What the MMORPG genre could (and should) be.

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.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Combat Systems, crafting, Darkfall Online, EVE Online, Housing, MMO design, Rant, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft. Bookmark the permalink.

64 Responses to What the MMORPG genre could (and should) be.

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think while reactive environments have been tried before (Saga of Rhyzom) as example, I do not think it was ever used in a larger scale after UO … sadly.

    And Shadowbane had also the own a shop with trader/crafter thing, which was quite nice. And actually Neocron planed something similar in the beginning.

  2. Malakili says:

    |Syncaine: “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.”

    This to me is the essence of what MMOs should be, and what most modern MMOs fail to do. I could hem and haw about mechanics, ideals, etc and I agree with most of what you said here. However, I think these two sentences sum up perfectly exactly what the MMO genre could and should offer.

    • syncaine says:

      Just to mention the other side of the coin here, UO eventually had a house on almost every possible spot, which was a little odd. The fix to this (specific spots to place a house) was not great either. But again, just because the idea of being able to place a house and establish a base needed tweaking in UO, does NOT mean you go as far as DarkFall has and pre-set everything. There must be a middle ground someplace.

  3. bhagpuss says:

    I agree with you almost entirely that the MMO in 2009 bears very little ressemblance to what it could have been, ten years after UO made such a promising start. I’d also love to play in an environment such as you describe.

    That there aren’t really any MMOs that even come close isn’t entirely for want of trying, though. Read the original PR releases for any number of MMOs and you’ll see ambitious goals for all kinds of innovative, real-time, reactive and emergent behaviors. Environment, ecology, weather, economy, social and political structures; we’ve been promised the moon on a stick for all of them, but by the time the money runs out almost everything but business-as-usual has been shelved and another generic MMO flops out of the gate.

    In the end, you have to wonder whether maybe we just aren’t yet at the stage of technological development necessary to bring a truly complex virtual world to market profitably. I find it hard to believe, but we don’t seem to have any yet and it certainly isn’t because no-one’s thought of trying it.

  4. Der_Nachbar says:

    Thats the beauty of a simulated ecosystem, its basically auto-generating content, that can be accessed by the players via some tools (quest-giving to players, simple npc helpers/merchants).
    Together with open pvp and meaningful crafting of items and buildings you basically have everything (thats a fucking lot to develop, anyway) to spawn content for years.
    For housing, i think it just needs a moderate upkeep and a little gold-sinky initial price to keep out problems like huts everywhere and empty ghosttowns.
    If not sustained, the buildings loose effiecency or security and finally crumble. Maybe even provide ruins as a point of interest for the dynamic AIs of the npc populations ;) I got carried off here ^^

    I know alot of people who would absolutely love these systems in an mmo.
    If i want to collect shineys and admire my sparkly char i play games like diablo. So many so called MMOs just waste the potential such an environment allows. Especially since the kill-ten-rats formula has been used to death.
    I think sandbox-design will start to prosper soon, as the market grows and niches become perfectly avaiable and profitable, like in any other bigger entertainment industry.
    Lets hope. And i feel just a little bit sorry for all the buzzwords ;)

  5. Der_Nachbar says:

    I just read Raph’s articles, thats just amazing and a pity it was never pushed further. He has some really insightful thoughts there ;) Thx Bryan.

  6. Damage Inc says:

    I would have to agree 100% with your post Syncaine. I truly miss the old days of UO and it’s wonderful player driven economy as well as AC’s monthly updates and world changing events. One would have thought that after games like these, developers would have making worlds my dynamic but instead we see more static and instanced worlds with more and more control of the game taken out of the players hands.

  7. evizaer says:

    The house on the mountainside part of your post sounds exactly like how I want to play MMOs. Too bad that vision ended up being streamlined into theme-park gameplay.

    A part of the problem is that big numbers are the rage. You don’t need to have 2,000 simultaneous users on every realm to have a successful game. I think it’d be better for open world games if there were fewer players (at least playing heroes) in the game world. Maybe 300-500. You can fill in the gaps with advanced AI that follows the directions of human players to accomplish broader goals. For instance, allow human players to control the goals for 10 or so different crafters that perform different roles in the economy. That way you’re only doing the interesting macro-level stuff and none of the boring stuff while you have the ability to log onto your “hero” character and explore the game world.

    • syncaine says:

      I played NA DF in a similar manner for the first few months, and while it was very possible, it did not exactly have the depth or flexibility UO did. I could still PvE, craft, jump into (or get jumped by) PvP, but I had no real outlet to sell goods (spamming trade chat is annoying), no real source to buy/trade goods, and little motivation to go beyond my set area. The world in DF is currently a little TOO static to really support this style for too long. (and I think AV understands this and is going to slowly address it). This all works a little better for clans, as Apollo has been moving around the last few weeks and we are having a great time, even if every new location brings some costly lessons as we adjust and get familiar.

