Raph Koster has responded to the recent Wikipedia whirlwind by taking a moment to write up a history and definition of the DIKU MUD. This is a valuable resource that I have bookmarked and will probably be referring to again in the future. Modern MMOs have much to thank DIKU MUDs for, for better or worse. They are apparently the root of the class structure and level/loot treadmill, among other things.
If you’ve been reading my other articles, you might know that I’m actually not all that impressed with that lineage. One of the “diseases” that the DIKU genetic strain is susceptible to is altitis. Technically, it’s a mild form of imaginative metagaming schizophrenia, often seen in RPG players as well. It is harmless in most cases, but a notorious time sink.
One potential “cure” for altitis in MMO design is Alternate Progression. Research on this is still in the early stages, and the market is glacially slow in acceptance. Still, with a modest grant of 50 million dollars (pocket change for the TARP, and the aging MMO genre certainly qualifies for monetary relief), I’m sure I could come up with some effective treatments. (This, of course, is assuming that players want such solutions. There’s nothing really wrong with altitis, but I see it as a symptom of one school of game design.)
I’ve discussed it obliquely here and there, notably recently here, where there are some great comments. (Thanks, all!) I suppose that this really could have been a comment in that thread also, but as this is long and somewhat tangential, I wanted to break it off into a separate post. It’s also another way to hopefully get more eyeballs into the mix, and solicit more insight. This post from Ysharros triggered these thoughts, and this article is another good riff on the theme.
First, hello, I’m Tesh and I have altitis.
Perhaps putting myself in a position to research it and try to solve it is a conflict of interest, but I do have practice with alternate viewpoints, so it’s not much of a stretch.
Second, I’m tired of classes. I loved school for the most part (but hated busywork… that’s another rant), but here I’m talking about the class system of the DIKU lineage. Lately, this has devolved a bit into archetypes; Tank, Healer and Damage Dealer. (Is that a small poem? Weird.) Classes are a way to define characters and their roles in the game’s combat. We even see classes in Final Fantasy and FFTactics. They call them “jobs”, but the principle is the same; a character has certain proficiencies, abilities and weaknesses, giving them distinct roles in combat. Sometimes the roles are smooshed together, like when the Tank is also a Healer, but for the most part, hybrids like that aren’t bringing much that’s actually new to the game, just new ways of approaching the Tank/Healer/DPS triangle.
The bigger problem, though, is that the alt experience isn’t substantially different from the first playthrough in most MMO games. This is especially true in Wizard 101, where every class (school of magic, there) plays the same missions, with a handful of class specific missions. WoW is a little better, since most races have unique starting zones. (Shush, you Dwarf main with a Gnome alt!) Even so, once you’re out of the starting zones, the experience is pretty much the same each time you level through the game, you’re just approaching it with a new character.
On the one hand, that does lend a certain element of replayability. Smart replayable games are typically shorter, though, and offer significant differences each time through. I’ve come to call MMOs keeplayable, since the whole goal is usually to keep players playing. In that context, I see altitis as a subconscious cry for choices and customization in how we approach keeplayable games.
Enter Alternate Progression.
Alternate Progression is basically a bunch of different things for players in keeplayable games to do to feel like they are accomplishing something in the game world. It’s the map exploration running total. It’s hidden nooks and crannies with story nuggets and mysteries. It’s the Pokemon-like collection of pets. It’s clothing and the ability to recolor it. It’s hairstyles and fashion shows. It’s a folder full of screenshots. It can even be in-game recognition of forum activities, as a few things in Puzzle Pirates have been. (Notably derived from their awesome Grand Crafting Puzzle Project, where players submitted ideas for new minigames.) Gaming a player-driven economy is another form of alternate progression, albeit a looser one with less defined goals, other than “accumulate money”.
Whatever the case, there is a sense of progress and achievement outside of the level/loot mindset. Animal Crossing is almost a case study in alternate progression. As with pretty much any sandbox game, it doesn’t have an “end”, just a series of goals and toys.
I’ve not played Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies, but apparently, they are skill-based games where players create their own identity out of a huge pool of proficiencies or skills. I really should study them; it’s on the list.
In such a system, there are no archetypal classes, just roles that naturally come out of gameplay. Roles in such a skill-based game are a “choose your own adventure” sort of mechanic, where players find thier own niche and play in it. That’s the sort of customizability that MMOs can excel in, if they so choose.
It will, of necessity, mean that it’s a bit more work for the player to tease out their own character. Some of that might be streamlined by having gameplay itself direct progression (use a sword, get better at swordplay). There’s a natural push and pull between player control and autopilot; I’m just looking for the ability to control a lot more than I can presently, including that balance.
It may also mean that the trinity of archetypes (Tank/Damage/Healer) may naturally appear, so it’s not a panacea for stifled gameplay in that regard. Breaking the triangle would mean some new AI and combat designs. I’m working on another article on that concept.
Of equal importance is the ability to change that niche, should player tastes change. That’s one thing that Guild Wars does well. You can “respec” any time you are in a town. It’s only a half measure, as you can’t really change your class, but you can change your skill setup, which can alter how you approach the game. You can also equip any weapon, but only those with relevant proficiencies can use them to their full potential.
I’m looking for a highly customizable experience, where all of these ideas are rolled together. Characters can equip any gear or weapon, but will naturally use them with different levels of efficiency. Anyone can learn any crafting ability, or any of the game’s talents, and can switch at any time if they feel like changing the game experience. (Or perhaps, maintain the “only respec in town” to keep from abusing things too much.) Couched in WoW terms, it would mean the ability to change class and spec at (nearly) any time. There would be no more need for alts, or for grinding through the “leveling content” just to raise a new character class. (Though there would be nothing stopping it either; altitis would be entirely a function of wanting a new character and wanting to see older content again.)
…so yeah, more of the same sort of thing that I talked about last week, I’m just pontificating more here. I’ll keep commenting in both threads. I like the tangents that we can run having a couple of discussions open. Thanks again, all, for the comments and concepts!