MMO Design Pitfalls

VanguardFor years I have held the original creators of EverQuest in high esteem. I was always fascinated with the work of Brad McQuaid and Jeff Butler. Long had they been at the helm of the good ship EverQuest and my, what a voyage it was! EverQuest was truly a captivating online game that literally changed my life and introduced me to the magic of virtual worlds.

Eventually both Brad and Jeff left SOE. My curiosity was piqued with the news that they had decided to create a new company which would create a new 3rd generation MMO that would push the envelope further. While I was thrilled and happy at Blizzard’s success with WoW, I believed that the MMO genre still had only scratched the surface of its true potential — somehow I wanted more.

When Sigil added their forums, I became an active participant along with many other MMO gamers that were drawn there because of the charisma and eloquence of Brad McQuaid. Brad has always been a noble and passionate spokesman for MMORPG’s. Back then there was no Vanguard, it was just a vibrant community that was thoughtful and considerate — such a contrast from the banality of the official WoW forums. We had many great discussions and debates in those days. We all felt like pioneers. We believed we were charting the course of some epic adventure yet to take place. Brad and the devs treated us with respect and *gasp* occasionally even joined in on the conversations. Eventually they decided on a name for their MMO and it was dubbed Vanguard: Saga of Heroes.

In the summer of 2005, I attended the Fanguard gathering of Sigil devotees in Las Vegas and interviewed both Jeff Butler and Brad McQuaid for an article I wrote for (now defunct). I liked what I saw and became true believer. I felt that Vanguard was the best hope for MMO’s at the time. Later that year, I finally got an invite into the beta and after playing the game I was very disappointed. Perhaps I was a victim of high expectations that I had imprinted on the game. Sure it was beta but in my opinion they had failed to capture the magic of EQ. I think there was another reason I was not impressed; it seems after playing WoW I had gotten used to a higher level of craftsmanship and I wasn’t prepared to accept anything of lesser caliber.

Fast forward to 2007. Just a few days ago the NDA was lifted. I’ll admit that I didn’t participate in this beta test as much as I would have liked due to time constraints. I admit that I didn’t experience all of the content that was available. That being said I’d like to comment on a few MMO design pitfalls that I believe are currently present in Vanguard in an effort to help future MMO designers:

Lesson #1: Polish your newbie content first then ensure the game is fun at every level

First impressions of your game are critical to new players. Players will always judge the rest of your content by the quality of your initial content. Industry experts have long held that you have approximately 15 minutes to “hook” a new player. The newbie areas in Vanguard were mediocre and very unpolished. It seems that Sigil spent all of their time and put all of their “A” list talent to work on the high level content. They failed to realize that if you don’t make your newbie content compelling nobody will ever get to see the “good stuff” ™ later on because they will quit in frustration. This is a classic game design pitfall that many inexperienced game designers fall into. As much as I find fault with Blizzard’s current raid-centric direction with WOW I have a lot of respect for “polish, polish, polish” mantra for their newbie areas. Read Pardo’s speech at the GDC and he explains exactly why MMO devs should focus on the newbie content first.

Bottom line: a game should be fun at every level — not just at higher levels or at the so-called “endgame”.

Lesson #2: Make your game for today’s average system not tomorrow’s

Another huge problem is that Sigil were making Vanguard for a system that the average computer user may have in 2008 instead of making it run well and look great on an average computer sold in 2006. When players have no choice but to turn down the settings just to be able to play the result is a bland ugly world — this is a major turn off to beta testers. Soon word of mouth starts to spread that the game looks bad and that all the characters look the same when it’s more likely the game would have looked amazing if only people had the very best computers and video cards. I can understand why they may have done this: they didn’t want their game to have obsolete graphics in a few years from now. The problem with this is that there may not be a game in a few years from now if nobody can play the game *now*.

Bottom line: As in Lesson #1, you *must* grab the attention of the player at the outset. High system requirements and a game that is made for the computer of tomorrow will reduce your pool of beta testers and potential subscribers.

Lesson #3: Make a game first, and then make the world

Brad and company were too busy creating a vast three continent world that they forgot to make a game. The result is you have vast trackless areas of land that stretch as the far as the eye can see — devoid of content or points of interest. There is very little design elegance in creating a world like this. Every nook and cranny in a game must exist for a reason. Just like every note in a song should exist for a reason. Bigger is not always better. Again go back to the original EverQuest zones and then the WoW zones. Look at the original Highpass Hold: it was amazingly fun and popular zone but it was very small!

Sigil should have made one continent (Thestra) available at release and added the other continents in future expansions. They should have focused all of their energies on a smaller landmass and fewer classes instead of trying to do too much. In the final analysis, I believe their project wasn’t properly scoped.

Less is more. Quality should always triumph over quantity. Focus first on making the core elements of your MMO fun and compelling. For example: develop and polish core mechanics like combat, magic, and the character advancement system. Make sure that all of this is elegant and functional before proceeding with grandiose plans to add vast landmasses.

Bottom Line: Make the core elements of your MMO fun and compelling, then worry about adding size to your world with expansions and updates.

Lesson #4: Ensure that players will be emotionally invested in your world

One of the shortcomings with Vanguard is that they had created a world with no underlying premise. From its inception, Brad and the devs seemed to give the story and lore of Telon short shrift. From what I can tell, their world had no dramatic conflict that would hook the player emotionally and draw them in. There was no conflict (like the ongoing battle between the Alliance and the Horde in WoW) readily apparent in the world of Vanguard. Players want to care about the virtual worlds they inhabit. The more players are emotionally attached to a compelling story for their characters to be a part of, the more players will have a genuine stake in your world and log in. The story and lore of your MMO are critical in creating emotional hooks for an online game and should never be an afterthought. (Note: David Freeman has done some excellent work in this field and his book Creating Emotion in Games is a classic that belongs in the library of every game designer).

Bottom Line: Creating a world with emotional appeal will broaden your subscriber base with new players and it will also keep existing players logging in.

Finally, I realize that it’s no easy task making a MMO. In fact, it takes millions of dollars and the combined effort of scores of talented people to even create a serious contender for the marketplace. I have every respect for the people at Sigil and what they are trying to accomplish. I believe that the dream that both Brad and Jeff set out to realize is still possible given more time. Nothing is more disastrous for an online game to be released before it’s ready. It’s very hard for a company to recover from a poor initial showing. That being said, I hope that Brad and Jeff will do what’s right and follow the Blizzard philosophy of only releasing a game when it’s ready.


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