Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

12 October, 2009

What is missing in our games?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:56 AM
(This post has been viewed 21860 times.)

Sometimes I wonder if MMOs have really lived up to their potential. From my first steps playing a text MUD and realizing that some of those other characters were controlled by people like me, these games captured my imagination. The fun diversion became a deep fascination with multiplayer gameplay and game mechanics and eventually a career. But, when I take a look at where we are now, I can't help but think that something is missing from our games.

Have you noticed it, too?

The problem is, the MMO community pretty much defines discontent; early MMO blogging took the form of "rant sites" that served as a central location to bitch about MMO games. So, sometimes it's hard to separate out the snark from the real problems we're facing. But, it does seem that there is some specific discontent people feel these days. Even game developers feel the discontent.

What would you do?

The always thoughtful Tesh wrote an article that wasn't about discontent, but hinted at the general feeling some have been experiencing lately. He starts with the old way of trying to figure out your ideal career: if you didn't have to worry about money, what would you do? This is probably the thing that you are passionate about, so your ideal career would be to find someone who will pay you to do that. (Unfortunately for some people, "lounging about the house" doesn't pay well.) The twist to this exercise is that Tesh then poses this question in terms of playing MMOs: if you didn't have to worry about levels and gear, what would you do?

The problem is that this is a misleading question. Tesh is really asking what would happen if we removed the Achiever motivation from games. For people highly motivated by Achievement, that game would hold little interest for them unless some new form of achievement was put in. For the rest of us (the minority of the current audience) who care less about achievement, this gives us an opportunity to do what we really want to do. Personally, I'd spend more time exploring the setting and the game mechanics, being a dyed-in-the-wool Explorer. With no levels or gear to handicap me, the world would be wide open for my pleasure.

But, Tesh's question does bring up most contemporary games hyperfocus on the Achiever motivation and the consequences of this focus. If we remove the Achiever motivation, that being the loot and level upgrade tracks, we're not left with much in most current games.

Why do we do what we do?

The primary purpose for most commercial MMOs is making money. Under a subscription business model, maximizing revenues means maximizing the number of accounts being paid for. This means the game needs to appeal to the widest group of people possible in order to maximize income. For many developers, WoW has provided a blueprint on how to try to gain this large audience, having captured one of the largest audiences for a a commercial MMO. Much of their work has gone into streamlining the game, allowing players to play the game with as few disruptions and interruptions as possible; they made the loot and level upgrade treadmill as slick as possible to get you on and keep you going. Some would say it's designed to be so slick you don't realize that you're on just another grind.

The problem with this streamlining, as I pointed out in my previous post, is that without risk there's less feeling of overcoming obstacles. Filling in the troughs diminishes the peaks by comparison. People don't think they miss the troughs, but sometimes the experience still leaves them cold. There's also the need for developers to control the experience as much as possible to make it streamlined. Strict requirements on how the came must be played has displaced some of the fun of the unknown. As Wolfshead says in a comment, "Where has all the freedom gone in our MMOs?" Things were not always this regimented, where games like Meridian 59 didn't even have a formal party structure, but that didn't stop players from working together to accomplish goals.

This highly regimented gameplay has attracted more people, but it may be hurting the core of waht MMOs are about. Wolfshead also posted a great article on scaling, arguing that encounters should scale to the people available so that you can play with the people you want to play with; players should not be forced to bring in strangers or leave friends out of the fun just because the numbers don't match what the game mandates. Of course, automatic scaling is hard to do and may otherwise disrupt the slick presentation of the game. Given that one of my recent suggestions was to do away with static groups, I like the concept. I think scaling is the wrong way to think about it, though; the world should offer challenges and let the players come up with ways to overcome them. In the original EQ, the old raid bosses just existed, it was up to the players to figure out how many people needed to be there. As players learned to handle the encounter, less people could be brought and not feel like you were handicapping yourself.

What is missing?

Reading a lot of these posts and comments, I think the big thing missing from these games is a sense of adventure. Things have been made so streamlined that players feel penalized for going outside the carefully marked track, so there is very little opportunity for serendipity. You have to play the game exactly as the designers intended, otherwise you can't enjoy all of the game. The "theme park" philosophy of design may make for a fun diversion, but is this the best we can do?

Looking at the inspiration for our games, we can see how far things have gone off the rails in our quest to provide the streamlined experience. Frodo and Sam didn't go kill spirits in the Dead Marshes to level up before heading into Mordor. Luke didn't broadcast on /lfg before heading into Jabba's palace to try to save his friends. Batman doesn't have to go "defeat" 500 more criminals to be able to buy and learn to throw a Batarang. Yet, these are the expected behaviors in a typical MMO. Going into a dangerous place without a high enough level, without a large enough group, without the proper equipment is tantamount to suicide. Doing things the proper way removes frustrations, but it also removes unexpected experiences that stand out in players' minds.

It's become a running joke that if everyone is the hero, then nobody is. My favorite example is the Sharpbeak quest in WoW. The culmination of this quest that I did in a group is everyone standing in line waiting for the victim you're trying to save to respawn back in his cage so you can use the key you looted to free him. It's pretty silly when you look at it, but this is how the developers felt the story had to play out to make sense in the world.

How can content be spread around?

One of the main problem here is a very old one: content. Allowing one person to "do all the work" to resolve a quest for a group means that the group will go through the content faster. The world is also supposed to support the illusion that the player is the big hero. Being the sidekick standing next to the guy rescuing Sharpbeak may not be quite as heroic as being the person actually opening the cage and seeing the little guy fly off with the larger griffons.

It's hard and expensive to create large amounts of content by hand. The two main ways to get around this limit have been unsatisfying: user created content which generates more penises than useful content, and procedurally generated content that is often uninteresting or doesn't seem to work quite right (a problem I fear that Wolfshead's scaling proposal will have). So, we're left with cheats to spread out the content: repeatable daily quests for big rewards, quests that are merely slight variations on other quests, grinds that spread out content over longer periods of time, etc.

This isn't the only problem. Too often games don't seem to take the multi-player nature of the game into consideration; why does each person need to open Sharpbeak's cage? Why does each player in a fellowship have to carry their own pie or mail bag in LotRO? Why can only six people venture into Nektropos Castle at one time in EQ2?

Where do we go from here?

As I have said many times before, if the answer were obvious and easy, people would have done it. Creating lots of content is the obvious answer, but not easy. This is why smart people blather on about how you need $XX millions before you can make an MMO, because that's what it takes to add the content required to just match the sometimes disappointing lack of adventure we see in current MMOs.

As I said above, the two main ways to "cheat" and get more content have failed to deliver on their promises. I fear that this user created or procedurally generated content are the designer equivalents of the PvP discussion: the die-hards are sure that there just needs to be the "perfect implementation" that will show everyone that their preferences are the right ones. Perhaps its time to realize that we need to approach the problem in a different way.

The concept that comes to my mind is one that is unlikely to prove popular enough to support a game. Using the microtransaction model, focus on providing a small amount of exceptional content. Instead of demanding a subscription from people who may like the game but not feel compelled to keep paying for the game, we can offer paid content when it becomes available. Focus on providing high quality content, and hopefully people enjoy it enough to keep paying for it. This takes a forward-thinking audience willing to support a game during the rough initial times, and it's still going to be tough to keep creating new content. But, perhaps this is what is needed to help MMOs realize their potential.

What do you think? Have you noticed the missing sense of adventure? Or, is it something else you have missed? How can games re-introduce these missing elements and once again start reaching their potential?

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67 Comments »

  1. Missing sense of adventure

    [...] I just came across a quote that is so good that I just could not not reblog it: [...]

    Pingback by Borror0’s Page — 12 October, 2009 @ 3:18 AM

  2. Pete Smith at Dragonchasers wrote something along these lines: http://dragonchasers.com/2009/10/11/convenience-vs-immersion/ - convenience vs immersion. Basically, people can forgive many annoying things if the game sucks them in.

    But how to create this kind of immersion, which is quite addictive? I think our modern idea to keep people playing through "achievements" is not nearly as effective, as it feels like one more artificial "game" element to the virtual "world" that some players actually desire to get this feeling of immersion.

    Also talk about Fallen Earth, it seems to have especially much of this special ingredient "immersion"! I might have to check it out, too.

    Comment by Longasc — 12 October, 2009 @ 3:44 AM

  3. Needs more cowbell!

    Comment by Chris — 12 October, 2009 @ 3:53 AM

  4. I always thought that DDO missed the boat by not following the payment model that the table top game uses. Wizard101 is sort of using it now. Make the base game free (or for a small one time fee), you get some classes, a city, some adventures, maybe a few open areas to explore and grind. Then, periodically, release modules and/or expansion books. People pony up $10 to get a new city with new adventures, or $3 for a dungeon, or $15 for a new set of player classes.

    Comment by Jason — 12 October, 2009 @ 4:19 AM

  5. Wow... that's a fairly open-ended one, I think.

    1. Ignoring the obvious problem that there are lots of Achievers out there, I don't think removing achievements from the game would be a good strategy. I'm not much of an achiever myself (Depending on the current moon phase, I come out SEAK, or sometimes even SEKA in the Bartle test - with a very strong emphasis on the first two categories.)... in particular, I don't find a lot of pleasure in being the first to have achieved something, or being the best at something.

    On the other hand, with the proliferation of trophy/achievement/badge-systems in games these days, I've found I'm a bit of a trophy packrat. Maybe that's tied to the explorer nature, and I collect trophies because I want to see and experience *everything* - but whatever it is, I really like being told "well done, you've got something we thought was hard to get". (Incidentally, that means awarding achievements for simply playing the game defeats the purpose. Many developers seem to opt for that, though, and award achievements when you complete parts of the game. That might work as a supplement to "real" achievements, but shouldn't be the bulk.)

    Now this is a very personal and fairly specific view of one particular aspect of a game, but if I try to broaden my perspective, I can't help but think that a sandbox without goals (if there is nothing to achieve, there is no goal) would quickly bore me. Sure, I can set my own goals, but the toy (can't really call it a game then) would have to be so *incredibly* versatile that I just can't see that happen in a virtual world.

    So either give me a box of legos, or a board game with rules, but a matchbox car loses its appeal once I've got over my five minutes of childishly going "VROOOM!".

    Now I'm probably taking a rather extreme view of "removing achievements", and there's some middle ground between this and what's currently in games like WoW, but I couldn't help think of all this when I read the article.

    On the other hand, I've argued before (not in exactly those words) that game designers should think specifically about how the game appeals to each player type, and design to maximize the enjoyment for each type, not just for achievers. Thinking of a game without the achiever appeal may help in figuring out what other player types might want. As my wife said the other day about a game I enjoyed: "it's boring, I can't design what my character looks like or collect pets"

    2. I understand why one would not want to include the concept of a static group in a game, but maybe the role and function of groups just needs to be shifted. It's incredibly convenient to e.g. have a private chat for a small group of people, to know where they are in relation to you, and so forth.

    I'd vastly prefer a system where there are no groups (or indeed guilds) as such, but rather the possibility of joining one or more variable-sized groups simultaneously, much like you can join one or more chats. Then attach a bit more functionality to the group - like a calendar, so you can organize raids if that's what you feel like, or indeed anything else you'd find around a guild these days. Let's call that a special interest group model.

    I've been in the situation that most of the people I knew were in a raiding guild, so I was a member there just to chat with them, but I would usually play with semi-PUGs (a few friends and a few pick ups). It would've been a lot easy to organize those runs in a SIG than with the tools that were available. Add to that that many guild members opposed non-raiding members on principle, and it's fairly easy to see the appeal of SIGs, I think.

    Again, personal problem, I suppose - but the point is, the tools centered around groups/guilds are useful, so I'd argue for removing the restrictions we see on groups/guilds these days rather than removing the whole concept altogether.

