Player Involvement in MMOs

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…

A screenshot from the upcoming Neverwinter.

A screenshot from the upcoming Neverwinter.

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.

Game Master: Did I say you could roll the dice?

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.

A dragon and some undead from the upcoming Neverwinter game.

I can already see myself impromptu spawning a big dragon a cackling madly after it.

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?

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11 thoughts on “Player Involvement in MMOs

  1. In regards to the player made content (pmc), I could easily see the rating system from Little Big Planet used to judge it all. Basically what you are describing is a altered version of LBP for the MMO-sphere and I for one would support such development.

    As for the DM/GMs and insuring there is minimal exploitation and what have you. They could follow the same system as becoming a DM in… I think it was the ’80s or something. I’m not that old, so I don’t recall from personal experience, but I have been informed that you could become a “certified” DM by taking a test and you would be bound by certain rules during any campaigns you ran. All of the players who participated could take place in official D&D convention competitions with their characters because of the certified DM.

    Anyway, all it would do it be sure to hold the DM/GMs to a certain degree of validity and if they tarried from the rules they could have their DM privileges barred temporarily or what have you.

    To be frank, there are a lot of great MMOs coming out in the future, but there is still untapped potential.

    • Well the problem is that I wouldn’t want to make the system too restrictive, or you wouldn’t get anyone wanting to be a GM (or too few of them). The idea is to have a lot of people creating content so you can get a large amount of good content (as well as bad), which can then be further sorted out.

      I don’t think the system would work if it was too hard to become a GM or the process of creating content was too arduous.

  2. Many years ago I was quite addicted to a small gem of a game called Heroes of Might and Magic III. I spent an ungodly amount of hours fiddling around in that game. The aspect that most appealed to me was the possibility of creating my own maps with my own encounters and dialogue. I once made a gigantic map filled with goodies and monsters and epicness. One of my greatest regrets to this day is losing track of that map.

    I agree, an MMO with player-created content might work but I can only see it working in instanced dungeon-like areas even if that makes me short-sighted and square. LBP was also the second game that came to mind, it being the last game I played that sported anything of the sort and I can see it working a lot in those molds.

    As to experience and loot, if it were me developing this platform, I’d allow a GM a set amount of points to allocate as experience for resolving fights or other types of events and a small list of loot to litter the instance with. The list and the points you were allowed to use would grow/evolve as the GM’s instances gained positive reviews. Would this feel too restrictive? Maybe, but players drawn to this kind of game may not really care.

    If there’s one thing we learned from Minecraft is that entertainment and accomplishment don’t necessarily come from completing quests and killing complex mobs with an Experience/Loot reward system. It can come simply by building something on your own with limited resources or exploring a carefully crafted environment that took someone else countless hours to build with no ultimate goal at all.

    • Yeah I agree that the scope of the created areas would be quite small, as I wrote I’m not sure we have the technology to do it on a bigger scale with hundreds of people (it would be feasible from the GM/DM perspective as you’d give permission to alter the outside only to the high level/better rated ones).

      As for experience and loot, you say that you wouldn’t need such a system and be happy to simply explore and adventure through the content if I understood you correctly? Then there’s no need for the system you propose where certain trusted GMs would be able to put in good loot/massive experience.

      I do think that with allowing GMs to allocate experience and loot you’d have to set a bunch of other parameters which might feel very restrictive (maximum/minimum number of mobs/encounters, overall mob difficulty, length of the instance and more), otherwise people would find a way to exploit it. As for not caring, I think that anyone playing a game with user created content would care about said content a lot. Which is why I think the GM side of the things would need to be easy to get into, to facilitate large numbers of people creating content, while giving them relative freedom in order not to stifle creativity.

      I really wouldn’t want a platform with such a potential to become a place where most of the created content is only marginally different, as a result of certain restrictions being applied in order to keep the game fair. If that were the case I’d rather see such a system being implemented into WoW and be done with it, as it wouldn’t be much different from the content already in that MMO.

      • “As for experience and loot, you say that you wouldn’t need such a system and be happy to simply explore and adventure through the content (..)”

        No, I said ” I’d allow a GM a set amount of points to allocate as experience for resolving fights or other types of events and a small list of loot to litter the instance with”. BUT, even if the system was too limited and restraining for newer GMs, there is an audience (in theory, a big chunk of the people who would feel tempted to try this mold) that wouldn’t mind about this restrictiveness.

        Of course players would care about the quality of the content and if this system was as easy to get into as we’re fantasizing here we’d have thousands of people taking a shot at creating content. There would be a lot of shit, a lot of nabness, but there would be a lot of awesome. There are geniuses for everything even playing the spoons. There would be geniuses for user-created content. Even more so if they allowed for the development of new tools for creating this content.

        Wow, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here now, dreaming about a game made by the people. for the people. I need a drink.

      • I suggest gin. It’s good for you.

        I misunderstood you then, you said that both could work, fair enough. But as I said, I can’t see that being anything mold-breaking if it were that restrictive. It would just be another gimmicky thing that new MMOs could pick up. I’d really want to see an almost limitless creativity out of the GMs, which wouldn’t work together with the conventional MMO designs.

        Basically my aim would be what you’re describing in the third paragraph. It would be awesome.

        Wow, now I need a drink.

  3. I really like this idea. It would be cool, hold interest… basically probably all of the reasons you like it. Plus, you could just flat out mess with your friends/guildies/what have you.

    The ONLY issue I see with this setup would be lack of PVP… but hey that’s just my preference ;P. I could definitely jump on this bandwagon though.

  4. @ Sara Couldn’t pass by this comment without noting that Minecraft learned all that from Wurm :)

    Sorry, as I’m massivley addicted to Wurm I just thought they deserved a mention though I realize Minecraft has surpased it in terms of popularity and accessibility. I still have to try it but literally, literally I tell you, can fit another game in right now.

    • You do know Wurm was created by Notch, the developer behind Minecraft? :D

      So that makes what you’re saying kinda redundant, Wurm being the predecessor of Minecraft. :P

  5. lol….stupid Internet Explorer 6.0 (yes, I kid you not, 6.0) making everything so difficult- can’t always see what I’m posting when I am not at home….

    Meant to say Can’t fit another game in now, not can :)

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