Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Archive for July, 2009

No MMORPG Will Ever Beat World of Warcraft

Posted by Ben Zeigler on July 14, 2009

There’s been a bit of talk lately about the future of Shooters from Cliff Belszinski and others, and there was a nice discussion about it on last week’s Listen Up podcast. The quick summary is that many people believe the FPS genre is headed towards picking up various features from the RPG genre. Nearly every multiplayer FPS released today features a grinding-based level advancement system. As someone who is a huge fan of System Shock 2 and Deus Ex I endorse this trend, and single player games (Borderlands being a good example) are going to take BioShock’s lead and go with it. However, I think this is just part of a larger and more significant trend: The integration of features you might associate with RPGS/MMORPGS into other genres. How will this integration work, and what does it mean for what is currently the MMORPG genre?

Let’s take World of Warcraft, as it is the current pinnacle of the MMORPG genre. To be clear I am using MMORPG to refer to the specific type of gameplay used in World of Warcraft (as well as close relatives), while I am using MMO to refer to the more general category of online games with a persistent world. I feel the success of WoW can be roughly divided into 5 components that heavily interact: The social systems and community that build in and around it, the subscription business model, a persistent world to share with others, the character advancement system, and the DikuMUD-derived base gameplay. The community and social systems are a major reason that players are happy to play your game for years on end, and all other parts of an MMO should enhance those aspects. Although Korea and China have proven that other business models work, the subscription model encourages a strong community, is very attractive to piracy-fearing developers, and is what funds the massive development costs needed to build the rest of the game.  The persistent world (the only thing that Call of Duty 4 is lacking to be a proper MMO) encourages the socialization by giving the players a really solid context to use as the base of forming relationships. The character advancement system ties into the persistent world by making it seem even more significant when you level up. Finally, the base gameplay gives players something to do when they’re not too busy socializing, exploring, or advancing.

There have been many attempts to swap out the base gameplay of an MMORPG for something else, and most of them have failed. Planetside, numerous racing games, ridiculous numbers of free korean MMOs that never caught on. Why is that? The problem is that only certain types of base gameplay fit will with the other components of an MMO design. Quake would make a horrible MMO, because the entirely skill-based gameplay of it does not lend itself well to character advancement. Defense of the Ancients can never be an MMO because the pace of character advancement excludes them from being part of a truly persistent world. My feeling is that Planetside failed because it was too intense. I didn’t play a whole lot, but every indication I’ve seen says that because of it’s focus on pure combat, the game did nothing to encourage out-of-combat socialization. Unless you have breaks and social hubs built into your game (the waiting-for-the-round-to-end time of CounterStrike can serve this purpose well), players will never develop the long term social ties needed to sustain a community. This is also why there’s never been a good MMORTS: the amount of brainpower needed to manage units in a way that engages RTS players doesn’t leave a whole lot left over to build social bonds.

The DikuMUD gameplay is a good match for the other components of an MMO, but it’s reaching it’s limits. First of all, things like MMORPG aggro are still extremely nonintuitive (Why isn’t WoW’s aggro based on positioning? Because DikuMUD didn’t have graphics). More importantly, the direction WoW is moving (towards puzzle raid bosses that need to be solved and game-breaking solo quests with vehicles and such) indicates that Blizzard has run out of ideas to keep the basic tank/heal/control/DPS gameplay interesting. If there’s one thing Blizzard is extremely good at, it is iterating and polishing gameplay ideas. The rest of the industry may be hubristic enough to believe that they’re just going to be BETTER than Blizzard at freshening up MMORPG gameplay, but it’s a better bet to just not try. Age of Conan and Warhammer gave it their all, but they just didn’t do enough to differentiate themselves.

What has succeeded? Eve is an interesting example. The base gameplay of Eve is so barebones that I can’t stand playing it, but obviously others can and it’s still growing. The puzzle genre is an attractive one, and Free Realms may be on the right track (although it’s a bit too scattershot on the base gameplay). I’m 100% convinced that within a year or two one of the major multiplayer shooter franchises will go fully MMO (business model and all). Other variants of the RPG theme, such as tactical positional (ie, like japanese SRPGs) or Action-RPGs (Diablo is 90% of the way there, and there have been a LOT of almost-great Action MMO RPGs) are obvious choices. There are a lot of potential gameplay systems that can be the baseline for an MMO, and I’m sure one is going to come out of left field in a few years and become a bigger success than World of Warcraft. Subscription-based games featuring a persistent world and character advancement will be increasingly successful for decades to come, but World of Warcraft will stand as the pinnacle of popularity for a now-niche gameplay style. At least until it’s time for the retro remake.

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