      The big problem too many DF players fall into is ‘keeping up’ to compete. People feel if they are not grinding, they are falling behind others. Part of that is player mentality, the other part is DF’s advancement system. When you allow everyone to be everything EVENTUALLY, some will seek to max out at an extreme (and extremely unfun) rate. I think AV is also aware of this, and the specialization system is a good step towards this. If I know I’m going to take mage-killer for archery, I don’t need to bother with higher-end magic. It’s one step, but not a total solution.

  8. Derrick says:

    It’s not a technological limitation, it’s a player limitation. You see, the reason these things don’t work on the large scale is, quite frankly, that the players ruin them. People suck.

    In these systems, from a player/armchair designer perspective, it’s easy to say “This is what I’d like to see”, to design a masterpiece of a virtual environment.

    The reality, though, is you need to be absolutely cognizant of “How can a large group of players, acting out of nothing but pure malice, cause this system to fail?”

    Unfortunately, the easy answer to that question is a themepark MMO. It’s inherently protected from asshats – they can be verbally obnoxious, but cannot damage fundamental gameplay.

    In a PVP centric setting, there are other build in protections; though with inherent disadvantages too (asshats can do even more asshattery).

    The fundamental problem is one of consequences. Until a game is designed in such a way as to remove anonymnity and the lack of real consequences, people will act like utter asshats. Loss of your gear in a ploot environment? That’s not a real consequence, as the asshat is the one choosing what gear to risk, not his victim. In real life, you can’t run amok doing what you want without ever increasing consequences – and ones that will inevitably outstretch your resources eventually and seriously impact your ability to go about normal life pretty much immediately.

    Believe me, I want what Raph originally proposed. I’ve wanted that for years, long before graphical MMO’s existed. But it’s a very, very difficult system to design.

    • Adam says:

      Dude… quit crying about being pvp’ed.

      Spend five seconds thinking about a semi-real 7th to 12th century environment… reputation? Consequences? WHAT?

      I’m guessing if you showed up in your shiny clothes and horse and were out picking flowers and a few yabbos took a liking to your lootz?

      You’d be in a shallow grave in short order.

      I don’t think their “reputation” would suffer much.

      Lots of the role players LIKE the fact that the “bandits” are out there and they have to watch out, form patrols and protect their lands.

      Get over yourself and occasionally losing some pixels. Be social enough to join a guild that protects you even…

      • Matt says:

        Did you read the posts and comments on Raph’s site, Adam? I ask because you have no grasp of the point Derrick was making.

      • Adam says:

        Yes Matt I did read them and Derrick points seem rather off in the bushes and so are yours if you agree with him.

        What does crying about getting pvp’ed have to with Raph’s posts? Other than the usual crowd of moaning and trying to design “pvp” systems so that they never die and can pick flowers all day?

        Ecology sounds great to me.

        I do expect it in a -real- world with -real- pvp. Some kind of bizarre artificial “consequences” doesn’t sound like anything what Raph was on about in his original posts (no clue what his pvp schtick is otherwise tbh).

      • Matt says:

        No, really, go back and read the posts, the replies, and his comment. Read them more carefully and apply critical thinking while doing so. He’s not crying about being PvP’d. Seriously, he’s not.

      • Adam says:

        Thanks Matt.. feel free to make a point of your own whatever that is.

        He really is whining about pvp/asshats/griefing actually.

        One persons asshat is another persons family man going out to kill people to put bread on the table.

        Reputation? Consequence?

        Why do you want police IN A GAME?

        Why do you want 20th century values even IN A GAME?

        In Darkfall people show up with low amounts of gear and try to pick off fat drops from people out farming mobs etc. So what. Kill them, protect your friends.. its part of the game.

      • Derrick says:

        Adam: No, you misunderstand me entirely. You’re looking at this through too narrow a lens, the view of a player.

        It’s not about simple griefing. It’s not about PvP in particular. The problem exists even in an entirely PvE game. “Carebearishness” has no bearing on this whatsoever.

        Sid touches on it well. The reality is that players will break the system, because *that’s what they do*.

        Some will break it to gain the most personal benefit, others will break it simply to break it. This applies to ALL game systems, not just player interaction. The more open the systems, the more they will be gamed.

        The point here – Sync’s original post – is in creating a real virtual world, a functioning ecology, to progress MMO’s beyond what they currently are. However, without real consequences, without a way to create a morality ingame, random player-based entropy will eventually break every system. For personal gain, or just because they are there to break, they’ll be broken.

