Tags: academic, games
More than a decade ago, back in graduate school I took a class on Video Games technolog & design, taught by David Sturman and Bernard Yee. One of the class assignments was to do an analysis of Formal Abstract Design Tools (FADT) analysis of any MMORPG of our choosing. I went for Anarchy Online, that had been release recently (which in turn is still running, making it one of the oldest surviving games in the genre). I recently found the sources for the write-up and decided to take advantange of the fact the report was written in LaTeX and I'm blogging using DocBook so I can transform one to the other easily. I have of course shorten it down and cleaned it for style. I recon I am a better writter now than I was back in graduate school (which among many things is the whole point of attending graduate school).
All in all, writing essays for school work is a little bit sad because if the essays are of good quality, only the instructor or the TA gets to read it. If I find any other interesting essays I will post them here and I encourage people to do the same on their own blogs.
From the write-up, the most interesting part is how I seem to longe for something in the style of Second Life, which was being launched at the time I was doing the write-up. And I really liked using the FADT, it might tempt other people to learn more on the topic. (Note: I would expect the original links are all dead links by now, but the Internet Archive can be of help.)
I decided to start this essay with a brief explanation of my personal understanding of this assignment. I am mostly interested in the technology aspects of video game technology. I will try to sneak into my essay some comments about them and how they affect the gameplay experience (and they can collide with the suspected initial goals of the game designer). While I completely lack exposure to MMPORPGs before, I used to enjoy real RPG (paper, dice, etc.) in the past very much (I used to play CoC) so I will also try to relate to it. My lack of exposure to MMPORPGs will not let me differentiate particular properties of my game of choice (Anarchy Online, AO for short) from common use among MMPORPGs. That would not be necessarily bad, as I think this homework is more about what MMPORPGs are and what type of game design issues they present, than about AO in particular. But I would like to itemize the issues between the two (AO and MMPORPGs). On that grounds, I decided to profit from available literature on the topic, that is, game reviews.
I collected a small number of sources from Internet game reviews sites and I will use them indistinguishable from my game experience to back up my comments. On the one hand, these sources are not a replacement for this essay, as they just focus on how “fun” AO or other MMPORPGs are, without stepping back more than the average computer user. On the other hand, I feel it is difficult to escape from a pure anecdote-style of writing (I had fun or I had not fun) without them. They capture the average player reaction towards a game much better than mine. For instance, I may like MMPORPGs (a priori) but for sure I will not like certain (other) type of games. A FADT study of such games should be detached from my personal preferences. I should analyze how the people who like a type of game would react towards that particular game. This is particularly important regarding INTENTION. In the provided examples, INTENTION, as the ability of a player of forming a strategy and being able to carry it on, does not depend only on my particular willingness of devise a strategy, but how the game system supports that concept for the average player.
This essay is structured in a number of sections. I will start itemizing the goals of MMPORPGs, related to the taxonomy of fun. This will be handy later on to analyze how AO addresses these goals. I will then mention what are my perceived overall goals of AO (as differentiating material from other MMPORPG). I found that out from AO's advertisement and game reviews. Again, this information is useful to analyze how successful the final product would be on the ground of their original intent. My gameplay experience follows after this analysis. I tried to briefly summarize it, pointing out example situations that I will later on refer during my analysis, that follows as a next section. Before conclusions, I also comment about MMPORPG games in general.
To better understand the different design decisions involved in a MMPORPG, it is advisable to understand their overall goals, as related to the taxonomy of ‘fun’ seen in class.
Like most RPGs the “goal” of Anarchy Online is to gain experience by finding and killing monsters, looting their goods and laughing at the tears of their children. Or something like that. Like most other Online RPGs you get to do this in the company of potentially tens of thousands of others doing the same thing.
According to the taxonomy of fun, there are eight possible sub-types of ‘fun’, namely: Sensation (game as sense-pleasure), Fantasy (game as make-believe), Narrative (game as drama), Challenge (game as obstacle course), Fellowship (game as social framework), Discovery (game as uncharted territory), Expression (game as self-discovery), and Masochism (game as submission).
The most impressive thing about MMPORPGs is that they have the capability of virtually attacking all possible sub-types of ‘fun’. However, it can be argued that most current MMPORPGs seem to focus on Fantasy, Challenge, Fellowship and Discovery. Expression and Narrative are somewhat missing, mostly for technical issues (in the Narrative side) and for lack of design issues to enforce strict RPG. I will adress these issues in Section MMPORPG comments.