    3. Microtransactions: depends on how you implement it. I think there's a good reason why mobile phone and broadband contracts (here in Europe, at least) tend to move towards flat rates. People don't want to think about how much each use costs, they want to pay a monthly rate that covers what they'll likely use in that period. So much simpler to plan for.

    So you could offer a model where e.g. each instance costs a certain amount to enter (you'd need to be careful with how you charge when the server crashes, loses state, and players need to re-enter, etc.). Then offer either pay-per-use plans, or subscriptions that offer discounts and/or offer some instances for free.

    Generally speaking, though, any model that lets people pay instead of playing will lead to massive discontent, I'd say. Depends on the culture, of course, those things are popular in China, as far as I know - virtual goods become status symbols, and having them shows you can afford them.

    There's a danger in creating a more subtle version of that with my above pay-per-instance-use model, of course: if the instance boss carries a particularly desirable item, then people with the cash to pay for many runs are at an advantage.

    There is, of course, the option to offer many and smaller expansions to an MMO as you'd currently see. That's going down the road of episodic content rather than microtransactions, but it might offer a more appealing alternative.

    By and large I'm thinking that subscriptions aren't a bad idea, but they should be relatively low.

    Ugh, now I've written a huge chunk and still haven't touched on the bits I've found most interesting. Need to leave it at that, though, this wall of text is large enough.

    Comment by unwesen — 12 October, 2009 @ 4:33 AM

  6. I'm not asking about removing Achieving, actually. I'm asking about removing the *stuff*. Defeating a tough boss with 24 of your closest friends is still an achievement so long as the boss isn't a pushover. I'm not talking about installing a perpetual "god mode", though I've written about that before *as an option*.

    No, I'm asking if the *play* is enough, if there is enough achievement in playing and conquering in-game tasks, or if we have to be motivated by the "ding" and getting shiny loot. To my mind, the greatest achievements in any game are those I set for myself. So, to ask another question and the obvious followup:

    What would you see as achievements in a game when the system isn't telling you what the devs think are achievements? Is that enough to keep you playing the game?

    See, I'm not talking about removing challenge or achievement. I'm addressing the motivations for such, and asking if changing the motivation from bribery and preening to self-betterment and play is enough to keep the game interesting.

    Comment by Tesh — 12 October, 2009 @ 7:53 AM

  7. If I built a game (sigh)...

    I have convinced myself that the 'next generation' of MMOs - well, MMORPGs anyway - will have even more player interaction potential. I've a simple thing:

    Several quests make another player the target. Consider a couple of concepts (simply described, lots of potential).

    1) You pick up a piece of random loot. Another player, somewhere, gets a quest that says the information they need can be found by talking to you. They eventually find you, and the loot 'takes over' for a brief infodump. Not much achievement for you, but quite the one for the player who found you. Undoubtedly (given enough of these) you will have your own opportunity to seek out other players.

    2) You get one of those "kill the annoyance" quests. Friends of the annoyance issue a quest to get revenge by killing you. (This sets up a LOT of achievement possibilities - surviving a certain amount of these, winning a certain number of bounties, success to death rate of some number, success while solo against an opponent who is in group or assisted [healed, or others damage you while you're in battle],...)

    Can the whole game be done this way? snicker - no. But I think you can add extraordinary complexity and interest by making players part of the weave instead of merely letting them pick it apart.

    Comment by Kirk — 12 October, 2009 @ 8:13 AM

  8. Very interesting read. Unfortunately, most of the "fixes" suggested would take MMOs even further away from what would please me.

    Take the "Achiever" mechanism and "Loot" for example. I don't really care about "Achieving" in the classic sense; I tend to level up several characters simultaneously, using whatever rag-bag of drops, quest rewards and crafted items they stumble across on the way. I don't go looking for the best gear, or even good gear. Anything will do. But...

    I absolutely must have dropped loot. And plenty of it. The very best part of hunting in MMOs is opening the corpse/chest/loot widget and seeing what's inside. It's the unwrapping of the present and the curiosity and interest that process generates that makes hunting enjoyable. Games which don't have this (there aren't many, but TCoS comes to mind) can't hold my attention for a few days, let alone weeks or months.

    Then there's "higher quality content" but less content overall. Well, no thanks. I just came back from a really great week's driving holiday in Spain. We saw some absolutely wonderful sights and truly spectacular scenery. Inbetween we drove through a lot of ordinary towns, flat landscapes and a few really ugly places. Would I have enjoyed it more if I'd only visited the high-quality bits and magically skipped over the rest? I don't think so.

    It was the contrasts that made the trip so successful. And the unexpectedness. Coming out of a 90 minute drive through scrubby working towns and dusty agricultural land onto a road that skirts the edge of a linked sequence of more than a dozen lakes, for example. Lakes we had no idea even existed.

    That's why a game like Vanguard is so enjoyable just to roam around in. Big spaces, lots of space with not a huge amount happening, but at any time you could run into something breathtaking, or hilarious, or just plain mystifying. So, no, I'd rather not have less content but all of it "high quality", thanks. I'd like all that HQ stuff, but set in an awful lot of ok-but-not-amazing stuff.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 12 October, 2009 @ 8:44 AM

  9. Great post!

    One problem I have is with how people - often game designers - focus on acheiver-style play. Bartle's silly test (the classifications work, the test itself is garbage) even reinforces it. There are many, many Acheiver style players who are utterly uninterested in competition - they don't care about being first in anything, they just enjoy their own acheivements. These, coupled with social players, are really the bulk of WoW's players. You don't see them on forums, or hear about them often, but there are millions.

    Now, that said, for the most part, I agree with you. Microtransaction models are very unpopular to start with, but I think this has more to do with public perception than reality. It's not "pay to win", paying shouldn't ever replace playing. Blizzard, even, is moving more and more to microtransactions; extra things that are not needed (and need being defined as something required to be competitive) but are conveniences or useful. I fully support coupling microtransactions with flat rate play, but the crux is while MMO's are all flat rate they directly compete with each other, but the real problem comes in with value. $15/month for, say, 20 hours/week play in one game is a great deal. $60/month for that same 5 hours/week play in each of four games is a terrible deal, so people just don't play a lot of games at all that they would otherwise play.

    Microtransactions gating custom content I think is a brilliant idea, particularly in a game where there is ALSO procedurally generated content. Having a mix is really "where the money is" in my opinion. Hand crafted content will always be the best (or at least reliably be so) but is always going to be limited in quantity. Procedurally generated content is largely infinite, and provides players "something new to do" on the drop of a hat, particularly providing a goal for combat focussed players (Diablo anyone?)

    Scalable content doesn't need to be weird. It's been done reasonably well a few times now - take a look at Oblivion, for an example. Scaling the number of mobs, the strength, etc to match a group isn't particularly difficult, and in handcrafted encounters can easily be limited to prevent wierdness.

    One thing I'd like to see in MMO's? Difficulty sliders. Scaleable difficulty in encounters really supports this inherently. Forget WoW-ish hard modes, just implement a player-side difficulty slider. When grouped, just take an average of each players setting. Rewards can take that into account as well.

    What I'm interested in is procedurally generated "back up" content; dungeons and things, that players can rate when they are done... Higher rated ones can then become fixed places in the game world, with just a little customization by the level designers. This would cut out a lot of time, and allow vastly more "places of interest" in the game world than would normally exist.

    Fundamentally; the problem is that as you've noted, game design focuses on acheiver play, and sometimes combat play... but has totally forgotten explorer play. Very high quality hand crafted content supported by microtransactions is a very good idea; procedurally generated automatically scaleable smaller "places of interest" goes a long was as well to fleshing out the world.

    Expanding that to socially focussed players is exactly as the previous commenter noted: Abandon static groups and the One Guild Rule; allow players to join various groups of their choosing simultanteously. God knows I spent enough time in hardcore raid guilds in wow because that's where my friends were, even though I had no interest in raiding... but as a result it was difficult to get together and communicate with more like minded people.

    Comment by Derrick — 12 October, 2009 @ 8:58 AM

  10. "Frodo and Sam didn't go kill spirits in the Dead Marshes to level up before heading into Mordor"

    True, but as characters they grew and changed from their experiences on their journey. Perhaps without the rigours of the dead marshes they wouldn't have been mentally tough enough to get to mount doom.

    But how do you model that if not by xp? RPGs have flirted with giving xp for achieveing story goals and things other than killing monsters and stealing their loot but giving points for RP and achieving personal goals is difficult for a computer.

    Comment by Spinks — 12 October, 2009 @ 10:07 AM

  11. I think the general disinterest in procedurally generated content is due to the fact that people are told before-hand that the content is procedurally generated. When you know something is made by a machine, you immediately try to pick out how it's different or worse than what a human would have done.

    I don't think that it's out of our reach to generate at least instanced quest zones procedurally in a way that they are as interesting, if not more interesting, after repeated play than the work of a designer who labored for many hours to craft each detail.

    Check out Spelunky. Its levels are procedurally generated and are often a lot more interesting than most of the designer-crafted platformer levels I've seen.

    Cheap and above-average content that can be mass produced at no cost is superior to very expensive content that is good, but costs significant quantities of money to mass produce.

    I bet you can effectively procedurally generate 60-70% of the content in a game like WoW and people would never notice. As long as you don't blather on about procedurally generated content, players will gloss over and fill in most of the gaps they'd otherwise highlight as being the weaknesses of a machine. Augmenting the procedurally generated world with human-designed components configured in different ways allows the human touch to remain in the game and relieves the blandness that procedurally generated worlds can fall victim to.

    Comment by evizaer — 12 October, 2009 @ 11:03 AM

  12. A lot of MMOs (and games in general) are just progresssion bar fillers. The good? Well, like you said it attract more people because the success is "guaranteed". In about X hours you're sure to be level 10, at that level you're guaranteed to be able to complete that quest (you may die once or twice but who cares anyway).

    To a point it's funny to see how people dislike that their lives are regulated though they don't mind the same thing when it comes to a game. They're not actually playing... They're just following the guaranteed path to success that has been tested, balanced, adjusted... The progression bar.

    In our D&D games we liked to throw things at players without caring if they could actually get over it or not. That's not the job of the DM anyway. It's up to the players to figure out how to overcome the situation or to get around it. Seems we're not seeing a lot of that. Instead we see a quest with a level just besides it. We see raids for X players. It's conveniant for people not interested to play and more interested of getting that next "ding!". They don't get frustrated, they feel their time has been "well invested" by not trying to overcome a challenge too big for them, ...

    The feeling I get is that a lot of people when entering a new MMO are asking "ok, where do you want me to go" instead of asking themselves "ok, where do I want to go?". Of course, in games such as WoW you can't even fish in any lakes you want at the lower levels so don't even care asking that question...

    An interesting experience I had in Champions Online (the restricted content make this a true progression bar filler as there's only 1 single path to follow for everyone, that might explain why my interest has faded away) was while doing the King Pong mission. I tried it while I was 3 levels lower than what was required. I could have waited these 3 levels but then I would have got a free pass knowing I was meant to succeed the mission. The floor there is filled with ping pong balls that will make you fall (and your opponent) when walking on them. The room is also filled with crates, trucks and such. So by using the environment I was able to finish the mission without having the required level which did make me feel like I overcomed the challenge in an original way. Of course, the room is probably built for that purpose as well but it gave a better experience than just making sure you level is matching what was tested by the devs.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 12 October, 2009 @ 11:04 AM

  13. It's a tough one because we are probably very jaded with the genre in ourselves and that's tough to change. Certainly when I started playing MMORPGs they were very new and I'd experienced nothing like them before. Now they are almost old hat. I agree with your point about the sense of adventure though - we really need to return to the glory days of aspiration, imagination and risk. I don't want to see just another fantasty bleh MMORPG, I want to see some concepts that really push the boat out. It's what made MMOs great in the first place after all.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 12 October, 2009 @ 1:31 PM

  14. Thanks for the link Brian and congratulations on yet another great article! The level of discussion here is superb and gives me some hope that there are people that want, crave and desire something more out of their MMOs and virtual worlds.

