Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Designing an impossible game

Although I just renamed the blog to remove "MMORPG" from the title, I will still talk about MMORPGs whenever the mood strikes me. There was some interesting discussion in yesterday's thread about how the people who hate all current MMORPGs are all clamoring for the ultimate sandbox game which totally revolutionizes the genre and is totally different from all successful current game design. My proposal that successful game design is more likely to come from evolutionary changes was dismissed as lack of ideas. So in this post I would like to list my revolutionary ideas, although I am convinced that it is impossible to turn them into a successful game at the current time. At best MMORPGs could slowly evolve in that direction.

The main design problem of MMORPGs in my opinion is repetition. I understand the cost reasons behind it, but I also see the negative effect on gameplay. For comparison, look at a pen & paper roleplaying game: Every single encounter is unique and new to the players. Thus a series of unique encounters makes for an exciting adventure. In a MMORPG there is much less of that uniqueness: Most monsters react in extremely similar ways, quests have similar structures, and dungeons resemble each other in functionality as well. Furthermore if you "fail" at some content, you have the opportunity to try again, and again, until you succeed.

This repeating structure has as consequence that MMORPGs are not games of discovery, adventure, and exploration. Instead they become games of execution. You learn what happens when you pull a mob, what buttons to press, what special abilities the boss mobs have, and so on. Your success is not based on being able to manage a unknown situation, like it would be in a pen & paper game, but on how well you know what will happen, know what the best predefined solution is, and know how to execute it.

My impossible MMORPG would be very different: Monster spawns would not be static, thus just because there are wolves in this part of the forest today, it doesn't mean they will still be there tomorrow. Monster locations would in part change randomly, and in part in response to player actions. And yes, I know that Ultima Online tried that and failed, but they obviously just underestimated the speed with which players can kill mobs. A better system would increase respawn rates in response to player overkill, and make more dangerous monsters appear if the players empty a zone of monsters.

Secondly in my impossible MMORPG the monsters would be far more different from each other. Players would not be able to rely on "knowing" their "aggro radius", because not all mobs would even use that game mechanic. There should be mobs which attack if they "see" you, not just stare right through you if you stand one step outside the aggro radius. Vision-based aggro would also mean that it matters from which direction you come. Classic aggro radii could be smell- or sound-based. And there should be some random chance of unusual behavior, a mob running away at first sight, or running for help, and not a predictable attack that is always the same.

Mobs should have a wider range of attacks, and there should be some randomness in those as well, especially for boss mobs. It should not be possible to "learn" how to beat a boss with predefined moves. Instead boss abilities should be animated to give players an idea what might be coming, and players would be forced to react to what the mob does.

My impossible MMORPG would still have quests, but the tasks given to players would not involve specific monsters. Instead they would for example be asked to retrieve an item from the end of a cave, without knowing what lives in this cave. And the inhabitants of the cave could change from one day to the next, so there would be no strategy to look up in some database.

Besides a far more dynamic world with changing monsters, dynamic spawns, and full of the unknown and unknowable, my impossible MMORPG would also have a more dynamic system of powers for the players. Instead of always having the same buttons to press on, every available power would disappear once used, and replaced by a random other power. But that new power would not be totally random, but just randomly selected from a set which is predetermined by the players. Thus just like deck building in a tradable card game, players would have to select a set of powers they believe will be able to overcome the challenge they face. And that includes the possibility of finding yourself in an unexpected situation with the wrong set of powers, and having to retreat and change your set of powers to better fit the challenge.

My impossible MMORPG would not have levels. Instead it would start with a very low degree of complexity in the powers on offer, simple attacks that work moderately well against everything. Over time players would learn more specialized powers, which are stronger against certain kinds of enemies or in certain situations, but weaker in others.

Overall this would result in a virtual world full of dangers and adventure, and constantly changing. Certain points would be permanently safe, others permanently dangerous, and large areas would be dynamic and changing in response to the actions of the players. And it would be in these dynamic areas that players could build houses or guild structures. Leave such a structure unattended too long while no other players are keeping the area pacified, and you'll find your house occupied by orcs or worse. Clever algorithms would match mob activity with player activity on the server, so that less populated servers would not be unable to keep the monsters at bay, while overcrowded server would not run out of mobs to kill.

I don't think we even have the technology to make all this possible, and the money even less. But at one point in the future I would like to see a virtual fantasy world which is dynamic, and uncertain, full of adventure instead full of checklists of things to do to "finish" a zone.

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