I’ve been thinking (shut up). What is the one thing that I would like to see in MMOs that would refresh and strengthen the genre? Doing away with the dumbed down accessibility-oriented design? Fixing the never-ending progression treadmills? While those two things are big obstacles in the genre’s attempt in becoming less of a stale formulaic entertainment for which no one knows what the magic ingredient is (except Blizzard), there is something MMOs have hardly ever thought about, which is player involvement.
Most MMOs have predefined content that the players are supposed to play through. When they do, the developer sends them a fresh batch in the form of patches or expansions. Which means that everyone plays through the same content and usually more than a couple of times. You can say that the system works, but seeing how it works you can hardly claim it’s exciting. It may be exciting the first time around, but then the boss respawns and you can (or have to) do it all over again. Not only does seeing a boss respawn ruin immersion and the sense of a consistent, persisting world, it also gets boring really fast due to the lack of variety.
However, I have an idea…
It’s very simple really. Let the player design his own adventure and play through it with his friends. It’s like true D&D, but instead of having to play in a basement, you can play it online in a massive, persistent world.
If you follow PC gaming you will know that there is a game called Neverwinter in development by Cryptic Studios. It will feature a “player-created content system codenamed Forge, [that] will allow players to create their own stories and quests”. It won’t be an MMO though, since it won’t have a massive, persistent world. But what if you would aim to make a true MMO featuring a system that would allow players to design their own adventure?
Obviously, there are a lot of design and technology constraints, but let’s start small. We could start by developing a game engine and a toolset that would allow players to toy around with precoded models, areas, doodads, scripts, music, sounds, etc. Something in the vein of some of the already existing game editors (the most notable one being the Neverwinter Nights editor). Implementing such a system in an MMO shouldn’t be too hard if you set a constraint of only being able to create instanced content.
So the player creates an adventure and invites his friends (or strangers) to play through it and have fun. Does that sound exciting? It does to me. However I’m sure that by this point you are contemplating the fact that your own storytelling skills are either very bad or almost non-existent. What’s more, you are now thinking about how other players with similarly bad storytelling could make you frustrated while playing through one of their adventures and accidentally (or even intentionally) ruin your fun. No need to think such thoughts though, because I have a solution for it.
The solution is simply making the game have two different ways to play it. One of them would be your standard MMO and the other would be a storytelling client with all the necessary tools to create an adventure. In the latter you would effectively be a Game Master (GM) and create adventures for other players to enjoy. You would have the option of making whatever you create replayable by other players or having the adventure be unique with only to a select few ever trying it. The quality of your storytelling (if made public) would be assessed by the players who go through your content, which would be rated and commented on. The GM would then be rewarded accordingly (maybe even have GMs gain more and more power over the content they can create, sort of a level up system with more powerful tools).
This system would allow players to be able to predetermine the quality of the content and therefore be able to enjoy themselves most of the time. Good GMs would be popular and in demand, they would even become sort of celebrities.
Of course, the players would always have the option of playing content that is acknowledged to not be that good, or to try something a friend of theirs put together.
Having only prescripted content doesn’t sound quite as exciting as having GMs monitoring their creation in real-time and making adjustments to it on the fly though. The players would have the option of going through content on their own, or get a GM to supervise it. Have a group of friends killing a boss in a dungeon you created, but because you underestimated them the encounter is too easy? Simply have another boss or some adds enter the fight, make the boss yell “How about now, bitches!?” and have the same friends kick you in the groin the next day. Fun.
Of course, there are a few problems with this design. First of all, I’m not sure the GM would be able to alter anything more than small instanced areas on the fly with the technology currently available to us (I think something like that requires a lot of computing power on the server-side). Which means that player-made content in such an MMO would be strictly instanced, with open world content being predetermined (bar the PQ design pretending to create an ever-changing world, which it isn’t). But I’m sure that as we are pushing the technology ever further, things such as truly dynamic open world content will be possible. Imagine regularly participating in world events that would appear once in the server history. Sounds awesome.
There’s also the problem of the game not having enough good GMs, which could be solved by the developer employing professionals to make good content. Sure, having professionals make content would be similar to the usual way of developing an MMO, but I believe that it would still be much more interesting than the current game design if only you could get at least a bit of player made content in there.
And finally one of the biggest hurdles a developer would have to overcome when designing such a game – loot and experience. Having GMs allocate gear and experience would be a recipe for disaster, with players finding a way to exploit it. And if you try to implement a set of rules on adventure length, difficulty, party size, possible experience and available loot, it would simply feel too restrictive and the content wouldn’t be as innovative and unique.
I believe that the solution for this would be a new brand of an MMO, one that gives up on the level/stat system and simply goes for the looks and feel, with new items simply upgrading the visuals or adding new utility to the class. But a new, untested MMO design such as this would be really risky to implement together with a unique content design and would run the risk of being a complete disaster. I’m not even sure anyone would want to play an MMO without levels or stats. Maybe the RPG gamer that plays the game for adventure and experience (not the ingame one) is a dying breed.
I, for one, would love to play anything resembling what I just described. Which is exactly why I’m excited about Neverwinter. Hopefully, I’ll be able to dust off this idea after seeing the game do well and have another go at the design. In the mean time though, thoughts?