Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Paradigm Shifts

What would you like to see in the next-gen MMO? What problems do you perceive in your current gaming diet that you think could be improved on? I think those are two common questions that most gamers ask themselves on a daily basis. We're always looking forward to the next Big Thing, or trying to come up with ways that it could be "just a little bit better". That, or we're unleashing torrents of QQ. It depends on your preferred method of feedback, I suppose.

Every once in a while, we have some good ideas. Other times, we have ideas that we think are good, but turn out to be pie-in-the-sky dreams. Then there are the ideas that are just bad. We'll have those too. Regardless of which category the ideas are falling under, I think there is one thing we can agree on, and that's that the next big MMO should do some things fundamentally differently than what's already out there. It shouldn't just be a copy with a few tweaks, though those type of games can still be fun. No, to truly be able to call itself the next-generation of MMOs, it needs to be something special. Something novel. Something that engages our imaginations.

Thankfully, it is not my job to come up with the next-gen MMO. From what I know of gamers and gamer culture, I can guess it'll take a truly Herculean effort and some really imaginative ideas. After all, what we have available to us now is pretty darn good. Still, I can't help but have my own ideas from time to time, and I submit one such idea today for your collective consideration.

One of the staples of pretty much any MMO on the market today is the concept of leveling and what that means for a character. Traditionally speaking, leveling is the process by which a character progresses in the MMO arena, becoming more powerful along the way in order to face more epic challenges. There can be caps to the level number, but even then most of the focus is on how to make your character more powerful. That's the key, right? We all want to be the hero. We all want to have the one ring to rule them all, or at least enough purple gear that we can compete at the highest level of content we desire.

It's not that everyone is an elitist, or even a min/maxer.  It's that the game is designed around the fact that everyone wants to get stronger as they play. A game in which you would be doing the same amount of damage months or even years after you started would seem kind of pointless. Or would it? The paradigm in operation here is that character progression almost always equals bigger numbers. Whether it be DPS, threat, damage absorbed, or healing output, we grow our characters to be able to do more. To put up the bigger numbers.

But there are several problems with this approach. First among them: a significant level gap prevents group play. In a game genre that is supposed to revolve around the mentality of group play, this is a major issue. No matter what game you're talking about, a level one usually has trouble keeping up with a level twenty. So much trouble that it is often unreasonable to expect those two people to be able to play together. Several games that I know of have tried to remedy this with things like bonus experience for a friend to quickly decrease the game or some sort of "sidekick" option whereby the higher level character is modified to be equivalent to a lower level in power (or visa versa).

A second major problem is that this requires a high amount of tuning on the end of the developers. Stats have to scale. Health has to scale. Boss and dungeon difficulty all have to scale, and as we've seen in WoW, sometimes when you get to those higher levels, things don't scale as anticipated, creating tuning on top of tuning. I've actually always wondered just how much time and effort goes into understanding and tweaking the math in a game. I mean, as players we do enough of that ourselves, but I have to believe the developers exponentialize our efforts. (Yes, I just made that word up.)  

In any case, these problems all stem from the same thing: In MMOs, the current design for progression is to increase in power over time.  My suggestion is that we change that.  What if, instead of power, we just got faster at our skills?  Let's say you're a caster.  When you start this theoretical game, you have a bunch of skills, but they all have cast times.  Maybe you have a few basic instant cast spells, but all of the cool stuff takes you time to cast.  From a story standpoint, this is understandable since as an early student of something, it would take you longer to make sure you got the incantations, or hand gestures, or whatever right.  Let's say you're a melee class.  Perhaps then you would swing your weapon a lot slower, and also take more time to execute your special combos.  Once again, this makes sense as maybe you don't have the strength or familiarity with the weapon yet to be efficient.

Then, as you progress, instead of increasing the damage, you increase your speed.  Things that used to take three seconds to cast, now take only two.  Combos are preformed more fluidly, back to back.  Maybe you can start chaining things together better, where before it was longer between spells or moves.  You would do more damage because you are faster, not because you have bigger numbers. 

This would allow for a whole different type of tuning and a different type of grouping.  Instead of a low level being utterly worthless in a group to a high level, they might actually be able to do some damage.  Sure they'd be slower, but the abilities they could use would still hit for full power.  Maybe they could just be on CC or some other sort of utility, while the higher level takes the brunt of the damage responsibilities.  In my eyes, it opens up all kinds of new design options.  How would you handle gear?  How would you handle new abilities that could be learned, or end game design?

I would imagine that by the time you're a "master", or at the end game, that you would still feel pretty powerful because you'd have all these spells that you could work together, chain together quickly, and feel like a badass.   After all, in fictional stories, isn't that how wizards and battlemasters progress?  Their sword doesn't suddenly strike for more damage (though they may have gotten physically stronger, and maybe that could be taken into account).  A fireball is a fireball.  It's going to burn the target either way.  What happens is they usually get better at what they're doing, so that it takes less effort.  They're quicker, they're better at combining their abilities to succeed, and yes, they learn more powerful spells.  You could still integrate the more powerful aspect, but it wouldn't have to be the main driving force.

Any good WoW caster can tell you: haste is addicting in the game.  It's something we love to get, even when it's not necessarily the best stat.  Why?  Because there's just something fun about being able to do our usual spells faster.  It's the same reasons some of the most exciting cinematic fight scenes are when the hero slices through a whole host of enemies in an eye blink.  It's action.

Maybe the idea is bad, or pie-in-the-sky, but maybe it's good too.  The point here is that for any next-gen MMO to feel novel, we're going to have to see some sort of paradigm shift.  The developers of this theoretical game are going to have to take an old, accepted mechanic and turn it on it's head.  But when they do, oh boy does it open a world of opportunities.  Sometimes I get excited and impatient just thinking about it, and apparently I'm not alone.  I mean, just listen to the QQ :-). 

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