5th GENERATION MASSIVE
Games such as Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and City of Heroes have captivated millions, paying ten to twenty dollars a month to play an unlimited amount of time in an online world which has hundreds of thousands of other players - even tens of millions in the case of the largest games such as World of Warcraft. You can interact with these other players from around the world, talk to them, run around in the game together and cooperate in finishing tasks or exploring, and even attack fellow player characters in a test of skill in combat.
Each of these games has gotten more sophisticated and more entertaining as they build upon previous successes and learn from previous mistakes. The first of these games - Ultima Online - was unplayable trash when it was first released, and is a testament to how far these games have gotten in the last ten years even today. As more impressive and amazing games are released, there's a few features that a MMOG needs before it can truly be a new generation of the game systems rather than a minor upgrade.
The generations go something like this:
- MUDS and other online interactive text games such as MUD1 and PLATO
- Mutiple player service Battlenet from Blizzard, where players could form groups and play Diablo together
- Ultima Online, the first true massively multiplayer online graphical game
- World of Warcraft, who took Everquest's mistakes and great ideas from other 3rd generation upgrades such as Dark age of Camelot and Anarchy Online blended into a superior game.
At present, interaction and real role playing opportunities in these games are severely limited. You cannot customize your character beyond very strict limitations and you cannot really change or have much impact on the world. Lord of the Rings Online has a feature called "chapters" in which as you advance in quests the world changes irrevocably, but it does so the same way for everyone - you're just along for the ride; it isn't based on your actions, but your properly following the script.
Having played these kind of games since the 1st generation way back in the Bulliten Board days of the late 1980s, I have a few ideas on how to move past the present structure of MMOGs.
First, the concept of role playing has to supercede the concept of "balance." At present, the desire to have characters who are no more powerful or weak than each other is the dominant design philosophy. This is particularly true in PVP or Player versus Player interaction, where you fight other player characters. In an effort to make this (small) part of the game as "balanced" as possible, that is to have parity between each character so that none are more powerful than any other, the entire game is engineered to achieve this.
With this concept of balance in mind, encounters are tailored to the average, balanced character: this tough a creature will allow you to give this much challenge to any given character in the game. In a real role playing game, the game master or referee will be a human being who reacts to and adjusts encounters to the characters in the game. In a 4th generation MMOG, the system has to be adjusted to the lowest common denominator, so each character is designed to be as close to that as possible.
This concept of balance does a great deal of damage to the ability of characters to be unique and personalized. If you build a character of a given "class" or profession (say, warrior, or wizard) they will be roughly the same as every other character in that profession with very little variation. Thus, your ability to create your character rather than taking on a premade character with some minor and largely meaningless customization (this one has white hair! This one wears a blue robe! This one focuses on fire rather than cold!) is severely limited.
How to address this?
Balance needs to be deemphisized and PVP balance needs to be a separate area. A game with a smarter world that interacts more cleverly with the characters will not need balance as much as present, very simple generation games. In a game where your basic tasks are find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, you can still adjust the encounters on the fly for what the character is like. One of the greatest achievements of Everquest was the Lost Dungeons of Norrath (LDON) expansion. For the first time in Everquest, they introduced "instanced" dungeons which were sealed off, and only the characters were in them - not hundreds of other players. This solved the problem of places like the Guk dungeon which was so full of characters that you could literally walk from one end to another without any danger or even encountering a monster because each little area they showed up in was "camped" by a group zealously guarding their "spawns." It wasn't a dungeon; it was a shopping mall.
Lost Dungeons of Norrath had a special feature in which it would adjust to the size of your group. Had only 3 characters in your party? Then the dungeon shifted so that it was a challenge appropriate to your group with fewer bad guys and fewer of a certain type that increased difficulty. The rewards were smaller, but the challenge and fun was there even if you couldn't find an exact group to invade the dungeon with. This kind of adjusting encounter is a very smart move and could be expanded to match the person in action.
In World of Warcraft, the idea of "Heroic" dungeons has been implemented in which characters can set a dungeon to be significantly tougher and then face an older place with a greater challenge more appropriate to their power level (with greater rewards). This is limited only to the Outlands expansion so far, but it would inject new life into older dungeons as well. City of Heroes has a feature that lets you tailor your encounters to what power level you want: you can make them insanely difficult - and give huge experience - if you choose. This kind of thing demonstrates what games are already capable of.