    What is missing from MMOs?

    I think your answer a sense of adventure is spot on. For me adventure is comprised of various components: challenge, freedom, ownership, risk & danger and the unexpected.

    Challenge - Only at the highest levels of most MMOs do you ever experience a real sense of challenge. For the most part, challenge has been bred out of modern MMOs so they can appeal to mass demographics. I think this is misguided and is an insult to the intelligence and capability of most people. Without challenge MMOs are reduced to swinging at a pinata.

    Ownership - Yes you devs may have built the world but it's *our* world. We live and die in these virtual worlds every day. Please let us players start defining our own goals and aspirations instead of figuring out what we must do by reading forums and new patch notes. Have the courage to allow players to explore possibilities instead of merrily riding on the rails of your scripted dungeons. Give players a stake in their virtual worlds. Let us build and let us tear down.

    Freedom - There is no freedom when everyone is enslaved to an achievement mentality on steroids. Sure loot and gear will always be with us but you devs need to create alternate ways for players to self-actualize. Hiring someone who is not the leader of a uber guild in EverQuest would be a good start. Freedom also means allowing players to dictate who they associate with which was the major thrust of my latest article on my blog.

    Risk & Danger - Today's MMOs have become safe, kid friendly playground experiences that belong in a MacDonald's rather then a virtual world. At no time do you ever feel a sense of danger because you have nothing to lose. Death has no sting. Run back to your corpse and start all over again. We are creating consequence free virtual worlds for a generation of spoiled, ADD kiddies. Why should you be allowed to gain something when you risk nothing? I want to feel a sense of danger again when I'm in a virtual world. I want to feel my pulse pounding like I used to in EverQuest.

    The Unexpected - The curse of the state of the art MMO like WoW is that nothing ever changes. This is the Groundhog Day syndrome. Our boring routine lives in the real world are more variable and exciting compared to the scripted predictability and repetition found in most MMOs. We don't watch the exact same TV episode for hours every day, why then do we put up with playing the same zones (daily quests) every day? Why is it taking Blizzard 6 years to finally change a few zones in Azeroth? Where are the live events that made MMOs so unpredictable and immediate?

    I want MMOs to inspire me, shock me, move me, scare me. I want to feel something when I play a MMO. Remember when a small company called Electronic Arts made that claim in the 1980's? What the hell happened? Has the video game industry set their sights so low that they have forgotten the power that this medium has? Where have all the dreamers gone in this industry?

    Comment by Wolfshead — 12 October, 2009 @ 7:14 PM

  15. Wow, lots of thought-provoking comments here. Lots of issues to respond to....

    Jason wrote:
    I always thought that DDO....

    DDO's shift to "free to play" is one of the things I was thinking about in my solutions part at the end of my post. The warm reception this has gotten makes me think it might not be a dead end.

    One thing I think may be confusing people is the concept of the Achievement motivation (part of Richard Bartle's four types) and "achievements" you get in the game. The achiever motivations are often simplified into "making the numbers go bigger" with the purpose of getting recognition. This means gaining level and loot to improve the character. This doesn't necessarily mean being the best or the first, although that's one way to to get recognition from others.

    Note that Achievement isn't necessarily imposed by the game developer; as Richard wrote in his paper, "[Achievers] give themselves game-related goals, and vigorously set out to achieve them." (emphasis added) Note that he identifies Achievers as being self-motivated. I think one of the issues is that games have slowly started to impose achievement on player; as I said in my post, the slick design of the level and loot treadmill makes it so that people most easily fall into that. Making the game so streamlined pretty much discourages people from going off the rails, so they never get that sense of adventure I talk about. Having defined "achievements" further reinforces the fact that there's not adventure to be had, just a checklist of things you need to accomplish.

    unwesen wrote:
    [M]aybe the role and function of groups just needs to be shifted. It's incredibly convenient to e.g. have a private chat for a small group of people, to know where they are in relation to you, and so forth.

    In this case, we need to separate out these functions. No need to require people to join a group or guild to get these functions. I think these should be part of more robust social tools for players.

    Tesh wrote:
    I'm not asking about removing Achieving, actually.I'm asking about removing the *stuff*.

    The "stuff" you propose removing, the levels and loot, are the easy motivation for people to Achieve in games. Defeating the boss for the sake of defeating the boss (not for the rewards) could still be achievement, but it's not what motivates players in most contemporary games. Many people want to defeat the boss for the gear, almost everyone keeps defeating that boss for their own chance at the gear. So, in effect removing the level and loot motivation is removing a large part of the Achiever motivation.

    As I point out, though, this may not be a bad thing. We need to go back to the core of what the Achiever motivation means and allow players to fulfill that role rather than setting a path and expecting them to follow it slavishly.

    Spinks wrote:
    But how do you model [Frodo and Sam's trip through the Dead Marshes] if not by xp?

    Since this is a story, the trip through the Dead Marshes was added for a reason. As you point out, a primary story reason was to prepare Frodo and Sam for their eventual arrival at Mount Doom. In terms of the setting, it was a way to demonstrate the horrors that have visited the world before by Sauron, and give some more history of the world.

    How do we properly model it? Is this something we have to assign to a the character rather than the player? Perhaps some gameplay element could be reinforced that would be useful later. To use an example from the book, perhaps you learn that the spirits can pull a party member under the water and it takes another party member to pull them out. So, what do you think you need to do when you visit a lava area with spirts hanging around? Probably stay away from the spirits or have party members react quicker to a fellow being lured by the spirits. The player learns the lesson, not just the character. If you want the character to earn something, perhaps someone who saves another person in the Dead Marshes becomes more alert to the spirits' powers and gets advanced warning if the spirits are going to try to lure someone.

    Of course, this type of system is more complex to develop for designers and understand for players compared to just allowing players to kill spirits in the Dead Marshes for xp to increase a level.

    evisaer wrote:
    I think the general disinterest in procedurally generated content is due to the fact that people are told before-hand that the content is procedurally generated.

    I disagree. Procedurally generated content feels different than hand-crafted to experienced players. I can't offer conclusive proof, though, so we'll have to wait for someone better funded than us to test your theory. ;) I also think developers want to rely on it too much and underestimate the work involved. Spelunky (a game I was obsessed over for a few weeks) is an interesting example, because it's obvious that a lot of work went into forming the rules that limit the random generation to playable games. It's not like there's a "generate content" button that magically appears when a developer decides to use procedurally generated content. In addition, Spelunky is a single-player game that can be played in a few hours. If you get a bad random setup, there's very little cost in playing again. Imagine if you got to the end of a 4-hour raid and the final boss was simply invincible to your group because the random number generator gave the boss a 1-in-a-million selection of powers that together make the encounter impossible. Spelunky is fun for a lot of people, but the game is brutal, unforgiving, and not attuned to "mainstream" tastes like WoW is. Not that I have anything against niche games, but you need to understand where your tradeoffs are coming from in design. Will adding proceedural content on top of having a hard-core PvP game make the niche too small to be sustainable, for example?

    We Fly Spitfires wrote:
    Certainly when I started playing MMORPGs they were very new and I'd experienced nothing like them before. Now they are almost old hat.

    Well, I think EQ nostalgia, like your article about missing trains in games, shows that this is more than just longevity. Some games just don't have opportunities for things like trains to happen, because the negative aspects were deemed too harsh for people. To jump to another medium for a moment: I've read a lot of books and know a lot about writing, but some stories are still able to surprise and delight me. True, not as many stories delight me as when I first discovered the joy of reading, but how could I keep reading if I truly thought that no stories would be able to capture my imagination? I don't think MMOs are completely played out, but there's this rut we seem to be in....

    Wolfshead wrote:
    For me adventure is comprised of various components: challenge, freedom, ownership, risk & danger and the unexpected.

    A fascinating breakdown. I think it's fair, although I might quibble on the "ownership" aspect. But, that's a whole other post.

    Where have all the dreamers gone in this industry?

    We're still here. We're just laboring at the small-budget scale of things, or some are just being told that they can't do the crazy idea they have so they work on at the small-budget scale.... There's a pattern here, I think!

    Good discussion, all. Hope to read more! :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 October, 2009 @ 8:33 PM

  16. Wow, great post. I agree that adventure is a big component of missing from today's MMOs. I'd also argue that immersion largely absent, or at least undervalued. For me, the sense of wonder comes from the feeling that I'm in a living, breathing world. Here are a few thoughts:

    First, today's MMOs are way too predictable. In many recent MMOs (LotRO, WAR, Runes of Magic, Wizard 101) the world is arranged literally in a straight line, and monsters become monotonically more powerful as you progress along the line. There's no possibility of encountering anything unexpected.

    Second, the game mechanics are too contrived. Back in the old days developers usually tried to ground game mechanics in the world's lore. Current games--with rare exceptions like EVE--don't do that. So they lose the sense of being a coherent world and feel more like an collection of arbitrary minigames.

    With regard to content creation, one possibility might be simply to give players an incentive to consume it more slowly. Many MMOs give players incentives to rush through content by, e.g., putting the best content in the endgame, providing quest arrows and other guides, selling XP potions to make leveling faster, etc. One starting point might be to use less level gating, so that players have access to things like PVP and crafting without having to level up so quickly. Then players could play through scripted content at their leisure without having to rush.

    Re microtransactions: I know they're all the rage right now, but I don't think they facilitate immersion and adventure. In fact, I think they do the opposite. For example, offering paid content in small chunks presumes a high degree of instancing, which hurts the feeling of being in a world. It also would probably make the world feel more predictable, because people buying content would want to know exactly what they're getting (i.e. a "level 3 dungeon"). Finally, it can keep people apart if they don't all have access to the same content, which can make the game feel more like a single player RPG.

    Anyway, great post.

    Comment by Tolthir — 13 October, 2009 @ 12:24 AM

  17. I already went over some of this in my blog post that Brian linked at the beginning, and in some of the discussion.

    The problem is that MMOs got too into the "game" part and forgot about the "world" part.

    In a world, people spend a lot of their gaming time making their own fun. They interact with the world. They make their own content. They create their own games and goals.

    But if you have few ways to interact with the world, all you can do is participate in the pure dev created content.

    If MMOs focused more on the WORLD, and gave people ways to interact with the world (like a sandbox), you'd have tons of people making their own fun.

    Comment by Muckbeast — 13 October, 2009 @ 1:18 AM

  18. Good post Brian.

    Aren't we a bit back to square one when we say "The sense of adventure is missing"? I only say this because it seems (to me) that there is this general discontent at the themeparkification of everything on rails. I don't have an opinion one way or the other on this, but I have a feeling this was done to expand and retain the playerbase. If the aim of this (I refuse to call it 'dumbing down') was such, then I suppose it succeeded admirably. At the cost of a sense of adventure? Maybe.

    Should we get it back? Maybe. But the problem I see is that this "sense of adventure" means different things to different people. For some, on one end of the spectrum, a "sense of adventure" translates to the constant rush and excitement of a hardcore PvP environment where everything can be lost, etc. Eve, Darkfall, et al. For some others, on the other end, the "sense of adventure" could simply mean "let me get together with some friends and knock off some easy content". The adventure is lighter, but the sense is no less real. And then you have all the shades of players in between.

    I agree that we would have a problem is all we had were generic template games, loosely or tightly based on Diku, where "general gameplay" is king and convenience trumps things it probably shouldn't trump in order to expand and retain players. Not everybody is the kind of player that would wake at 3am to defend an outpost. And not everyone should be. But I'm not seeing this problem. I'm seeing a wide spectrum of games out there. Could there be more games, more different, in order to cater to more tastes? Most definitely. But it's not that -all- we have available are general Diku theme parks on rails, where nothing is lost and nothing is gained. There are other offerings.