        Now, if you’re just there to play a random game, or one who delights in breaking things, that’s just great. But if you’re there to enjoy the “Virtual World” is just doesn’t work. And if that’s the case… why bother with an involved virtual ecology? You’re not progressing the genre, you’re just making another broken world.

        Note this isn’t about carebearishness. In a game system where being bad (in whatever way) has real consequences, then it means something. Villains that do exist – and persist – have more value, become a part of the world more than just random asshats.

      • Derrick says:

        I’m going to go back, and answer this directly:

        Adam wrote:
        Reputation? Consequence?

        Why do you want police IN A GAME?

        Why do you want 20th century values even IN A GAME?

        Now, your post was entirely missing my point; but it’s a valid statement nevertheless.

        Yes, I want police in a game, relevant to the setting.

        Is it a medival setting? Fine. I want bandits. I want real risk. I want to be able to BE a bandit, too!

        In a medival setting, in any place where wealthy enough people lived to provide good targets for bandits, the wealthy people – lords, knights, merchants, whatever – they had *vastly* more resources than the bandits. That’s why the bandits are bandits! You want to be a bandit, that’s fine. But expect your opposition to outnumber you, be better equipped than you. Expect it to be hard, and unfair.

        Even in these settings, there was law, and people enforcing that law. Randomly murder people? That’s fine. But don’t expect to ever be welcome openly in towns again. Ever. Get caught? Perhaps you’ll be imprisoned? Have all your posessions taken? Even things you had in your home, bank, what have you? That’s what happened then. Maybe you’d just be executed, too.

        That is how society works, and how it has *ALWAYS* worked – from the beginning of time. Overall, it’s enormously easier to work with society than to work against it. And in-game societies will never function until this applies there too.

        But I don’t want 20th century values; I want values appropriate to the games setting, but plausible ones.

        So… to the last question, why do I want this IN A GAME?

        Because it’s not just a FPS free for all. It’s not a single player game. The point, here, is to create a game that’s more than just another game but a virtual world. You yourself mention roleplayers. They are first and foremost the ones to benefit from a real virtual world, not the broken, limited games we have now.

      • Dblade says:

        Derrick took the words out of my mouth, actually. The reason we don’t have UO style gameplay anymore is because of players being jerks, and if MMO history has shown, it’s very hard for a developer to counteract that. So instead they limit the power players have to affect the game world.

        It’s not just PvP, but even having a real ecosystem is vulnerable to abuse. I think Raph mentioned the superbunnies that players created by levelling them up, for one.

      • syncaine says:


        I’m guessing none of you above have played it, because the issue you are all worried about is more or less solved in EVE.

    • evizaer says:


      You are making no argument. You’re barely tangetially making a point relevant to the discussion.

      Banditry was possible and common in the kind of enviroment that MMOs model. Yes, that’s true. But that has nothing to do with the fact that in an open-world environment that doesn’t require the player to put food on his table (and that doesn’t have permanent death as a ever-present penalty for causing too many people too much trouble), the consequences for actions will never be on par with the pain caused. This imbalance of consequence leads to a fundamental rift between the basic social norm-enforcement frameworks.

      Derrick’s post is not complaining about PvP. His post is indicating the issue that makes difficult the modeling of a society in an open game-world.

      • Derrick says:

        Oh, yes, what he said, much more succinctly than I :)

      • Adam says:

        “Derrick’s post is not complaining about PvP. His post is indicating the issue that makes difficult the modeling of a society in an open game-world.”

        Society isn’t coded by geeky game developers, it emerges.

        You and I aren’t going to be in a society together.

        We’ll be in different clans with COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SOCIAL NORMS INSIDE THEM.

        In a more primitive world people in two clans wouldn’t neccessarily have a lot in common.

        Let the players decide what the rules will be and what the morality is.

        Thats one of the fundamentals of an open game world.

        You guys claim to want open world gaming but then want to buckle on your silly “dont gank me” morality into it.

      • evizaer says:

        Adam: What are you talking about? You’re not being relevant.

        We’re talking about how punishment cannot be adequate to crimes in MMOs, so social order is difficult to maintain in a reasonable way for a simulation.

        You’re talking about how people shouldn’t force their morality onto others.

        We’re talking about a fact that game mechanics can’t overcome–a fact that leads to a lot of the imbalances and inaccuracies in the simulation bits of sandbox/dynamic world games.

        You’re talking about how you don’t like people who complain about their weakness in PvP.

