Ever since Asheron's Call 2 began rolling out the hype machine in 2002 game developers have been proclaiming their product as being a 'next generation' MMO yet there is hardly any difference at all between games being released now and MMO's released nearly 10 years ago. Although games may look much better they still follow the same tired formula laid out by Ultima Online and Everquest.
An MMORPG can be defined by just a few basic elements around which the game centers. These are the world, character development, and story. The world is the multi-player space where the players interact with the game and with each other. Character development is the defining element of an RPG. Players experience the world through characters they create. Those characters gain strength and power by overcoming the challenges within the game world. The story is what the players are experiencing. It provides impetus to the players actions, defines the challenges they will face and gives motive to the game's conflicts and adversaries.
In all first generation game worlds every day is 'Groundhog Day'. Everything that happens has happened before and will happen again with hardly a single exception to be found. The kidnapped princess will be rescued time and again, the town under siege will face wave after unending wave of invaders and the general state of the world will never be altered no matter how heroic the adventurer or how evil the villain. Although the settings may be different (fantasy or sci-fi, Endor or Azeroth) and mechanics in which the world is presented may vary (zoned or seamless, PvP or PvE) the intrinsic systems of the worlds are all identical. Things always spawn in the same locations, walk the same paths, speak the same phrases and, at the core, remain static, lifeless and unchanging..
Character advancement is likewise identical across all current MMO's. Although the rules and rates may vary all characters advance primarily by killing things. Players create their online persona's then go out into the world killing and looting their way to the maximum level allowed by the game. Even quests, which potentially offer a different avenue for advancement nearly always require the character to kill something along the way.
You might think that at least the story of each MMO would be different. If the story I was referring to was the history of the game world that would be true but I am referring to the element of the game which makes the player feel like they are part of the world. Names change and plots differ but the mechanism is the same. Players take part in the story primarily through quests. Quests provide the illusion that the player is an important character in the world, that their contribution has meaning within the tide of events, that they are the ones uniquely qualified to solve the quest giver's particular dilemma. The reality, however, is that every player will get the same quests as every other player. The only choice player's are given is whether to accept a quest or to decline it and no matter what choice they make the story will proceed, unaltered, along its predetermined path.
These are the hallmarks of a first generation MMO and they have not changed at all in the decade that has passed since the first commercially successful MMO was released in 1997. In order to advance to the next generation of game these elements must change. Not just superficial changes in the systems and mechanics used to implement or enhance them but the core assumptions themselves must be altered.
Every developer starts out with the assumption that creating a world is much like creating a theme park. You design the layout, construct the rides, then open for business. Players will come along and enjoy one ride after another in sequential order until they reach the end. Unfortunately once people reach the end in an amusement park they go home. To keep players in the game new places must be added for them to play in. In order to keep them busy long enough for new areas to be created developers are forced to make sure that most players cannot reach the end too quickly. To accomplish this they design timesinks to slow down the rate at which players can complete tasks or require them to perform a task many tens or even hundreds of times before it can be finished. This practice is the major contributor to one of the most universally hated aspects of MMO gaming: The Grind.
Based on the initial assumptions this outcome is inevitable. Developers must have time to create new content before players exhaust what is available because players who run out of things to do stop playing. If the basic assumption were changed the worlds of the MMO genre could evolve to an entirely new level. A natural replacement for the theme park model would be to set out to create something less rigidly defined. A world where the boundaries were less concrete and the adventure areas more flexible.
This could be done through a system of dynamically created content. The server would track the player's general location in the virtual world and generate content appropriate to the area they are in. Terrain would be generated using variables set for the player's current region to create a landscape appropriate for that part of the world. Mountains, jungles, forests, rivers, lakes, etc could all be created as needed by the machine instead of having developers spend hundreds of man hours creating many relatively small areas.
The troublesome issue is not creating the landscape. There are books and papers written on the subject and software packages programmers are already familiar with that approximate the ways in which it can be done. The problem is one of populating the landscape with compelling content. To do this it is necessary to add hand crafted elements. Things like ruins, dungeons, lairs, interesting bits of scenery and decorations must be made manually. These pieces would then be added to the landscapes algorithmically. In the final pass the area would be populated with enemies appropriate to the region, their lairs established and supporting props added.
Cave and dungeon creation would follow the same process. The passages would be laid out, rooms added, hand crafted points of interest added to those then monsters, treasures and decorations added to that. Each one would be relatively unique. The algorithms used to create an area could be fairly simple or follow extremely elaborate rules for placement of content and population.
Using this approach a nearly infinite world could be created where players always have unseen content to explore. It should be noted that I do not intend that this approach be used as a total replacement for traditional, hand crafted, game areas but rather as a supplement to them. Both types of content would exist in this virtual world. The manually designed areas being laid out like islands in vast regions of computer generated wilderness.
