s smaller and already well-served and mine is larger and underserved.

    Your A/B example is interesting, but there is a logical fallacy in your conclusion. Your original question is not whether people who want product A or B have games that offer what they want; it’s which hypothetical game is more appealing. You conclude that people who choose option A already have products to meet their needs. That is a red herring, because it is an entirely different issue for which the examples are not appropriate. The real question still remains: would more people choose A or B? (And even then, it is a little simplistic because it doesn’t take into account other features acting as catalysts.) If you want to discuss whether the games I want to see are already out there, then it’s not logical to use as your evidence a game that I am not advocating.

    I think your RTS example works to some degree. But the difference is that the feature I am advocating is more universally adaptable to different kinds of games than a first person camera, although that has a decent amount of cross-genre flexibility, too (“PEG” is not a genre, just a shorthand reference to a wide variety of gameplay paradigms that incorporate a common feature). Let me take the analogy further and make it more analogous to the current situation. Let’s say that RTS games were the only ones around where you could blow things up. And that a large percentage of people who played RTS games played them primarily because they were the only place where they could get the visceral experience of blowing things up (although they liked some other things about the games, too). Then someone comes along and says, “OK, blowing things up in an RTS is really cool. Let’s make other games where you do that, because there’s a bigger market for that than yet another RTS.” And then the RTS designers would be up in arms: “People play our games for the strategy! [or insert appealling RTS feature here] Blowing things up isn’t fun if there’s no strategy in it!” They would be completely right about players from whom RTS really was the kind of game they wanted to play. But for people who played the RTS because they liked exploding things, and for people who liked exploding things but not enough to overcome their dislike of the RTS genre, they would be wrong.

    Comment by Neil Sorens — 31 March, 2007 @ 2:42 PM

  13. Neil Sorens wrote:
    I just happen to think that your group’s smaller and already well-served and mine is larger and underserved.

    So, you admit that these are two separate groups? So, why are you talking about MMOs when you’re really taking about something else? Why is your Gamasutra article entitled “Rethinking the MMO” when you admit here that you’re not talking about MMOs?

    And, you missed the point about my RTS example. Let me say it plainly: If one thinks there’s a market for FPSes (or, in your case, “PEGs”), then one should not start with RTSes (or, in your case, MMOs) and then state how there’s a lot of people that would love to play FPSes (or, in your case, “PEGs”). If you do, then, continuing the mangled metaphor, the RTS makers would cry, “But it’s not an RTS if there’s no strategy!” And, guess what! They’re right.

    I also don’t quite understand this belief that the “PEG” market is underserved. You yourself have stated that there are two major games that fall (at least loosely) under this category of games: Diablo 2 and Guild Wars. One could also add in Neverwinter Nights (original and sequel), Phatansy Star Online, and quite a few Asian games, too. Depending on how fine you wanted to split your hairs, you could also include Meridian 59 in that list; some people claim it’s not really “massive” given the smaller server sizes. I’ve always thought the “massive” part of the term was a conceit, anyway.

    So, if you’re going to decry a lack of innovation, let me help you with the first step: drawing a tenuous comparison between another existing thing is going to confuse the issue and cause misunderstanding. If you want to advocate a new type of gameplay (although I would say it’s not new, given the list in the previous paragraph), then advocate that gameplay. Learn to express yourself and your ideas clearly, which is what a good game designer should do anyway; don’t mischaracterize MMO game developers and completely misunderstand the appeal of MMOs and motivation of the typical MMO fan. If you do, then expect people, some with a decade of experience under their belts, to take you to task for your misunderstandings.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 March, 2007 @ 4:58 PM

  14. I’m focusing on MMOs because they are the perfect example of how the appeal of character building can carry a game. Most people already think of MMO and online character building games as being synonymous, and I needed to explain why they they didn’t have to be tied together. In other words, MMOs are the public face of PEGs. Once people understand that they are not necessarily the same thing, it is much easier for me to argue that character building can be used in conjunction with more mass-market game mechanics such as proven mechanics from other genres. But to do that, I had to show why current MMO game mechanics are not mass-market.

    For you all, you already know all that and basically have the attitude of either “I’ll believe it when I see it, because it’s been tried and didn’t work” or “Publishers won’t pay for that,” which are both exactly what I would be thinking in your position. Unfortunately, I can’t make my game designs public at this point, but they’ve been vetted by engineers who are knowledgeable about these sorts of games. The article was actually a by-product of my work on those designs over the past few years, and the solutions in the article are incorporated into those designs in far more concrete terms. So anyway, the article could have been called “Rethinking the MMO’s Appeal” or “Stealing Good Ideas from MMOs” or any number of things.

    I guess the hostile tone comes more from disappointment that MMO designers (and the people who write their paychecks)–who designed these miraculous games that can hopelessly addict people who don’t even really like the games that much–don’t seem to understand the awesomeness of what they have. Or at least, how that awesomeness can be projected beyond these artificial MMO boundaries and into other kinds of games. MMO developers have been on the cusp of something revolutionary for years now, and haven’t moved forward but a few inches (each inch brings huge increases in success–WoW–so why not move faster?). So I felt like they (and the people telling them what games to make) needed a kick in the pants. I still have all the respect in the world for the people who got this close, but will it really take a developer from another game space to go the final distance? That is what is starting to happen, and I think the MMO group is going to be caught flat-footed, when under ideal conditions they would be leading the charge.

    I think that Diablo 2, Hellgate, and all those other games are just one step away from MMOs in most people’s eyes. I used them as examples to convey the message of, “See! you can be successful by taking that one step away from MMOs; take the second step.” That’s why I came up with the Xcom and Total War examples, to try to get people thinking laterally about how the PE concept could be used. The potential PEG market is essentially everybody who plays games and has an internet connection. The games I’m thinking of/trying to encourage are not even RPGs at all, except in the character building sense. There isn’t quite as much untapped potential in the RPG PEG area (because there are other games, as you mention, and because MMORPGs are in that space too), but even so, you gotta shake your head at games like Titan Quest that don’t incorporate that secure online persistence.

    Again, I’m not advocating a particular type of gameplay or a new genre. I’m advocating that people think about how they can apply the idea of the persistent entity to games that have appealing game mechanics. For some people (traditional games), the tricky part is coming up with creative ways to include character advancement. For other people (MMOs), the tricky part is making the game mechanics more appealing. The article attempts to make those two things less tricky, emphasizing the latter for reasons explained above.

    Comment by Neil Sorens — 31 March, 2007 @ 7:20 PM

  15. Weekend Design Challenge: Dissecting the MMO…

    Let’s continue thinking about MMOs, but let’s be nice to Neil Sorens for a change. :) This week’s design is to dissect MMOs and determine what parts make up an MMO. Pick one aspect of MMOs and discuss it; this can be either positive or negative.

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 1 April, 2007 @ 6:45 PM

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