Most games have "raid" style encounters in which you require the help of sometimes dozens of others to help you succeed in the fight. The monsters are so very heinous and the encounters so incredibly powerful that they simply cannot be done without a tremendous amount of help. Instead of having specific places designed like this, games should have LDON-style adjusting instances. When you go in with 3 guys, the instance is this tough. When you go in with 25, it is significantly worse. Thus, instead of having isolated, raid-only "dungeons," all areas could be open to anyone, but become as tough as they need to be, satisfying both smaller groups and hardcore raid players.
Some work would have to be done to get around clever players (ok I'll attack him bob, then you help out and I'll beat it easy!) by making the rewards lower for that kind of assistance, but it would allow the game to adjust to the characters. Sure, you're playing a character who isn't great in combat but you can still get out there and make it because the world adapts to you - just like GMs will. The quests available to a character should reflect this as well: characters should be offered quests based on who they are, not generic ones for everyone. The rewards can be similar, but the quests should shift to the character in question. OK you're a rogue so I can ask you to help me recover this letter without anyone knowing, but you're a warrior so I need you to guard this caravan, and you're a healer so I need you to get to this area and cure these diseased people.
As computers get more powerful and sophisticated, games can begin to carry this kind of complexity and thus greater opportunity for different kinds of characters to make it without an artificial balance scale being imposed on the game. This would deemphasize balance and allow more personalized characters.
If you feel the need for PVP balance, do it in PVP only. Have some powers only work in PVP or not work, or work differently - but only in PVP. If balancing PVP will affect the rest of the game, it should be kept only to PVP activity.
Because thousands of other players are active in the same setting as you, the ability of a character to interact with and have real, lasting change on their environment is greatly limited. If you manage to kill the Mummy Lord and save the peoples of the valley, well either the Mummy Lord has to come back or you've finished that quest and nobody else can even try it. That reward you got, that experience, all that fun? Once the quest is done, you either have to lock out other people (for realism's sake) or let it be repeated (for the sake of the other customers). Thus, the same idiot gnoll attacks Qeynos several times a day in Everquest only to die horribly, and has for almost than ten real years. He's killed, but to have the same fun for the next customer, he shows up and runs at the city again, yelling the same challenge.
For this to be a real role playing game, characters have to be able to make permanent, if minor, changes to the world. When you kill Snidely Whiplash, he's got to stay dead. City of Heroes has done some work in this direction by using "instances" where you go in and are either solo or with your group, but no other heroes are involved. You finish the quest in this portion of the city without any other players involved outside the group, and that quest is done - never to be repeated. You defeated Skortch, the Hellion boss. You stopped the bank robbery and captured Skalpell, the Vahlizok leader.
Yet when you go back to the game outside this instance, it is back the way it was. Nobody remembers what you did, and many quests (save the fortune teller, discover Dr Vahlizok, etc) are repeated by players each time they run a character through those levels. World of Warcraft has a rough storyline you follow as time advances, but you can go back to Goldshire or Ratchet and there are people there doing those quests again. Westfall still needs help dealing with the newly formed bandit menace, even though a few months ago you wiped out the boss and broke that entire gang up. Even as you visit, another group is busy wiping out the gang themselves.
You can't really break up the environment because other players have to interact with that environment. If characters in City of Heroes were able to bust up the city Freedom Force-style, then the entire city would be a wasteland in 24 hours as greifers and kids annihilate every breakable item in sight.
In the game Thief, you play Garrett an almost supernaturally talented thief who can climb walls, sneak past guards, break into almost any setting, steal important items, and basically do all the things you'd expect a very competent burglar to do. Yet because of the balance and interaction limitations of a current MMOG, this is not allowed. Letting a character move places others cannot would be a balance issue - everyone has to have access to the same content, somehow. And it is significantly easier to build a world that is functionally two dimensional rather than need to construct everything with the ability to climb or fly on top of it. Witness the World of Warcraft flying mount limitations: they only work in one expansion because that was built specifically to work with flight. The bulk of the world it simply will not function in.
How to address this?
