Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Nostalgia Game Design: MMO

Whenever I read certain blogs, I just feel inspired to write. One such blog is the Game Design Review Blog. It makes me think critically about game design choices and the games I currently enjoy and why. The same thing happens whenever I read research articles too. Recently I've been analyzing research on MMOs so this flavor of Nostalgia Game Design will settle on that particular genre of games.

Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with MMOGs. Specifically MMORPGs. Most other MMOs I would not even consider playing because I do not like playing First Person Shooters and feel more competent playing Real Time Strategy by myself against the computer. (Set on easy). I've been exploring more of the range of MMORPG games by testing the waters. Currently, I've only settled with one for the past four months and that is World of Warcraft...which my thesis partner got me for Christmas. :)

When I was a much younger girl and first discovering the wonders of the internet, I learned of something called a MUCK...or in the more common tongue a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). It was the reason my parents allowed me (at the tender age of 15!) to have my own email address. (Yo, this was BACK in the day when you had to pay for modem internet by hour). This was a big deal and a wonderful experience. I played on MUDs for about five years which is when they ultimately died out to give way to their graphical offspring: MMORPGs.

Consequently, I did a research project in an Interactive Narrative course on MUDs specifically and related it to it's predecessor: Table Top RPG. In my paper I tried to discuss if methods used by a Dungeon Master were also present in MUD role plays. What I learned was this: MUDs that were true to the nature of D&D style dungeon crawls and leveling followed more closely to the style of role play in table top games. However, most MUDs had evolved into MUCKs, MUSHes or RP-MUDs where there were no game rules or present DM figure. It was more closely related to an improv acting than a game.

The latter type of Role Play was the kind I knew and grew to love for it's freedom and excitement. It was bound by social rules over game rules. It is what I think of when some one says "Role Play". However, such is not the case for the rule-bound nature of games.

Another strength to MUDs and MUCKs was that it was completely text-based. No one was really judged by how their character "looked", once you got a handle on the coding language you could customize your character's living space, items and so forth. This does mean there is a lot of reading to do. But if you think about it, human imagination is more powerful a graphic engine. And I believe this makes them more appealing to female players. Males are visually stimulated moreso than females who find stimulation through sensation, touch, and communication. It also eliminates most of the drawbacks women have about playing a graphical MMO: Control over their character's appearance, not solely based on battling, and has a wider variety of themes than MMOs.

Some of my issues with MMO is the MM part. MASSIVE multiplayer doesn't necessarily make it better or very personalized for the player. Everything has to be generalized. And usually you at least see hundreds of players in a single session. For a player like me, I prefer to play with a small group of friends and not feel disturbed. This is in part my personality for I do not like to socialize in huge groups but in smaller get togethers. In an MMO I have not yet had that personalized experience of going on a raid or coordinated dungeon run. Mostly because I've had little time to play so my character is still at a lower level. (Well...19 isn't too low but it feels low.)

Another issue I have and some other players I know is the limited choices of character visuals. WoW in particular has some very ugly models. Usually in Role Play I prefer a male avatar but WoW is one of the few games I decided that I would have a female elf as my main. WoW is pretty "safe" as far as starter garments go. It's not like the female characters start in a bikini and have to earn pants. (Which apparently happens in other MMO games like EverQuest.) This means you can pretty much choose what garments your character wears so it is player choice to look more or less slutty. Other 3D rpg games are not so kind. But I could rant for pages on female avatars. As I've mentioned this as a limit it is also a strength. It provides a new motive for a player to make their character look more like their vision by leveling to afford or wear a certain type of armor. Some MMOs even have micro-transactions of money for items to cutomize your character. My favorite was MapleStory which was a 2D MMO with lots of fun customizable options. I made my character a centaur. :)

Quality of Socializing
There are more ways to communicate in a graphical MMO. Characters can emote, chat and even voice chat with each other. Personally, I enjoy voice chatting with another person over type chatting. Being a writer, I like to use proper spelling, grammar and full sentences to communicate and it happens often when I "chat". I blame my exposure to MUDs for this because it taught me out to type fast and still have full sentences or even paragraphs!
Chat speak is a personal gripe I have with most MMOs. The interactions and order giving has to be quick.

In MMOs there is at least a remnant of MUDs. In WoWs Chat Feed in the corner, whenever you emote it says *character laughes*. I still remember the MUD command to make that statement appear on the screen! :laughes. But you don't get any fun animations. Which I do enjoy.

For most MMOs, the game is the grind. Which in single player RPGs is the most tedious and boring part of the game. That is mostly because there was little reward for your effort. In MMOs that are ever evolving there are new reasons almost every day to grind your soul into a fine snortable powder. And that is what keeps most players, well at least me, interested in playing. I want to get new stuff for my character. My biggest reason for leveling my current WoW characters is to someday earn a Riding Mount and not just any riding mount but a horse. Simply because I used to ride and own a horse and I miss the activity to this very day. However, that's not the normal mount for a Night Elf so I had to remember to perform many grind quests in human areas just to earn the right to ride a horse. (And I have achieved that reputation finally. Only 11 more levels until I can buy a mount!)

