Why Players Should Be the Ultimate Content for MMOs

by Wolfshead on June 18, 2009

In every game and sport since the dawn of time, human participants have been their existential lifeblood.  The test of skill, athletics, teamwork and stamina as participants go head to head with each other has always been the fundamental building block of gaming competitions. Sports provides us with the joys and challenges of working with teammates and against opponents.

With the arrival of video games came a revolution where teammates and opponents were no longer needed. Sure there are FPS games and varying degrees of PVP in many MMOs where players actually face each other but the typical video game experience is largely a variant of the card game Solitaire.

Virtual worlds have become so incredibly detailed and immersive that the primacy of the player in the grand scheme of things has been eroded. As MMOs become more like movies we’ve become spectators instead of participants. Is the tennis court more important than the players? Is the stadium more significant than the athletes? Has the beauty and majesty of $50 million virtual worlds blinded us?

Have players have taken a backseat to the content?

When the Player Was King

There was a time when players were the focus of virtual worlds. Social bonding and group interdependency were considered a primary design tenet and goal of the MMO company. The basic activity of MMOs patterned itself after human activity in the real world where those that faced adversity would band together and cooperate with each other. Players in virtual worlds soon realized that the only way to advance and grow was to participate in communal combat. We did things together in those days — the army of one mentality was the exception and not the rule

Being a player was vitally important in those MMOs such as EverQuest. You needed both player skill and social skill to prosper. Back then players realized and understood that cooperation was essential to survival. Most of them didn’t complain instead they forged ahead with the task at hand. Without those unselfish players everything would have collapsed — there would be no character progression, no guilds, no dragons or gods slain, no tales and deeds of bravery.

There was value in being a player back then. Players were the true engine of  the MMO. There was social, strategic and practical value in knowing and cultivating a relationship with your fellow players and team mates.

Despite the exotic treasures we would uncover, we soon began to realize that the bonds of friendship and camaraderie were the real treasure. When people would band together from all over the world and put aside their egos in order to accomplish something greater than the sum of the parts — well that was the true magic of MMOs.

Then it all changed…

The Devaluation of Players

As MMO companies like Blizzard came on the scene they strived to attract more subscribers by expanding their demographics by allowing players to experience their MMO in shorter bursts. De-emphasizing group and raid content and providing solo content in a massive and unprecedented scale was the easiest way to achieve this.

The problem is that solo content has the unintended effect of marginalizing the need for players to have social contact with other players. When this happens other players become nothing more than animated NPCs and props — other players become trivial and incidental. While grouping and raiding does still exists in many MMOs as a relic of days gone by the new focus on solo content also has the side effect of ill-preparing players for transition to the endgame of many MMOs which of course is: grouping and raiding.

When players no longer value other players the caliber of the community on all levels suffers. Avatars rarely acknowledge each other in passing in the wilderness. Chat channels are debased. Forums are rife with nastiness. Players clamor for more skills that make them even more powerful and independent. It’s all about me me me. All of these symptoms have come to constitute the malady of the modern MMO.

WoW marked a major shift in MMO design philosophy as the primacy of the player began to fade and the ascendancy of the game designer began.

How Content and Artistry Has Distracted Us

People who play MMOs are largely inconsequential compared to the grandeur of these new virtual worlds. The chessboard has become the star of the show — not the chess players. Since all of this beautifully polished content is the star then it stands to reason that a star needs a good script. This is where the storyline enters into the new MMO equation.

lead designers

MMOs have become all about the egos of the designers and the quest writers. They are the drummers and you the player must march to their beat. Lurking in the shadows, they are the puppeteers that tell you where to go and when. Initially you love it and are awestruck because you are in their version of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean — but it’s all a distraction that prevents you from contemplating why you really came here in the first place — to be part of a virtual world with other people.

Putting the Focus Back on the Player

Players should be the stars not the world — not the designers and not the storyline. The only way this can ever happen again is if designers allow players to tell their own stories and make their own history within these worlds. I mentioned the concept of player history in an article I wrote back in August of 2008:

More importantly the real treasure we came back with was that we created our own story and history.

Richard Bartle also amplified the notion of player history in MMOs in his recent Indepdendent MMO GDC presentation Pleasing the Teller. From his slides:

• There are three kinds of story in mmos
– Indeed, in all games
• Backstory describes what happened
before the mmo went live
– How the elves came to Middle-earth
• Narrative is what the designers
arrange to happen
– Quests to help the fellowship of the ring
• History is what actually happened
– Cool! I fell off weathertop!