MMPORPGs address Fantasy, by means of situating the player in meant-to-be-believed irreal worlds, with consistent rules of fantastic nature.
As most MMPORPGs are based on the idea of ‘kill, kill, kill’, they can be quite challenging. Although that is not necessarily the case with all of them (AO in particular is critized on this respect).
The on-line nature of MMPORPGs makes them the perfect place to exercise Fellowship type of fun. At least in theory, because it depends of the people you play with and cooperative behavior does not go well with a ‘kill,kill,kill’ environment.
Finally, large (even huge) virtual worlds provide neverending opportunities to Discovery. Moreover, in MMPORPGs that allows active modification of the world by the players, the possibilities of Discovery parallel the real world.
After mentioning the overall goals of MMPORG, I want to focus on Anarchy On-line specifics, by looking at its differenciating features. The information provided here is laterally the result of my gameplaying experience, but mostly my research on AO and other MMPORPGs.
AO differentiates itself from other MMPORPGs mostly by being a MMPORPG set in a futuristic environment (“first science fiction MMORPG” [WomenGamers]). Moreover, it includes outstanding graphics and sound, only found in FPS. Other goals involve high level of customization of player characters, together with class balanced powerups (for all classes). A minor goals could be the design of MMPORPG that can be played without PvP (Player vs. Player) melees.
By the time AO came on-line, it was the first science fiction MMPORPG ever released. That changed the storyline and gave the elves-tired gamers some new fresh air.
The load involved in a regular MMPORPG is immense, both on clients and servers. That calls for simplified graphics, like Ultima Online of Asheron's Call. AO combine outstanding graphics with believable sound. The gameplay then suffers of high lag, but for most users it seems worth it.
The characters can be customizated to its limits. Actually, the number of possibilities seem to be artificially inflated to increase the ilusion of the game to be “better” than ones with less control.
Class skills and power-ups seem to be more balanced than other games:
A variety of classes are available, from the run of the mill damage dealers to classes more suited to utilizing tradeskills, through which one can indeed advance, a feature lacking in most former MMORPGs that many have clamored for.
The skill tree has more freedom than in most previous games. Do you want a dashing gunslinger? Or perhaps a bloodthirsty sword fiend, it's up to you.
Finally, it has been said that PK (player killing) killed Ultima Online. RPG players are not Unreal Tournament players but such strategy may be a winning one if no provisions are taken. In this case, the PvP (Player vs. Player) activity is regulated by means of “gass” areas. 100% gass areas are no-kill. 75% areas are players-NPC fights. 25% are players from different factions (so team members would fight among themselves). 0% are no-man's land. Moreover,
Funcom has stated that it's possible to play and enjoy the game while avoiding PvP, but they hope that the conflict-based plot and the player's ability to control risk will tempt more to try PvP. It's clear from the game design that they put a bit of thought into this, and it might even be tempting, if it was working as designed.
In this section I briefly summarize my gameplay experience. It was really slow and quite frustrating, although I have to admit I enjoyed it. The degree of immersion of AO is remarkable. But my lack of success as a MMPORPG made me look for other sources of information once I got the feeling of the media. I will describe my most successful character, briefly explain a section of gameplay to then focus on technical problems that I identify as design foes.
My best character was a woman (chosen to verify whether the following comment was true:
Finally, there is very little “roleplaying” exhibited by the players, excluding repeated complaints of lag (from the FUTURE!) and others roleplaying as horny and obnoxious 14-year olds who will hit on anything with a pair of breasts and a shotgun.
(luckly, it was not true) and a magician (i.e., nano-technician). I also enrolled the “rebels” side. I guess I tried to play what I would like to play myself. This decision proved wrong later on. Somehow, while just playing some character (experiencing something different) is key for RPG, the lack of immediate goals (and something to overcome the “I am so lost” sensation) are very destructive. Just kill everything that moves. That gives you experience and goods you can trade and/or wear. Obviously a female magician does not fit well on that environment. And magician skills evolve very slowly, by virtue of the difficulties of their task. But overall, this was my more successful player, as I invest the longer time playing it and I was able to exploit its strengths to the fullest (make full use of the nano-programs, a.k.a. spells, and its being fast).