As AI simulation becomes so complex that a chat program can fool actual people, games need to take advantage of this opportunity. Instead of having one line an NPC (non-player character - guys not played by a human being) can say, have an AI program work with different groups of NPCs. Here's how shop keepers interact, here's what guards are like, here's what the thieve's guild folks talk like - and personalize them slightly (this one is more gruff, this one is all business, this one is romantic, etc).
NPCs should also remember what you've done. Some of this has been implemented, in City of Heroes, the passerbys will praise you after you've done enough, and in some games when you've achieved enough "faction" or "reputation" with a group they will treat you differently. The whole world should work like that. If you killed the Mummy Lord and freed the valley, word should spread: kids should follow you around, shop keepers mention your valorous (or infamous) deeds. Learning the local language should be an option so that you are able to interact in different ways. Sure, the elves will give you quests and sell you some things, but if you speak to them in elven, they'll be more friendly, give you better prices, let you learn different lore, offer you additional materials to buy and give you different quests. As your fame grows, people should come to you and offer you quests, instead of standing around waiting for you to show up. You should get letters and couriers, people asking for help.
Instances give a great deal of opportunity for interaction. One of the more frustrating things about City of Heroes is that despite the fact you are playing a superhero, and you can buy "super strength" you really aren't any stronger than anyone else. You can't lift anything you can't break anything. It's just a way of hitting enemies (and a pretty poor one at that). Instances should allow you to break more things, destroy buildings, cause property damage. You should be able to, even outside instances, pick up something and throw it - like a car. Certainly if you destroy things constantly your reputation should suffer, but it ought to be an option.
You also should be able to make permanent changes to the game. This needs to be controlled - perhaps only in the execution of a quest you can add your name to a wall, or build a totem. Some areas like cities could be more free to this kind of adjustment: I built a shop! I bought a house and painted it green! But the more of this kind of interaction, the better the game will be and the more like a role playing game it becomes.
Related to the above is the desire for every player to want their character to be unique. Games such as City of Heroes have a dizzying array of different options available to the player, you can make hundreds of millions of different looking characters. Yet even within that, there is a limitation. You can't make a bent old man, you can't make a child, you can't make someone in a wheelchair (hello, Professor X). You can make characters big or small, thin or tall but always in great shape.
Other games such as Everquest and Age of Conan are even more limited. Small efforts such as hair cuts and adding a cape or costume redesigns are tremendously popular in games when they are added, even though they have absolutely no effect on game play or advancement as a character. More personalization would be very welcome.
How to address this?
In World of Warcraft there is a useful spell that Mages get called "polymorph" which allows you to turn many targets into a helpless, surprised sheep. They put a fun little quest in the game in which you can learn to turn them into a pig instead. That's completely meaningless in terms of game play (although it can be useful in groups with multiple mages - whose polymorph is that?) but it is great fun and very welcome. Hunters in the same game can capture and name their "pets" or hunting companions such as gorillas, two headed buzzards, gigantic velociraptors, spiders, wolves, and so on. That kind of personalization is very welcome and more of it needs to be added into the next generation.
Characters should have more design options, and over time should be allowed to change. You get older, you get stronger, you get fatter, etc if you choose. The characters should be able to personalize everything they own and is part of them. I want my imp to be a bat. I want my druid's bear form to be a polar bear. I want my warrior's armor to look all beat up and dented because he's constantly being hammered on. As the game goes on, your gear should look more like your gear than just stuff everyone can have and probably does. Initially this should be limited, but as you get more powerful and wealthy, more established it should be greater in opportunity and flexibility.
WHAT TO DO
Present MMOGs are built around very basic, simple activities: find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, loot the bad guy. Certainly there are other quests such as "Federal Express" delivery quests where you take an item one place to another, or the dreaded "escort" quests that require you to take someone to another place safely - usually facing ambush and/or the escorted person's incompetence. Yet the core of the game is built around slaughtering an endless assortment of differently shaped creatures.
Thus, characters are designed to kill monsters and most "classes" lack anything beyond that basic task fulfillment in character design. Thus, a character such as a Bard in Everquest or a Rogue in almost any game stands out significantly for having other things they can do besides move and kill things (or assist in that by healing and protecting others). This makes most of the classes very one dimensional and some of them significantly more interesting by having other things they can do.