Of these, history is the most important
• History is the player’s retelling of
interesting events
• This means there must have been some
interesting events
• No history means nothing interesting
happened
– Where’s the fun in that?

With everything so heavily scripted and infused with storylines there is no opportunity for random events and the player memories that naturally result from them. Nobody will ever remember the 20 boars they killed to complete a quest in a MMO.

on rails

Nothing is left to chance and it’s all because of an intolerant and protective design philosophy that puts all of the control in the hands of the game designer.

How do we reverse this trend and how do we put the emphasis back on the player again?

Solutions on How to Empower Players

Developers need to start respecting and trusting their players and allow for emergent gameplay to flourish.

We deserve some real alternatives to the quest centric amusement park ride that MMOs have been reduced to. Here are a few free suggestions (go ahead steal them Blizzard) to put the power back in the hands of players again:

  • Make Socializing Rewarding – Good game design revolves around ensuring that cohesion exists between other game mechanics notably achievement mechanics:
    • Create special unique quests and item rewards only available for groups and friends
    • Reward achievers for making friends which would encourage conversations and communication
    • Have various levels of friendship and accord prestige and status to higher levels of friendship
  • Create a Player Reputation System – Let players rate other players and police their own servers with a vote up and vote down system. Good players will rise in reputation, evil players will lose reputation. Create actual consequences  by awarding benefits and meting out punishments for different levels of reputation.
  • Encourage Emotes – Give players something meaningful to do while they are walking and running around:
    • Bring back the Hail command — Reward and encourage players to hail NPCs and use other emotes to illicit responses and actions from NPCs such as buffs and even attacks
    • Encourage civility among players by rewarding  emotes like /wave by granting small buffs and bonuses
  • Encourage Player Freedom — Allow players to attack friendly faction NPCs at a cost of reputation and let those players be attacked by same faction players during those times
  • Bring Back Trains – Yes you heard me! Stop leashing NPCs.
  • Improve NPC A.I. – No more Stepford Wives NPCs
  • Bring Cities and Towns to Life – this would entice players to congregate more. Here are a few suggestions:
    • have agroing drunks, pickpockets, courtesans and criminal NPC’s come out at night
    • have bar fights breaking out in inns and taverns
    • have food scarcity fights breaking out in cities
    • create real jails for chat violators and other offenses, let other players visit them and throw rotten vegetables at them for sport
    • have public executions of chat violators and griefers each day — execute their avatars whether they are online or not
    • have the good city and townsfolk NPC come out during the day
  • Create Random and Triggered Events that actually affect players and bring them together in common cause (as in the real world) such as:
    • invasions
    • plagues
    • famines
    • earthquakes
    • revolts
    • uprisings
    • riots
  • Allow Players and Guilds to Create their own special Events – Let them rent out NPCs like caterers, jugglers, guards, priests and give them serious tools and items to create:
    • treasure hunts
    • birthdays
    • anniversaries
    • parties
    • weddings
    • funerals
  • Fewer Scripted Quests and Storylines - Designers it’s not all about *you* it’s about the player.
  • Create Interactive Buildings — Allow players to impact the world by creating new mechanics that allow players to build and destroy infrastructure.

Conclusion

Players could be the highest form of content in MMOs if only the social engineers masquerading as MMO developers would put their trust in them. God gave more freewill to humanity than MMO developers have ever given to their players. A handful of good players who invest themselves into a virtual world with abandon and passion are worth much more than millions of dollars of handcrafted content.

Players are the greatest single resource that a MMO company has. Only players can truly inject *life* into a virtual world but regrettably their potential is not being utilized. The problem is that players can only do so much given the lack of in-game opportunities and mechanics.

To the MMO CEO’s out there I say this on behalf of players: we are tired of chasing your yellow exclamation marks. We want to be players not actors in the world you have created for us — remember it’s our world too. We the players have much to contribute if you would only show us some respect and reciprocate the trust we have placed in you. Have the courage give us the tools to let us make our own destiny.

-Wolfshead

After writing this piece I came across a link to a thoughtful article which may be of interest and deserves mention. It’s by Muckbest entitled Players ARE Content. Really good read!

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