Tim Cain on making a single-player MMOG

GDC Online 2010: Carbine Studios' design director explains how he's trying to make a classic single-player RPG storyline work in a massively multiplayer context.

Who was there: Carbine Studios design director Tim Cain, who cocreated Fallout and is working on an unannounced massively multiplayer online game for NCsoft.

What they talked about: Cain started by confessing his love for MMOGs, dating back to playing MUDs decades ago. He's playing half a dozen MMOGs on a daily basis, but he finds that he's not really feeling any kind of special storytelling at work in them, so he and his friends generally venture together with their own storytelling at work. For instance, in one MMOG, he plays in a group of assassin gymnasts (his character is Nausea Kominichi).

Carbine's Cain wants to make an MMORPG that doesn't rely on questing as much as games like World of Warcraft.

The way MMOGs currently work, Cain said players enter a zone, get a quest from an MMOG, and then quickly perform that task. What he wants is something more like an epic world story spanning multiple zones and taking hours to play through. In other words, he wants what single-player role-playing games give him.

Cain admits it's difficult to do in an MMOG because he's playing with thousands of players who tend to get in the way. Cain also admitted that he's heavily biased toward single-player games, as his history in the industry has been primarily working on single-player RPGs like Fallout, Arcanum, and Temple of Elemental Evil.

In single-player RPGs, the designer has an advantage in being able to have the world revolve around the player. Everything the player does can be reflected in the world, because the player is the prime mover. And when the player gets to the end, the storyline is over. That model doesn't work in an MMOG for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there are thousands of players. It's hard to feel special and unique when there are thousands of others doing the same thing, Cain said.

On top of that, there are issues with stories that span multiple zones. Zones can be skipped in some MMOGs, and players can overgrind an area of a zone and become too powerful for the rest of the zone. There are plenty of failed attempts to tell MMOG stories. Designers tried cramming the story into "lore bombs" but found players would click through the written text without reading it.

Having instances makes the world seem disjointed, Cain said, and it undermines the shared-world experience of seeing so many other players around the gameworld. MMOG players also dislike the action being ground to a halt for the telling of a story, and they're not always interested in a story that ends. Finally the sandbox approach that works well in games like Fallout is tough to do in an MMOG because emergent stories based on thousands of players are incoherent.

Cain said his team's solution was to put a big world-spanning story in the game, but to put it at the very end. But when they tested the game, they found players didn't understand that the big story was ever coming. To remedy this, Cain said players should pick character backgrounds at the start.

If a player's background says he wants to rescue his kidnapped sister, then the character has a sense of purpose from the outset. It also helps "subversively" give players a little lore bomb to start the game, as they will read each background before making a choice. That gives them a general idea of the world and the stories that take place within it.

Once the player has been playing long enough to develop a midlevel character, Cain said the act of leveling up, the social experiences, and the rest of the MMOG staples are enough to keep them playing. So even though the character's background story may be mostly resolved and the big end story hasn't ramped up, players are still engaged. By the time players hit the level cap, they'll be ready for the big finish.

At that point, the stage is set, the foreshadowing is done with, and players are ready to go back to previous zones for new content that sees them cross paths with familiar non-player characters. Cain said it will play out like a single-player RPG at the end of an MMOG as a reward for players who hit the level cap.

Having all the players at the same power level allows the designers to cut around a lot of design pitfalls. They didn't need to have a hackneyed "chosen one" storyline, and they didn't have the odd discord of a level-two scrub being dubbed the dragon slayer or world savior.

Cain gave an example of the world-spanning story with a boss in a keep on a mountaintop. The keep wouldn't be instanced, but it would be very difficult to get to, and if a low-level player somehow obtained a flying mount to get there, he would be welcomed by very high-level enemies that serve as a deterrent.

In another example, the high-level content would be instanced, but NPCs would help players through a locked door to the content only if they had proven themselves worthy. To help foster aspirational players, Cain said when players complete major world story tasks, they will be featured in an in-game newspaper that all the other players of the game can read. Additionally, NPCs will have specialized reactions based on player performance and the choices they make in the finale.

After the world story ends, Cain said the game will have player-vs.-player action, crafting, quests, housing to acquire, and other activities to justify returning to the world. On top of that, the world story allows Carbine to leave some loose ends and hints at faraway lands. Having a world story at the end of the game led to really obvious tie-ins for expansions, Cain said.

Quote: "What I'm trying to do is make an evolutionary step for an [MMOG], not a revolutionary step."--Cain, explaining that he just wants to bring a single-player vibe to the MMOG genre.

