Are MMOs Sustainable?


So I’ve been meaning to write a bit of a longer post on games recently. A couple of factors have been coming together kind of in this direction, so I figure I may as well try and tie them all together into something long and semi-coherent.

One of the guys in my D&D group has been passing off a class of his own creation to me for perusal over balance concerns. There was a time about a year and a half, maybe two years ago when I used to be deeply involved in D&D mechanics. I knew all of the major tricks for optimizing spellcasters in all of the books then released. I was at least passingly familiar with every prestige class and feat and could probably tell you whether it was a worthwhile investment to utilize for building your uber character of doom.

And then, for whatever reason, I stopped caring. And I’m not really sure when or why, but basically I decided it was all kind of pointless. I mean, there’s a degree of planning and procedure that’s appropriate in any game. But to sit down and pore through all of these D&D books (and, damn, there are a lot of D&D books being published lately) just seems … well, what’s the point? I’ve never played a D&D game that’s gone to twentieth level. I don’t ever want to play a D&D game that goes to twentieth level. I don’t even like playing D&D games that go up to tenth level. Not only do the mechanics begin to break down at that point, but it just becomes narratively implausible for me to imagine these homeless wanderers carrying around millions of GP in their pockets and having a wardrobe full of incredibly powerful magical items.

So, anyway, to try and get back on track, I’ve been looking at this particular class. It started off as a wish-fulfillment player class and was thus, as would be expected, “too good.” A bit of nudging and finessing here and there got it more in line with other D&D classes — And then recently its power level spiked through the roof. Though I’m trying to be firm in insisting that the power level as-is is too high, I find myself kind of caught up in diplomacy and vacillation. That is to say, understanding that “balance” can only be evaluated based on one’s objectives, the “balance” of a class is a notoriously ephemeral thing. As a wish-fulfillment class it’s certainly intended to satiate some craving for power inaccessible through other D&D means, but simultaneously the search for feedback from other people indicates at least a passing desire to situate the class within the existing conception of “balance” in D&D. (And even though I consider D&D’s existing balance to be a joke, you’re not really going to get anywhere by just refusing to play by its rules.)

To jump off here, I read Shamus’ post here on, essentially, problems with MMOs and possible solutions. Shamus seems to describe a system whereby one person is usually capable of taking on equal-level opponents, but this will tend to be a long and drawn-out battle. Grouping would be a way to speed up the process and add a social element.

While this all sounds well and good, I think what Shamus describes is just another position on the same curve — And not a particularly appealing one either. His example:

So, let’s say we have a game were a level ten player will seek out a level ten monster. But the numbers work so that a group of six level ten fighters also fight level ten monsters – they just go through them faster. (I won’t belabor the mechanics here, but this is a perfectly reasonable setup.) This makes it so that groups can grow, shrink, split, or merge in the field, without interrupting gameplay. Like building a ship, completion of the task is a foregone conclusion (assuming they aren’t careless) and their satisfaction comes not from “winning”, but from the rewards they get and out of an enjoyment of the process itself. I know this will sound like heresy to some, but I don’t think danger is a required ingredient.

Shamus wants to present this as a situation where an equivalent level player may need to take some time to defeat a monster of equivalent level, but will be largely successful (lets say 90% or higher success rate).

But what I see happening inevitably is that your level 10 character will not hunt level 10 monsters. Your level 10 character will find and hunt a level 15 or a level 20 monster, something that might be more capable of killing him and which might take somewhat longer to kill but which will offer superior rewards. Inevitably, your level 10 character is going to find the perfect monster to hunt, one with an easily exploitable weakness for which this level 10 character will design the perfect farming build. He will then farm this creature into extinction. Grouping is largely irrelevant to this discussion as power players and farmers are always more organized than your average player — If an area requires four characters to farm effectively then farmers will farm with four people. However, the optimum condition for farming is one in which each farmer gains resources at 100% rate. Unless grouping actually speeds up reward acquisition nonlinearly then it will not be favorable to either the farmer or the casual player.