Many games try to address this by adding trade skills into the mix, although they usually have been a way to merely pull money out of the economy (see below). The problem with trade skills is that they aren't your own. Rogues can do things only rogues can do, but anyone can be a cook or a potter. That doesn't really personalize your character, nor does it give you enough special and interesting you can do while not fighting - especially since characters like rogues can do these trade skills as well.
How to address this?
World of Warcraft has exploration experience, where you gain experience points (used to measure how close you are to advancing your character's training) for finding new areas you've not seen before, which is a good step. The MUD Gemstone gave experience for personal actions such as healing or opening locks as well. This needs to be expanded greatly. Characters who are primarily non-combat focused should get experience for doing their thing too. Your rogue snuck past a monster? That should be worth at least some of the experience you'd have gotten for killing them. You healed a disease on someone? That's worth experience. That kind of opportunity should be there for everyone, and you should be able to take advantage of it for everyone.
Tradeskills need a more close and careful look. Is enchanting really a skill anyone should be able to learn, or just some - or one character class? Sure, there should be alternatives - leatherworking can give patches to characters, jewelry can give gems that are added - which have a similar effect, but the more specialized some abilities become, the more they add to the power of a character to be more unique and further to have something to do when they aren't killing.
One of the greatest weaknesses of online games is the economy. Like any society, a MMOG has an economy with goods and services, usually paid for by coin or some sort of credit system. The money is earned rarely by creating items or doing jobs for people, it is almost exclusively earned by beating up and killing various creatures and taking what they have. These are usually evil monsters who are doing horrible things, but it still is essentially theft and mugging. Putting the ethical aspect of this aside, since nearly every monster has something to either sell or get directly (copper coins, gems, furs, etc), and there is an infinite supply of constantly "respawning" or reappearing enemies, the amount of money that enters the economy is unlimited. There is literally no end to the amount of gold you can possibly achieve in the game. It is controlled only by the time you take to gather it.
Because of this, the value of coins drops over time. What was once a lot of money becomes less and less as characters gather more and more. At the very high powered end of these games, the money comes more quickly and in greater chunks at a time, which makes the rich richer, as it were. As these games have gone on, more "money sinks" or ways to pull money out of the economy have been added, with each game learning from the last. In Everquest, the tradeskills were largely money sinks, with thousands of platinum required to achieve high skill in tailoring, for instance (yes, in other words, you paid to get good at work, rather than being paid). In World of Warcraft items are damaged by use and must be repaired. Money paid to the games "non player" characters such as shop owners vanishes out of the economy (they don't use this money to pay characters, it's just gone).
Further, characters sell items to each other, which has created such a large economy that it actually generates real world money. Not only are there people who play the game exclusively to make in-game money to sell online for real dollars (called gold farming) but items that are rare and even characters are sold for real dollars in auctions online. This has created a separet economy that is actually damaging to the game in some cases. Characters are unable to complete quests because of gold farmers killing all the monsters in an area. Items that used to be special, rare, and unique become more common as these "farmers" go get them and sell them in the auction house. This is closer to a real economy, but it does damage some of the feel of the game.
How to address this?
This is being addressed better and better as games go on, but there are a few real-world concepts that would work well in this regard. In the real world, not everyone uses the same currency. I can't take my dollars and spend them easily in a place that uses Rubles or Drachmas. Why is every gold piece the same in a fantasy game? The exchange rate would affect this value, and so would the cost of moneychanging. Yeah you raided that ancient dungeon, but you came out with ancient coins. Too bad they're only copper - but they are copper from the Age of Glory and worth ten times as much as you thought. Too bad you came out with Dwarven wheel coins, the humans will exchange them for coin of the realm but it will cost you 10%.
Entering a city was usually tax time in ancient cities. You can't get in without paying - cough it up, one coin per weapon, and that wagon is full of goods, that will cost you too. Taxes suck, but they're a very realistic and reasonable part of the world. It would suck money out of the economy and prevent characters from flooding the world with monster's coins.