    One last note: The convenience that many seem to complain about now, was done in response to the awkwardness and ridiculous complication of old times. Not all of the old was good, just as not all of the new is bad. It's unfortunate that this convenience had to grab the sense of adventure and bring it down in the process, but we'll figure it out. Have some faith. The last couple of years have been generally 'meh', so we're still riding that. It'll change, because it has to change.

    Comment by Julian — 13 October, 2009 @ 10:08 AM

  19. Re: Procedurally generated content and Microtransactions

    You wouldn't offer procedurally generated content as pay content via microtransactions.

    No, instead, procedurally generated content (and you wouldn't call it that!!) would be the free content. It'll never have the (potential) depth of hand crafted content; but it's a one-time cost for unlimited content.

    Lets take WoW, as a common everyone-knows-it setting. The existing dungeons/raids become pay content: You pay, say (random out-of-hat numbers, don't get hung up on them) $5/month for the handcrafted 5-man content, $5/month for previous teir raid content, and $5/month for top tier raid content. Then, add procedurally generated content everywhere.

    Rewards are lesser than hand-crafted instances - in WoW parlance, you'd be randomly generating (either entirely or picking from a preestablished table) loot of slightly lower ilevel than comparable difficulty handcrafted dungeons. The advantage is that procedurally generated content can be easily scaled by number of players and player gear levels, so any given instance can be played solo, or in small groups or even raid groups.

    For foes, the easiest way is to pre-make template bosses, so you don't have issues with random invincible ones; and you'd populate the instances with mobs that fit the theme of the instance. You don't truely "randomly" generate all the bosses abilities and mobs.

    So, you can pop small "cave entrances" or what have you - mines, etc (think oblivion wilderness) all throughout the world, which provide adventure points for travelling players, and which scale to the players/groups capabilities (with limits, of course: Dangerous areas would only scale down so far, safe areas would only scale up so far)

    The generation engine itself is fairly complex and a major time investment, but once it's done you've got virtually unlimited largely free content.

    I'd imagine you'd randomly generate the physical places, and place them throughout the world as fixed content, then have the inhabitants and loot be generated at runtime when players spawn the instance. This allows the developers to create and test the layouts safely, and for explored locations to remain fixed (no cave suddenly changing layouts between visits by a player). New and different inhabitants, thought, absolutely makes sense. It breaks the traditional silly "The instance is just like this, even though you've already killed the bosses" mold current instances fit.

    So, at level 10, you visit a small cave with some friends, and clear out a bandit infestation. Later, at level 20, you return to this cave. The basic layout is the same, but now a necromancer has taken up residence, and various raised undead prowl the depths. It's basically a totally new instance for you, but now you at least know the basic layout.

    Now, assume that sort of content is the free-to-play content. Sure, at max level just doing that is going to get you gear somewhat behind top-tier gear, but you've always got new things to explore and battle.

    It can be grown, too. For example, pregenerated layouts can have optional block points - parts that may or may not be open in any given instance. Maybe that first time you visited the cave, it was pretty small because a cave-in had blocked off one passage, but the second time you visited it, it wasn't blocked, openning up another room. These points would be easy to place - no harder than doors in Nethack's randomly generated dungeons. Legs of the instances, then could be opened or closed, and a "blocker object" (cave in, dungeon wall, etc) chosen from the objects fitting that instances theme.

    Ok, I ramble. Anyways; you can readily generate decent content providing an unlimited amount of replayability while still handcrafting high end content and charging on a microtransaction model for it's use.

    Comment by Derrick — 13 October, 2009 @ 1:19 PM

  20. Muckbeast wrote:
    The problem is that MMOs got too into the "game" part and forgot about the "world" part.

    I'm really hesitant about putting this in terms of the old "game vs. world" argument. That has a lot of baggage associated with it that I'm not sure would be all that helpful here. Especially since for a while, people were associating "world" with "social" and worlds like Second Life.

    Perhaps a better way to put it would be "gameplay" vs. "players". Most games currently focus heavily on the gameplay and setting, where the players are just along for the ride. The process is heavily streamlined and potential problems like "working with other players" are removed as much as possible. In a more player-centric game, you'd focus more on the activities of the players and allowing them to find their fund. The setting is still important because it gives the initial appeal and a theme for people to explore, but the design isn't just about guiding them around from one attraction to another.

    And there's nothing to say that one is superior to the other. Lots of people are content playing WoW, obviously. I'm also not sure there's a business case to be made that the people who are discontent with themepark type MMOs are a viable audience, either. I'm mostly exploring possibilities and inviting dozens of people to join me on the trek. :)

    Julian wrote:
    But the problem I see is that this "sense of adventure" means different things to different people.

    Well, this is one reason why I support small, indie MMO development: so that we can address these different definitions. MMOs don't need to be a "one size fits all, biggest game wins" proposition. Games were highly profitable with "only" 100k or so players.

    ..."sense of adventure" could simply mean "let me get together with some friends and knock off some easy content".

    I'm going to disagree that this is true adventure any more than going with a group of friends to your favorite restaurant is an "adventure". This is someone wanting to pass the time with their friends. Again, nothing wrong with that, and I think you can easily do this in current MMOs. But, if this were sufficient adventure I wouldn't be pondering this, because I could do that with my friends already.

    But it's not that -all- we have available are general Diku theme parks on rails, where nothing is lost and nothing is gained. There are other offerings.

    Sure, but as you say, there's room for a lot more. It looks like Fallen Earth is scratching a bit of this itch for a lot of people. But, some people don't like elements like the setting or the art. ;) And, nobody has really sat down and taken a look at what these games have that others do not. My post is long enough as it is, but I was thinking about analyzing some existing games and seeing where some of the current darlings like EVE Online are fulfilling this.

    It'll change, because it has to change.

    I wish that were true, but history doesn't bear that out, sadly. Witness the fall of "adventure games".

    Derrick wrote:
    ...procedurally generated content (and you wouldn't call it that!!) would be the free content. It'll never have the (potential) depth of hand crafted content; but it's a one-time cost for unlimited content.

    I think you'd also need to hand craft the newbie experience to ease people into the game. As I said above, though, procedurally generated content feels different than handcrafted, so the steams might be problematic. Definitely an interesting proposition, though!

    Keep the comments coming. :) I'm enjoying them a lot.

    Comment by Psychochild — 13 October, 2009 @ 3:09 PM

  21. I've been thinking for a good long while that procedurally generate dungeons, ala Diablo, with randomized loot tables plopped down into a world that has a lot of hand crafted content would be a good idea. You could also borrow the procedural system that AO uses to generate missions for big cities. Go out in the wilderness and find dungeons that lead to roguelike content (that scales to party size). Or hang out in the city and take commissions from agents that lead to "door missions" inside buildings (to steal, assaninate, exterminate, or rescue).

    Honestly, some of the coolest level designs I've ever seen in CRPGs were randomly generated in ANGBAND (and variants) or Nethack. And the onlyb thing I really enjoyed in AO was the door missions. Running though those repeatedly to level and gear up was addictive as hell for about a month.

    In any case, keep the storylines confined to hand crafted quests. Have a good number of those in starter areas and linking quest hubs. But make players pay for the bulk of handcrafted content after a few levels. Sprinkle occasional breadcrumbs in the randomly generated content that will direct players to level appropriate content they can choose to pay for. Just don't do it in an annoying way that takes up pack space.

    Comment by Yeebo — 13 October, 2009 @ 4:08 PM

  22. Well, this is one reason why I support small, indie MMO development: so that we can address these different definitions.

    That makes two of us. I'd love to see a landscape where 100k-ers and under 100k-ers are profitable and sustainable (you're right when you say they can be and have been), but that's up to the investors. They'll naturally tend to go towards wherever the largest perceived return is.

    I'm going to disagree that this is true adventure any more than going with a group of friends to your favorite restaurant is an "adventure".

    Agreed, but you know what I meant. Even without going to the extremes we both know there are massive differences between what different players want from a game, and what they can get from a game time-wise. Even between all the players generally 'in the middle'. We don't even need Bartle for this.

    When the proposition *seems* to be "Make it general and catch a lot, or make it specific and catch a few", we shouldn't be surprised about the rise of generality. I'm all for catering to different types of players and expectations through different titles, but I also know that may not make financial sense on many occasions.

    In any case, the problem we're having is not one of General v Specific. It's perfectly possible to make -great- general games. The problem we've been seeing is that general tends to attract the bland and derivative much more easily than the specific. This is easily observable from 2005 on. I don't buy that generality has to be accompanied by bland and plain by default. If it is, then we're just being lazy.

    But, some people don't like elements like the setting or the art. ;)

    Ow. My below the belt area. ;)

    FWIW, my wife really likes the Fallen Earth dances video, and so do I. Was it too much trouble to put -that- video up in the official website instead of bland screenies? Marketing? Hello? McFly?

    My post is long enough as it is, but I was thinking about analyzing some existing games and seeing where some of the current darlings like EVE Online are fulfilling this.

    EVE, Darkfall and to some extent Fallen Earth are doing this and doing it fine; they're catering to the player that likes things a little more serious (you know what I mean) and can commit to the investment they require. They're niche titles, and I don't mean that in a bad way. To the contrary. We need more games like that. Just like we need more ultra-casual no consequences games, and just like we need everything in the middle. Ebbs and flows of the hardcore all you want, but there will always be players that look for that and we need to serve them.

    Where I personally take exception is when people fall into the trap of aggrandizing their niche, talk of it being the only one and true MMO vision and other bits of hogwash.

    I wish that were true, but history doesn't bear that out, sadly. Witness the fall of "adventure games".

    But where is this huge fall? I can go online and start playing Zork if I want to. Probably in less time than it took for it to originally load from tape or floppy. Within 10 minutes I could probably find an emulator online to play Microprose's F-19, or an AMIGA emulator to play Birds of Prey, or a C-64 emu to play Paradroid. There's a zillion versions of Pong made in Java that run in a browser. Dig enough online and you'll even find emus and utilities to play weird stuff like Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders, or the C64 version of Neuromancer.

    We can talk about rises and falls of popularity, but it's not that anything disappears. Not in this day and age. Even now there are thousands of guys using Flash to make new adventure games every day. My son plays those Flash games every day. Most of them are junk, but so what? We're not talking about quality here.

    Nothing disappears anymore.

    Comment by Julian — 13 October, 2009 @ 9:32 PM

  23. Julian wrote:
    I'm all for catering to different types of players and expectations through different titles, but I also know that may not make financial sense on many occasions.

    This is one reason I'm a proponent of microtransactions. It allows true fans to support a game and get stuff without the discomfort donations, etc. Our version of M59 showed that having a passionate fanbase with a subscription-based game isn't enough. Having a game without a fixed subscription also give people who are on the edge about a game an excuse to go ahead and try it.

    I don't buy that generality has to be accompanied by bland and plain by default.

    Bland is the least likely to offend anyone, therefore it appeals to the widest audience. It's why we have the term "least common denominator" in entertainment and why it has connotations of being pablum. Note the word "pablum" also means a bland, processed cereal intended for infants. There are reasons for these meanings.

    This isn't to say that you can't be clever. WoW certainly has its piquant bits, but that's because it's playing to the audience that appreciates those bits. Your grandmother may not dig the idea of short bearded guys with guns and attack animals, but it fits the expectations of anyone who has played D&D or read a fantasy novel.

    Ow. My below the belt area. ;)

    In my defense, you did publicly stand with your legs apart and shout, "KICK ME IN THE GOOLIES!" at passers-by.