What are your options as the designer of the game? The simplest one is to change the creature. But this is a band-aid solution: So long as there are character classes with different capabilities and monsters with different capabilities players will always find ways to exploit the weaknesses of monsters with the strengths of their characters. You can change the environment around the creature — Add another creature nearby to support the first creature and balance out its weaknesses. But now we have started down the dark path of “requiring” grouping by putting two powerful creatures together. The ideal option is probably to give all creatures such a level of Artificial Intelligence that they can recognize the repetitive and cookie-cutter tactics being used and adapt and compensate based on the creature’s capabilities, either by fleeing, gathering reinforcements, ambushing the player, changing strategies, etc. This is a pretty fanciful solution, though, as we’re nowhere near the level of AI that would be capable of assessing and adapting to player strategies in a non-static system such as an MMO. I’m actually pretty skeptical that people would enjoy this solution as well, since it’s basically a suggestion to increase the difficulty, albeit not necessarily in easily quantified ways; it certainly would penalize the casual player just as much if not moreso than the expert number-crunching farmer.

Although I think it’s kind of a noble idea to have a game that is equally playable multiplayer as it is singleplayer, I don’t really have a lot of confidence that this is possible — At least not in a persistent multiplayer world. As ngthagg from Shamus’ comments points out, Diablo II was actually exceptionally good at allowing for either a singleplayer or a multiplayer experience. Diablo II, though, is entirely an instanced game and can only have so many players in the game world simultaneously. I don’t think it’s really feasible to have a large scale game where monster strength increases based on the number of players in the area, though, as that just presents too many problems when the player doesn’t have the option to lock other players out (ie, a private instance).

I also feel compelled to mention that I found Diablo II almost unplayable after about level 60 due to the difficulty, even playing solo. Level is not really a great judge of character strength when the character classes are designed to fill different roles. I can’t recall the last patch I played, but I particularly remember it making Sorceresses (one of the most consistently powerful classes) even more powerful while drastically nerfing the melee combatant classes, Barbarian, Paladin, Druid, Assassin, etc. The latter classes already suffered, power-wise, compared to some of the ranged powerhouse classes because they could not use their range and mobility to entirely forego defense. When I found characters that I had spent months and months building up almost entirely useless I eventually grew bored of running naked back to my corpse and gave it up. I didn’t have the patience to do endless Mephisto / Pindleskin / Baal runs to get the obscenely powerful equipment I would need to remain competitive in the highest difficulty areas and I didn’t have a stockpile of duped Stones of Jordan I could use to trade for such high tier equipment.

I’ve kind of grown into the idea that the typical MMO/Hack-and-Slash paradigm of having an explorable area where enemies stand around and wait for you to come to them is one of the prime culprits of problems in games of this type. What Shamus describes in saying a level 10 character can fight a level 10 monster (or above, in all likelihood) alone is that he will be able to walk up to an enemy that is standing around in a forest, hack it to death, loot its corpse, then move on to the guy standing at the next tree over and do the same to it. It all sounds very Progress Quest-like. And whether the game’s combat system is slow, attrition based combat as Shamus describes it or Diablo II like with victory (usually over hordes of enemies) and death usually decided in a second or two, it’s still the same thing: Grinding. Killing enemies for no purpose other than to gain experience or wealth.

Maybe every MMO simply is just a glorified Progress Quest. I’d like to think that’s not so, though, and because of that I think we need to rethink what’s going on in MMOs. Dispute if you will:

1. No two characters of different classes will be of equal strength since most classes are not necessarily designed to be 1:1 comparable.
2. No two characters of equal level will be of equal strength, as not every character will have the same build or items
3. Even assuming identical build and items, no two characters will be of equal strength. In other words, player skill and randomness exists.

