The basic design behind MMORPG’s, as we make them today, is fundamentally flawed. Now, that does not mean that they cannot be fun to play or have the potential of financial success – today. But what of tomorrow?
Quite the cocky statement, but indulge me. To understand the flaw, let’s backtrack a bit.
As humanity has carried and evolved the tradition of linear storytelling throughout thousands of years, game designers now struggle to understand the power and meaning of nonlinear narrative. Of course we do! It is not intuitive to us. That the player has some level of control over the narrative faces us with a problem – and an awesome opportunity. How we solve it will define our medium as an art form.
The problem of “linearity versus nonlinearity” shares similarities with the issue at hand – which is “massively multiplayer versus singleplayer”. MMO’s are made to support thousands of players in the same world, yet we build them with the building blocks of singleplayer, building blocks we are comfortable and used to work with. Just as with nonlinear narrative, the MMO space is not intuitive to us. Let’s see what problems we get from making MMO content with singleplayer ideas:
– The story defies the nature of time. You have just saved Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf at her grandmother’s house, but in your friend’s experience she hasn’t reached the house yet. A linear timeline is used. We are in different stages of the world story, yet we both inhabit the same world. This makes the storytelling bizarre, and splits up players.
– The content of the world is static. The ideas of singleplayer heroism and semi-linear progress are used, but the aspect of a thousand protagonists all being in their own point in the timeline denies any real change to the world. The content created becomes a weak, faded version of what could have been.
The core of the flaw is using a linear narrative timeline even though it goes against the nature of the MMO environment. How do we break the spell of singleplayer? We go dynamic, organic.
The content, the story, the gameplay and the experience must come directly from player interaction with dynamic systems. That way, the world is reactive to (and changes by) the actions of the player, and everyone shares events in realtime – at the same time – instead of being separated within an artificial timeline.
Games like Eve, Tabula Rasa, Warhammer Online all dip their toes in the dynamic pool, but to create a truly dynamic, player-driven world will demand something far more complex and visionary. And boy, will it be difficult to achieve!
The first struggle is simply to figure out how it can be done, and who’s going to pay for the research. Lots of prototyping will be necessary to not only find systems that are interdynamic and consistent, but also fun. It’ll be a problem to find the funds, because where do you find a publisher willing to shell out millions of dollars on something that is extremely high risk, when the existing models are working well enough (financially)?
Perhaps baby steps will have to do.