    Marketing? Hello? McFly?

    I've heard a rumor that indie game developers suck at marketing. This is why publishers take a king's ransom from other developers to do it for them. I've also heard that having enthusiastic players recommend the game works wonders.

    Where I personally take exception is when people fall into the trap of aggrandizing their niche, talk of it being the only one and true MMO vision and other bits of hogwash.

    Speaking as a professional developer who at times peered into the realm of corporate investment, the reason this is usually the case is because a lot of people judge your worthiness based on your conviction. Claiming you have the "one true path" to profitability means someone might pay more attention to you. Having a wishy-washy attitude of, "Yeah, other people may be able to do it, too." means investors may be more interested in looking for those others instead of you. One guy I know had all the enthusiasm in the world and no idea how to realize his goal. He's gotten actual investment whereas I've just gotten bitter.

    We can talk about rises and falls of popularity, but it's not that anything disappears. Not in this day and age.

    Feel free to point me to a place where I can play Kesmai's Multiplayer Battletech.

    Even now there are thousands of guys using Flash to make new adventure games every day. My son plays those Flash games every day. Most of them are junk, but so what? We're not talking about quality here.

    I am a professional developer. You'll pardon me if the time I take off from worrying about my dwindling savings I spend on commercial pursuits. Perhaps there will always be someone willing to hook a few game clients together to make an MMO, but once the money stops flowing that's not my personal happy place.

    My point was that even if it "has to change" as you said, it doesn't have to change for the better. Yes, you can still play adventure games and new commercial games are still being made, but there's a world of difference between what we have now and when adventure games were at their peak. I'd prefer to see MMOs improve rather than become sad shadows of what could have been.

    Comment by Psychochild — 14 October, 2009 @ 1:50 AM

  24. The paid content model will be tough, because you will have large dead zones in between each release, and you also are going to see players expectations rise tremendously since they are paying for the experience. If you pay twenty bucks for a content pack, and it sucks or worse nerfs your class, you'll get very annoyed.

    I don't know, I can't see how expensive it is to make creative content. Is it really that costly to have the first person who opens the sharpbeak victim cage suddenly their hand trapped in the lock while doors open and a flood of enemies rushes out to hit the surprised party? Instead of killing ten rats, is it that hard to make a quest defending ten rats? I don't think real creativity is all that more costly than bad ideas.

    Comment by Dblade — 14 October, 2009 @ 2:59 AM

  25. Your grandmother may not dig the idea of short bearded guys with guns and attack animals, but it fits the expectations of anyone who has played D&D or read a fantasy novel.

    Well, do we really wanna go into the "Who are we making these games for?" argument? That's for a whole new post ;)

    Feel free to point me to a place where I can play Kesmai's Multiplayer Battletech.

    Eh, bit unfair that one. MPBT never really left beta.

    My point was that even if it "has to change" as you said, it doesn't have to change for the better. Yes, you can still play adventure games and new commercial games are still being made, but there's a world of difference between what we have now and when adventure games were at their peak.

    But that's evolution, in a way. Nobody had a meeting in a dark boardroom full of smoke and decided "Hey, let's kill adventure games and flight sims". There came a point where few people wanted to make adventure games (and fewer people even wanted to fund them) because the hardware they had was capable of so much more, that's where the leading edge was and the leading edge sells. There came a point that people largely wanted to play something else, and we need to acknowledge that. Gaming evolved past the old LucasArts point and clickies because we had the capabilities do so so much more than that.

    It would have been a tragedy if the genre was truly lost, but I don't think we've "lost" any genres since the 70s.

    I'd prefer to see MMOs improve rather than become sad shadows of what could have been.

    And they haven't? Look at the landscape 10 and 5 years ago and look at it now. Of course focusing in generality exclusively is a problem, but I don't see that we're doing that. I might see the AAA's largely doing it, but it's not all about them.

    ---

    Dblade:

    Instead of killing ten rats, is it that hard to make a quest defending ten rats?

    Hard? No. But it's bad enough to defend/escort one NPC and you want me to defend 10? I wouldn't even pick up that quest myself.

    Comment by Julian — 14 October, 2009 @ 7:48 AM

  26. "we can offer paid content when it becomes available."

    It seems to work well for Wizards 101. It's an innovative game compared to the WoWclones on many fronts, but the business model is one of the better ones.

    Comment by Adam — 14 October, 2009 @ 5:03 PM

  27. Mabinogi actually has that quest, which is why I reference it. You have to defend a bunch of sheep from a bunch of wolves, and it's fun because the conditions of failure are low enough where you can enjoy running around and smacking wolves instead of constantly stressing over AI or mechanics.

    Problem is that you are too used to poor quest design that makes quests a chore that you don't really see that you can improve the actual experience by being creative. It just needs more thought in the design stage than a lot of people are willing to give.

    Comment by Dblade — 14 October, 2009 @ 5:33 PM

  28. Julian wrote:
    Well, do we really wanna go into the "Who are we making these games for?" argument? That's for a whole new post ;)

    Yes, that's a tangent. Just saying that while some of us might call WoW's design "bland", that's not necessarily true on a universal scale.

    Eh, bit unfair that one. MPBT never really left beta.

    While Multiplayer Battletech 3025 never left beta, there was a previous version that ran for several years. This version is not available anymore as far as I can see, despite having a fairly enthusiastic following. MMOs are strange beasts given the fact that the server isn't usually freely available without a major fuckup on the part of the previous owner.

    I might see the AAA's largely [focusing on generality], but it's not all about them.

    Sadly, for a lot of people, it IS all about them. Especially the people who write the checks to get these things made. They see WoW, think that games are easy so obviously anyone can do the same thing, and won't listen to alternatives. And, we could talk about how the audience isn't receptive to different ideas despite their loud lamentations, but once again, that's a topic for a completely different post.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 October, 2009 @ 2:21 AM

  29. I think the common perception is that players need to log into their game world every day, or 5 days a week, or Friday through Sunday etc. Otherwise, they are missing out, wasting their monthly fee, falling behind friends, what have you.

    "Using the microtransaction model, focus on providing a small amount of exceptional content. Instead of demanding a subscription from people who may like the game but not feel compelled to keep paying for the game, we can offer paid content when it becomes available."

    This paradigm requires an implicit consent that you will not be playing such an MMO every day. Maybe you would want to play really badly today, but there is no new content or some that you want to pay for.

    This is where the grind and theme park aspects come into play, there is always something to do. Always EXP, gold, renown, or any other foozle to acquire.

    I, for one, would welcome a paradigm shift that meant I didn't have to, or couldn't even, play every day. I liken it to a webcomic:

    You find a comic that you like, so you start from the first strip and work your way forward. There could easily be years of backlogged issues to go through, entirely at your own pace. Content is generated daily/biweekly/weekly/etc. You ultimately set the pace for enjoying the content, with no penalty for a slow speed, and the only limit being the update schedule once you've caught up.

    Sounds like a good way to experience an MMO, especially with a group of like-minded friends who wants to go through the content at a similar pace as you.

    Comment by Black Molly — 15 October, 2009 @ 6:34 AM

  30. Black Molly:

    I think the problem with that is if you don't have people playing every day, you quickly wind up with a low general population, especially if the focus of the game is on completing paid content that appears infrequently. A lot of players don't have the type of friends who can schedule events to do at the same time, and new players don't want to log on to see that few people are on since they are done with the latest mission pack and there's nothing for them to do.

    Plus, you also have the problem of asking people done with paid content to repeat it if newer players need help.

    Comment by Dblade — 15 October, 2009 @ 9:17 AM

  31. We’re missing something in our MMOs

    [...] to transparent and clear information. So with all of these changes, asks Brian 'Psychochild' Green, why are we feeling like there's something missing? Why do we find ourselves less than satisfied in our cleaner, better-designed, and well-built [...]

    Pingback by Massively — 15 October, 2009 @ 11:01 AM

  32. I have always felt something was missing in my MMO's. From the early days of the first generation graphical MMOs to the current generation MMOs, something always felt missing. I have spent years trying to pin-point what it was, jumping around from game to game.

    I then realize, that there are a few things that games have in common that gave me that feeling.

    The two main factors are Immersion and Progression.

    Immersion

    Immersion is the key factor in any game. No matter which standpoint you are from, developer or publisher, immersion is one of the key retention mechanics in any game, and arguably, TV show.

    So what is it about games that doesn't immerse?

    1) Reliance on Imagination
    Heard the question "Why can I carry 20 pieces of armor, 40 weapons, 220 assorted potions and miscellaneous loot in a pocket?"

    I have seen that question quite a number of times in various games, and it got me thinking. Sure, I am used to the mechanics, I know why it is there for. But when I am forced to imagine something not shown or explained, it does detract from immersion.

    In a sense, what I have said has totally contradicted many things, as imagination is key to any game. Yet, I believe, let me coin a word here, "immersive imagination" has yet to be fully explored.

    Maybe this might help you understand what I'm getting at:
    A world that is described in detail, by words and/or pictures would immerse anyone.
    A world that is vaguely described wouldn't.

    We have since crossed a big gap which is graphics, and technology has since made it look really good in the process. Literally, what would take a 1000 words to describe a single room in a MUD would be just there, staring at you, in glorious 3D.

    Why then, do I get the feeling that we are actually regressing in terms of being immersed?

    2) Animations
    Animations are a huge block for me. I don't do martial arts nor do I do much of anything my online avatar would in the real world, why would it matter to me?

    In today's world, where the TV is still an important part of every household, and movies are released every other day, even if people don't do it themselves, they see it. They see how that Chinese guy kicks the crap out of his opponents, they see how a stoned-looking man jump from rooftops to rooftops and even fly, they see how a soldier shoots a rifle, and they definitely see many people running to or from things.

    Most games have reached the point where they can have pretty believable animations, basing off motion captures and what have you not. But it seems that many MMOs tend not to have such quality animations, for some bizarre reason.

    From running to even swinging a sword, animations tend to look stiff. Characters tend to look like they woke up with stiff muscles and joints and swing their weapons as if they are not sure that the demon attacking them really is evil, and should be killed.

    3) Character Builds

    A huge detracting factor of immersion to me is being forced into the confines of a Character Build. Granted, I come up with really zany ideas for my character, and while I do not implicitly roleplay, I do get into my character. But few games allow you to really craft the character you really want.

    Worse still, are the games that try to allow you to do that, only to make you so weak and underpowered that you will soon switch back to the preferred builds. World of Warcraft is one of the games that does this, and there is only one person I heard of that did try to go against the grain and is quite happy with it (http://meleehunter.blogspot.com/). He has however, made many concessions, and to me, it is just a little too much.

    Of course, balancing a game which allows you to carry a staff and a sword whilst casting spells while mounted on a white horse would probably make any game designer go insane. But it seems that new games are giving it a shot, so we can only hope.

    Progression

    I found out only recently, that progression isn't all about unlocking Achievements, getting to level 40/50/80 nor hording enough currency to purchase every player's soul and make a machine that harness said souls for power to play good soulful tunes. Nope. It it's about goals, and achieving said goals.

    In a sense, quests provide that, guiding you from objective to objective, until you run out of content. The more time spent on crafting the quest makes it every bit more immersive and it also compels the player to complete it.

    However, if the quest mechanic isn't in, can there still be goals? I say yes. A game that proved that was an old RTS MMO that some of you might know of called Shattered Galaxy. It was a game that had you building your army, and the objective is to take control of as many territories as possible for your faction (A player can join one of 4 factions) for resources.

    There is a leveling system for your character, and there is a leveling system for each of your units. But, the main draw was control. You wanted to control the map. You stayed in, with your faction mates, to defend and attack.

