MMO Development Lesson #47

Time is a player’s most precious resource. Use it wisely. Do not create time-sinks for the sake of taking up their time. Don’t make them waste their time doing things that aren’t fun in order to get to things that are. Don’t arbitrarily create timers that will be likely to spend a player’s time. Don’t make a death penalty that needlessly makes  a player sit around doing nothing. This is a fairly straightforward lesson, but it’s easy to violate if you aren’t careful.

Some time-wasters are fairly obvious. For example, you don’t want to make a death penalty that makes a player uselessly weak for 15 minutes. You’ve just wasted a quarter of an hour of a player’s time. Some are a little subtler. For example, if you make a daily instance run/quest/whatever have a 24 hour no-repeat timer, you’re going to waste a player’s time. Why? If I complete the quest at 8:00PM on day 1, I can’t do it until 8:00PM on day 2. It takes me 10 minutes to do it, so on day 3, I can’t do it until 8:10PM. I might also fail to start the quest instantly, so I will slowly push the time I can do the quest later and later. How do you solve it? Either make the daily timer actually correspond to once a day (e.g. you can do it on Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and so on) or adjust the timer back from 24 hours (to something like 22 hours).

This extends to poor quest design as well which is, again, a fairly subtle thing. Do you have the player searching for 3 copies of an object that only drops 10% of the time? That could theoretically take forever. Instead, you should institute a fail-safe system that prevents this worst-case scenario. How? Check out this drop chance escalation simulation (sorry, link currently broken). In short, every time a player fails to get quest loot, they are more likely to get it on the next try. You can also calculate the maximum kills necessary for any scenario. And, if you’re into pain, you can look at the normal way of doing things. (Note: Please don’t use these TOO much or you could make the web server very sad and I might have to take them down. Thanks! Edit: Yep, broken link also, sorry.)

A player’s time should never be needlessly wasted. It is a valuable resource and should always be treated respectfully.

MMO Development Lesson #46

Remember than an MMO is social. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with Lesson #45. Massively multiplayer games are multiplayer, and they should be social. Unfortunately, a lot of games tend to fail in the social realm in many ways, and the genre needs to make strides to get back to its social roots.

Let me be clear here: I am not saying that you shouldn’t make solo content in an MMO. It is absolutely vital to accommodate solo play, and in most MMOs it is going to make up the majority of your content. However, soloable content is completely different from solo-only content.

Let’s use World of Warcraft as an example (Edit: not true after Legion!). If you have a quest to Kill 10 Rats in a cave and there are two other players around with the same quest, what goes through your mind? For me, it’s generally something like, argh, I’m gonna have to compete for these quest updates. That is the exact opposite reaction that players should have when they see someone else. The presence of other players should help you do your quest faster, not make it go slower and cause minor frustration.

There are many other examples in games of inherently–though usually unintentionally–antisocial features. This might get me crucified, but the Dungeon Finder in WoW is one of the biggest violators when it comes to discouraging socialization. I will admit that I use it repeatedly (to my own detriment; if I haven’t explained that in a previous post, it’ll probably be my next MMO Rant subject), but it allows people to group up with no socialization, do an entire dungeon without speaking with each other (or connecting afterward because they’re on different servers), and allows trolls be held unaccountable for their actions. Great idea for a feature, but its negative social implications are pretty profound.

To drill down to my actual point: consider the social implications of everything you do in an MMO. Create features and content specifically intended to encourage positive socialization. Create, foster, and encourage communities to develop in and outside of your game. Look back at some of the older MMOs for ideas and come up with new ones. A focus on the social aspect of MMOs will help create a healthy community and will significantly reinforce player retention, but it takes a backseat in developers’ minds all too often.

MMO Development Lesson #45

Remember that an MMO is multiplayer. There are multiple lessons in that one phrase, but I’ll just split this one into two (the next lesson will cover the other half). One of the most important considerations when you’re making a decision about a quest, event, population, or feature is to consider the multiplayer implications of that decision. All too often I see content that isn’t multiplayer friendly; its developed with a single player in mind, and as soon as more than a few players are around, problems occur.

For example, content bottlenecks are pretty common with named bosses, particularly with the first major wave of players in any MMO. You get a quest to defeat High Lord Brekhalu and you ultimately find him where the quest said heed be. Unfortunately, someone’s already fighting him or has just been killed. Find a way to fix it. Can you share credit to all players who helped defeat him? Can you trigger a near-instant respawn of the boss if someone who needs him is present? Can you make it so players summon him in some way (e.g. lighting a pyre or hitting a gong)?

Every decision should be made with multiplayer in mind. From the ground up. The environments need to accommodate enough players, the mob population needs to be dense enough and have some form of respawn throttling (low mob population respawn acceleration), events and objectives need to account for multiple people, quests objective numbers need to be tuned against objective availability, intricate scripted sequences might best be left to instances, features should be multiplayer inclusive, etc.

