Hatred for MMORPGs gives me design inspiration
These are some thoughts about how I want to design the core gameplay for Beneath An Alien Sky, inspired by all the things that suck in the current crop of online games and how I think they could be fixed.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 1: The core gameplay - kill monster, get money, buy bigger sword, kill bigger monster, repeat - is Nethack/Rogue with 2009 graphics. It gives a certain pseudo-satisfaction by providing a false sense of achievement, but I see it as essentially time-wasting filler put in to make sure players don't burn through the content too quickly.
Any game where people try to write bots to play their characters for them is obviously a game that is having trouble being fun.
How I'd do it differently: I'd make the core gameplay about building, economy, and development, like a Civ-style game, rather than about monster-slaying. I think this is a better basis for designing a strategy game. You build something persistent, something bigger than your single character, that you manage and expand over time; maybe a town, maybe a corporation or something. Meanwhile you also take your character out for exploration to find things that you need to grow your enterprise, or trade with other players to get them.In addition to being inherently more interesting than slaughtering mobs, this opens up relatively unexplored types of gameplay. Most strategy/simulation games have only single player per empire. What happens when your buildings butt up against the buildings of another player who is nominally on the same side? The rules make them interact in ways which could be mutually beneficial, mutually harmful, or which benefit one player at the expense of the other; being part of the same "empire", you have shared interests, but you're also competing for resources. There's ample incentive to negotiate. Plus, what if empire-wide strategic decisions were made by voting? This makes the social game very, very important.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 2: The exponential power curve. It's a treadmill (at best you keep parity with the power level of the monsters, meaning you haven't gained anything). It means that newbies can never compete with high-level characters, and in fact can't even go to the same zones as the high-level characters without getting slaughtered. Essentially it's social stratification based on length-of-time-playing-the-game.
How I'd do it differently: Players who have been playing a while already have an advantage in terms of knowledge of the game world, system mastery, and social connectedness. No need to give them an overwhelming game-mechanical advantage on top of that. Taking out the exponential power curve forces us to find other ways to reward players. If the gameplay is mainly Civ-style, maybe the rewards are all in terms of resources or additional options for building your towns. If it's more character focused, maybe you get increased ability to customize your character but only underneath a fixed power-level cap. What if rewards are explicitly social, like having your character's profile page ranked higher so other players are more likely to read about you and seek out contact with you? What about if they're political, like gaining the ability to make decisions that affect more and more of the virtual society? What if they're GM / game-designer rights, like getting to design new items/monsters/spells, or getting a chunk of the world in which to create your own dungeons for other players to explore?
Why I hate MMORPGs, 3: In the quest to remove frustration, the genre has evolved from games where player-killing was rampant and death severely penalized (frustrating, no fun) to games where player-killing is restricted certain zones and death is mostly toothless (boring, no challenge, no freedom for people to play meaningfully evil characters).
How I'd do it differently: Let's go all the way and make character death permanent. That's right: No revive spells, baby. You die, you roll up a new character. You get to write the epitaph that goes on your first character's tombstone as a warning to others. Plan your strategy better next time!
Are would-be player-killers still willing to attack newbies when the risk to them (losing a character they spent a long time building up) is far worse than the risk to the newbie (losing a character they just made)? Remember, there's no exponential power curve, so the long-time character doesn't have an overwhelming advantage.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 4: Players are not allowed to have any impact on the game world. An NPC can give you a quest and tell you the quest is important, but after you do it, nothing has changed, and the same NPC is offering the same quest to the next player. Nothing ever changes (unless the developers add an expansion pack or run a server-wide event; then everything changes at once, and the players still have no impact on it.)
How I'd do it differently: All player actions have a permanent effect on the game world - from digging a hole or building a farm to inventing a technology or driving a species extinct. Seeing how these changes interact and how the game world evolves in response to them is the primary point of play. You'd better think about what you do, because it has repercussions that affect other people. If this means that a player who joins at the beginning of the game gets a completely different experience from one who joins two months later, then so be it!