        We’re not at all talking about instituting mechanics that protect the weak. We’re talking about how in-game societies are fundamentally different from real world societies and the impact that has to have on open-world game design.

      • Adam says:

        Go to the syncaines next blog post and actually list some “crimes” in an mmo.

        Make them serious enough that I believe you aren’t just whining about getting ganked and their is a real justification for removing “anonymity” and the need for “real consequences”.

      • evizaer says:

        Power without consequence breeds psychopaths. You’ll quickly find otherwise unassuming individuals turning into monsters if they are free of consequence or if you don’t give them feedback about the consequences of their actions.

        If you don’t think actions should have consequences in a social space, you cannot operate in society even on a basic level.

  9. sid67 says:

    It’s a nice ideological MMO dream, but that’s what it is — a dream. The crux of the problem is player behavior. All the best planning about how an MMO ecosystem like this will work will fall apart the first moment that real humans enter into the lab experiment.

    Groups of min/maxxers will figure out the best way to progress and then proceed to rig the system accordingly. The result will never be the “dream” but something else entirely that has been created by the a bunch of players who think they are more clever than the developers.

    Then inevitably, a bunch of people will be pissed and start writing about how the dev screwed up because they didn’t do X and Y. And then in another camp, you’ll have a group who gets angry about the dev “fixing” the player created problems. They’ll argue that it’s not a problem — that the dev is taking away the promise of the dream by making these changes.

    The problem for the developer is that the more “off the rails” they go — the more that system can be abused by players.

    I think that’s why devs shy away from this type of model. The more defined the process, the better control they have of offering a consistent user experience. And if you are running a business, then you realize how important it is to have a uniform experience for each consumer. Or at the very least, no bad experiences.

    If anything, UO also showed the extent to which players can abuse a system and other players. That’s a big reason why I’m a fan of what I would term “illusions of control” in MMOs.

    For example, lets say you wanted to be able to drop equipment or inventory on the ground. Sounds great until some guy comes along and litters the whole city with some trash item. Or worse, a group of people go around dumping trash. A change like that ruins the experience for everyone.

    But instead, let’s say that no one can see the items you drop on the ground except for you or members of your group. This is what I am terming the “illusion of control” because the world change is limited in scope to YOU and the immediate people that YOU are playing with.

    This is why I am a big advocate of a “phasing” approach in MMOs to create the illusion of sandboxes. WoW’s implementation of “phasing” aside, the basic idea being that you can allow players to enter different world states as the story progresses around them. Thus, things change – but on a scope more limited to a specific grouping of players.

    • syncaine says:

      That’s only true if the system allows such players to exploit it to that extent. In EVE, you CAN gank noobs in Empire space, but the system is design such that it only happens when the noob makes a mistake (flying something of great value without proper protection).

      The easy answer is to create WoW. My hope is not everyone takes the easy way out and fakes it. To me phasing is as ‘game breaking’ as instancing when it comes to virtual worlds. Both are fine for themeparks that make no illusions about being just that, a game, but neither belongs in a virtual world.

      • sid67 says:

        I’m talking players rigging the system not player abuse in the form of ganking.

        A dev can go out and try to build some free form sandbox, but in the end — players are going to min/max it and find the optimum solution. The result is that you either follow the optimum or gimp yourself by going about it the way the devs intended.

        So then devs come back and “fix” the optimum solution only to have players complain about the “fix”.

        The only real solution from a dev standpoint is to make the game more rigid with less options. And of course, no one wants that.

        That’s why the idea of an evolving ecology, player controlled Quest givers and such is really problematic. It’s not technology so much as it is player behavior that’s the problem.

        And no amount of planning can anticipate how players will evolve and react to a game.

    • evizaer says:

      Phasing is moronic. It splits the community into groups that may be too small for any one to progress. The move in MMOs should be towards as much player participation as possible at any time, not towards segregating players based on what they have and have no completed in the form of trivial in-game tasks. You want to have large populations of players that can assemble to do just about any task at any time, not very small groups of players isolated by phasing and steep vertical progression curves.

      You can create an MMO that has a dynamic world without hitting the hitches on which you seem to be fixated. It involves reducing the points of contact in the world, but allowing those points of contact to have significant impact on the functioning of the game world.

    • garumoo says:

      What if the min/maxers find out that the best way to get ahead is to make the society stronger? If the best weapons/armour/bling can only be attained when your local village prospers and is safe? When your home village establishes strong trading connections with other local villages (who in turn are prospering and thriving in safety), and when trading caravans can move about free from banditry? Where being a bandit means you can’t easily get your greasy mitts on the best gear, and even if you do you don’t have sufficient training (trainers require schools, which can only be found in civilised places), and even if you got over that hurdle the item would decay and be rendered useless (artisanal craftsmen, again, prefer civilisation).