A typical setting with the character will involve getting a mission, going throught a labyrinth of rooms looking for a particular target/person, while killing everything on sight. After completion of the mission, looted items are traded by money and the experience points accumulated in order to increase level.
While playing, I identified several technological problems that mined the gameplay experience: zoning, camera, and lack of instructions.
The zoning problem seems to be quite widespread among MMPORPGs. Only Asheron's Call seem to be free of it. Two things happen: first, a noticeable delay (lag) happens when crossing certain zone borders (that mark server changes), second, monsters can not leave one zone, so they tend to be all crowding the entrance (although that never happen to me).
While games like Tomb Raider show that third person characters are technologically possible, the camera algorithm in AO is really disastrous. I was killed several times as a result of entering a room with the camera staying in another room. While this can be easily solved, it detracts gameplaying and immersion.
Finally, I am really a fan of complex games. My favorite game is civilization, for instance. But an overlty complex game, heavily underdocumented introduces challenges in an area where it should not be. This seem to be particularily true about AO and I'd argue later on that is a problem that can predate MMPORPG systems, by design.
I discuss in this section my AO specific comments. I concentrate my comments around NARRATIVE, INTENTION, POWER-UP, CONSEQUENCE, challenge, suspension of disbelief, and networking.
While AO has a very rich science fiction story behind the game, the overall gameplay (NARRATIVE) can be reduced to:
Go out, kill things, get xp/money, come back and get better stuff to kill bigger things with.
that's quite sad, because the game has all the elements to produce a much richer narrative. But the ways to progress on the game are throught xp/money, so everybody goes for it. I'd argue this is a problem of MMPORPGs in general. To AO's rescue, it can be said they have a four-year long story line to pursue and it is still developing.
AO made a strong effort to support Expression, as part of the taxonomy of fun. Each character is highly customizable, and may evolve in different forms that the player see fit. A full apartment is provided that can be furnished at will and things like that.
As said before, the character customization offered by AO is far and above that of other MMORPGs. There is an enormous variety of armor, clothing, and weapons, so much that almost no two characters look alike.
This is true, I experienced myself. This helps the RPG goal immensely and may be confused with INTENTION but are different things. While it has been said:
Once you get a chance to explore the game, the thought that went into many of the design decisions does show. There is a place for the casual player, the role player, the time-limited player, the merchant, the power player and the warmonger here. The game has a lot to offer.
The game delivers what most women and many men have been asking for: choices.
that does not mean that the game fully support INTENTION. Basically, if you plan to engage in real RPG, sure, from their support of Expression immediately follows support of INTENTION. However, MMPORPG experience do not depend only on game designers, they heavily depend on gamers. Few people on-line seem to be worried about doing real role-playing. Therefore, the only possible INTENTION available is player power-up. Deciding to kill as many monsters, enemies, etc. as possible and building the faster, stronger, more great character. That obviously collides with RPG whole idea (that just playing it should be ‘fun’, as a matter of Expression, Fantasy and Narrative). Nevertheless, AO supports that reduced INTENTION (powering up your character to its maximum). Moreover, it entices that behavior (I guess because it leads to addiction more quickly than real RPG and appeals to a broader user base).
Player power-up has been given a great dealt of effort:
Rather, each level earns you “IPs”, which you can spend on raising your base attributes and skills. Depending on the “color” of a skill for your breed/profession combination and the number of times you have already raised the skill the cost to improve a skill will vary. There are far too few IPs per level to keep all your skills maximized, so it is up to the individual player to decide in what direction they want to take their character.
However, it can be said that this just overcomplicates the game for no reason, aside from being able to differentiate with the competence in a way that catches attention:
FunCom, realizing that Everquest players became addicted to watching their various stats slowly rise over a period of nine decades, decided to put even more upgradable stats in their game, thereby making it logically better.
I personally found the skill systems way to big and overbloated, although the idea of customization of the character sounds very appealing. A few options had obvious meanings, making the rest a difficult choice to upgrade, hurting PERCEIVABLE CONSEQUENCE. Ultima Online had only six skills and seem to go a long way with it. I really wonder if the 60+ skills are indeed necessary. However, skills and items iteract together making following intertwined WENNIE CHAINs:
Another example would be body armor that requires both strength and stamina to wear. This is both incentive to upgrade skills and base abilities, and incentive to constantly upgrade your items.