Just because an area likes bat fur doesn't mean it always will. If you kill 9000 bats and bring their fur doesn't mean that you'll get as much for that 9000th one as you got for the 1st. Prices fluctuate, and ought to based on supply and demand. Bringing bat fur to an area that has no bats might bring a good price - but in the Bat Caves of Gonzoro, it's going to be nearly worthless. This would be somewhat complex to work out, but once in place would be fairly self-sustaining and would make the game interesting and unpredictable. Quest rewards might even vary - I used to want you to bring me seven spider eyes, but the eye market took a dive and now I want bark from this specific tree.
Speaking of spider eyes, one of the most annoying things about MMOGs is how some of the quests work. I remember early on getting a quest that asked me to bring four spider legs for some ghastly recipe or another. Cool, I thought, I know where there's a bunch of spiders, and they have eight each! Even if I somehow obliterate half a spider, that's four legs. Then when I got out there, I discovered the "loot table." Spiders don't always have legs, it turns out. In fact, they rarely have legs. They roll about on the ground like a tumbleweed, legless. It took dozens of spider kills to get four legs. That's asinine.
I understand wanting the quest to be a challenge and to take a certain amount of time. If it was that easy, why would someone pay you to do it? They'd be out there taking down spiders. Plus, the quests are designed to give you enough experience to move along in the game by the time you finish all of them. So you'll have to kill x spiders in y time period before the quest is finished.
So here's what you do: instead of asking for 4 spider legs, you ask for 4 green spider legs or 4 furry spider legs. Not every spider has these. Or, you ask for 40 spider legs, which requires you to kill at least 5 spiders (and probably more, since in the process of killing the dog-sized monster, you'll probably destroy a few legs). Don't limit the supply arbitrarily to make them more rare, have it make sense.
And when you get back to the vendor and he teaches you how to make an item... make sure there's almost nothing in the game a character cannot somehow make. Sure, there should be some legendary artifacts, things no one knows how to make or were given by the gods, something that is unusual and unique. But almost everything else in the game should be possible to make. I'm sick of games which have trade skills of the appropriate type, but can only make a tiny slice of the items out there - vendors selling items you cannot make, for instance. They made these items, why can't I? Where did all this magical treasure come from? Is it dragon poop, falling out of the sky as dragons fly by? Almost every single thing in the game, from benches to broadswords should be something characters can craft, if they have the skill and the equipment.
Further, new items should be possible to make. Not just the list of items the game has already, but stuff you invent. This needs to be very carefully tested and controlled, but like the Elder Scrolls games (Arena, Morrowind, etc) which let you invent magic items (usually better than what you can discover) with great skill, you should be able to sit down with the raw materials and invent something unique to yourself. Will you share the recipe, sell it? Will you keep it? Someone else might figure it out too!
This ability to make items would permit greater flexibility in appearance. Instead of making items like a stamped mold, allow characters to combine elements for their own design. Sure, this is a shoulderpad like a football player, but I added spikes and some acid etching. Yes, this shield is like his, but it has your heraldric crest on it, and I put a socket on it to hold a torch. This kind of effort would make tradeskills more of a meaningful part of the game and further would let people be their own character rather that a paper doll assortment of stuff others have. Some designs would be very popular and copied, obviously, but at least they were player-made.
Even if some things aren't player-made, NPCs should be available to craft items on demand. They might need the parts and certainly would charge either money or quests to do the job, but they can make you items you ask for. At least some quest givers should give "vouchers" as a reward - take this to the town and someone can make you an item with it. The voucher would be exchanged for an item custom made that is appropriate for the risk and level of the quest. Instead of one or a couple choices preset for the game, it would be whatever you personally needed or wanted at the time, even if it's just for fun or show.
Risk and Reward
One of the more annoying things that Verant and later Sony Online Enterprises employees would snark was the concept of "risk versus reward." Their version of this was "you should nearly die ten times to earn a copper coin" but the principle is valid: you should be rewarded commensurate to the difficulty. If something is twice as hard, it should be twice as rewarding. If something is a trivial task, it should be almost or completely without reward.
Most games are getting very good at this, but there are still some gaps. Some bosses are much harder than others, some dungeons significantly more challenging, ramping up the challenge geometrically, but raising the rewards very little. That is simply improper for a game.