    Of course, goals can be self-created as well. For example, exploring every inch of the world. However, such goals are created usually with some subtle hinting, be it a passing remark of "Hey, there is stuff to be found all around the world" to even a simple blatant "There's a secret pick up in this area." I liked how Warhammer Online did it, where Achievements are present, but most are very vague on what to do.

    I believe this will always be worked on, as more and more are starting to explore "horizontal expansion".

    Comment by CalebG — 15 October, 2009 @ 8:43 PM

  33. Dblade,

    You are most likely right, that an MMO wouldn't work too well along those lines. I guess it is more rooted in the mindset that: since I have limited free time, any MMO that requires a large time investment is not worth playing. I guess you would have to stick to a single player game, or maybe a LAN/PBEM game, in order to have that.

    However, I still wonder how the issue can be addressed. Does an MMO need to have that "addiction" factor, that need to always keep playing, to be successful?

    Comment by Black Molly — 16 October, 2009 @ 5:36 AM

  34. Death Grip on the Reins

    [...] Brian “Psychochild” Green thinks modern MMO design lacks adventure. I concur. I can’t help but think that this is largely due to the developer impulse to control the game experience, rather than let the reins loose a bit and let the players be the content. It’s wholly understandable, considering just how badly players can screw things up, but realistically, in a medium where audience choice is key to the experience (games), you must let players control the experience to some degree. [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 16 October, 2009 @ 6:24 AM

  35. "Doing things the proper way removes frustrations, but it also removes unexpected experiences that stand out in players' minds."

    This is why some of my best gaming experiences have been in FPS games like Quake, Half-Life, and Counter-Strike. Since gameplay is based upon your personal skill, not the skill of your "character", the unexpected and unusual can happen within the game, almost to the point that it feels like an "epic" moment or achievement. You rarely get that in MMOs because even when you achieve something supposedly "epic" and get an "achievement" for it, you know that someone tomorrow will be duplicating the exact same "canned" experience in another instance. :)

    "The world is also supposed to support the illusion that the player is the big hero."

    What most game developers need to realize though is that gamers are more than happy being "heroes" in their own unique and diverse ways. So ya some people like leading the charge and commanding troops. Others however just like chopping heads. And hell, some even just like being a weaponsmith, knowing that his swords were used in helping to defeat the enemy. It's not so much what you do, it's more about the feeling of appreciation you get, no matter how small the contribution to the greater global effort. That feeling of being needed and appreciate in a multiplayer game is critical.

    "I'm asking if the *play* is enough, if there is enough achievement in playing and conquering in-game tasks..."

    I agree with Tesh. The experience is the reward / achievement.

    Comment by Nollind Whachell — 16 October, 2009 @ 11:28 AM

  36. I agree with what Nollind said. Players both find acts of personal skill and often, 'the little things' as good rewards. Some of the better rewards I've had in MMOs are...

    -Winning Disadvantaged PvP fights (1 vs 2 or what have you)
    -Completing very difficult pulls or navigating difficult areas without causing aggro. One example would be getting to the bottom of guk without aggroing any mobs. A small sense of acheivement but one none the less.
    -Getting your player house in UO laid out exactly like you want it
    -Finding some neat path to 'climb' over world geometry to do things like get on top of a statue or some other cool object.
    -Soloing something very difficult, even if it drops nothing.
    -Completing an instance quickly even if there's no additional reward.

    Stuff like that gives you a sense of accomplishment because it's something to be proud of in relation to your peers. Completing in game rewards that are only a test of the amount of time you have to invest really aren't satisfying.

    MMOs, in addition to social aspects, needs to do a better job of bringing out player skill and encouraging players to feel accomplished about completing tasks. They won't do this by heavy handed in game rewards, instead they need to open up their mechanics to give players more freedom.

    Comment by Logo — 16 October, 2009 @ 2:26 PM

  37. /AFK – October 18

    [...] Psychochild re: Adventure – “Luke didn’t broadcast on /lfg before heading into Jabba’s palace to try to save his friends.” [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 18 October, 2009 @ 4:55 AM

  38. Babies and Bathwater

    [...] has been a recent round of blog posts suggesting that current MMOs have lost something, that they aren’t living up to their potential, are in desperate need of a revolution, and [...]

    Pingback by Mobhunter.com — 19 October, 2009 @ 10:01 AM

  39. I reject the entire premise of this column. Whats missing from movies? Whats missing from books? Whats missing from Radio? Media develop to maximize their own potential, and the best uses for a medium, naturally find staying power and establish norms. Creative minds will always push envelopes and experiment with new ideas, and the stuff that works will get absorbed into the general cannon. The concept of asking "what is missing" is a pessimistically misguided way of asking "what's coming next"?

    Comment by Jack — 20 October, 2009 @ 8:52 AM

  40. Just this: Remove all user-end access to the numbers that run the game. No mods to tell you when it's "optimal" to push a button, no mods to tell you the big baddie is about to breathe fire (so you should push a button). No mods to tell you how much of a bad-ass the baddie really is. You want your heart to pound? Try figuring out if the baddie in the corner of the tavern just looks bad, or really IS bad, with nothing but, "Well, when I went to go kick his ass, I had an easy time," to go on.

    Numbers = number crunchers. Yawn.

    Comment by Gauduhn — 20 October, 2009 @ 10:02 AM

  41. Derrick said, "What I'm interested in is procedurally generated "back up" content; dungeons and things, that players can rate when they are done... Higher rated ones can then become fixed places in the game world, with just a little customization by the level designers. This would cut out a lot of time, and allow vastly more "places of interest" in the game world than would normally exist."

    The very real danger here is precisely what happened with CoH's Architect system; people would give high ratings to the easier content, e.g. dungeons with shortcuts and buggy bosses.

    *********

    evizaer said, " think the general disinterest in procedurally generated content is due to the fact that people are told before-hand that the content is procedurally generated. When you know something is made by a machine, you immediately try to pick out how it's different or worse than what a human would have done."

    I don't agree; I'm personally prone to view everything with the same critical eye. I've played in plenty of games with hand-made areas that had serious geometry flaws, including but not limited to items floating in the air, NPCs that couldn't be reached, textures that didn't align properly, etc. I don't personally care whether an area is hanfcrafted or procedurally generated, as long as it fits the setting properly, looks appealing in the context of said setting, provides me a place to play/explore, and lacks bugs.

    *********

    Dave Toulouse said, "The feeling I get is that a lot of people when entering a new MMO are asking "ok, where do you want me to go" instead of asking themselves "ok, where do I want to go?"."

    Precisely. That's what themepark MMOs essentially are, and that's why there's no sense of adventure therein really. We're not making our own paths, not finding our own adventures, and we're certainly not shaping the world in even the smallest way. We're just looking for prefab quests that, having completed, will reset for the next player, and so modern MMO gameplay is little more than following a trail of breadcrumbs from one preset goal to another. We don't even get to find our own ways to accomplish goals - quests don't work that way. Stopping an invasion, for instance, is going to entail first killing X number of invaders, then killing the leader, who always spawns in a certain spot (although sometimes his spawn is triggered). We can't e.g. try to scare them off instead, or infiltrate and undermine them, or whittle away at their support lines... we have to follow the script. It's "choose your own adventure" gaming, where the options available are already preestablished and there's no room for divergence.

    *********

    Julian said, "But the problem I see is that this "sense of adventure" means different things to different people. For some, on one end of the spectrum, a "sense of adventure" translates to the constant rush and excitement of a hardcore PvP environment where everything can be lost, etc. Eve, Darkfall, et al. For some others, on the other end, the "sense of adventure" could simply mean "let me get together with some friends and knock off some easy content". The adventure is lighter, but the sense is no less real. And then you have all the shades of players in between."

    I think, fundamentally, in order to have a sense of adventure, we need two things: risk and unpredictability. When we know we cannot ever truly fail, where's the adventure? We can zerg until the boss drops, or keep trying and retrying until we find the only series of moves the designers will allow us to make in order to solve the preset puzzles. Even worse though is the lack of unpredictability; since modern MMOs are completely static and everyone consumes the same content, clever and motivated players will quickly experiment and find the dominant strategy for any encounter, and then others will research and follow those blueprints. When the boss raises his hands, everyone needs to run back because he's going to do his AE stomp, and then there's a 10 second gap during which he's vulnerable before he starts blocking again. Yeahhhh, that's exactly how I picture Beowulf defeating Grendel.

    *********

    Psychochild wrote, "Procedurally generated content feels different than hand-crafted to experienced players. I can't offer conclusive proof, though, so we'll have to wait for someone better funded than us to test your theory. ;) I also think developers want to rely on it too much and underestimate the work involved. Spelunky (a game I was obsessed over for a few weeks) is an interesting example, because it's obvious that a lot of work went into forming the rules that limit the random generation to playable games. It's not like there's a "generate content" button that magically appears when a developer decides to use procedurally generated content. In addition, Spelunky is a single-player game that can be played in a few hours. If you get a bad random setup, there's very little cost in playing again. Imagine if you got to the end of a 4-hour raid and the final boss was simply invincible to your group because the random number generator gave the boss a 1-in-a-million selection of powers that together make the encounter impossible. Spelunky is fun for a lot of people, but the game is brutal, unforgiving, and not attuned to "mainstream" tastes like WoW is. Not that I have anything against niche games, but you need to understand where your tradeoffs are coming from in design. Will adding proceedural content on top of having a hard-core PvP game make the niche too small to be sustainable, for example?"

    I think the issue here is simply one of adequate design parameters. Obviously as you noted there's no magical "generate content" button, and instead we have to define everything with a series of rigid requirements. Creating guidelines for PCG isn't by any means easy, but I don't think it's impossible to create PGC that looks and feels as good as handcrafted content, with the notable exception of works of art. Naturally occurring features like terrain and flora though, as well as spawn points, could be supplemented with handcrafted lego campsites, ruins, etc (bits and pieces that would be assembled according to the definitions supplied to create reasonably realistic structures/ruins/etc), etc. There's obviously a break-even point here... it takes a LOT of work to adequately define PGC such that it is indistinguishable from handcrafted content, and this would only be worthwhile if the world is big enough to justify the work. Why procedurally generate a small static world? It's not worth the trouble.

    I look at this as analogous to Clarke's Third Law: any sufficiently well designed PGC is indistinguishable from handcrafted content. The trick obviously is designing it well enough, which as you noted takes enormous resources and time. In theory, rules could be established to prevent that impossible boss, but again, that's not a simple prospect and it's a lot easier and faster to handcraft a boss, or two, or two hundred, than to set up a rigorous enough set of rules to make PG bosses as good as handcrafted ones.

    Comment by foolsage — 20 October, 2009 @ 10:56 AM

  42. Regarding procedural art, I wrote about it a while back, citing Shamus' articles on FUEL. I'm an artist, and of a mind that savvy artists are key to defining the procedural rules that the generators use. We teach art students about the elements of art, we can do the same for computers. There is a certain element of human whimsy to the whole process, but a LOT of what artists do in production could be given to a good set of procedural code. I, for one, love procedural tools that let me leverage my creativity and free me from the drudgery of the same old procedures that any good little script could do. I'm free to focus on *art direction* rather than *art asset generation*, and I think that makes a world of difference.

    Comment by Tesh — 20 October, 2009 @ 12:27 PM

  43. Fair enough Tesh. I do agree that procedurally generated art is possible (it sounds strange to say "PG art" since that brings entirely different things to mind). I think however that it's a lot more difficult to procedurally generate art than it is to procedurally generate "random" things like terrain and flora, and still have the results "pass" for handcrafted assets. Given the right resources though, I believe you're quite right that it can be done; c.f. the cited Clarke's Third Law above.