The fact that MMOs are multiplayer is the genre’s greatest strength and greatest development challenge. Leverage it.

MMO Development Lesson #44

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of the most common problems I see with new designers is that they’re afraid to ask for help. They think they might look stupid or incapable of doing their jobs if they ask someone for assistance. Instead, they bang their heads against a problem until they either solve it, give up, or finally seek help. It’s a waste of time, and asking questions doesn’t make you look stupid. Even as a senior designer who is extremely good with tools, I’ll happily ask even an associate designer how to do something if I forgot how to do it. It’s not a big deal!


MMO Development Lesson #43

Know when to stop. There is always a point of diminishing returns with everything. This goes for overtime, content creation, and virtually anything you do when working on a game. With regard to self-imposed overtime, you need to learn where your point of diminishing returns is. Do you know that you can work 10 hours a day indefinitely? Great! Don’t make yourself work 12 hours a day, slowly degrading your overall work quality and output over time (and remember that family is important!).

This is one of the hardest lessons to learn as a developer. Do you have a really interesting idea that you think might be possible if you just work on it for a few more hours? Is it worth it? Often, a piece of content is very nearly as good in far less time than you might be personally willing to put into it. It can be tempting to keep working on it because you might eventually get there, but you need to know when to stop and move on to the next thing.

MMO Development Lesson #42

Do not violate the narrative of your world. Don’t get me wrong, the lore of a world can be bent to your will and almost anything is possible in most game worlds, but you need to be careful to avoid outright contradicting the story. It’s often relatively easy to  bend a rule or modify the context of how you tell the story without infringing on the rules of your narrative.

  • Idea: You have a great idea that involves visually explaining an important piece of history using ghosts. You even stayed late at work to script it up and make everything play out perfectly!
  • Problem: Your world does not have ghosts. Period. No, it also doesn’t have tangible echoes of the past even in highly magical areas. Get over it.
  • Solution: Luckily, your world allows for visions of the past to take place. Send players on a vision to see what really happened rather than showing it with ghostly figures–the player experience might even be better for it.

MMO Development Lesson #41

Don’t sacrifice fun for the sake of story. This statement is a bit too absolute, but the gist of it is true. If you have a great idea and the gameplay is fun but it doesn’t fit with the world contextually, either make an exception or revise the story so the gameplay is the same but the context is more palatable.

  • Idea: The player uses an illusion to look like a Giant and infiltrate a Giant camp to steal their secret beer recipe.
  • Problem: There are no illusions in this world! While its technically possible and the gameplay is fun, it simply doesn’t fit.
  • Solution: Let the player use a device that temporarily controls a Giant’s mind, allowing the player to acquire the recipe.

MMO Development Lesson #40

All the passion and talent in the world on your development team can take you far, but business and management are just as vital. Making a game takes a village. You need designers, engineers, artists, testers, and many other creative and skilled developers in the trenches. But, you also need solid production, management, and a viable business plan or your game isn’t going to get very far. Focus on making a great game first, but remember that this is a business and don’t let a game fail for the wrong reasons.

MMO Development Lesson #39

Be mindful of where you set your quality bar. If you set your quality bar too high, it’s going to make production difficult and inefficient. This goes for all aspects of game development, not just design.

To give an example, let’s use art. Let’s say you can create a very good looking crate in one work day. To the untrained eye, it’s an amazing crate. To the eye of an artist, its fine, but it could use some tweaks to get it just right. Those tweaks take two or three more days to complete before everyone is happy and the crate is itself a work of art.

Guess what you just did: You wasted two days. The vast majority of players are not going to see that crate and examine its intricacies, they’re just going to see it as part of a scene. The time would have been better spent on an important landmark prop rather than the crate.

This is true of design as well. Don’t spend 8 hours writing flowery dialogue and quest text when you’re just sending a player on a mission to kill a named boss. That time could be better spent improving the boss encounter, adding an optional objective, or creating another quest entirely. The player is going to remember the experience, not the perfectly-crafted dialogue.

Find your baseline quality bar and make that realistic, then create moments of extreme quality that the players will remember.

MMO Development Lesson #38

There’s still room for kill quests in your game. Kill quests get a bad rap, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. They reward players for doing something they’re probably already doing, and rewarding players for doing things is good.

You can also improve a kill quest by doing something unique (e.g. herd some cows over the edge of a cliff to send them to their deaths) or by pairing them with another quest objective as an Optional/Bonus step or as a Choice between killing mobs or doing something else (e.g. destroying a hive).

You should also make sure to give a kill quest good context. Kill 10 Bears because they looked at me funny is not good context. Kill 10 Invaders who are actively attacking my village is much better context. Don’t shy away from using kill quests as a whole, just make sure you don’t use them too frequently (or as a crutch for poor imagination) and try to give them a little something extra if you can.