Takeaway: For an MMOG that hasn't yet been announced, Cain dished a ton of details about how it will be structured. While the game will still be unmistakably an MMOG, Cain wants it to have the same singular appeal as a traditional single-player RPG.

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62 comments
Chaozi
Chaozi

"GDC Online 2010: Carbine Studios' design director explains how he's trying to make a classic single-player RPG storyline work in a massively multiplayer context." So oblivion?... xD

Son_Jazrin
Son_Jazrin

@gideonkain I like that concept of S.O.S, is it being used in any MMO currently?

gideonkain
gideonkain

The major flaw in MMOs is the assumption that a complete stranger would be inclined to help another. This isn't the case. Even asking where a vendor is in a city is met with disdain. The key would be to have a system which "rewards" players for working together, not like a instance or a raid where plays *might* be rewarded *if* their team can would cohesively. An example would be a low-level players using a "S.O.S. talent" when their in trouble, the SOS would be reported to all players in a certain radius, something like "Help! I'm being chased by " - if a player steps in and assists with the kill they would be generously rewarded, with more XP than even defeating the monster normally grants - in this way people would be inclined to help...because it helps them most of all and it's easy to forge a repore with a player that you saved or was saved by. Theres a 100 other methods of "synergy" that could be employed that all work more organically than "LF1M Healer for Crystal Mines run, got Tank!"

blakeney
blakeney

@jalexbrown The best way to filter them out, is to aim for a lower player base, a-holes a sheep and follow the masses. Cain im certain would go for that option too, but will the boardroom agree?? :P

Thunderstarter
Thunderstarter

@Kratos_Kills: If only FFXIV was like FFXII -sigh-

Kratos_Kills
Kratos_Kills

someone said this already but I want to remind it. Demon's Souls is pretty much single-player MMO. with its great online function you can always play that single player game as multiplayer. I didn't play Guild Wars 2 but Final Fantasy XII was like single player WoW. so if they would add multiplayer function into it, you would get single player mmo. I think its great idea because both FFXII and Demon's Souls are great games and this idea of a new game would success too.

Thunderstarter
Thunderstarter

If this works, count me in. Otherwise, I've always dreamed of a MMO that took place in a constantly-changing world. Meaning there are NO instances for major battles and instead there are many unique enemies that appear from time to time that require players from all around the MMO to defeat. Maybe you'll only need 40 players for the battle against the big guy, but what about the people who need to escort citizens away from the battlefield, or the people who need to fight the big guy's horde to stop him from overriding a capitol city? You can create so many personal stories there, and an MMO is a very personal experience. You could have wars between players who chose the good or bad side of characters (Ala WoW) and have these wars have actual effects on the world around them, if the evil characters take over a good capitol, then the capitol is now theirs to roam freely. Tabula Rasa tried this, but I heard the gameplay wasn't too good and it wasn't marketed enough to have a big enough player base. There are a LOT of things that could be done in an MMO, and while I think this may be a good idea, I think that creating an ever-changing world with events that require legions of players to stand together would be game I would play forever.

Vambran
Vambran

Be nice to play a MMO that lets me do end game content with out having to join a raid.

taxonomic
taxonomic

Tim Cain & Brian Fargo, the two brightest RPG minds of the 90s...shame they haven't been given a chance to reclaim their former glory. I hope this game works out for Cain. He deserves a big hit.

Wedge55
Wedge55

Why do I get this feeling that he's going to get so wrapped up in his "groundbreaking" concepts that he, like many MMO designers, end up forgetting the most important part: good game play.

DarkBuhamut
DarkBuhamut

Well i think this sounds like a great idea. ive always wanted to really try the mmorpg's but i never have as theres no ending or story to work towards. lets jus hope it comes to ps3!

grove12345
grove12345

I think more RPG developers need to look at Demons Souls. Great RPG combat system, and great stat system (needs fixing though), and its tough to play One problem with MMOs is the story. No one reads what the NPC is saying, click, click, ACCEPT. Why? B/c there are 1000s of stupid quests. Why not make like 4 or 5 LONG quests with talking NPCs, and CG. That are tough and you will die if you dont work in a team. Forget the 100 mini irrelevant grinding side quests. RPGs need to focus on bringing the fantasy novels to the gaming screen. I guess it will be better to have 6-8 player online RPGs instead of 1000s.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

@Lamesy +1 That's almost as good as being able to thumb down GS staff writers (which I'd love to be able to do. What are we not allowed to disagree with them or something?)