Also regarding PERCEIVABLE CONSEQUENCE, I find the lack of instructions a great foe of it. Very often, I found myself tring out something without an obvius idea of what was going to happen. That situation was frustrating (by means of the lack of PERCEIVED CONSEQUENCE) and put a Challenge where it should not have been. RPG players are avid readers of detailed descriptions, that lack in AO. Sometimes even the mission statements were not completely understandable (I remember one mission I was supposed to meet a guy and get a key, I first went there and kill the guy, as it was not stated in the mission statement...). On the same line, the interface also goes against PERCEIVABLE CONSEQUENCE:
The interface is complicated and counter-intuitive. When I'm presented with a panel of big buttons I expect that a left click activates a button, and a right-click accesses secondary features such as moving the button, etc. Nope, not in the upside world of AO. Left-clicking a button in the interface picks it up! if you want to activate it, you must right click on it.
I found two main sources of challenge in the game: combat and lack of instructions. Being the second one a bug more than a feature, the only real source of challenge is combat. However, the combat was quite straightforward: you can kill anything easier than your level and nothing higher (without help). Moreover:
Indeed, the combat is so simple minded it is rather tedious.
Ultimately, if you are looking for intense, fun combat, this isn't the game for it. Granted, most online RPGs have rather simple combat mechanics, but Anarchy Online is the simplest yet.
This lack of challenge is evident from the lack of reward obtained by power-ups:
I mean, joy, healing version 4, a tiny bit better than healing version 3. Wow. Doesn't change what I can do, doesn't add ability to my class, just keeps my skills up to the higher level monsters. Boring.
The most remarkably feature of the game are its amazing graphics and sound. The suspension of disbelief (sometimes destroyed by the buggy camera logic) is really strong. I think that can entice people to role-play more. The design decision of putting so much effort on graphics (compared to Ultima Online, for example) really paid off. The game experience improves considerably, something that, a priori, I wouldn't have guessed. Unreal Tournament or Doom I both have the same feeling. But you can enjoy textured landscapes much more in a game were looking at sunshines is part of the game.
The landscapes provide a variety of lovely sights, from the shimmering double suns above a waterfall fed jungle, to the scorching barrenness of the open desert. Storms roll in with a convincing feel, and in the desert sand will blow up and obscure your vision in a red haze..
The game world has varied terrain, and each type has a different weather system. There are thunderstorms with rain in the forests, and driving sand storms with howling winds in the deserts. Snow has been seen in the wastelands. The most violent storms come complete with dynamic lightning. It can cause brilliant displays in the clouds, or strike the ground next to you with a loud crash, throwing up debris.
In all, the sound quality is what I would expect out of a first person game, not at all what is standard fare in an MMORPG.
I felt quite isolated while playing AO. The game does not foster social behavior. Actually:
The whole point of an online massively multiplayer game is, at least in my view, to socialize while playing the game. It seems that Funcom has actually gone out of its way to make this difficult for people.
Finally, a few words about AO's mission system. Missions support the casual player. They support the INTENTION of such players. Players with far reaching strategies (if you manage to develope some in AO) can use them to collect goods or experience to put their other items to practice:
One of EverQuest's failings has turned out to be Anarchy Online's gain: missions. Missions are to AO what quests are to EQ. But where EQ's quests are unchangeable, AO's mission system is quite flexible. The idea behind missions is woven into the story line: the player exists in a world in which mercenaries can thrive.
The downfall with missions currently is that there are really only a handful of types
I will address now some comments related to MMPORPGs as a whole. I have tried to separate these comments from AO specific ones.
I want to focus in the destructive nature of MMPORPG, no RPG, lack of interactivity, zoning and static world. Some of these issues are technology dependant (like zoning) but other are related to the concept of MMPORGs.
Most MMPORPGs I have read about, and the particular one I have played base their challenge on this ‘kill,kill,kill’ concept. This destructive nature is more in line with FPS than RPG. Moreover, a player that is carefully role-playing may get stormed by FPS-style players. This phenomenon is called PK'ing (Player Killing) and it is a real issue:
given the fact that player killing ruined Ultima Online
I argue this behavior will stay into MMPORPGs as long as they do not solve the lack of Challenge:
There is just too much repetition, too little wonder, and too little incentive to continue playing.
The question is... if you have a complete “real-life-like” game system, with its own economy (resource production and resource sinks)... how are you going to make resource production be ‘fun’?
The game seems to be designed to allow you to easily generate currency and items in the beginning. It looks to be balanced with considerable money-sinks to remove the currency later.