    Comment by foolsage — 20 October, 2009 @ 1:00 PM

  44. To put it more clearly: the part I question is that it's significantly less work to create a system that procedurally generates content than it is to create it by hand. I don't think going to the realm of art is useful since a lot of the stuff that can be generated is well-studied and applicable in more areas. For example, consider a cloudy sky can be used in different games, but Spelunky's random level generator would be significantly less useful in an RPG. An artist also has a chance to review procedurally generated content before it is used, so they can tweak it. The goal of a game built with procedurally generated content is usually to let the system create new content on a regular basis. I'm all for allowing artists to not have to create a cloudy sky from a blank screen, but I have my doubts if we can do the same with a majority of content in games anytime in the near future.

    As I said, people seem to think procedurally generated content just magically happens and you don't need a team of experts to define and tweak the system. I have a hard time believing that the effort put into a system to make a lot of content that feels just like hand-crafted stuff is going to be significantly less than the effort to just hand-craft it in the first place.

    foolsage wrote:
    In theory, rules could be established to prevent that impossible boss....

    In theory, we could code bug-free software, too. In practice, we know how that turns out. :) Anything that is complex enough to simulate hand-crafted work is going to be complex enough to have nasty bugs lingering.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 October, 2009 @ 12:01 AM

  45. Psychochild wrote, "As I said, people seem to think procedurally generated content just magically happens and you don't need a team of experts to define and tweak the system. I have a hard time believing that the effort put into a system to make a lot of content that feels just like hand-crafted stuff is going to be significantly less than the effort to just hand-craft it in the first place."

    Well, I explicitly acknowledged that PGC doesn't happen easily and that it's obviously easier to create hand-crafted content up to a certain point. Of course a team of experts is needed, and a lot of time and effort. Nobody's gainsaying that.

    However, at the same time, it's possible to create PGC that's "good enough". It's, again, not simple and not cost-effective compared to handcrafted content, up to a certain point anyhow. So the issue then becomes, how large must a world be before it's cheaper to procedurally generate it than it is to handcraft it? In the case of dynamic worlds, this becomes even more important, since PGC can allow for changes over time based on player interactions and algorithmic effects. PGC also allows for things like bosses that don't always act the same way.

    There's of course a tradeoff. It's my belief though that static handcrafted content is just too limiting in too many ways to really satisfy players over time. If you're e.g. creating a new space exploration game, or one with dimensional travel, for instance, wouldn't it be nice to have the capacity to provide massive amounts of content in keeping with the setting? Wouldn't it be nice to have dynamic spawns of NPCs, foes, and bosses, with algorithmically defined behaviors instead of precoded ones? The potential for emergent gameplay increases dramatically with PGC, as a natural outgrowth of using lower-level definitions instead of handcrafted encounters/quests.

    I don't think anybody here believes it would be easy. But would it be worth it? And if so, at what point?

    Comment by foolsage — 21 October, 2009 @ 12:47 PM

  46. "I have a hard time believing that the effort put into a system to make a lot of content that feels just like hand-crafted stuff is going to be significantly less than the effort to just hand-craft it in the first place."

    Well, the whole point of using procedures to handle things is that they reach that tipping point and from then on are more efficient than generating by hand. (As Foolsage notes, there *is* a threshold where it makes sense.) For instance, I'm generating art assets now at work that could easily be scripted if someone wanted to take the time to do it. Since scripting is usually an engineer task, and they are working hard on the engine, though, the repetitive and relatively mindless task falls to me, the artist. (Engineers have the same sort of tasks; the term "code monkey" applies, and not only is it inefficient, but it kills morale.)

    Not being a code guru (despite having some experience scripting and very minor coding experience with C++), I'm not sure how long it would take to make such a script, but I can almost promise that it would be less time than it's taken me to generate these by hand. That's not always going to be the case, certainly, but there are definitely cases where automated procedural tools will be optimal. Perhaps it takes more savvy project planning than exists presently in the industry.

    Oh, and yes, properly defining art asset generation tools really does need an artist on board. Preferably, one who understands scripting and coding as well as art. (Which I'm trying to do, and did for a while with Maya's MEL scripting. MAX is considerably more finicky.) I've not argued that it's easier, just that it's more efficient *in sum* past that threshold (which, to be fair, varies considerably).

    Comment by Tesh — 21 October, 2009 @ 1:26 PM

  47. foolsage wrote:
    I don't think anybody here believes it would be easy.

    Perhaps not in this discussion, because my readers are intelligent and well-informed. ;) But, I know some people put forward PGC as a "cheap and easy" way to create content. The same way people used to believe that user generated content (UGC) was the silver bullet and underestimate how much time and effort it takes to monitor and approve content (or how offensive/poor the content will be without monitoring and approval).

    Tesh wrote:
    (As Foolsage notes, there *is* a threshold where it makes sense.)

    I disagree that it has to exist. It's like saying that there's a threshold where procedurally generated music makes sense. I don't think anyone who has any inkling of how the music industry works, or how much money it makes, believes the major labels would hesitate to put music artists out of business if it were feasible to research and develop. ;)

    Not to say you can't procedurally generate music (or other works of art), but these either rely heavily on a core of professional generated content (as the Musikalisches Würfelspiel does). If you need an endless amount of noise or a large number of repetitive minuets, it works fine, I guess. But, ultimately it simply doesn't satisfy your music craving the same way your favorite musician does.

    Finally, I think there's a HUGE stumbling block here.

    Oh, and yes, properly defining art asset generation tools really does need an artist on board.

    Given that even the top tier designers still aren't sure how to clearly communicate design concepts to others, given the endless attempts at defining a game design grammar, and given that ask 12 designers what "fun" is and you'll get at least 25 different answers, I don't think we understand enough about game design to properly define how a PGC system would work.

    Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Robo-designer 3000 will put all us game designers out of work and then go on to enslave the whole Earth. Just remember I warned you all when you have to block out the sun in your futile attempt to stop the robots and disconnect everyone else from that virtual world they created to enslave humanity. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 October, 2009 @ 2:36 AM

  48. In my view, there are two tiers of PGC, or two classes of content that can be created: random, and meaningful. Random PGC is stuff like clouds, terrain, flora, foe spawn points, and to a certain degree foe AI (more on this later as it's an outlier). Provided there are well-enough designed underlying rules (e.g. guidelines for cirrus, stratus, cumulus, nimbus, cold fronts, hot fronts... if you want to take it that far that is, and it usually isn't necessary to take it nearly that far), I don't see why PGC clouds can't be a perfectly reasonable substitute for handcrafted clouds. Likewise, SpeedTree does a perfectly servicable job at making trees that are "good enough".

    Meaningful content is trickier, and that's why I think it deserves to be considered separately. Creating art through PGC is possible in theory as Tesh notes, but I'm not sanguine about that being efficient compared to handcrafted art. I think it'd take a lot more time and effort to create meaningful content procedurally than it would to create random content, and so I'd propose that it makes the most sense to focus first on the random content.

    AI is unusual in that it's apparently meaningful but in most cases really isn't. Finite state machines can do a serviceable job modeling behaviors, and I think it's reasonable to approach AI as a special case of random content, wherein there are a fairly small number of options at each state. Having more unpredictable AI is of course a whole new problem though, since that directly affects the game's difficulty. It seems likely that fairly massive testing would be necessary to implement a procedurally generated AI system, above and beyond what would be needed to create PG terrain, flora, and spawn points.

    Comment by foolsage — 22 October, 2009 @ 9:38 AM

  49. Mission: Inevitable

    [...] Psychochild posted an interesting article about what’s missing in our games these days, and it got me to thinking. [...]

    Pingback by Fool’s Age — 22 October, 2009 @ 10:09 AM

  50. I think part of the problem with MMOs is that they try to attract too many different types of players - they're trying to do too much! The great thing about stand alone games is they can really focus on one play style - they pretty much target one set of game mechanics/setting and chase it down to the best of their ability. Now compare that to a WoW type game - the goal is to make it as widely available and appealing as possible - you pull back the graphics of the program because you want most computers to run it, you dumb down content so it's accessible to all players, and you add a ridiculous amount of features (crafting, raiding, PvP, exploration, achievs). I think that if anything is missing from games it's pragmatism and maybe a splash of nostalgia. On that last word - I'd like to pretend it's all blizzard's fault that I don't enjoy wow anymore, but the fact of the matter is it's not 1996 Meridian and I'm not 14.

    Comment by Sang — 22 October, 2009 @ 3:55 PM

  51. I was just thinking about how I missed EQ 10 years ago, when it first came out. I felt lost. I had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, but it was marvelous. It makes me wonder if the route we are on now is taking us further and further away from what I remember my experience of pen and paper role playing was like, and more toward the theme park mentality. And I am certain of it.

    Some thoughts I've had:

    1. Goodbye developer created quests. No more go to X guy to receive Y quest and kill Z monster for w00t phat l00tz. Quest Journals go bye bye.
    2. A living breathing game world filled with NPCs who like or dislike each other, who have needs such as farming, protecting their families, hunting for food, delivering cargo, collecting taxes, running the kingdom, guarding caravans, etc. You wouldn't get quests from these people, but you could do things that would aid them in carrying out their jobs, which would lead to achievements, exploration, and killing. Farmer being attacked by a band of goblins as you walk by, kill the goblins, save the farmer. Goblins drop goodies. Farmer goes back to war after thanking you - perhaps offering a small reward of some kind. This type of thing.
    3. More GMs running live events than has ever been done before. Full-time employed, competent semi-designers with access to kick ass tools that allow for intriguing, fun events happening all over the game world at regular times. Perhaps one GM per zone, always online creating new quasi-procedural content?

    I guess I'm advocating a game that feels alot less like a game, and more like a living breathing world, where the players must explore, and chance upon adventure, rather than reading a guide on the internet to go here and do this and kill that. An MMO that is truly what the player makes of it. Will he save the farmer from the goblins or let the man die, loot his house key form his pocket, then break into his house and loot it? A gameworld that uses a great deal of emergent AI and emergent mechanics that allow the players to create their own adventures simply by interacting with the world.

    Yet this gameworld would still be highly accessible, not requiring hardcore hours to get anywhere, massive guilds to raid with, etc. Those things could still exist, but the casual gamer should be able to log on, wander around and see situations occurring all around them that they could opt into or pass on by. Am I dreaming?

    Comment by Matthew Doyle — 22 October, 2009 @ 4:00 PM

  52. foolsage wrote:
    In my view, there are two tiers of PGC, or two classes of content that can be created: random, and meaningful.

    When I refer to generated content, I mean what you refer to as "meaningful". Honestly, most of what you call "random" content is already generated. MMO designers don't place every blade of grass (or strip of grass), the good level tools let you specify "place flora here" and the tool places the flora. Even in a 2D tile editor program I wrote a few years ago I let it pick randomly from a few defined tiles if creating a large swath of the same type of terrain.

    Meaningful generated content is much harder, and this is specifically what I don't think we'll see algorithmically generated. The best we have currently is to allow a system to generate content then to have a human still go in and edit it. Even with a human editing it, it's still not the same. One game that I think used a lot of PCG was Star Wars Galaxies. They wanted to create large areas for each major planet, and they relied on a lot of generated content. The problem is that this encouraged them to have really huge land areas that were mostly empty. The mission and spawn system was also dynamic and had a lot of work put into it; a mission area that was spawned in a rough area would have the land "smoothed out" temporarily to handle the location. But, again, you had to go through a lot of empty areas to get to your mission location. In the end, SWG couldn't generate enough meaningful content to keep players engaged despite having a top-tier license, the resources of the most successful U.S. MMO company at the time, and a lot of successful developers on the team.

    I guess I don't feel it's worthwhile to pin my hopes on that possibility. Perhaps in a few decades we'll see something different, but remember my warnings about the robots enslaving us! ;)

    Matthew Doyle wrote:
    I guess I'm advocating a game that feels alot less like a game, and more like a living breathing world....

