Welcome to New Azeroth, Part I

As I’ve had Eve on the brain for the last few months (while our WoW group took a break), I keep finding things about Eve’s design that I like better than about 95% of MMOs out there.  So I asked myself, what would WoW look like if CCP made it?  I’ll admit, my first impression was probably a cross between Breathtaking Dogfights and Bambi Meets Godzilla, but after I stopped laughing, I thought, “Hey, I’d play that game…”

This sort of post has been percolating for a while and every time I come back to it, its gotten longer, so I’ve chopped it up into a few more easily digestible chunks.  So, on with the thought experiment.  Today, Part I.

The Map, Security, PvP and Everything

At its core, WoW is a PvE game and Eve is a PvP game but that’s too simple a characterization.  Each have huge areas of the game of relative safety and security where PvP is almost entirely consensual.  Each also have zones or regions that are effectively PvP free fire zones.

The largely symbolic WoW zone control monikers of Alliance, Horde, or Contested would be replaced by something similar to Eve’s 0.0 to 1.0 security system.  Eve’s security system is faction agnostic and based on PvP aggression, so with factions being such a key part of the WoW canon, some slight modifications are in order.  First of all, PvP wouldn’t be consensual anymore.  The solace is that in high security zones, retribution would be swift and devastating.

Two ways to go here in my view.  Either adopt Eve’s concept of Concord to punish aggression in high security zones (perhaps a bit immersion breaking despite the whole Burning Crusade thing) or my preference would be to modify it so that security becomes factional and runs a continuum from -1.0 to 1.0 with either end representing either Alliance controlled or Horde controlled zones.

To go full Eve would permit all players versus all players (i.e. Alliance on Alliance pk-ing).  Interesting, but I think you lose most of the Horde/Alliance dynamic which although seldom at play in reality nowadays provides the fundamental underpinning to the lore.

A Horde in an Alliance zone would become a free fire target for all alliance players in the “Empire” equivalent zone of 1.0 or -1.0.  NPC guards etc. would be present and vigorously assist in defense of the zones.  Remember those blissful days in Southshore/Tarren Mill circa 2005?

High sec (0.5-0.9 or -0.5 to -0.9) would be under the control of the appropriate faction, but as the security rating approached 0.4, the level of faction support would decrease.  Roving faction guards, etc. would assist in keeping defending the zone, with fewer present as security decreased.

In Low Sec (0.1 to 0.4 or -0.1 to -0.4) there would be no official presence other than at select points (similar to sentry guns on warp gates).  The closer the security rating to zero, the less vigorous the guards would react.  Think the guards at The Great Lift to Thousand Needles back in the old days.  An Alliance character could evade them and use the lift without too much trouble.

0.0 would represent true no man’s land.  No guards, free fire PvP.

A few examples:

Typical Empire Zone:
Dun Morogh, Elwynn Forest (1.0)
Tirisfal Glade, Durotar (-1.0)

Typical High Sec Zone:
The Barrens (-0.9)
Loch Moden (0.9)

Typical Low Sec Zone:
Duskwallow (0.4)
Desolace (-0.4)

Typical Null Sec Zone:
Eastern Plaguelands
Burning Steppes

The size of Azeroth might be a bit of a problem, but if CCP had designed WoW, it would have been much bigger with plenty of 0.0 wilderness in which to eke out an existence and engage in empire building.  With a creative distribution of necessary resources, this would create many opportunities for guilds and alliances to attempt to control portions of the map, vital trade routes etc.

Eve’s “endgame” if there is one, revolves around territorial conquest, so allowing portions of the map to be colonized and controlled by player groups would be key.  To that end, players would have to be able to build towns in the hinterlands of 0.0.

Like Player Owned Structures (Starbases) in Eve, guilds could establish keeps and build towns in the wilds with all the services they would need.  Of course, they would be destructible and capturable and require tending and maintenance to remain operational.

Progression

Say it with me: time-based, skill-based progression.  XP and levels (as we know them) are dead.  Ok, maybe not Eve’s I-can-finally-fly-a-titan-after-a-year’s-exclusive-training geologic time scale, but something similar would suffice.

