Last Friday’s post, and the links in the comments to Raph Koster’s posts (here, here, and here) (Thanks Brian) about the old Ultima Online eco system have sparked some old memories of what got me interested in the MMORPG genre way back in 1996 or so, reading about what UO will be like and how it will be a completely new gaming experience, lifting the single player RPG to new highs thanks to thousands of player characters all playing their role in a virtual world. It also reminded me why the current on-rails themepark trend of popular MMOs annoys me as much as it does, because that style of design is almost the exact opposite of what originally drew me in. Prepare for a wall of text incoming, but before we get to my wall, I strongly encourage everyone to read the three posts by Raph first, as they will give you an excellent idea of what the original vision (little v) for a virtual world was all about.
I remember telling a friend of mine about UO before either of us got into the beta. I told him it would be just like the other Ultima games, but all of the characters would be played by real people and not the computer (I was wrong about this, as UO did indeed have some npcs like shop keepers and guards), and how this would allow for endless content instead of ‘finishing’ the game. One thing that always drew me to RPGs was their setting, a fantasy world, and one ‘flaw’ I always saw in them was that no matter how much you liked a certain setting, at some point the game would end and that was it. I saw Ultima Online as the solution to that problem, because as long as I was willing to log in, the adventure never had to end, especially because the development team would stay around and continue to add more for everyone to do, and continue to shape and change the world rather than moving on once the game shipped.
In 1997 when UO was released, it basically delivered on all my expectations. My character started in the town of Yew, and I was free to explore and develop my character as I saw fit. Others were running around doing their thing, guilds were formed to bring together like-minded individuals, and everyone was just wandering around trying to figure it all out (well almost everyone, the powergamers from beta were busy doing their thing, becoming the uber-power PKs that roamed around, but they too played their part as dangerous villains). As this was really the first game of its type, literally everyone was a noob, and just seeing another player character run by was a thrill for everyone. Imagine the first week of any new MMO, but extended for weeks if not months.
I remember scouting the area around Yew with my friend, finding what local monsters we could fight, where the local dungeon was, and what spots were ideal for mining or logging. We managed to place a small house near some mountains, and this became our home to roam out of. We built up our characters to be both adventurers and crafters, and we became friends with those who also lived around us. We also quickly learned the common paths of local PKs, and where their houses were placed. We played the role of total noobs to a T, and it was truly great.
And while some of that greatness can never be replicated because you only play your first MMORPG once, part of it can. The sense of a new world (rather than a starting zone), of freedom, of things changing around you because of player actions (either your own or others), all those things can still happen today like they did back in 1997. Reading Raph’s posts, it’s very clear how much technology limited what they could accomplish, and it’s terribly exciting to thing that today, in 2009, some of those limitations no longer exist. Today’s servers COULD run all those ecology scripts in real time, allowing every area of the world to have its own feel, a feel that would be a combination of player action and the randomness of those scripts themselves.
I also think the challenges of designing a virtual world go much deeper than just providing the shiniest ride and reward to take a player on. Take being a shopkeeper for example. It’s clear to everyone that standing around waiting for a customer is not a lot of fun (the current example of this being to spam trade chat with your wares), but what is fun is crafting/gathering your goods, setting prices, finding a good location to sell from, and all the other macro economic activities that go with running a business. It’s up to the designers to figure out ways to cut out the boring activities and keep you focused on the fun. (In UO you could have an NPC vendor do the standing around for you, while you just worried about keeping him stocked and his prices accurate in hopefully a good location) The solution should not be the easy way out, to simply provide NPCs that sell you the gear so everyone can focus on just combat (or in a themepark, to keep you on track towards some ‘end game’).
The same can be said for the old ecology system overall. Just because the original one planned for UO did not work does not mean the solution is to scrap it entirely and add in static spawns. Why did the system fail, and what needed to be done to make it work? In the years since UO’s release, we have seen very clearly that players will go to great lengths to be rewarded (even if the reward is absolutely meaningless like achievements), and so knowing this it should be very possible to tune an ecology system to function correctly.
Raph talked about the questing system that was never finished, how certain NPCs would have quests for players if certain conditions were met. The common example is a farmer with sheep, who asks players to kill off some wolves that have been killing his animals. In today’s MMOs, this is seen as the most boring of starter quests, the now famous ‘kill ten rats’ style of quests we do just to get it done. Bla bla bla farmer story, we have heard it a thousand times, and we know damn well he will still have an issue when we roll our next alt.
But what if more depended on this simple quest? What if instead of an NPC, the farm was player-owned? What if the player who owned the farm could only collect wool from his sheep if the wolves were kept at bay, but because he can’t be online 24/7, he sets his NPC farmer to give out a reward for anyone who kills local wolves once their population is high enough to bother him? If not enough players are interested, he can increase the reward. If too many players do it, his NPC farmer stops offering the quest. The more time the local wolves are kept at bay, the higher that players farm output is, providing more wool for him to craft with. If his farm gets too big and successful, it attracts more than just wolves (the famous dragon perhaps?). And what if instead of owning just one farm, that player owns three or four such locations, and so must manage a complex set of quests and rewards to keep his whole economic foundation going, where his game is more about collecting resources and setting rewards than heading out to slay monsters. A mine with Kobolds, a fishing vessel and kraken, a lumber yard with bandits, on and on. If integrated into the ecology system, perhaps one week it’s wolves bothering you, the next its bandits, and after that whatever monsters the local town drives towards you. You drive them away from you, and they migrate to the next guys farm, or are forced to attack the local village. As the players react, the ‘story’ continues, without a single patch or update from the development team. If things ever get too far out of whack, send in God (the GMs) and make the needed corrections.
The original thing that drew me to this genre was that the virtual world was what you make of it, and that as a player you could leave your mark in a number of ways. Ultima Online accomplished some of this, but if anything it left more OFF the table than on, in part because of technology limitations and also because it’s very idea was so new and fresh. No one back in 1997 could really predict how thousands of players would interact with a huge world, and so naturally mistakes were made. The genre has had over 10 years to mature now, and both technology and ideas have progressed (or regressed) greatly. It’s very clear that for the majority of those playing MMOs today, the idea of just being a member of a virtual world is not nearly as appealing as being a ‘hero’ rewarded with ‘epics’, even if you are a clone hero using epics that everyone else has. But the MMORPG genre is not about spoon-feeding millions as they solo-hero their way through for a few months. Lets leave that to the MMO (or themepark, or whatever else we want to call it) genre, where the key to success is measured in how well you execute a series of kill ten rat quests and how sparkly your character can be.
And because you will alienate (at least initially) those millions, you can’t exactly expect a huge budget or massive team. But UO never had that massive team (not by today’s standards certainly), nor did EVE, nor does DarkFall. And while both EVE and DarkFall do some interesting things with the virtual world concept, neither has really captured the full potential of the genre. EVE’s technology has shown that thousands of players all in one ‘world’ is very possible, and that players will naturally find their little spot in the world and build local communities. DarkFall is a good step towards putting player-skill into the MMORPG equation, rather than combat being a straight math problem of who has more HP/DPS. And while both games have lots of room to continue to grow and expand, neither is very likely to create that perfect virtual world of player-driven content. Perhaps no game ever will, but that does not mean we should settle for what passes as an MMORPG today and assume the genre is fully grown. If anything, after 10+ years, we are just beginning.