Csonic6
Csonic6

maybe they should base it bit like PSU (Gurdian Missions) just add more story telling, random looking weapons and more party members (party as large as 10 maybe?)

margimargi17
margimargi17

hmmmm Somebody please call him and tell that BioWare and ArenaNet are already making such games like SWTOR and GW2

TxtBin
TxtBin

Most people who don't get what Cain is saying, just scrape out. I've always wanted to play an MMORPG where the story is based on each character and not some vague story about the whole factions teaming up to bring down some big monster or whatever. I wanted each character to feel important and not give some crappy quests like go to Point B, return to Point A, finish, pick reward etc. I'll definitely buy this game if it turns out to be good.

TheMilkMonster
TheMilkMonster

I'm just trying to figure out why I would want a single player vibe while playing an MMO. I suppose its a matter of preference, but I love fallout by myself, and I loved WoW with my friends. I guess Borderlands kind of felt like good mixture of the two. I'll definitely give it a chance if it makes it to shelves.

RawDeal_basic
RawDeal_basic

Demon's Souls was kind of like a single-player MMO.

jalexbrown
jalexbrown

@Lamesy I agree that it would be better-written if Sinclair had used direct quotes. Then again I hate it when people paraphrase, because we don't know how close the author's paraphrase is to what the person actually said.

Lamesy
Lamesy

@Kevin-V While I certainly wouldn't call this article incomprehensible, I'll gladly point you towards some of those errors. Mr. Sinclair seems to have problems with proper quoting structures: "The way MMOGs currently work, Cain said players enter a zone, get a quest from an MMOG, and then quickly perform that task." Aside from the fact that I'm almost certain he intended to say "get a quest from an NPC," the fact is that, structured as it currently is, this does not qualify as a sentence. There needs to be a comma after "Cain said," to show that the entire statement is a Cain quote (well paraphrase really). Otherwise it's just a list of random dependent clauses.... we know "players enter a zone" was said by Cain, but it's unclear whether the remaining phrases came from Cain or Sinclair. The same stylistic confusion is repeated with "After the world story ends, Cain said the game will... etc" One simple comma after "Cain said," would eliminate confusion and make it clear that all dependent phrases in the list (including the preface "After the world story ends") are in fact Cain speaking and not the author. Mr. Sinclair seems to want to mix bags and produce sentences that begin with the authorial voice, and segue into a paraphrase. Since he doesn't know proper stylistic practice, Sinclair should just use direct quotes if he insists on mixing personal and quoted statements in one sentence.

ToughCritic28
ToughCritic28

Someone explain to me why you would need to have a multiplayer experience for that. It sounds to me like he wants a totally single player experience... so then what would be the point of it being online? it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me; it sounds like he just wants to make another fallout.

Kan0nF0dder
Kan0nF0dder

But....wait what? WoW is weak compared to the older MMOGs such as Ultima and Everquest because it doesn't force grouping and reliance on others as much as it should - leading to an inferior social structure within the game world. Developers keep trying to shift MMOGs further and further towards instant gratifcation gaming, which in turn makes the game world more irrelevant. Work it out devs, it's not fricking hard.

l777l
l777l

Not even close to the depth a single player game allows in character development, story, art, cinematic presentation and exploration.

rng_cougar
rng_cougar

It's sort of like saying i wanna play multi-player but I want to do it alone... It sounds stupid if you think of it like that BUT if someone pulls it off, they will have an amazing game

GravityDs
GravityDs

I've played at least GW and FFXI, and I don't think that they're anything like what a single player RPG is. I think they should make a single player RPG with a multiplayer option, that has multiple servers and a player limit per server based on the size of the world. That way you could just play the game as you would, only with real companions taking on the story and quests with you. Think of Diablo mutliplayer with older FF style stories, you know, when they were actually good.

IrshDrkWlf
IrshDrkWlf

There are MMOGs that have been more geared towards the story than others like FFXI, Aion, GW and the upcoming TOR. Dont get me wrong WoW and others are great, but donot provide as much tie in to the story as they should. I will be looking forward to more on this title in the future.

Damnation_6
Damnation_6

...did this guy ever hear of a little game called Diablo 2? Strip away the MMO and you get a normal RPG... Single Player MMO....it's the most ludarciss thing I heared ever heared....today.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

When you try mix two genres, you don't get generally get a new genre, you tend to get a mess. Genres are defined for a reason if you ask me. I prefer single player experiences, so I'll stick with that I think... those that prefer MMO's are welcome to play them, I just won't be joining.

snowmuncher
snowmuncher

This sounds a lot like what Guild Wars 2 is working to accomplish.

jalexbrown
jalexbrown

So once you put a great story in an MMO, how do you stop a-holes from spoiling it in chat?