There are three major components to the game: Travel/Exploring, Battling, Quests.
Most quests range from fetch quests to kill x number of monsters. WoW, being a fairly well rounded MMO rewards experience points to ALL of these components.
All of these components appeal to different players which using the old MUD-based Bartle Model come in four types: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers and Killers. Achievers like to be completists, earn the highest goals, reach the highest levels, etc. Explorers like to learn about the world, see all there is to see, and know everything. (Travel, Quests) Socializers who rather just chat with people online and make friends. (Guilds, Coordinated Runs and Casual chatting). Killers are the assholes who enjoy making life negative for everyone or being naturally competitive (PvP and Duelists).

Role Playing?
This is where I feel that MMOs fail. They are too much like D&D with rules and combat storylines that I do not feel the freedom to "role play" like I used to in MUDs. Then again, my definition of Role Play is skewed and not what is normally considered a Role Play Game. When I joined World of Warcraft and entered an "RP Heavy Server" I was pretty sure that it was not going to be RP like I thought. No...I did not see anyone role playing at all. I heard calls for joining a Role Play Guild and secretly I would wonder if it was anything like the Role Play I knew. Only because I was (and still am) unfamiliar with the entire storyline of the Warcraft Series, I don't think I could fit in very well. I imagine though that there are some who role play and have character stories going along. It's just I don't see it.

In a MUD or more honestly in a MUCK you knew that was happening because that was the point of the MUCK. And that is what I think I miss the most about MUDs and something that MMOs really do not facilitate as well.

Currently, I don't really have a character story and feel very detached from my character. The only thing I have about her is a quirk. My druid night elf will never wield a blade because she feels detached from the forest otherwise. Maybe it's just me but I am a writer and I love being able to step into my characters shoes and act them out. I have plenty of opportunity to do that in WoW or any other MMO but I just don't feel comfortable doing it because I'm mostly focused on earning gold so I can eventually buy a mount when I reach level 30.

There in lies the biggest problem for me. For Role Play you don't really NEED leveling although it's a good idea. Your limit was your imagination and writing skills. What I originally wanted for my night elf was a someone similar I created in another medium and create for her a husband. BUT I was deterred first by the appearances available to me, she did not look like the character in my head and the male models looked too silly for me to want to play it. Then I didn't know where to look to find someone to role play with and act out a journey and had narrative meaning to our leveling up. That's something I do when I solo which I do more often than playing with people since I don't really like to play with strangers. (I'm a shy personality).

My last issue with MMOs is the limits on themes. I have tried out a few MMOs that were free. Mabiogi when it was first released, Flyff, MapleStory, and Fiesta Online. To me these all had something in common...they all took place in the same world! They were all RPG fantasy classic worlds. Which naturally meant your character picked a class! This is another limitation I find frustrating. Class is something specific to Table Top that I really feel limiting and basically defines your character. Which in some ways is good. But I would prefer a game where you earned your class after awhile. MapleStory does this where you can not choose your class until level 8. The classes are almost always the same or some combination of Warrior, Range Fighter, Thief, and Mage.

The settings are expanding slowly into other domains such as other mythology, history and sub-cultures, but that doesn't mean they're very good. I like more choice in the genre I get to pick for my role play and MMO game. I haven't found any really good MMOs that are set in Ancient Egypt or Ancient Rome. I did find a couple of MUDs that do. (And if anyone knows any MMOs with those settings please tell me about it!)

Old School, Meet New School
If there was one thing I would change about MMORPGs would be for them to get real and call themselves MMOAG (Massive Multiplayer Online Adventure Games) because that is really what they are. Sure you can have the "party mode" found in classic single player RPGs but I wouldn't even consider THAT a role play game. The definition of RPG is a hazy line for me because I associate Role Play with the free-form improv story making I did online so long ago and still continue to do today in online message boards.

OR make it easier for us Narrative Souls who seek to play pretend and add our own layer to the game. The friend who I joined WoW on is a roleplayer and so far we haven't been role playing. I don't know why we don't, I suppose because it's too hard without a gamer mouse to chat and fight at the same time. Part of it may be that highly populated areas make it hard for a small group to role play without interruption or distraction.

There was one free MMO that I played where you had an option to turn off everyone else's avatar! (supposedly to save system memory). Wouldn't it be great if some of the more popular games would do that so you could only see your party members and any Non-Player Characters (NPCs). That would certainly help with role play.

I suppose another thing I would like but know I can't really change is to have smaller populations on each server. The nature of MUDs was that they were low population relatively with only 20 people on at a time. This allowed for people to really get to know each other well and become better role players. It felt like a safer environment.

The last thing I would change is to make the avatars prettier. :) Some of the free Japanese style MMOs have some cute characters...which probably wouldn't appeal to guys. But they don't need to look like gosh darn gorillas! And women don't need to have boyant bosoms and scant starter clothes. Let the player choose for themselves if they want that look.

In conclusion, some of the things about MUDs that I appreciate I wish could be somehow filtered into popular MMOGs. Low population, limitless worlds, and graphics made in imagination. Oh, and literacy.

(I still want to learn how to build a MUD. Summer project!)

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