This was an earlier contribution to The Secret Lair and can be read in context here.
I confess. I am a wannabe junky for Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs). I say wannabe, because I have yet to find the right game that scratches my itch for the MMO experience. Perhaps the closest I have ever come to that level of passion and devotion was when playing the original Everquest. That experience ended with the birth of our first child, when my wife said to me “I don’t think you realize the extent to which this child has changed our life.” She was right, of course. Being a dad is a lot more important (and fun) than camping for another <generic creature> to kill and acquire another <generic material> to make another piece of <generic armor>.
Since that time, I have sampled many MMOs, but I have not stuck with any of them for more than a month or so. I have also spent a lot of time thinking about why those games fall short of what, in my opinion, prevents them from being great games. Let us hit a few of the highlights:
Is this all the Role Playing game has become? Must everything be about the next kill / battle / raid?
Constantly repeating actions in order to advance skill just so you can reach the next level is not that much fun. I have seen people wedge their keyboard keys down so they can keep running or swimming just to increase those skills.
Really, you can only be an exceptional craftsperson (merchant) if you have the fighting skills to go out and get your own supplies. Want to be a priest, monk, or cartographer, you’d better be a fighter first.
“Lord Muckgrunk is a real challenge to take down, so we’re going to let everyone kill him once every ten minutes.” or “That other group just entered that dungeon, but don’t worry about running into them. They have entered a parallel dimension where everything is fresh and new for them.” Instances might as well be minigames in a pub for as much as they contribute to a persistent game world.
Apparently, all major metropolitan areas within games cannot extend their peaceful existence more than about fifty yards from their front gate.
NPCs, or Lack Thereof
I played a game for a while where frequently I was the only person in the entire city, and the only NPCs in the city stood stock still in their shops all hours of the day and night. There were no wandering NPCs, no other players, and apparently undead shopkeepers. It was creepy.
Ganking and Consequences, or Lack Thereof
I’ll address the accusations of “Care Bear” gaming a bit later, but giving gamers free reign to kill or take advantage of other players without consequence is just dumb. I’m all about dangerous gameplay, however there should be consequences beyond “this faction now hates you and you have to sneak into this city.”
The list could go on and on.
Why do games fall victim to these common and worn out elements? Personally, I blame the wildly successful consoles. The rise of the console gaming platform has contributed to a decline in role playing. If not a decline, then it is certainly transforming role playing as a genre. Role playing was originally born of the desire to explore and develop a character as though one were living in a story. Gamers were less concerned with loot and power than developing a memorable character. Console games have created an endless loop of “cut scene for exposition, follow with mission, follow with training or loot, follow with cut scene, follow with boss battle. Rinse and repeat.” Since those games make lots and lots of money, it is only natural that all games try to mimic that success by using the same formulae. Unfortunately, it is the traditional roleplayer that gets left out in the cold. It may not be the most lucrative market, but I think there is room for a healthy niche.
This is where the Minister of Crackpot Schemes earns his title. If I had the capital, I know exactly how I would design and implement an MMO appealing to real roleplayers. Take a stroll with me now through Crackpot Scheme Number 763:
Permanent Character Death
This should go a long way to shut up all of the griefer gamers who complain about “Care Bear” games. Time to put your money where your mouth is. Before you go up against an enemy or another player, better be sure you can win or escape, because there is no such thing as a “corpse run.” Your character is gone and so is your stuff. Sneaking through dangerous areas is much riskier now, not to mention raids. Big, bad monsters are big and bad for a reason. How much of your guild is an “acceptable loss” when going up against a dragon guarding its lair?
Want to be a thief? Assassin? Fine. Are you prepared to have a price on your head that other players can collect? If you ganked another player, how would you feel if his guildmates put a bounty on you? Let the thieves actually sneak into homes and businesses to steal things, but also create a way for some Crime Scene Investigation to occur that might reveal who they are. Combine consequences with permanent character death, and you have yourself a recipe for excitement that does not require massive monsters and demigods.
Limit the Grand Storylines
Provide an expansive and interesting world for your characters to play in and populate it with lots of NPCs and human actors. Leave out the global cataclysm. The only reason anyone cares is because it usually opens up high level raid areas to keep the 1337 crowd happy.
No Levels. No Classes
The open skill trees have been explored a little with existing games, but I’d take it further. There’d be no such thing as level. Skills and abilities come as you explore, train, and use other skills.
Real Player Housing
Put your house wherever you dang well feel like it, but you’d better be able to defend it. That’s where the mercenaries come in…
Hire NPCs to run your shop, guard your house, and do menial tasks when you’re offline. You want to have a wizard’s tower in the middle of nowhere? Maybe you should invest in some guards. Are you an awesome blacksmith? Hire some NPC apprentices to create armor while you’re offline. It won’t be as good as yours, but it will provide you with a revenue stream.
Less eye candy and more story. There are tons of people out there who would love to spend time as a game character in exchange for free play, in-game items, or even a small salary. Recruiting and managing a corps of gamers willing to contribute to the game world is completely possible.
Creating great MMOs should not be as hard as the industry has made it. I have notes upon notes of what else I would do regarding merchant classes, ships, mounts, physics, priests and tons more. That’s what it means to be the Kingfish – the crackpot schemes are a never ending stream, for better or for worse.
And if someone came to me with a pile of money and asked if I knew how to turn this into reality, the answer is yes.
Yes I do.