Thursday, April 19, 2007

Evolving from game to world

The recent discussion about tradeskills revealed that there is a part of the MMORPG player base who consider the fighting of monsters to be the only important part of any massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Other activities, like crafting, decorating your house (if your game even has that), or hanging out in taverns to chat, are seen as waste of time, or money-sinks. Their worth is only defined in terms of how they advance your adventuring career, like crafting giving you access to potions needed for raiding. In that model you only need player housing to store your gear, crafting only to make you weapons, armor, and consumables for fighting, and visits to cities only for the necessary trips to your trainer or the auction house. But this model wastes a lot of the potential of online worlds. It turns them into single-purpose, nearly linear, simple games of character advancement. That certainly works for many people, but isn't necessarily the most attractive model for everybody. And by being so linear, this model also has serious problems of longevity.

Now experience has shown that virtual worlds without any sort of game aren't that popular. Second Life has a lot of hype, but very few paying customers. Even A Tale in the Desert, which has game parts, but no monster killing, only has a very small player base. To appeal to a mass market, the classical monster-killing, -looting, and character advancing has to be part of any successful game.

But that doesn't mean that the game couldn't have alternative occupations and advancements. There was a lot of buzz around Vanguard offering alternative careers in either adventuring, crafting, or diplomacy. Too bad the execution and balancing of that was flawed. And the balancing of the crafting system in LotRO isn't looking promising either, although at the base there are a lot of good ideas.

What a future MMORPG needs to offer is different ways to spend your time, beyond fighting either monsters or other players. If any game manages to create alternatives that are executed as well as fighting monsters is working in World of Warcraft, that game could well become the "WoW killer" people have been waiting for. A virtual world in which you could besides adventuring also spend time to decorate your house, to go shopping, to dress in clothes you buy for looks instead of stats, and where you could have jobs other than monster-slayer, has the potential to attract a much larger player-base. Only 16% of WoW-players are female, for example. Only 13% of male WoW players are over 35 years old. Killing stuff will always be highly attractive to young, male players, but game companies would be stupid to limit themselves to just this one target demographic.

But to be attractive to other types of players, the alternative occupations in the game must be independant from adventuring. There should be connections between the different systems, but few or no absolute dependencies. It doesn't help that Vanguard has a wonderful system to decorate your house, if the type of player who would like to decorate houses is forever unable to get there, because you first need to kill 1 million monsters to buy the house. To tailor clothes in World of Warcraft you need to increase your player level, and the only thing you can tailor in different colors is shirts. The diplomacy system in Vanguard starts out brilliantly, and then fails to lead you anywhere.

If I am currently playing with the farming tradeskill in Lord of the Rings Online, it isn't just because I can make more money farming than killing monsters. It is because I've killed enough monsters in WoW and other games, and killing them in LotRO isn't so different. But sowing fields, harvesting and processing plants, cross-breeding seeds, and advancing my farming skill, is a completely different and independently viable system. The reason why I'm so angry about the nerf is that it destroys this viability and independance. I'm just not as interested in a farming tradeskill which you only do because you need buffs from cooked food, but which you need to kill monsters to finance. Crafting as just a money sink in MMORPGs just isn't that attractive.

I am dreaming of a game where I could play a crafter who wouldn't be forced to kill monsters, if he didn't want to. A game where I could have my own house, decorated if I wanted to, and run my own proper shop and business from that house, with hired NPC vendors like in UO or SWG. And beyond that lots of other alternative lifestyles could be possible in a fantasy MMORPG. A diplomacy system that is self-sufficient and viable, where you travel between different places to talk with people and do politics. Or a system where you could play a sage, gathering information in libraries about ancient secrets, and the location of treasures. I'm dreaming of a virtual world, a MMORPG that is a collection of games, and not just one monster-killing games with a couple of useless side-quests. With violence in video games being hotly debated and under attack, it would be wise for game developers to try to offer something else than this violence. As long as any other activity in a MMORPG is subsidiary to combat, these games fail to live up to their potential.

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