Combine three parts Guild Wars, one part Legend of the Five Rings, and one part Battletech and what pops out? In this recipe, I’m hoping for a great Episodic Massive Multiplayer Online… game. (Which should be EMMOG, but “leggo my EMMOG” just doesn’t flow that well.)
Guild Wars has a lot of great features, but the ones I want to emphasize here are the 8-skill limit, easy respecs, and the business model.
Players are stuck with only 8 active skills at one point, but can potentially choose those 8 from hundreds of skills. This allows for variety and focus in builds and makes choice and specialization important, without gutting customizability. The easy and free respecs make this limit work, since players can change their skills and even class focus for free in any town. (Primary and secondary class choices are permanent, but almost everything else can be changed.) Fairly quick missions and map travel (instant travel to any hub you’ve visited before) allow for short play sessions, and if a skill build isn’t working, it won’t take long until you can shuffle skills to try another idea, or long to get back where you were.
The GW business model is a thing of beauty; you buy the game, you play the game. No maintenance fees, no subscription, no microtransactions. There are optional things to buy, sure, but nothing necessary, and still, no subscription. As long as the servers are up, you can play. (That link is highly recommended; Shamus pontificates on online activation and server life… relevant for MMOs, as well.) It’s a lovely throwback to simpler times when gamers and publishers weren’t in a DRM arms race, and subscriptions were for magazines.
There are expansions to the game as well. These aren’t exactly sequels in an overarching storyline, but more like standalone novels that occur sequentially, set in the same fictional world. Players can have a rollicking good time in any of the standalone expansions, or play all of them together, cross pollinating and cherry picking the best parts. It’s like buying ice cream and then buying a chocolate pie. Either is great alone, but together, they can be more than the sum of their parts.
Legend of the Five Rings is a multiplatform game world celebrating its 15th anniversary. The tabletop RPG and CCG in the L5R world are both interesting, but it’s the CCG that I want to look at for this recipe, specifically the player-designer interaction.
The L5R collectible card game is much like many others, in that it is comprised of a large collection of cards that were released in different sets. Players buy various products that have a small semi-random collection of cards selected from given sets. One product purchase will not give the whole game library, then, but usually, an entry-level “starter” set will give players enough to actually play with. Other cards from the entire product line add depth and strategies to the game. Again, you buy it, you can play it, no permission necessary, no logins, no recurring fees. Buying more products tends to open up gameplay options, but players can have fun with a single purchase and never spend another dime.
So much for the CCG business model, though it should be noted that the semi-random purchases tend to prompt further purchasing, thanks to the unholy fusion of the collector’s gene and the gambling gene. In practice, people don’t usually stop at the starter… but it’s definitely possible to play the game with the starter alone. This doesn’t track especially well in MMO design, but it is certainly possible that a publisher could sell in-game skills in “booster” packs, not unlike CCG boosters. Single skills could even be microtransaction sale items… but that’s not a direction that I’d advocate. The randomness of the CCG business model really does put off a lot of people, myself included. (Though I do adore MTG Drafting and Sealed Deck… and GW has experimented with Sealed Deck-type mechanics for PvP… but that’s another article.)
The most interesting thing about L5R for this particular experiment is the way that the game incorporates players in its design. Characters, lore and events are built at least partially around player choices in tournaments. Players register in tournaments by swearing fealty to a particular clan in the game. Their tournament play affects their clan in future expansions of the game. Devs even plant certain cards in sets to see what players will do, planning stories around what might happen. These stories then have a significant effect on future card design. In a very literal way, the players have become important actors within the clan stories, and the interaction between the devs and the players makes for a more immersive sort of gaming experience. Player choices matter beyond the immediate match. Factional differences actually mean something. Your clan matters.
That interplay is what I really want to see in this EMMO recipe. Player action in aggregate, changing the direction of the game design in future expansions. To be sure, crafting a CCG is a very different animal from crafting an MMO, but the design ethos of letting player choices matter beyond immediate combat is what I’m getting at. Those of us who live in the real world tend to leave a stamp of our passing in one way or another, even if it’s on the road less traveled. The world is changed for our presence and our actions. An MMO that offers a living world, indelibly changed by its inhabitants, not just the devs, may well be worth exploring.
The L5R game isn’t entirely built on player choices, since the devs have some pretty clear ideas what they would like to do in the game, but it incorporates player choice far more than a typical MMO, what with the “perpetual now” they have to use to make things technically feasible. An EMMO would by definition be developed in episodes, not unlike L5R sets, to allow for devs to take player choice and do something fun with it between expansions. Players could play any given chapter of the story, or all of them, and each chapter would have its own “perpetual now”, but the world itself would advance in time in between chapters, and the way it advances would be at least partially influenced by player choices in the previous chapter during the window of time in the “real world” where the devs are working on the next game chapter. So a player playing chapter 1 might not affect chapter 3. If you miss the influence window, the game moves on without your input… though you can still reread and play older chapters. This means devs don’t have to craft a wholly dynamic world, but can still let player actions mean something when the world’s timeline advances.
This is crucial to making this actually feasible, by limiting the scope of the project by limiting what players actually can do, and what devs need to allow them to do.
The Battletech contribution to this particular delicacy is the separation of the pilot and the vehicle, where the vehicle is the main gameplay avatar, but the pilot is the player’s presence in the world. Separating the two allows for the flexibility we see in EVE, where the player’s character isn’t stuck with a class choice at creation that they are locked into for the life of that character. If players playing an MMO are playing characters who can switch between ‘Mech weight classes and models between missions, they can tailor their approach to the particular situation they are playing in, rather than find situations that they can shine in with the only hammer they have been given. This also allows for a separation of gameplay mechanics (combat, specifically) and the political game. The mercenary life of many MechWarriors is a great place to tinker with the meaning of allegiance and what it means to the interaction between immediate gameplay and long-term citizenship in a game world.
So, add these five key ingredients to a bowl, blend it up with a fine tooth comb, sift out the bugs, cook at 40hrs/week for a few years. What are we left with?
Things really could go in a few different directions, and the frosting on the cake (the lore and setting) could be any of a couple different flavors. What I’d hope to see is the following:
- Player choice drives future development
- Flexible approaches to mission-based gameplay
- Bring the player, not the class (whether this means role swapping on the fly or a classless system, either is fine)
- Episodic content, where time actually moves on, and some stories have a real end
- Location matters, and allegiance has gameplay ramifications (more than a faction rep grind and unlocking vendors)
- One-time monetization of chapters (like Guild Wars expansions), and the ability to play any as standalone games or mix and match
I’d wrap these up in a Steampunk-Battletech lore cocktail, m’self, but that’s more a matter of taste than functionality.
What think ye? What are the best ingredients of an episodic MMO, and how would it be presented?
Oh, and what if this sort of thing (the reclaiming of Gnomeregan) were built on player actions? At my office, we’ve talked about flow tracking, where devs can take a look at where gamers tend to play and how long they tend to do so, especially where they have problems or memorable moments. I doubt that Blizzard is unaware of such technology, but who knows if they are using it on WoW. BBB also suggests that the Trolls could get a capital; what if that were determined by where Troll players have been playing and how long they did? By aggregate Troll player reputation, either social or faction rep?
There are all sorts of subtle (or gross) ways like that to take player choices into account, whether in aggregate or high profile individual player or guild choices. Not only could that make the game seem alive, but also make it more interesting. (Though maybe more addictive, though, which isn’t always the best idea, duly noted by Callan in the Home Town Pride article’s comments.)
Still, it seems like a good way to make the virtual world more interesting, increasing the quality of feedback between players, devs and the world they share.