Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #16:

Cooking a MMOG

by Scott Holliday
August 8, 2003

So, what's in an online game? Boiling it down to the bare minimum, the basics are pretty simple. Online games simultaneously fulfill two concurrent functions. These functions are generally the critical points for the game's success. If they work well together, the game prospers. If not, then it is difficult to expect the game to attract a large following.

  1. The game must provide a means of communication and/or interaction with other players. If the players cannot interact, why are they playing online? Of course, interaction can take many forms. For many games, interaction occurs in the comparison high-scores or talking on out-of-band bulletin boards. However, the prime examples will allow players both to communicate and to interact in cooperative and/or competitive playstyles.

  2. They must provide interesting activities. This is the often the "game" part of the game. If there is nothing to do but talk, where is the game? You can do that in a chat group. Once again, interesting activities can also take many forms. If there is something that needs to be talked about, that can be an activity in and of itself. However, the best examples provide activities that can be engaged in whether alone or in a group.
Simple enough, so let's dig a little deeper. Examining the second case, we'll start with an exercise. Quickly imagine your favorite single-player console or arcade game. Take a few moments to remember exactly how it works. How does the game start? Can you win? Get a good picture of it in your head...

Now change gears and assume that you want to expand this same game into a massively-multiplayer online title. In most cases, you've just hit several big obstacles. In many cases, the second "game" function is satisfied, but the "interaction" function is sorely lacking. Depending on the nature of the game, here are some of the specific problems that you've probably hit:
  1. The game follows a story. If it's the same story over and over again, how can two players interact from different chapters? In addition, if the story ends for you, what happens to all the other players?

  2. The game has set pathways. In a platformer, perhaps you need the 'high-jump' boots before you can pass the 'high-cliff'. What happens if another player gets the boots before you? Are the boots still there? Either way, can the first player give you the boots? What happens when everybody has a copy of the boots? Is getting "your boots" now part of the newbie-initiation?

  3. The game can't really handle many players. Think of a football simulator. Generally, you get to play the armchair-quarterback and make all the decisions. It probably wouldn't be wildly exciting to play a line-backer... or the injured guy on the bench. So, probably just you and your opponent. Sure, it's multiplayer... two at a time.

  4. There isn't time to talk. Imagine a side-scroll such as Defender. You're so busy staying alive, you don't have time to communicate. In which case, trying to keep up a conversation with several people is downright impossible.

  5. There is no continuity. Unless you start contriving background stories in which characters are immortal or can manufacture clones on the fly, characters die... a lot. If the game is meant to be realistic, it will begin to seem awfully odd when Bob13 shows up immediately after Bob12 died.

  6. You can't save the game. Part of the fun of many console titles is taking wild risks at impossible odds. If you lose, reload. No biggie. However, the nature of online games is often to punish those who push the boundaries. If you die, it often means hours of time catching back up to where you were.
Solutions? No solution is perfect. As far as I can tell, many games just won't work well in a MMOG environment. Though with enough work, I'm willing to bet that the MMOG versions of old favorites might someday be the wave of the future. Here's some ideas for each point:
  1. The game follows a story. One option is to lose the story. Yes, it's not a very good option, since discovering the plot is sometimes a large part of the fun. However, your alternative is to just ignore the problem. In other words, players can interact freely, but cannot effect each other's place in the story. Otherwise, players would have to be barred from interacting except with those at the same place. Generally, you wouldn't want to split your community like that.

  2. The game has set pathways. One option is to lose the pathways. Either players start with all the capabilities or they find them in random locations. On the other hand, you could just allow the pathway to be transferred freely, allowing players to do ignore elements that they don't like.

  3. The game can't really handle many players. So don't. Let players meet and then play in smaller groups. For the football example, perhaps players are brought together by matches and tournaments. Frankly, even in a MMOG, usually players are only interacting with a small group. So except for special occasions, is the whole world really necessary all the time. What if each group is a distinct "shard" or sub-division of the world, so that there is no space competition from the population. Still some issues to resolve there, especially if you are talking about a global-domination type game.

  4. There isn't time to talk. Either improve communication so that it occurs instantly, or save it for out-of-band areas. In the former case, you could use real-time voice communication or hotkey messages, although both of these pose problems for true interaction for a large group. In the latter case, perhaps the game itself is frenzied, but players can stop between "levels" to chat, trade, or just hang-out.

  5. There is no continuity. Well, the immortality or cloning back-stories have their upsides. Alternately, you can just ignore the problem and hope your players do too. Another interesting solution is to send players into a different "shard" whenever they die. However, this negates the ability to freely play with your real-world friends.

  6. You can't save the game. Shucks. Unless, you want the wild-and-crazy no-consequences type game, you're stuck. At least, I don't see an easy solution. Perhaps the game could be made significantly easier (or less deadly). Perhaps consequences are mitigated through other factors, such as temporary (but sufficiently nasty) penalties. Dunno...

Done with that exercise? Now try it the other way around. Starting with something to talk about, build a game around being able to further that discussion. Hehe... at least for me, that's quite a bit harder. Though, if you're stuck, I can think of a good example in which at least some of the action is based around a single argument. I'll give you a hint, it's one of the games here at Skotos.

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