      A design like that would be fundamentally different from the DIKU model

      • Derrick says:

        Yes!!! But don’t you see, that’s the point! Consider, if you will:

        A protected environment is created for the risk adverse.

        Real danger still exists, because there will *always* be people who want to be villains.

        See, we have the two extremes right now. We have nice, safe, themepark MMO’s. Sure, it’s great for the bulk of people, but others chafe (not unreasonably) at the artificial restraints put on their behavior, controls on how they interact with the world. Then, we have niche games like Darkfall, with virtually free unfettered behavior, which is great for those later people but useless for the former.

        In this world you describe, which I’ve been trying to explain, *both* players have their place. Banditry can, and will happen. The largest concentration of people will be in orgranized society, where they are *reasonably* safe; but many will leave that, try to carve out their own societies under their own rules. It’s harder, but they’ll do it because that is their nature.

        That very division becomes the fundamental game content. There are real, human player villains. They will typically be the better players, too, because to succeed in that role they have to be *good* at it.

        Not like belonging to an under-populated faction, though, this isn’t a contrived RVR game. People are people, they don’t belong to arbitrary factions in that sense.

        A guild may form, of would be bandits. They lair in the wilderness, far from regular patrols and the paths of the carebear. But they make raids into civilized lands, to get what they struggle to produce on their own.

        Others form to defends against this, perhaps to hunt down the bandits and stop their predations.

        Because people don’t belong to factions, because there are no big red signs, these people may well be able to disguise themselves, sneak in amoungst their prey appearing as regular carebears going about their business, until they strike.

        Because it’s harder gameplay, you ensure that fewer people overall do it. This makes the model work.

  10. mbp says:

    I was nearly seduced by your description of a game with “ecology” but then I thought about it and I realised that it isn’t necessary. Ultimately these are just games and the players are just looking for entertainment. It is sufficient and probably cheaper to fake it. Why bother having dynamic wolf and sheep populations if there are no players around to see them. Better to just have wolves and sheep which spawn according to a sensible script whenever a player appears. Its not as sexy as a living ecology but my guess it works just as well and ultimately delivers a more dependable entertainment experience.

    Perhaps that was the greatest achievement of World of Warcraft. They finally gave up on trying to build “a living virtual world” but instead just focussed on faking it with a big fat game for people to play.

    • syncaine says:

      That was one of Raph’s points, that along with the ecology system you also need a way to make players actually see/experience it. If your ecology system looks/feel the same as a static spawn system, you failed.

      Now it’s very possible that the majority of the current MMO-playing population doesn’t care for such complexity, and they are happy to jump on a ride for an hour and never notice the cardboard behind the fake trees, but I think part of that is the general young age of the genre as a whole. People who started with WoW are just happy to log in, while those who have been around since UO need more. Eventually, even those who started with WoW are going to tire of the same kill/ding/kill/ding/endgame that a themepark provides. They will then either leave the genre, or ‘graduate’ to more complex virtual worlds, and whoever delivers a compelling one first (the growth of EVE, but tenfold) is going to reap the benefits.

      • Tesh says:

        In short, there *is* an audience for this sort of design, and there are safeguards possible to keep it from going haywire.

        It’s not going to be WoW, but then, that’s the point.

        Will people be jerks online? Yes. There’s no way around that. Design to accommodate it with sufficient community self-policing tools and a heavy hand on the Consequence Stick.

  11. Adam says:

    Here let me even make an actual point beyond raging at carebearishness ;) (“anonymity” and “reputation” set me off in post a few back).

    In Darkfall … clans own cities.

    Clans police the areas around the city keeping “bad” clans from “farming” the local pve mobs.

    Sound like a system that -might- allow an ecology to be protected?

    I think weird anti-pvp systems that several posters seem to crave would just get in the way of the natural ecology of players and environment.

    • Dblade says:

      It depends if you can get a strong enough anti-griefer force willing to constantly patrol a lot of the ecosystem. It only takes a small, dedicated group usually to muck things up, but it takes a lot of people patrolling to make up for it.

      You also have to deal with the fact people don’t want to pay $20 a month to watch sheep.

      • syncaine says:

        If the eco system needs players to ‘patrol’ it for it to work, it’s not a functional eco system. The whole point is to design something that will keep itself in check 99% of the time (and the 1% the GMs can step in). How often do the GMs in EVE step in, and how often is that entire world out of order?

      • Dblade says:

        It’s not keeping itself in check though, it’s dealing with things that are outside of the ecosystem rules, which are players. I’m not familiar with EVE as much as I’d like, but does it even have an ecosystem as opposed to resources and an economy?