Skills points would form the basis of progression.  Unlike the you-can-do-anything-if-you-train-it approach to Eve, fantasy archetypes should be maintained but with skill based progression within them.  Each class would be able to train and progress different class specific skills via real time training.  Like Eve, skill books could be purchased or collected as drops while others could become available from various trainers throughout the world or as rewards for epic missions.  Questing would remain, but rather than XP, items, skill books, faction and gold would be the reward much like Eve’s mission system.

Rather than levels, in Eve, the ships you are able to pilot are sometimes viewed as a sort of proxy for overall progression and status (yes, total skill points matter, but stick with me).  Your combat proficiency is a function of both the skills you’ve trained and your proficiency in using them.  As in Eve, PvP and PvE are very different games.

The closest analogy in WoW would be gear.  To use epic gear would require epic skills.  To use increasingly powerful gear would require having trained a set of skills to higher levels.  And like Eve, increasingly powerful gear has both strengths and weaknesses.  Doesn’t it just make sense that uber armor while offering enourmous defense comes at the cost of agility?  Shouldn’t an army of lowbie rogues in leather be able to give a highbie protection warrior a run for his money?

Want to use that uber 1337 shield?  Better have Level V shield skills trained.  Mount?  Buy one and get trained.  Wanna ride faster? Train to a higher level or train secondary skills (e.g., Steeplechase IV anyone?).  Want to gem that armor piece?  Not until you’ve trained it up.  The more you train, the better the effect.

Likewise, all other aspects of the game such as gathering, crafting, fishing, first aid, etc. would follow the same progression.  You would engage in these activities because you wanted to, i.e. you needed or wanted the output from the activity rather than mindlessly performing the same task for a skill up.  Since the output of these non-combat activities wasn’t necessary for progression, they might actually be useful for one of my favorite activities in MMOs…

The Economy

In Eve, destruction and loss provide the demand that drives the economy.  Things get blown up.  Stuff gets stolen.  As a result, things need to be repaired and replaced.  Since players manufacture nearly everything in the game.  Supply rises to meet demand, isk is made pews are pewed and all is good.

Everything in the economy needs to have some use.  No more vendor trash.  At least in the way we think of it in most MMOs.  In Eve, “useless” drops can be reprocessed into their constituent minerals which form the building blocks for the manufacture of all items in the game.  The closest analogy in WoW has been disenchanting and that’s really not very close since those components are only for augmentation rather than base manufacture.  Either expanding disenchanting or creating the functional equivalent of Eve’s reprocessing plant would turn all that vendor trash into commodities for the production of gear.  I’ve always wondered why a blacksmith could assemble armor, but never take it apart…Crafters rejoice.

In Eve, a ship might last you forever so long as you don’t get blown up.  And, as long as you don’t suffer too much damage, you don’t even need to pay for repairs.  If you are blown up however, buh bye.  Certain items may be utterly destroyed, others blasted into their constituent parts or perhaps damaged requiring significant repair.  While you would be rezzed, the dreaded corpse run returns in order to salvage your blasted bits.

Eve’s basic economy is the envy of most MMOs.  A key part of that are buy orders.  Add them.  At a glance, buy orders and sell orders accurately depict time and location shifted supply and demand.  Wait, location shifted?

Yup.  Eliminate gear mail.  In order to make the economy work and to foster emergent gameplay, travel, transport and risk are key.  Economics has been described as the study of the allocation of scarce goods.  Risk and geography are key to the pricing of scarce goods.  Time has value, risk mitigation has value.  Transport of goods would open up a whole new aspect of game play and opportunities for itemization.  High capacity pack mules or caravans anyone?  How about courier contracts?

Consider WoW’s lowly copper ore versus Eve’s tritanium.  Copper in WoW is relatively abundant and easy to obtain but is essentially useless unless you’re leveling an alt’s tradeskills and only then for a short time.  Tritanium is also relatively abundant and easy to obtain, but it also serves as the base manufacturing input for most items in Eve.  As a result, tritanium remains one of the most consistently lucrative minerals to seek out and constantly in demand.

Low risk, low yield in high sec, but higher risk higher yield is more dangerous locales…  Where demand exceeds supply and vice versa is opportunity for all manner of game play…Consider the possibilities.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Goofy Idea of the Day: The Guild Character

Simple concept: take the shared guild bank concept implemented in many MMOs today and apply it not just to items, but to characters as well.

