Jun 16, 2015

Posted by in Editorial, Gaming | 7 Comments

What I Think I Want In An Online Game

There’s as many ways to skin a cat as there are cats, which is a disturbing epiphany, even if it’s only a metaphor. Even in the vast and conventionally homogeneous realm of MMOs, they’re not all as similar as people’s hyperbolic spewing would have us believe.

I think the observable trend has long been that MMOs are sold on the idea that the “massive” in “massive multiplayer online” game refers to the number of people you can have online at the same time, but I’ve come to think of it in terms of the size of the game world itself. I’ll blame fast-travel for this expansion, since being able to portal from one end of the continent to the other makes the game world size pretty meaningless. There was the recent flap over flying in Draenor that to me is the difference between zig-zgging through the landscape and taking a straight line route to a destination. I was reading one player’s suggestion about how Elite: Dangerous should offer nav beacon to station “mini-warps” to cut down on travel time. It seems that in the haste to “fix” travel systems, MMOs have become too damn big for some people.

I am some of those people. Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic as an example. Step into Coruscant and you’ll get that feeling of scale, of being a very small and insignificant creature in zones that feel like they expect millions of people. The buildings are so massive that I’m surprised clouds aren’t forming in the rafters. This always bothered me. On one hand, I understand the designers wanted a proper feeling of epicness, but in practice it seems utterly ludicrous to be in such a massive environment. It’s not just Coruscant — a lot of SWTOR‘s environments are like this — and it’s not just SWTOR. I watched a video for the Pathfinder Online game, and I immediately got that same feeling: a whole lot of unused space that’s present simply to provide a visual sense of scale.

Really, it’s wasted on the experience. When a player steps into a new zone, there’s that “ohh and ahh” factor as they check out the art work, the vistas, and the layout. They notice things like the colors and the shapes, the density of obstacles, and the dynamic nature of the environment (water rushing, butterflies butterflying, and so on). Once they get their bearings, however, it’s down to work. Quest givers in a lot of MMOs tend to be clustered, and the jobs they hand out rarely take players far from their little mission hub, at least until they give out that one mission that has the player moving to a different mission hub. I’d guess that in the average MMO, there’s between three and six different mission hubs, connected by a “progress mission” per distinct zone. I’m just pulling that guesstimate out of my ass, but that’s what it feels like to me.

At that point, players are too invested in their tasks and on their progress to notice the environment as anything other than an obstacle. The visuals fade into a backdrop for the busy work, and players will rarely raise their head once they feel that they’ve gotten a handle on the zone and it’s aesthetic effects. Of course, should the player empty out her mission journal and opt to take a breather, then there’s really nothing but the environment to focus on. But that’s not the point of the game, is it?

I think about smaller environment games, or at least games where you’ve got the feeling that your in a smaller environment. Maybe just that you’re boxed out of the larger zone and are fed additional land in smaller doses. I think there’s two ways of doing this:

  1. Don’t let the player stop working: You see this in survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved where you always have to bee on the lookout for resources to keep yourself alive. You rarely have time to look at the world around you, and when you do, you tend to focus on what you can exploit.
  2. Narrow the opportunities: I’m thinking of Landmark, Daybreak’s sandbox voxel farm. Their foliage density is impressive so that once you get into a valley your vision is obscured so all you can see and really care about is a small section of the map at any one time. Same with some areas of World of Warcraft, where the landscape provides a really intimate feel that you might never know how big the zone is if not for the world map.

I’d really like an online game where it’s not possible nor even feasible to go very far, very fast, or a game which doesn’t push you through the landscape. I remember back in Ultima Online I refused to use the runebook, and spent the majority of my time in the town of Vesper…and by “majority” I mean that I ventured to Britannia once in all the time I played. It was a big deal when I did: although I was ready for the trip, it was like taking a vacation. Aside from that once-in-a-lifetime decision, though, it was another gameplay opportunity to do something new, but something I was totally in control over. When I felt I had nothing left to do, I could travel and see the world I had never seen, and it was all brand new.

I don’t know if there’s any games like this, or even can be games that are designed like this. It seems that while we can use fast travel, it’s up to us not to give in if we want that journey of discovery. It’s something I think I prefer, and enjoy spending my time localizing myself for longer periods of time these days, as opposed to covering as much ground as possible in as little time as possible.

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  1. Well huh, you went in a completely different direction with this than I was expecting from the title and RDR pic.

    I think the observable trend has long been that MMOs are sold on the idea that the “massive” in “massive multiplayer online” game refers to the number of people you can have online at the same time, but I’ve come to think of it in terms of the size of the game world itself.

    That’s because it’s massively multiplayer. Also where Massively[OP] get its name. And yes, the term (wasn’t it Brian Green or the M59 team as a whole who coined it?) was meant to differentiate from “normal” multiplayer which capped (still does) at 32-64 players per server.