        Think of it in the way of real life. Its often needed to keep ecosystems balanced because of the actions of humans. If we kill wolves, the deer population gets so high that it hurts the entire area. Trees die as they get overwhelmed by hungry deer. Because of people, who are divorced from the specific system, issues arise the ecosystem was never designed to handle.

  12. Brindle says:

    At the heart of what you are talking about is the old idea of MMO’s being a PERSISTENT world. You really never hear anyone refer to MMO’s as persistent worlds anymore. By persistent, I mean the world evolves and goes about its business in a continuous fashion. And to me, this is what the original UO was all about.

    Instead, vitually every MMO is completely static. The quest givers give the same quest day after day. Blackrock Spire has the same mobs/bosses day after day, the ringbearer just left the shire, day after day. Basically, MMO’s have become big single player games where you repeat the same ‘ride’ over and over. Of course, the second time around on the same ride is never as fun as the first time.

    Maybe oneday someone will go back to the roots of UO.

  13. Stabs says:

    One of the problems with ecological spawns as opposed to static spawns is the economy.

    Suppose wool is valuable in the economy and one group of players decides the opportunity here is to keep sheep rare. They deliberately hunt sheep to extinction while building a massive stockpile of wool.

    They’ve now cornered the market and your economy is borked.

    Now you could run with that – perhaps other clans would make an alliance against the Wool Profiteers and kill them for their wool stockpiles but there could be other complications (like the Wool owners deleting the wool if they’re losing).

    I like the idea but once you go with an ecological approach to the virtual world you are going to have a massively dynamic world.

    Now suppose after the great wool wars you realised that your Crafting Tutorial requires the player to get 10 wool. You have to re-write it, in fact any static content requiring wool has to be re-written.

    I suppose you could instead anticipate such events and make your crafting tutorial require 10 items of clothing rather than 10 Green Woollen Shirts

    It would be something of a roller coaster ride to play such a game – a quiet armoursmith player on the other side of the world could wake up one day and find his best armour can no longer be made as it requires wool.

    Your game would have a tremendous requirement of player knowledge and a steeper learning cliff than Eve.

    • syncaine says:

      This is only a problem if you CAN make sheep rare. What if killing them in the current ‘hot spot’ just makes more spawn in another corner of the world? The world could be set to always have X sheep, with the variable being WHERE those sheep spawn. You have now made wool rare in one area of the world, and if we assume travel is meaningful and being a trader/hauler matters, look, more content. Find the new ‘hot spot’ (explorer content), get your harvester buddy to produce it, get your trader/hauler buddy to ship it, and your merchant to sell it. Everyone profits, everyone gets content, all thanks to those players who decided to go on a sheep killing spree.

      • sid67 says:

        This is what I was getting at in my post above.. No matter how clever the devs are, once they put humans into the lab experiment — they are going to break it.

        The simple fact is that the more complex the system becomes, the more difficult it is for the devs to think of every possible way to break it.

        And if they make it too simple — then it’s not as fun.

        So what ends up happening is that people figure out these loopholes and tricks and the devs either have to a) ignore it, or b) slap on a bandaid.

        There is no fix or cure for it and it is true in every MMO to some degree. It’s just part of how players interact with games.

        That’s the only problem with your “dream” as I see it. It’s a cool idea, but the player community would find the cracks and ruin any implementation of it. And of course, the dev would get the blame for not thinking of the crack.

        And by-the-by… I know EVE does what your talking about (resources in different spawns) but that’s the result of a full-time economist monitoring the game. It’s not the organic growth model you are suggesting in the original post. In that respect, it’s not that much different than a dev hot fixing an exploit.

      • syncaine says:

        I bring up EVE not because of how it handles resources, but how it handles player interaction in it’s world. You worry players will seek to break the system, but EVE allows negative-sum PvP vs anyone anywhere, massive-scale scamming, cutthroat territory control, etc, and yet the system works. You can’t just ignore that, no matter who works on the game. It’s an example of a virtual world that works day-in day-out on the rules set to govern it, and my point with the post is that while what EVE does is amazing, the NEXT game like it can still do a whole lot more.

      • sid67 says:

        I would argue that the reason EVE works is that the rules that govern it are far less complex than what you are suggesting in your original post.

        That and anything that is broken from the original design vision has been accepted as the norm and ignored.

        But what you are talking about (an ecosystem) is a lot more fragile and complex. And once players step into it, you lose your ecosystem and it becomes some pseudo-ecosystem that players are manipulating “outside the design box” to their advantage.