If it were my world to design I would have most static regions of the world connected to adventure hubs such as cities, towns or camps by gates, teleporters, ships, or whatever other fast travel options would be expected for the setting. This would ensure players had easy access to the common areas. Other static areas I would leave disconnected in the wilderness and provide players with clues regarding their whereabouts and contents. This would give them motive to go out and explore the world in search of hidden regions while maintaining common areas for them to meet others and make the world feel populated. Once found I would allow players to return to these places whenever they wanted by the same fast travel options used for other pieces of static content. Some would allow them to bring friends, others may require each person to discover the place on their own, and some few may not allow for a return trip at all and appear in random locations throughout the world.
So far we have made the world larger and added a dynamic element to the mix but that isn't quite enough. The Achilles' heel of first generation worlds is that they never change. Although the system described so far adds elements of change they aren't really that significant. Luckily it isn't hard to take things a step further and create a world that will evolve with the players creating a sandbox which they can alter.
To fully achieve a second generation world we need to implement change. It has to be ingrained in the world system at the most basic level. Things need to happen in the world such as changes of season, natural weather patterns, rising and falling monster populations, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters that will make the world more interesting and bring it to life. We don't have to worry about implementing earthquakes, deformable terrain, or how to model a river of lava flowing through a forest. Most of the changes can occur outside of the player's sphere of observation. Then when players visit that region on the map the system can use new values to generate terrain that reflects those changes by raising/lowering the water level, turning weather effects on or off, using a different scenery set or populating it with different types of creatures. If you give players sufficient range you could even let them choose whether it was day or night just by allowing them to select which side of the world they wanted to play in while maintaining a logically consistent game space.
One example of how the system could be used as the basis for dynamic change would be to have the world seeded with various monster populations. Take orcs for example. Let's say the world is inhabited by various tribes of orcs which start out in preselected locations throughout the world. As players explore the world they will encounter these orcs and undoubtedly kill them. As players kill off one particular type of orc other orc tribes nearby grow stronger and push into the former's territory. If the orcs aren't killed they could grow more numerous and expand to occupy a larger region. If that region is near one of the static areas of the world the orcs could begin to bleed into it where they may reinforce, or be in conflict with, that area's normal inhabitants. This would continue until players killed off enough orcs to drive them back which could culminate in finding their source and defeating the warlord or chieftain.
Another example might be to seed the world with large mythical predators such as dragons or giants. These could (in simulation) wander through the world devastating regions of the wilderness leaving a trail players could follow to find them. They could also stay put and set up lairs from which they hunted for food and gathered treasure. Players may hear rumors of a dragon in a certain area and start exploring the region until they found clues which would lead them to the dragon's lair. Once defeated the dragon would be removed from the variables and that region of the world would recover. Left on their own these predators might ravage larger and larger regions, or like the orcs in the prior example, they could appear in nearby static regions where they would encounter players before returning to their lairs. Once players killed the creature it would be dead and removed from the game and a new one seeded somewhere else in the game world waiting for players to discover it.
One final step to take in implementing change would be to periodically remove the static areas of the world and replace them with others or have systems in place which could alter them over time. This would allow dungeons to be cleared out and later re-occupied by other creatures. Villages could grow into towns or be razed to ruins inhabited by monsters or ruins rescued and inhabitants restored. Servers or shards would naturally become divergent as players saved a village on one world but on another it was destroyed. In one large regions might be orc territory but on another dragons or other large predators may have wiped them out. Change, implemented in this way, enables players to shape the world directly and for once their actions would truly have meaning within the virtual space.
There are two aspects to character development in an MMO. The first is how the character changes over time and the second is the means by which advancement is achieved. Although there are a great many ways in which characters develop the way in which players earn that development are largely the same from game to game. Most games [with some notable exceptions] use an experience point system where advancement is earned by killing monsters or other enemies.
The experience point system predates MMO's by almost twenty years and has been around since at least since 1974 when the rules for Dungeons & Dragons were first printed. The experience point system is relatively intuitive, easy to understand and to implement. It provides clear feedback to players on their progress as well as a clear indicators of effort vs payoff and time invested vs advancement earned.
Experience based systems do have their pitfalls. Players are prone to seek out those activities which will grant them the greatest degree of success for the least amount of effort. It's human nature to try to find ways to accomplish things as easily as possible. In a level based system it is natural for people to feel that the ultimate reward for their time is to achieve the highest possible level and they will actively seek out the fastest, most efficient means of attaining it. If they can do that by sitting in one spot killing the same enemy for 6 hours that is what they will do. If they are unable to do that whether because of competition among players for the best spots, inequality among character types to perform the task, boredom, or time constraints they will either quit or complain. Loudly.