    However, once MMOs went mainstream, probably around the WoW years, the confused little kiddies started saying “massive multiplayer” and therefore thinking along the same lines as you: world size not player capacity.

    ANYHOO…

    I think I’d be cool with these huge environments and cities that feel like cities if I had the freedom to do what I want. No game has ever provided that yet. Even the GTA / Watch Dogs / Saints Row series limit you to driving around mostly, get out to rob or shoot or otherwise be a criminal douchewad.

    However, as it stands MMO-wise (since SWTOR was in your crosshairs) so many MMOs just put things up for the illusion. Ooooh it’s a “city.” I still remember playing the Asheron’s Call 2 trial. That was technically my first MMO but I never subbed so I don’t call it that, but I was so disappointed that all the buildings were just for looks. I couldn’t go in, couldn’t do anything with them. That’s been the case ever since. The buildings and architecture looks prettier with each hardware generation but their nature never changes.

    Give me the city scale of a GTA / Watch Dogs, with GTA’s “citizen behavior” and a major evolution of Skyrim’s procedural job generation and maybe Guild Wars 2’s bit of having the NPCs run up to me and plead for me to help them – or not – and … just have the world be alive. Cut the player capacity and crank up a persistent AI. A full SimWorld where I (and others) also live and interact.

    • Scopique says:

      Actually, my point is that the MASSIVE is kind of getting in the way. A lot of the games seem to be making more massive zones because A) it FEELS more epic, or B) fast travel makes distances trivial anyway, so why not make zones bigger to provide that sense of scale when you’re standing on a cliff.

      All that does is make people who aren’t fast traveling have to slog through massive zones. It also means developers need to populate those zones with “stuff” to make slow travel less tedious. When they can’t or don’t, people rely on fast travel which makes all that design work pointless.

      I’d like a game where I’m not expected by designers and developers to be in awe of the magnitude of the environment. I don’t even care at that point about AI; Skyrim is a great example. When you’re on a mountain you can see far off, but otherwise you’re in an environment where nature is…naturing. That’s why I hate desert zones: they’re empty and overly large.

  2. Ok, I get dislike massive environments for the sake of massive environments without compelling content. Didn’t everyone complain about the Hinterlands in Dragon Age Inquisition? I dunno, I didn’t mind it. I think I still have a quest or two there, in fact. But I played DAI much like a Skyrim-lite: start off with the intent of doing one thing, get distracted and do another, stumble upon another quest or challenge, gather crafting bits, go do a story quest… that’s the type of “sandbox” I like. One that provides a multitude of activities, some of them being “guided” or whatever (quests) and some narrative but at no point pushing me onto any rails to DO THIS NOW DO THIS NOW.

    • Scopique says:

      See, I didn’t mind the Hinterlands aside from the fact that I KNEW it was the starting zone, and didn’t feel I was getting on with the story. But KNOWING the zone is large, and VERIFYING that every step of the way are different. The Hinterlands have a lot of trails and canyons and foliage, dips and rises, so often times I felt “boxed in”, and I was OK with that. In those places, I mentally didn’t focus or care about anything beyond my visual range.

      And I think ultimately we’re on the same page here: seeing far, or seeing objectives or at least seeing the direction you need to move in order to start or achieve those objectives is what I don’t like. Skyrim was great because you just…moved. You didn’t know you were coming up on a mission or NPC or cave because you couldn’t see it at a distance. You always had to focus on the “now”, and the sense of discovery was real and not contrived.

  3. Oooooh, that last sentence — I think you finally put into words what I’ve been trying to say for so long!

    • Scopique says:

      I think I put into words what we’ve both been trying to say. It’s my main beef with the “guides culture” we’re in. Reading ahead and preparing for every little thing so we don’t fail is removing the sense of being in the moment as well as removing the joy of discovery (and of actually learning from mistakes).

  4. lowrads says:

    MMOs are made for achiever personalities, so that leaves the rest of us in the cold. Catering to the rest of us requires technical innovations, and we are an uncertain market.

    Personally, I am more naturally at the periphery of activities rather than at the center of them. It would be better if the npcs would approach us, but only one or two out of an endless stream of them. I’d love to see roads and rivers thronged with migrants, and other semblances of activity.

    Another problem is perception. Giving characters a realistic gate of 1.5-2.5m/s walking speed might seem interminable to players who are used to avatars that would break speed limits in school zones in order to watch a timer over some plant, or casually put Usain Bolt to shame as they dolefully move from one insipid task to the next.

    Overall, MMO players are trained to think of time sinks as the main obstacle to overcome on their quest for more time sinks. World dynamics, like every other game feature, serve this perceived need.

What do you think?