Further, areas should react to who is there. Like above where monsters should react to who they fight by adjusting difficulty, the spawns should adjust to population density. If ten people are trying to kill lesser snigs for their tasty snigbars, then there needs to be more snigs. If there's only one, there should be fewer. This prevents the situation where an area is built for a certain traffic load, then when it doesn't have as much being absurly overpopulated. When the area first opened, hundreds of people were there trying to get the same kills and there weren't enough. Make the spawn rate react to this and you've got a better built game.
Change, change, change
City of Heroes has an interesting event in which all the standing water in the game freezes over. This represents winter, and it is a step in the right direction. Several games such as Everquest introduced weather effects into the game so that it rains some times and snows others - of course, in Everquest every time it rains it is a thunderstorm.
Yet there's no tangible change with this weather. Snow doesn't accumulate. The ground isn't wet. You don't get wet. The fog doesn't affect anything except how far you can see on your computer screen. In essence they are merely visual and audio. That's something that the next game could change: if it rains enough, the rivers flood, water pools on the ground, the roads get muddy and travel is slightly slower. Different weather-based events and quests could arise (my son is lost in the snow! This village flooded, help people escape!).
Snow doesn't just fall in a pretty pattern on your screen, sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn't and just melts to make everything wet. Sometimes it freezes after it melts, making ice. Sometimes it piles up in drifts on everything. Fog can be thick or minor, in patches or in a wide area. It should affect how far away you hear things and how well you can target where they are. Tracking should be affected by weather.
In a larger sense, weather patterns are part of seasonal change. It tends to snow more in winter than summer, for most places in the Northern Hemisphere. In autumn the deciduous trees have leaves that change color and begin to drop off. In spring the flowers grow and trees regain their leaves. All of this - gradually - would be a great effect for the game. As time goes on you notice some of the trees start to change color, fall must be coming. In winter time, the trees have no leaves, unless they are evergreens. You can't get certain kinds of food in areas without long-distance trade established to provide it. Some kinds of food are only available at a certain time of year. Some creatures won't stick around when its too cold or too hot.
This would add a tremendous amount of immersion - how compelling the game is and how much you forget you're playing a game and the world around you as you play - and plausibility to the world.
Other changes that could happen would be to the environment its self. Trees fall over. New smaller trees start to grow. Buildings burn down or are destroyed by bandits. New ones are built up. Farmers start cultivating an area. A farm is wiped out and goes to seed, overgrown and sad. There would have to be some manner of control over this, for example:
A tree is felled by lightning after that last huge thunderstorm. Loggers come and cut it apart and there's no much left of it after a few days or weeks. Druids or a similar kind of class can find a seedling - just one per felled tree to keep the balance - and accelerate its growth, magically causing it to become a full grown tree. Thus, the world changes (new tree somewhere else, players interacted permanently with the game) yet the game content remains roughly the same and the forest isn't reduced to a field of stumps.
Finally there's one last little aspect that needs to be addressed. Every MMOG on the market has a basic pattern for play: a tough guy keeps the attention of the monster (more powerful than any character can fight), a healer keeps the tough guy alive, and other people try to kill it. The tough guy has a special ability called "taunt" that makes the monster stay on him, despite the fact that honestly he's not much of a threat and those other guys are killing him - and that healer is making it all possible. Often there is "crowd control" added in, and encounters presume their presence - so that without the ability to take some monsters out of the fight, everyone gets splattered.
This pattern is ubiquitous in MMOGs (even, awkwardly, in City of Heroes) but nonexistent in role playing and even real life encounters. There's no big tough guy in a riot standing there making funny noises to force the rioters to hit him while the other cops beat them down and some guy bandages the tough guy. That's ridiculous and contrived. This pattern has to be broken or the pattern of how many and what kind of people you have to have in a group to face encounters will never change.
This must be broken for the next generation MMOG to really qualify as the next generation. It isn't enough to have different, more fancy encounters or better graphics. You have to break the mold on this or nothing will have changed enough to justify truly being a better game.
I'm sure there are other things that people can think of, but this is what I see as at least the most important changes. Some games could adapt some of this already, without needing a new edition. Some games are already trying to do so. But until they're all done and done well, we'll not have a next generation MMOG. I'll be waiting.