Once a player's character reaches maximum level there is often nothing left for them to do or no motivation for them to do it. Players in an experience based system are conditioned to kill things in order advance in power. Advancement is the reward they earn for their efforts. When they reach maximum level the cycle of activity and subsequent reward is broken and players not only loose interest but become frustrated for reasons they don't understand when they stop receiving those rewards.
Some games try to solve the problem by periodically raising the level cap and/or delay it by making it require greater and greater amounts of experience to advance. Others create alternate paths of advancement such as letting players spend experience on additional stats or skills that can only be earned at maximum level. Still others substitute items for character levels as the reward or create new types of experience that players can earn for alternate rewards. Whatever remedy they come up with the problem remains that players have spent hundreds of hours being conditioned to anticipate a specific activity/reward cycle and their reaction to the game will change when that is disrupted. (Either by reaching maximum level and breaking the cycle, when the effort required to attain reward is raised beyond their personal tolerance level, when the time between rewards becomes to great, or when the value of the reward itself is diminished too much to seem worthwhile.)
An ideal system would reward player accomplishments but not emphasize repetition. Greater reward would be attained for greater risk but meaningful reward would still be given for simpler tasks1. The system would need to allow for characters to become more powerful over time without overly diminishing the reward, limiting their advancement, or abruptly changing the type of reward or the way it is earned. It must award advancement consistently and predictably regardless of play style2 and be equally accessible to all character classes or skill sets3. Lastly, it should encourage players to take risks and not punish them for failure4.
Having defined the goals for a 2nd generation system for character advancement I find I am at a loss. Although I can describe the requirements I have been unable to devise a system that meets them.
The story element of first generation MMO's is one that is conveyed through quests if it is done at all. Quests tell you which factions are in conflict, what areas of the world are in danger, and who is in desperate need of help. As you progress through the game the quests you do educate you on the background of the game world as well as current state of affairs. The weakness of this system is two-fold. First, any quest you are given today will be the same quest everyone ahead of you did when they came through and will be the same ones done by all the people who come after. First generation quests are just as static as the first generation worlds they are in. The second problem is one of choice. Players are never given any options when completing the quests and the outcome is always exactly the same. The only choices players do get is whether to accept or decline and even that is somewhat of an illusion. Regardless of whether you do the quest or not, of whether you succeed or fail, the world will continue on exactly the same as it was before. Your involvement, even your existence, is meaningless.
In a second generation MMO static quests wont cut it. Quests must change as the issues of the world change. If there is a monster terrorizing the local townsfolk quests will be offered to slay it. Once it is killed that's the end of the quest until new monsters arrive. If wolves from the hills are terrorizing the farmer's herd he would want adventurers to get rid of them. It would be up to the player figure out how to do it. Perhaps they could be driven off somewhere else, or maybe you'll just go ahead and kill them off, or maybe you'll find out that a dragon killed off their usual prey forcing them to find new sources of food and by killing it they would return to the hills again. The system needs to be flexible enough to recognize when quest worthy situations arise and clever enough to recognize the variety of ways in which the problems can be overcome.
This doesn't mean there isn't room for carefully crafted quests with complex plots and interesting characters. It means that content needs to be greatly supplemented with dynamically generated material where players have real choices with real consequences. If anything the existence of large amounts of machine generated quests should give developers more time to create those really memorable storylines. Let the machine deal with the more mundane matters (and save us from thousands of mindless quests to kill 10 rats or deliver packages) while real people work on deeper tales.
If it were my game I would go a step further. I would create, or let players create, a variety of organizations they could choose to join. These organizations would be important within the fiction of the game world. Players could choose just one and each would have its own set of goals and ideals. Quests would be put in the system which would warrant the interest of these competing guilds and players would be tasked with making sure their guild's objectives were met. Through the course of these quests elements of the story would be revealed and outcomes determined. Guilds would rise or fall in stature depending on the outcome of the quests. Players competing against each other would be left to their own devices to resolve the conflicts whether it be by stealth, violence, subterfuge or diplomacy. There would be situations where more than one group's goals could be met at the expense of others giving reason for making or breaking alliances. Players who furthered the interests of their guild would receive recognition and reward. All guild members would share in the success or failure of their organization by being given access to new places, better items, rare materials, or other incentives as their guild's cause advanced, or lose the same if their cause should falter.
There are other changes I would like to see adopted by the genre but these are the core elements of the MMO and these are the things that need to be changed for the genre to evolve. Developers may come to a different conclusion but to me, until all of the above conditions are met, mmo's will still be stuck in the first generation.