Instead of quests being offered by NPCs, what if all quests were offered by PCs in response to their actual needs? Perhaps as you are happily building up your city, you discover that you need some resource that you can't gather yourself, or you are threatened by some danger that you don't have the means to defeat. So you post a message on some kind of in-game bulletin board requesting aid and offering some reward for whatever player fulfills your request. Congratulations, you just created a "quest" that provides gameplay grist for other players. The game would need to provide strong communication tools to enable this kind of interaction; it would also need to be designed so that players are always needing each other's help - not just in the "group looking for cleric" kind of way, but in the "shoot I need alien biomass to proceed and my character is incapable of harvesting alien biomass, who can I ask" kind of way.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 5: They're massive time-sucks. The designers have every incentive to make them ever-more time-sucking, so the game design is all about rewarding me for spending time in the game grinding. People scheduling their social lives around raids is not uncommon. Even if I wanted to play, this is not something I could fit into my lfiestyle.
How I'd do it differently: Make the game something where most things can happen asynchronously: the communication model should be more like e-mail or forum posts rather than instant messaging. Maybe when you sign on to the game you make various decisions about your corporation/city/etc. but your invisible underlings do their thing (mine the minerals / build the buildings / research the upgrades) slowly, over the course of days of real-time, while you are signed out; so you only have to sign in periodically to keep things on task, or to do something with another player.
Major endeavors, like an adventuring expedition, that are best undertaken with other players, can be arranged ahead of time using asynchronous communication tools. Trading, planning, and negotiating with other players can also happen using these tools.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 6: There's no ultimate goal or ending condition; you just play until you get bored or don't want to pay anymore.
How I'd do it differently: The game ends. Any given server has a starting date and it either runs for a set length of time (3 months or so) or there are certain game-ending conditions and the game ends once they are fulfilled. Probably there are multiple endings, good ones and bad ones, and the whole server gets a single ending depending on what happened. The ending is ultimately decided by the aggregate of thousands of individual decisions; any player can try to sway the game towards the ending they want, but it's beyond any one player's power to decide.
You play to find out the ending, and the ending gives meaning to the play: Did the players work together well enough to get a good ending? Or did they squabble with each other and do mutually harmful things resulting in a bad ending? It's kind of an online sociological experiment. (And by the way, if you care about the ending, the best thing to do is to organize other people in the game to work together for the good ending.)
After it ends, maybe the game masters wait a week and then start up a brand-new server, with the same players again or with different players. How will it go this time? So you don't play "the" game, you play an instance of the game.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 7: The social scene is all screwed up. In theory, the reason you would play MMORPGs instead of some other game is for the social aspect. In practice, all you see is a hovering name like <xX_DeAtHsTr1kEr_Xx" and a character model who is busily running into a wall, every social cue is missing, and you don't know if you talk to this person whether they'll ignore you, call you a FAG!!1, speak in cryptic acronyms, kill your character, laugh at you for being a NEWB, or what.
From talking to my friends who play and enjoy MMOs, it sounds like they make social connections outside the game first and then follow up with those people in-game. E.g. Atul found his current WOW guild through the guild's website, not through in-game channels The fact that people have to use outside communication tools tells me that the in-game tools are broken.
How I'd do it differently: Well, there's a lot of tweaks you can make to the social interface, but consider just one modest suggestion: You have a switch on your interface that you could turn on if you are willing to talk to/help out newbies. This manifests as some sort of special smiley face that appears over your character's head and that other players can see. Now if I'm a newbie and I'm walking around a crowded area, I can immediately recognize that you are willing to talk to me, and I can start up a conversation with you without worrying about annoying you or getting an unhelpful response.
Also, I'd want to make sure that no character is an island. The whole idea of "soloing" runs contrary to the point of a multiplayer game, but the social structure of something like WOW makes you start out grinding solo until you're worthy enough to be accepted by a group doing higher-level stuff. Screw that! I would want to make sure every player character has useful skills to offer others starting from their very first session. And I'd make sure that nobody is self-sufficient - everybody needs other people to get stuff done - so that players literally have to make friends to be able to play at all.