    As I said above, I'm hesitant to put this in terms of the game vs. world debate. I don't think this is simply an issue of theme park vs. sandbox. I believe games can have a sense of adventure. The more I consider it, the more I think the culprit is the underlying mechanics of character advancement as we see it in current games.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 October, 2009 @ 4:06 PM

  53. Please don't mistake my comment about a living breathing world that feels less like a game means that it isn't still a game. There would be very clear game mechanics. I'm not advocating a complete sandbox with no gameplay here. I simply think a few typical MMO paradigms need to die. And developer created, contrived quests is one of them. This is the primary mechanic that puts every player on the theme park treadmill after all is it not? What we need is a game about events, sequences of them, which lead to adventure, rewards, and more choices. Gameplay would proceed as normal - explore, locate your target, engage, loot drops, etc. But the gameworld needs to be much less contrived, and more open and freeform.

    Also - what happened to our beloved Dungeon Master? The man (or woman) who used to tell us about this wonderful world hi his head, and speak for every NPC, and create scenarios on the fly for us to master? He has been replaced by a pick your own path adventure book, with no human interaction. This is why I think we need more live GMs devoted not to player tickets and complaints, but to creating live events varying from small soloable scenarios to epic raid sized events.

    And just think of the previous scenario I mentioned about saving the farmer from the Goblins. This could go so much further. Perhaps saving him would lead him to offer you information about the Goblin's hangout, or of another person who has been suffering under their oppression. Perhaps letting him die, and finding the key to his house leads you to discover a map in a chest in his home to something else. I'm talking about a world that is full of gameplay, but done in such a way that the player is not lead by the nose via contrived quests. There is no need to reward a player from doing a quest. The experience is reward enough. They earn loot from adventuring and encountering situations that require a choice and action.

    What is wrong with MMOs today is what is making them sale so well I regret to say. They are all relying on hand holding, paint-by-numbers quests for people to simply click accept and go, leading them down a path. As I said - pick your own adventure books. We need less handholding and more world openess while retaining the ease of play. The gameworld is everything. It's what we play in, look at, etc. And right now, most MMOs feel less like massive open world games, and more like single player rail shooters.

    Or just keep doing things the same old way - get X quest from Y guy, rinse and repeat until you're lvl 60. I think the only real solution is to truly get away form this mentality of everyone loves to read our fiction, because most players just click Accept without reading it.

    Comment by Matthew Doyle — 22 October, 2009 @ 4:48 PM

  54. I'm not seeing how if I take on a garden variety NPC quest, I go fetch ten fish, bring them back to the quest giver, then go kill ten rats for him then I'm a happy and oblivious theme park consumer, but if a live GM/DM tells me to fetch ten fish, bring them back to him and then he sends me to kill ten rats during an event then I'm partaking in this wonderful open world of imagination.

    I don't much care who I'm getting the quests from if the quests themselves are banal. Changing who gives me the quest won't do much to improve things, other than the live GM/DM having an easier time giving me different flavors of banality instead of being locked to always repeat the same one like an NPC would.

    Comment by Julian — 22 October, 2009 @ 5:38 PM

  55. Someone wrote, "Please don't mistake my comment about a living breathing world that feels less like a game means that it isn't still a game."

    And I say har-har-har... Why are you guys, the game devs, trying to simulate a living, breathing game world when your subscription base is living and breathing. Maybe the problem here are the NPC's? Think you couldn't find 24 nerd bags who want to man a shop for an hour a day? Think again!

    Comment by Sang — 22 October, 2009 @ 8:47 PM

  56. Psychochild said, "When I refer to generated content, I mean what you refer to as "meaningful". Honestly, most of what you call "random" content is already generated. MMO designers don't place every blade of grass (or strip of grass), the good level tools let you specify "place flora here" and the tool places the flora. Even in a 2D tile editor program I wrote a few years ago I let it pick randomly from a few defined tiles if creating a large swath of the same type of terrain."

    The existence and prevalence of such basic PGC systems is part of the reason I'm convinced the core premise can be taken further.

    Psychochild said, "Meaningful generated content is much harder, and this is specifically what I don't think we'll see algorithmically generated."

    Well, I tend to agree there; art is not likely to be procedurally generated anytime soon in a vertical solution (that is, bottom to top without human oversight after the algorithms are designed and tested).

    I don't however think meaningful content HAS to be procedurally generated, in order to create masses of content for players to consume. Quests, dungeons, and bosses can be randomized, and that already accounts for a lot of what players spend their time on. A great example of a game that badly needs such a system is Champions Online; it has (in my view) solid core mechanics and very engaging travel and combat, but there simply aren't enough quests, nor enough lairs (dungeons), nor enough unique foes. With a bit of work PGC could solve this problem. I'll admit though that I'm unsure whether Champions Online's needs surpass the threshold that determines whether PGC is cost-effective compared to handcrafted content. In order to make a PGC system worthwhile it would have to be incorporated at a more basic level than current design allows for, I think.

    Psychochild said, "One game that I think used a lot of PCG was Star Wars Galaxies. They wanted to create large areas for each major planet, and they relied on a lot of generated content. The problem is that this encouraged them to have really huge land areas that were mostly empty."

    Well, that doesn't sound very much like a successful test of the PGC tech. That was years ago and I can't say what time and resources went into the system, but I firmly believe it can be done better than you describe.

    I'm enamored of the potential PGC has, but I accept and agree that it hasn't reached this potential to date. But if the first game to fully utilize such a system evolves into Skynet, I'll be the first to say you told us so. :D

    Comment by foolsage — 22 October, 2009 @ 10:40 PM

  57. To clarify... I think we can procedurally generate a lot more content than we currently do, without getting into the realms of "meaningful content". I don't think that was clear in my above comment.

    Comment by foolsage — 22 October, 2009 @ 10:50 PM

  58. Sang said, "Think you couldn't find 24 nerd bags who want to man a shop for an hour a day?"

    Wellllll, actually, yes. I think we couldn't find enough people who'd do quality work, would maintain immersion, wouldn't play favorites, and would add to the player experience, on the kinds of budgets available. AI is a hell of a lot cheaper than minimum wage over time, especially if you're dealing with a game that has hundreds or even thousands of NPCs. AI costs a lot at the front end but lacks the maintenance cost of paying live humans salaries, and of course although AI is susceptible to bugs, it's relatively immune from corruption, boredom, deliberate sociopathy, etc.

    Comment by foolsage — 22 October, 2009 @ 11:09 PM

  59. Players man most of the shops in Puzzle Pirates, and it works very nicely.

    /tangent

    Comment by Tesh — 23 October, 2009 @ 10:30 AM

  60. Foolsage - what Tesh has so aptly nailed down is what I was chasing. I'm sad to know that there's already a working example of what I was talking about because I was oh so proud of myself for being original:(.

    You slapped down a bit of ignorance on my part in mentioning the huge land allocations needed for PGC, maybe a good band-aid would be handing out or selling areas for PCG activities on an as needed basis? It could be as simple as the doors in a town being locked until a player pays for the key.

    Comment by Sang — 23 October, 2009 @ 4:02 PM

  61. @ Sang: Ahhh, gotcha; I misunderstood and thought you were proposing hiring people/players to bring NPCs to life.

    Sure, there's no question players can be a lot more involved in making worlds feel more populated. Few games allow this in any meaningful way right now, but it'd be great to have an increased sense of ownership in games. I definitely think players would do this if it were presented "properly". As noted though, one of the biggest limitations is that of available space; without instancing (as done in e.g. LotRO) it's hard to have space devoted to a player's shop. What happens for instance if a player rents a shop then stops playing? The shop sits empty and that portion of the gameworld is just unused until it's reclaimed. Worse yet is a case wherein a player continues playing but loses interest in the shop... but is still willing to pay the rent/maintenance fee... so the shop just sits there unused, forever.

    It's a good idea though, albeit with some drawbacks that have to be considered.

    Other examples: oldschool EQ had a thriving economy based on players sitting around and setting up ad hoc shops all day long in the tunnels out of West Karana. Aion apparently has player-run shops. Second Life is ALL about this as well.

    Comment by foolsage — 23 October, 2009 @ 5:09 PM

  62. Coffee Talk: Should Death Mean More In Today’s Games?

    [...] take a gander at what these poignant bloggers are discussing and come on back here and lets us know what you think in a broader context. What if [...]

    Pingback by Geekadelphia — 27 October, 2009 @ 7:01 AM

  63. I started with MUDs and my first real MMO was UO. I played that game for years straight. It didnt lead you from place to place. There was no epic gear (eventually they had good dropped gear). There werent 4000 quests to complete, there was basically no questing. But it was FUN! It was focused on exploring, gaining a house, selling your goods.

    Your goods sold because armor and equipment were disposable and wore out, making a nice circular economy. Gather, process, craft, sell, use, lose.

    Another part of the fun was the risk. If you died, you lost your stuff. If you wanted it back, you had to go find it, alive and naked(ish)...or go buy new stuff. But all your gold you had that wasn't in the bank is back there on your corpse along with your armor and weapon, hides, reagents...unless one of the things that killed you took it off your corpse! Mining ore was heavy, you couldnt carry much, so you needed a house to move it in bulk...and that horse could get attacked and die!
    You could steal stuff from other players backpacks.

    Could you imaging all the whining if WoW suddenly put in RISK?! I think it would be fun...

    We need a game where there is risk.
    A game where there is no permanent gear so the crafting and Gathering type players can have fun too and feed the economy.
    A game we can create our own Home in the world to show off what we have done.
    A game where there is more than just kill-loot-sell-repeat or quest-quest-quest.
    A game that doesn't follow a specific path you need to take.

    Yes I miss the old days...I don't miss 2D though!

    Comment by Azzura — 12 November, 2009 @ 2:00 PM

  64. We Do It To Ourselves, We Do – Why MMOs Are as They Are

    [...] made an interesting post recently – why haven’t MMOs lived up to their early potential? Why hasn’t the early potential of games like Ultima Online or Meridian 59 with all their [...]

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  65. I know I'm really late to the party for this thread...and I bring little in the way of expertise and/or hardcore gamer experience...but I think I may have a few things to add that are worth pondering. I wasn't able to get through all of the comments (mostly because some are so damn long), so forgive me if I repeat anything mentioned already.

    1. On the topic of adventure and exploration. Stop with the friggin auto-running. The reason so many games lose subscribers so quickly is that game companies continue to give in to the whine that they MUST have fast travel. Did WoW lose anyone for having 10 minute flight times? Nope. Make people walk. Add fatigue if they try and run too long at one time.

    2. Stop making games that are simply glorified chatrooms. No more chat. nada. bah-bye. Get rid of the chat window that just clutters up the screen with racist, homophobic, trolling, childish chatter. The only time you talk with someone is when you're within "talking" distance. And let it be voice-chat. That way you begin to remove some of the anonymity.

    3. Implement time-limits to servers. That's right. Run six servers in 4-hour increments throughout each day. That way, casual players who want to play for "normal" amounts of time each day can be somewhat at par with the hardcore gamers. Think of it in terms of other entertainment...every show has a beginning and an end. Players will quickly adjust, in fact they will get EXCITED when the time for their server opening up arrives each day/night, and they won't feel they're missing out when they're at work.

    Hey, that was sorta fun. Hope someone reads it!

    Comment by Nosks — 29 December, 2009 @ 3:19 PM

  66. Startling insight about interactivity

    [...] perhaps this is why a sense of adventure has been missing from our games. Perhaps what's really missing is that games cater to people who [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 3 June, 2010 @ 11:42 AM

  67. M is for multiplayer

    [...] to shock anyone here by saying that MMOs aren't living up to their potential. I've said before that there's something missing our games. I think that while games are offering a little more of that spirit of adventure I mentioned in the [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 21 April, 2013 @ 9:39 PM

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