How can we deal with the vast disparities in strength that result from the dual system of class and level (and race and equipment if you want to add that in the mix)? If we have a character ClassA-#X and a character ClassA-#X and we can’t necessarily balance them between each other, what hope do we have for balancing characters of ClassA through ClassM between each other, particularly when the classes themselves are not balanced between each other by design? When levels are not balanced between each other by design? When characters of different classes and different levels certainly aren’t balanced against each other, to say nothing of race or items.

Where am I going with this? Well, honestly, I can’t say. MMOs have latched onto this paradigm of race / class / items / level as a way of providing a deep and rewarding game experience. But it also provides an unstable game experience. I think it’s too much. Too many variables and a flawed design inherited from D&D and games of its ilk. Spellcasters in MMOs may not have the godlike power of D&D spellcasters, heck, they may even be among the weakest classes, but the real flaw of D&D is that it provides too much. A D&D spellcaster isn’t necessarily overpowered, he relies upon spells and, in particular, a disgustingly huge array of spells from which he can choose the best one suited for the task at hand. Designing MMO gameplay areas must be like a nightmare of fighting against hundreds of thousands of differently min/maxed D&D spellcasters, each with their own specialization, at the same time. Getting a challenging and entertaining experience from a bunch of zombified monsters waiting around to be killed seems nigh-impossible, so game designers resort to instanced areas (and typically thus forced-grouping) or Player vs. Player to keep the game’s challenge going.

The problem with these solutions is that, say, World of Warcraft’s instanced raids or Guild Wars’ PvP are distinctly different experiences from the previous game content. It’s basically not the same game at all. And so people who are attracted to the beginning game content may not continue to pay the subscription fee once they run out of game content, or may find the content they do have to be too repetitive and boring. In general I think that the Progress Quest style paradigm of an MMO is unsustainable, both in terms of balance and in terms of producing content and retaining players. I can’t imagine, for example, that World of Warcraft provides an engaging enough player experience that people would want to play it if it were a singleplayer game.

Dang, now I’m feeling compelled to write about how the social element of MMOs causes people to overlook glaring flaws in game design … And, just like an MMO, I feel like this post is getting overwhelmed by too many factors that are inextricably linked. I’m ending it here, maybe some other time I will be able to sift through and make some more sense of all these thoughts.

3 Responses

  1. If we get rid of the system of fixed monster spawn points, and just have monsters appear in spots where there AREN’T any players, then we will take away the ability to “farm” a single monster. You have to keep moving, and you will run into many types of monsters from that area. If I’m lvl 10 hunting in a level 15 area, I’m going to get KILLED, because I’ll run into monsters for which I don’t have any exploit. Killing some and running from others will be dangerous and time consuming (since I may meet MORE monsters while running) and so it will be more cost-effective to just stick to my level 10 area.

    Really, the fixed monster spawn points is an awful system and is long overdue for innovation.

  2. %name said:

    If we get rid of the system of fixed monster spawn points, and just have monsters appear in spots where there AREN’T any players, then we will take away the ability to “farm” a single monster.

    Not necessarily, so long as the MMO in question retains what I feel like is the major factor in encouraging farming — That monsters pretty much just stand around (or patrol) and wait until you get near them. Having monsters that react to players the moment they see them, rather than when they are within an artificial “aggro bubble” would mean players have far less control over the encounters they initiate.

    Guild Wars (just to give an example I know a bit about) has pseudorandom spawn points for all enemies. Someone who has a build specifically to farm, say, Trolls in Guild Wars is going to seek out engagements with Trolls and run around any monsters he doesn’t want to deal with so he doesn’t waste time. It’s not always possible to avoid engagements but it’s far easier to avoid them than in say, Diablo where enemies will largely attack on sight and might begin attacking you from off-screen.

  3. Yeah, I was thinking that Monsters would be able to see you about the same time you saw them, although I hadn’t thought about what that would LOOK like, in-game. Actually, higher level monsters ought to have higher stats, and thus see you first, while lower ones would be a little “blind” by comparison, and thus easy for the high-level player to avoid.

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