        That’s why devs shy away from this type of thing. The more complex it is — the easier it is to break.

      • Matt says:

        EVE does not allow negative-sum PvP between anyone, anywhere. Scamming is not massive in scale relative to the system under which it is perpetrated. And cutthroat territory control is allowed except where it isn’t. You can’t just ignore that, no matter how much you like the game.

      • Stabs says:

        Eventually a determined enough player group could exterminate any resource unless it reproduces “by magic”.

        This is what Eve does. Asteroids for mining just magically appear each day.

        It’s ok, but it’s not an ecology.

        I do actually think there’s scope for ecological crises.

        Possibly having a real ecology means you want to make your game worlds finite. You run a server for a few years, it gradually gets more and more trashed then bang, someone wins, everyone gets a new level 1 on a fresh server.

        This is a great post Sync and I’m sure that in years to come people will explore these ideas. It’s tricky ground for developers because there’s just a huge risk of making something that just plain fails. Nice idea, didn’t work, sorry kiddo.

  14. Stabs says:

    PS it would be fun!

  15. pitrelli says:

    It sounds like you want a cross between civilisation/sims/wow. Whilst I found it an interesting article to read I would think if ever a game was designed like you wanted it you may well be the only player playing, most players dont want to ‘own farms’ or herd cattle they want to be a hero.

    By simply removing NPCs from giving out mundane quests like kill 10 wolves to save my sheep and passing it on to a regular player to do doesnt exactly make a hell of a lot of difference, it will still be the kill 10 rats that you have moaned about previously.

    I guess my point is you seem to want an online world where it is similar to our real life with consequences, player created tasks etc which to me sounds nice in theory but I’d guess people would get bored very quickly with it. You can say what you like about ‘Themepark’ MMOs but they do exactly what they say on the tin.

    • syncaine says:

      You’d be very, very surprised how many people would jump at the chance to ‘just’ be a farmer in a virtual world. That 11m people follow the hero treadmill in WoW is not a good indicator of what all MMO players want. Look at the massive success of games like Harvest Moon or The Sims. Look at how many people even in WoW focus on the auction house instead of ‘being a hero’.

      I’m not saying shut down all themeparks and everyone grab a pitchfork, but there is a huge market for a world that allows you to do more than just kill mob after mob to prove you are a ‘hero’ to an NPC.

    • Modran says:

      No offense, but you’d guess people would get bored quickly because you think people think like you do :/. Syncaine (and others) aren’t talking about a new 800 pounds gorilla. Just like DF, they’re talking about a (much) smaller game that would clearly appeal to some people, just like EVE or DF do (they do not appeal to me BTW: i’d like a DF game, but softer on my hindside, thanks; I still love to read posts about it, though).

      And as long as that core of motivated players is enough to allow the game to live, it will slowly grow to be its own thing. Look at EVE, who passed the 300k subscribers mark recently.

      The key seems to be the core size, compared to the budget you have for your game. TR (which I did find very fun in the end) did cost too much while it appealed to too small a core (also, it shed skin more than a snake does).
      DF seems to be doing fine, from what i’m reading… I’d like to see how Fallen Earth will evolve, too.

      • pitrelli says:

        No offense is taken I just think the way Syn is talking about it makes it sound like a 2nd job, which many people would initially find fun but would eventually be ground down by it. If you are going to have such an expansive world with various types of jobs how are you going to keep everyone happy? Is being a town guard a job? lets log on so I can patrol the inside of a castle or stand by the city gates…… If thats what people find fun then fair enough.

      • syncaine says:

        That’s actually exactly my point. The advantage a virtual world has is you do have a ‘job’, but it only has the fun aspects of any job with all the crap removed. To use your guard example, standing around a castle sucks, but hiring/training/equipping/setting guards does not. The ‘castle guard’ job would not be to stand around, it would be to manage the NPC guards that do the standing around. The job of a shopkeeper would not be to stand around waiting for customers (that’s the suck), it would be to do all the fun stuff like inventory management, production, pricing, etc.

        Obviously what is fun for someone won’t be for someone else, but if you have many different jobs (and not just monster slayer like in a themepark), and each job attracts enough people to flesh everything out, it would work. Yes, that would be far and above the challenge of designing the next raid instance on the endgame treadmill, but it’s possible.

      • Dblade says:

        You’d think, but a tremendous amount of people play Harvest Moon. I’m not sure many would pay twenty bucks a month to just to do that, but farming combined with other things could work. Look at Rune Factory.

  16. Julian says:

    Something else you need to consider about all these is that if you’re going to model real world ecosystems as you would find in the wild, those ecosystems (despite our best human efforts) exist and survive because they’re able to defend themselves and, failing that, adapt/migrate.