The first version of AO was said to be so repetitive that it was a ‘job’, not a ‘game’ [SomethingAwful]. I wonder were the design can lead to, in order to escape this situation... maybe on the creation side? Players can concentrate on creating new material for the game, as a new source of resources (xp/money). The surface of this idea is scratched in AO, but it is agreed that you cannot survive just by trading.
Serious role-playing is interesting (i.e., ‘fun’) for a certain number of people. I would challenge the idea of being of widespread interest. As a result, few people playing MMPORPGs would be there trying to do the RPG part. I think lots of people get dragged by the hype and the MMPO idea. But the lack of real RPG is a real shame:
The MMORPG genre has a long, long way to go before it’s perfected. For one thing, Asheron's Call is plagued with players speaking in “l33t sp3ak”, or otherwise out of character. While I don't expect everyone to ropleplay, it's still frustrating to be trying to enjoy the role playing experience and have someone run up and scream “j0 d00d, wh3r3 U g0t dt l33t flm—ng st@ff?!?!?!!!”
Currently, I find that there is not much role-playing or interaction going on in UO. It is not uncommon to walk down a street and hear characters discussing the point value of their fencing skill. This seriously detracts from the suspension of disbelief for me.
So there is plenty of people there, on-line from all over the world, you can chat with them, make new friends! Well, not really. New York is full of people, but it can be a lonely town. Same goes for MMPORPG. And in the chat room, nobody knows you are a dog. If you sum up with lack of role-playing, you may find opportunistic behavior, difficulties in trusting game friends and the like. Also, play with people all over the world sounds really exciting, but when I was playing real RPG, sometimes it was hard to set up a schedule to have the whole party and follow an adventure. Try to coordinate a party of six people all over the world to play several days together sounds a major endeavor on itself (nevermind the adventure).
I don't know if I'm overgeneralizing from AO, but the zoning issues are really rampant and really collide with Discovery type of fun. I was normally afraid of changing zones out of the terrible lag between them. That made me afraid of exploring the world. A real shame. Hopefully, it seems Asheron's Call has no zoning, so it is technologically feasible to have a game with that feature. But it has to be noted that Asheron's Call has special design features (such as portals, separated dungeons and home areas for monsters) that make this behavior possible. I'd also suspect that the differences in graphics quality is also to blame for the considerable lag in zoning.
Finally, a very difficult problem: the world being static, the lack of NARRATIVE. FunCom has a plot that will span two and a half more years. That should do for the ‘macro’ kind of NARRATIVE. But at the day to day level, the NARRATIVE is provided by your average gameplay (‘kill,kill,kill’ and lack of Challenge) and your interaction with other players (that are not interested in role-playing). In these grounds, MMPORPGs can clearly lack NARRATIVE, but I see few possible solutions without getting into a true anarchy. If FunCom let the players behave as a democracy, fully changing the world they inhabit, the results may disastrous (if SomethingAwful.com comments about players being hordes of 14-year-olds, I envision statues of Lara Croft appearing all over the cities) with escalating PK'ing. To balance such situation is really complicated. What can be fun to one player can be terribly obnoxious to another. And both are customers to the suscription service. The idea of AO of having special players involved in the scripting (as part of their ‘ARK’ program) may be the way to go. That is what makes real RPG interesting, to interact with the master and the story behing his/her words. Maybe MMPORPG should start moving on that direction. Without players actively changing the world, I insist that NARRATIVE will continue to sunk.
Overall, I was able to upgrade my character to a certain level. That was a rewarding experience. But I guess is similar reward to see my number of points in Tetris go higher and higher. I second somethingawful comments on that regard, sadly:
The ultimate goal of the game is to either reach level 175 or realize that the ultimate goal of the game is to reach level 175, thereby resulting in returning the game and canceling your account.
However, I'm much more optimistic about MMPORPGs in general. I really think they are the way to, and by the very fact they support all possible subtypes of ‘fun’ they are most likely to appeal to a broad number of individuals. The posted Deus-Ex comment of “games within the game” are really valid. Reviewers of EverQuest mentioned they enjoyed fishing there quite a bit. If PK'ing stops being an issue (with AO’s “gass”, for example), zoning dissappears and resource production and world modification get settled down (well, those last two sounds too much political issues!), MMPORPGs will end up being just the only available games. There will not be a reason to play anything else!