MMO Design Lessons from Hannibal Lecter and Why Combat Needs Fixing in RIFT

Ever since watching the Silence of the Lambs movie I’ve been somewhat fascinated by a particular scene in the film where the character of Hannibal Lecter quotes Roman Emporer Marcus Aurelius to FBI Agent Clarice Starling.

Lecter quizzes Clarice:

First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Lecter is a very compelling fictional character because despite being a psychopathic serial killer he is also a thoughtful man with a high intellect and obvious refinement. His advice to Starling in this scene is timeless.

Marcus Aurelius was an important stoic philosopher and considered to be the last of the 5 good emperors of Rome.  His book of observations on life called Meditations is considered to be a classic. But lets examine that film quote a bit closer and see how it relates to MMO design.

For me the quote from Lecter is useful as a game designer because it forces you to consider the benefits of deconstructing complexity into simplicity. Really, it’s about getting to the heart of the matter. The basics. The fundamentals.

It is very valuable and rare skill to be able to evaluate and separate a complex thing into its component parts. One you do that, suddenly everything becomes clear as you can transform apparent chaos and confusion into some semblance of order which allows you to prioritize areas that need to be addressed.

So let’s apply this technique to designing a MMO…

First Things First: What Kind of MMO Are We Designing?

Designing a MMO is a massive task. There are so many component parts to a MMO and competing interests (the investors, the developers, and the target audience) that often the developers can lose sight of what is important and what needs attention.

The first question that we must ask ourselves is this: what is the main thing that you want your players to be doing in your MMO?

Of course, the answer depends on the intent of the people in charge.

Let’s say that for the purposes of discussion we just happen to have $50 million dollars lying around, we can design a MMO anyway that we want. We could design a MMO all around crafting and have no combat whatsoever. We could design a MMO entirely around socialization and the result would be Second Life.

If we are Trion then the answer is that our MMO is all about combat done in the tradition of EverQuest and WoW. Combat is what your players will be doing  most of the time. Combat is the prime focus and everything revolves around it.

We could delve even deeper philosophically and say that character advancement via combat is the true prime focus but for the sake of simplicity let’s just stick to combat for now. In RIFT, combat is tied to the storyline and it’s also deeply connected to the other main features: rifts and classes. Combat is the vortex and RIFT will live or die by how well it is implemented.

Combat as Expression

So if combat will be the prime activity of RIFT it naturally follows that Trion needs to ensure that all the component parts of player combat are refined and polished.

Not only is combat essential for a MMO based on combat, is also integral to how players identify themselves in your MMO. Consider that fact that many players aren’t even that social anymore and many don’t even bother chatting, combat remains one of the last modes of player expression left.

Combat and how we play our classes has become MMO language all its own.

One of the fundamental design objectives when you produce a video game is that players need to be rewarded for pressing a button or hitting a keystroke. When a player does something in a video game they should always get instant feedback. It is the delight and satisfaction resulting from the visual and audio feedback we get from our interactions with our avatars that helps us bond with them and deepens our immersion in the game world around us.

Sadly this is not the always case with RIFT, as both combat animations and sound are not currently up to snuff. Combat feels rather restrained and muted. Imagine trying to play a guitar with no strings. This is what RIFT combat often feels like.

RIFT Combat Animations

Every race and class needs to have fluid animations that are visually rewarding to see your avatar perform during combat. This goes for both melee and spell casting combat including buffs.

In the course of a typical player’s avatar’s career they may see the same animations performed thousands if not millions of times. These animations need to be visually appealing, larger than life and graphically represent what your character is actually doing. Each class should also have a few unique animations and spell/ability particle effects as well.

The combat animations in RIFT are barely passable and even mediocre. Trion needs to stop what they are doing, create a strike team and polish combat animations immediately.

RIFT Combat Sounds

The same considerations should apply to combat sounds; they must be pleasing and rewarding for the player. They must also be distinctive and unique so the player can stand out in a crowd of other classes and afford their avatars some some semblance of personality.

To my knowledge RIFT has no combat sounds emanating from your character. If they are there, they are so low in volume to be unintelligible. There should be grunts, groans, moans, screams and battle cries of desperation and victory whilst your avatar is engaged in combat and being attacked by NPC characters.

Surprisingly enough, the character select screen has some great character voice audio when you click on each class. Audio of this caliber needs to be included directly in the MMO.

The actual audio of the weapons themselves such as the swords hitting mobs is less than spectacular. It seems that Trion’s sound designer has recycled the same metal clanging sword sound over and over. I could barely hear the sound of my ranger shooting an arrow with his bow. The gunshot sound effects were even worse and sounded more like a peashooter than a real shotgun going off.

I’d like to briefly mention the silly combat music that plays once you engage in battle; it masks the paucity of good combat sounds that should be coming from both the player and the NPCs. The combat audio that the player hears should be viscerally exciting and should stand up on its own without the need for external music to disguise its shortcomings.

The Copycat MMO Formula

If you copy WoW — which Trion has done for 80% of their MMO — then you had better do it well and you should strive surpass the original. But at least if you copy something you should know *why* you are doing so.

Too often, as Richard Bartle remarked in his recent GDC presentation, MMO developers copy things because they are successful in other MMOs without actually considering the actual existential reason for including such a feature. Much of what is in RIFT has been outright lifted directly from WoW and I suspect it was done so without vigorous examination of why.

Our entire entertainment industry is plagued with this kind of lazy attitude and the result is that everything looks and sound the same with very few originals because too often corporations want to play it safe and let someone else do all the dirty work of creating something new and innovative.

Concluding Thoughts

I still like RIFT very much and despite its faults it’s a MMO that is worth playing and supporting if the devs are willing to expend the resources to fixing some basic problems such as combat.

After playing in 3 betas I’ve noticed that combat in RIFT is anemic, unexciting and timid. For a MMO that is so focused on combat this is a big disappointment. One only has to play Blizzard’s WoW to see the level of attention to detail that they have put into combat as the animations and sound effects are masterful and are of unsurpassed quality — and RIFT has half of the total number of races to animate than WoW.

To the untrained eye and those fatigued by their favorite MMO, RIFT seems like a very polished game with its gorgeous landscapes and wonderfully rendered towns and cities. However, once the newness wears off I’m afraid RIFT may end up being a tedious and somewhat predictable experience for players due to the lack of polish in their core features. If the current course is not changed, RIFT could well end up in the MMO dustbin of history along with many other pretenders to the throne.

Too often we’ve seen new MMOs enjoy a burst of popularity only to end up in obscurity after a few months after the novelty is gone and the MMO tourists return home. The only way for Trion to avert disaster is to prioritize their resources on a few key features and polish them to perfection. This should be done in this order: combat, classes and dynamic content.  All three of these things will either make or break this MMO. I hope they are humble enough to realize this and address these problems before RIFT goes live in March of this year.

-Wolfshead

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