Mmorpg game design emergency: do something

I was writing on F13 that the natural growth over time of Vanguard’s subscriptions will fall sooner compared to similar titles:

A side effect of an “hardcore” game is that it will age worse. The subscribers growth will fall sooner.

In WoW the solo friendly design helped the longevity a lot because the game is built so that you can have a good experience even if you aren’t part of the initial “rush” on the server. The fun experience is well preserved.

Vanguard will probably have a much harder time to grow subscribers in the mid/long term as the grind when there aren’t players around will feel much harsher. Being more “group friendly” makes the game vulnerable to lack of players, off-peaks and so on. The longer leveling curve will also build much bigger gaps and it will take ages for a new player to join his friends and play together.

These kinds of barriers are overlooked RIGHT NOW. But I’m sure they’ll become a major factor later on.

This is part of a bigger picture. The majority of the games out there and in development are showing obvious needs, the players are exposing them. These are cues that must be understood now. There must be answers at least to those problem that the majority of these games are showing.

So this is a design discussion common to ALL these games, not about a specific one. Game designers are LATE on providing valid alternatives and answers. I don’t consider “being innovative” giving a strong, valid answer to these main problems, but if this industry must proceed through incremental improvements then at least let’s DO SOMETHING. Narrow down some very simple and essential problems and tackle at least those. Define some strict goals that are *proven* as valid.

From my perspective these three are the priorities. The design principles to work toward even before the preliminary work on game design started:

1- Server structure. Brandon Reinhart recently wrote how “the fundamental server architecture has an impact on the game in a very real, money-in-the-pocket, subscribers-on-the-line kind of way”, as I also did a number of times in the past. Mmorpgs should develop as FIRST PRIORITY a flexible server structure that balances the server load, population and PvP factions, while avoiding to build barriers between players. For me this means “server travel” as a basic, exposed mechanic built in the game. I don’t care about the implementation. But your game MUST remove barriers between players, must let them meet together easily. If there are barriers these MUST be passable. Permeable. So if there are barriers they must be temporary. The “sharding” should never be a cage to separate players permanently.

2- Game structure. Let’s build games as worlds that can live and flourish. Let’s develop systems well connected between each other, with a solid function. And let’s develop them so that the whole structure is well developed and maintained, so that the game doesn’t become stale for new players who finish confined in forgotten and deserted parts of the game. A new player when starting the game should be presented with a vibrant, lively, active world and community. Not an abandoned zone. The game should be considered and developed cohesively, not just focusing on the last segment of a linear development scheme. Not toward a dispersive drift that will necessarily bring to a decline. Let’s not build these games so that they can be easily replaced, let’s build them so that they become solid structures on which you can capitalize. Solid foundations on which you continue to build and improve. Not castles of cards. Not perpetuating mistakes just so you can fuel and hype unnecessary sequels.

3- Remove gaps and barriers that prevent players to have fun together. Instead of FORCING grouping, let’s make grouping not a chore. Let’s keep the power differential between new and veteran players narrow so that they can join their friends, play and have fun within the first hours in the game, right as they are comfortable doing so after they learnt the ropes of the game. And not after months of grind/work. Let’s build a structure of the game to keep the community together and focused instead of scattered along an infinite treadmill. And let’s give player’s classes flexibility (for example directly through class switching and alternate paths, without having to relog new characters) so that a group can be put together quickly without having to waste time waiting for a specific class, letting players ADAPT their characters to the group.

These aren’t vague and abstract principles. These are founding values. These aren’t game “wishes” aimed toward a specific game or preference. These are actual EMERGENCIES in all today’s mmorpgs.

Design priorities. Everything else is subordinate. Setting, combat system, gameplay, these are all secondary. There may be millions of different and valid answers to those three problems. But we MUST provide answers to them. I don’t care what the answers are (mines or someone else’s), but I do care that they are aimed there.

So, dev people out there, lets agree on these basic principles and do something to start moving in that direction? Let’s at least have the will to go there.

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