Group content and group play requires, well, groups. To experience much of the group content and endgame content (at least in WoW) you will need a group that shows up, is well balanced and well geared. Most MMOs suffer from any number of barriers to grouping and as a result, much grouping (and acquisition of grouping skills) doesn’t happen until the endgame and even then still suffers from class population imbalances.

Even when you do have a good group of folks dedicated to mutual support and group play (aka a Guild), class population imbalances and level disparities within the guild can still mean barriers to group play. Judging by what I read in MMOG blogs and the LFGs in game, holy priests and protection warriors are a fairly rare commodity at the level cap in WoW. One reason is that these two classes in particular are more difficult to progress solo. Talent respeccing only goes so far because lets face it, a good tank is a lot more than just a L70 warrior in welfare epics with a bunch of talent points dumped into protection and it gets expensive to flip back and forth from fury to protection.

Enter the Guild Character (aka Rent-a-Toon). Players create characters and progress them through the world in the ordinary fashion. If they join a guild however, they can designate one or more of their characters as “guild characters” which can be played by any member of the guild which has permission to do so. Essentially, when you log in you could choose to play one of your own characters or a guild character (if its not being played by someone else).

All the experience would accrue only to the guild character and there would likely need to be some lockouts on selling bound gear, etc. so that only a guild officer or the owner could choose to sell off or DE gear. Any items acquired by the shared character would be freely transferable just like stuff in guild bank slots and gold acquired while played as a shared character could be only contributed to the overall guild bank.

Lower and higher level guild members could now actually play together and contribute to the collective effort. What a great opportunity to mentor younger players, “hey kid, we need a fifth or tenth for instance X, go grab a L70 guild character and join us for a crawl.”

Keep a few protection warriors in stock and the entire guild could focus their efforts on getting one MT fully geared or when that group of 5 hunters shows up, a couple of them could sub in as a tank and healer. It doesn’t completely solve the “I can’t get a group to finish my hunter’s x quest” but it sure increases the chances if any number of guildies could hop into a shared character to assist another guildy with a balanced group.

Lots of antiexploit, antigriefing details to consider (like whether the character would stay if the owner left the guild), but this would actually foster more group play, help alleviate class population imbalances and allow people to learn to play a different class.

Thoughts? Let the flogging begin.

Will There Ever Be Another MMO?

I was just reading Darren’s fun rant about the hype surrounding Tabula Rasa. This autumn has been interesting in its lack of interesting things happening. I was offline for a goodly few weeks while I moved and got settled and apparently I missed nothing.

Not entirely nothing, but in retrospect the continuation of an alarming trend– game delays, cancellations and industry consolidation. Almost seems like the U.S. sub-prime mortgage meltdown has slopped into the MMO space. Warhammer and Conan delayed and continuing to slip, TR sort of being delayed or repackaged as something other than an MMO (or should I say less?). Alarmingly, Perpetual ate its first born, Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising to save its powder for the ever-cursed Star Trek MMO.

This year has really seen only Vanguard and LotRO released so far. I’m not sure I can count TR as either an MMO or released– maybe its been released for “press”… Pirates of the Burning Sea says it will be out in January 2008 (and kudos to Rusty for being honest and direct about its evolution, status and progress to date), but I wonder whether the money that has rushed into the MMO space and fostered the many highly and eagerly anticipated projects might be getting a little squeamish…

Are they afraid that anything less than Better Than WoW(tm) will be considered a failure? Do they think its even possible? Did WoW suck all the air out of the room such that for all the millions of “non-MMO gamer” types that made its success possible there simply is no “me too” game that would garner the same kind of attention that WoW was able to exploit initially and even now finds hard to recapture? I wonder.

With the repositioning of Tabula Rasa and the frequent and digestible releases of popcorn games like Mythos, Dungeon Runner and myriad others, will anyone actually try to make money in the true MMO world? Have we all witnessed the high water mark of the genre with WoW circa 2006? Are Raph and Linden and HL Mencken right? Will the next “game” world be more about targeted advertising and social networking than creating a living breathing other place?

As I sit in the autumn game doldrums looking forward to nothing in the immediate future, I wonder whether we’ll see anything like what we’ve seen in recent years. Even WoW, with TBC and presumably with WotLK look like not enough new wine in old bottles. What will fans and backers of other games say if a game like Conan or Warhammer goes the way of Gods and Heroes or worse, Vanguard? Can Bethesda save us? Will they be allowed to or will the console calculus of immediate gratification sweep the hubris of those pushing the Next Big MMO aside?