    In real life, hunting bears for example is not a trivial task. Not even with weapons. In real life (just going by observation of the population around me where I live, which is semi-rural and chock full of hunters) only less than 5% of that population has the skills, the equipment and the balls to take down a single adult bear. It’s not for everyone. Not to mention what happens when you try and fail; no second chances.

    In a virtual world it’s quite probable that 99% of the population can take on a bear because the process is trivial. Even if one person fails, well poo, just respawn, run over to the spot and try again.

    Virtual ecosystems have to contend with virtual humans who are not only essentially infinite in numbers, but also come back from the dead and all of them have all the skills necessary to destroy that ecosystem in a trivial process.

    So why bother making a detailed ecosystem that’s probably gong to last 48 hours? If that? Static spawns are the natural response to an “idiotic group of humans” situation, and that’s gonna be present in every game, no matter how many safeguards you put in place.

    • syncaine says:

      Well just like in the virtual world the hunters operate at a reduced risk (and that risk is ultimately controlled by the devs, right?), the bears also play by different rules. In the real world bears can’t respawn as easily, or ‘know’ when to migrate after X number of them have been killed, or call in ‘boss bear’ to up the challenge. The goal is not to re-create an exact copy of a real-world ecosystem, but to create a virtual world that has AN ecosystem. If that ecosystem has to do silly stuff like spawn demon-bears to hunt player hunters, so be it.

      • Modran says:


      • Julian says:

        “The goal is not to re-create an exact copy of a real-world ecosystem, but to create a virtual world that has AN ecosystem. If that ecosystem has to do silly stuff like spawn demon-bears to hunt player hunters, so be it.”

        From that to static spawns as an abstraction of that process we’re just one miserable step away. Might as well do it and save ourselves the trouble. ;)

      • syncaine says:

        It’s a big step IMO. The demon-bear ONLY spawns if the player hunters cause it to happen. If the demon-bear is something to avoid (instead of something to farm), the players will react accordingly. And because this is a system we are talking about, and not just one known static spawn, how would the hunters know if THIS bear that they find is the one to trigger something to avoid, or if it can be hunted ‘safely’ for its resources/drops.

        Obviously the deeper you dig, the more complex the example gets, but so long as the system can in some way contain itself, it’s endless content.

  17. Der_Nachbar says:

    In a natural eco-system there is no release-day with thousands of bunnyslaying humans that make the eco-system break down very fast.
    So you would have to spread the players, time-wise and location-wise. That at least reduces the problem of the initial influx.

    But the biggest problem is, that freedom also means bad choices. Bad choices for your game systems. In other words, players will sooner or later get behind the calculations and use the system to their advance as best as possible. A static world doesnt open up so many possibilities to exploit the systems.

    Maybe one day we will see these systems in a virtual world. Perhaps not in a commercial game but in a social experiment ;)

  18. Stabs says:

    One possible answer is for players to farm each other.

    Want a fur coat? There’s a wolven warrior over there, here’s a knife.

    Players are the ultimate renewable resource for a game.

  19. Lumin says:

    When I was about 14, even before Ultima Online or EverQuest, my best friend and I day-dreamed about a video game RPG where there were no NPCs, players were born into player families, and the entire world, from the economy to politics, was created from scratch.

    This is what MMORPGs should have been. I have faith, though, that a major publisher will re-visit this idea though. The system may need tweaking, but I think it can work. From humble origins, the Diku MUD system gave rise to the mainstream MMO market today. We just need another garage developer to start another revolution.

    I think there needs to be some sort of persistent-offline mechanic for this kind of game to work. You can’t have shop owners sitting online for 24 hours a day selling things.

    I’ve been developing my own text-based MMO, based on these ideas for quite a while now (see my name link). It’s radically different from anything else you’ve probably played, I assure you.

  20. garumoo says:

    Of course we could simply give in and design the world around the idea that all players are barbarians – force them to raid and pillage for their day to day requirements (and deplete their strength etc if they don’t gather enough food etc). If they don’t pillage etc then have them become weaker (zomgwtfbbq – a non-death XP death penalty! ;-)

    Next, make the source of these resources (ie. civilisation) renew slowly and incrementally. If a player clan pillages too frequently and too thoroughly, let them discover that there are no more resources next week. Thus triggering XP loss.

    Maybe they’ll travel to another zone, and invade the territory of another player clan. Will that player clan step up to defend the resources they’ve been eyeing off?

  21. Pingback: “Sensible Spawns” or “WoW vs. Borderlands, Part I” « Are We New At This?

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