With bigger money playing the game, I wonder if anyone will really be developing MMOs anymore. Food for thought for Monday morning.

Actual Intelligence

I’ve been ranting on (or as I prefer to refer to it, “thoughtfully exploring”) the possibility of truly dynamic virtual worlds that are more than mere scripted amusement park rides (“Oh Boy! Let ride the Deadmines again Mom!”).

I’m torn. I used to play a lot of strategy and RTS games– mostly against human adversaries. A couple of things I liked about them: I got to think and act both tactically and strategically and, if you used a random map, each game, even against the same opponent, was different.

On the flipside, with MMOs, I love the notion of a persistent world and identity and the ability to develop my presence over time.

When I think about how to try to take MMOs to the next generation, a couple of ideas get mentioned in some form: Players need to be able to change the world, and (over simplifying) mobs need to be smarter.

Changing the world is hard, but probably not nearly as hard as creating the illusion of a thinking adversarial force. I think the illusion of a player impacted world isn’t too great a leap from where we are now. If we’re talking about raising crops or deforestation/silviculture that’s pretty “topical”. Irrigation is the same. Dam building starts getting a bit crazy as does road and city building. Still, even with fairly limited choices, the illusion of impact can be created.

The thinking adversary is a bit different. Scripted battles are relatively easy versus orchestrating some overarching story driven activity. Currently implemented “world events” are really not much more than scripted performances or reimplementations of existing mechanics.

So, how about this for complete chaos: Actual Intelligence. Yes, hire peeps to BE the baddies in game. Not each orc or goblin, but imagine if each factional leader or evil uber mob was an actual thinking human (or several to cover hours of operation). Of course, you could make them deities as well, but I kind of like the idea of the evil wizard in the keep actually being an active participant in the world– marshalling forces, harrying the forces of good, guiding and directing baddies in the game.

Too many goodies harvesting valuable lumber on the evil wizard’s lands? He sends orcs and trolls and wargs and what not to harry the players or launch a counter offensive.

Effectively, employees of the game company act much like GMs of old pen and paper RPGs. Each server would be a completely unique gaming experience, and yes, there is the risk that that would suck. But thats what server transfers are for….

The Evil Overlord gets to play the game much like an RTS while players at large are mere adventurers in the world. If a game had many factions, each faction could actually have a real live leader that had the ability to wage campaigns against the other factions and reward players for their participation. Sort of world event meets mega raid. 

Maybe even the uber players on a server would get a chance to take control of the keep (and its evil minions) in a form of the ultimate king of the hill MMO experience…

The Vision is Dead, Long Live the New Vision

The long foretold and overdue demise of Sigil has started to give the MMO community something to think about for The World After Sigil™.  Though many may say The Vision™ is alive and well as manifested in Vanguard and other games, or would have been, but for Sigil and Brad McQuaid’s failure to execute, others are reading Sigil’s failure as simply a failure of The Vision, a set of ideas overtaken by events in the MMO world.

Tobold has a good post on this topic that raises a number of great points.  A lot of this topic has been visited in a series of threads that started in response to Brent at Virgin Worlds’ thoughts about “next-gen” MMOs which rippled out across the MMOGosphere around the time Vanguard was released (and I’m sure before as well).  Many of those ideas are particularly resonant here and now with Sigil’s complete implosion.

A couple of items leap out at me from Tobold’s post and echo a few of my own ideas (none of which are particularly my own, but I’ve adopted them):

There are still lots of challenges to overcome, things to achieve, but these aren’t so linear from easiest to hardest any more. There is no more defined “top” to reach, no more “end-game”, but instead there are many different and equally valid tops to reach in different categories, plus lots of goals that players set themselves. There are many stories to experience, and gameplay is more story-driven. … And most importantly by [not] having everything strictly level-based, there should be more opportunities for players to play together. Not because the game forces them to, but because the game doesn’t stop them from playing together just because they don’t spent the same amount of time in the game.

What many of the pro-Vision comments focus on is group-centricity as the sine qua non of the MMO experience.  In their view, that’s what the two M’s are for.  The new crop of successful games (in which I’d include games like WoW, EQ2-post-EoF, LotRO, etc.) teaches us is that group oriented content and gameplay is an option, not a requirement.

Continue reading The Vision is Dead, Long Live the New Vision