AnakinSW
AnakinSW

1. Single Player 2. MMOG Pick one.

alert0
alert0

This.... is good. Is very very good. This makes everyone happy. I sense an end to the whole 'RPGs don't make money issue'. Then again, I sense the beginnings of an 'RPGs are more expensive than real life' issue :)

feryl06
feryl06

i'm game. I'd rather go on a journey on my own instead of going with a party...

DethSkematik
DethSkematik

I look foward to these ideas. I mean, questing with a party is fun, but there are times that there's no one around to lend a hand, or I just want to play the game alone, and taking on a boss is pretty much impossible by yourself, much less certain parts of the game that you'd like to explore but everything' ridiculously hard on your own. I always wanted an MMO that would be playable by myself if I wanted to, and still offer a way to socialize with others when I wanted to.

MooncalfReviews
MooncalfReviews

MMORPGs in particular are very difficult to give a decent storyline too. You either have tacked on quests to infinity, which have no real relevance to anything going on with the main story arch ... or you have 10,000 people with exactly the same "epic" backstory as your own character, which doesn't make any sense at all if you try to roleplay it. OR you get loads of 13 year olds running around spoiling any chance you have of actually feeling the atmosphere of the story, or getting into character. I was impressed with the way Matrix Online (as sucky as it was) tried to handle it, where it updated the main storyline monthly, and let the majority actions of the redpills determine the outcome of that chapter of the story. For example, say they decide that X is trying to start a war with Y, it becomes the player's responsibility to either try to help start that war, or try to stop it (via a variety of tasks, or hub-world actions such as crimes). If more players try to start the war, then the war starts, if more players try to stop it, then it stops, and the writers adapt their next chapter of the story accordingly. Of course, this also allows for character fame, as you could do something so massively devastating that the writers are forced to take notice. Unfortunately for Cain, it's already been done in some of the lesser known games, and I imagine that Bioware's Old Republic game will be the next evolutionary step in massively online gaming story and interaction anyway.

DarkM151
DarkM151

its interesting... but i think its a double edged sword it might be a great game or it will be a mayor s*** xD good luck with that i want to see it

Tidal_Abyss
Tidal_Abyss

I don't have the time to read the entire article, definately coming back to do so later, but I am a true-blue single player player. I deal with people all day, when I get on my computer for a game, it's to get away from them, not jump online to find more of them. Also, I'm grown (30's), I don't need someone to hold my hand, or getting in my way, or bugging me, etc.- I can handle a game all by myself, you know, the old fashioned way. IF they can pull this off (from what I took from the article on a brief skimming), I think it would be great.

tommygun6644
tommygun6644

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

Everiez
Everiez

Interesting and this article could use less MMORPG jargon. What is the meaning of "Lore bomb" and "Level-two scrub"?

Pete5506
Pete5506

Nothing wrong with a good single player game

gandaf007
gandaf007

Me and a few of my friends want to make an MMO or meta-game multiplayer game and we've encountered similar issues, pushing an interesting story while focusing on hundreds or even thousands of players. I find history quite amazing and compelling and that's how the story of our game will go on. Those battles Kingdom X wins and how different players showed valor or did something awesome, so their name will spread by word of mouth. The player's story will be shaped by what he does himself.

tedsini
tedsini

I've been following Tim Cain's career since his Fallout days. Very creative, articulate guy. There are three interviews with him up on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgjd4i1o4UY. I just wish he had been hired to work on the Fallout MMOG. I don't play online for most of the same reasons stated above - no story, a lack of global consequences for my character's actions, etc. I'll be curious to see what a bright guy with similar concerns and a ton of game-writing experience comes up with.

exedeath
exedeath

Story should be the number one thing any RPG relies on. That is the main reason I stopped playing WOW after a month. There was nothing to keep me interested. You just grinded your level up as high as you can, and that was really the only thing to do. You never felt like you accomplished anything. Now lets see them bring this out for consoles.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@bundok -- I am not sure I follow, as the article is comprehensible and written in plain English, using proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Is there any particular sentence or phrase you can point to? I am happy to follow up, but based on my own thorough read-through, I am unsure of the stylistic, grammatical, or structural errors to which you might be referring.

tyco_ex
tyco_ex

Wonder if he has heard of a little game called Guild Wars 2.

deathstream
deathstream

I've been waiting to hear more about the Carbine Studios game since they launched the studio. What I heard sounded pretty good. Now I want more. More. More! MORE!!! Even unannounced MMOGs are addictive.

nocoolnamejim
nocoolnamejim moderator

Fascinating concept and ideas. More story and immersiveness in MMO games? This gets my seal of approval!

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

Kind of like how Demon's Souls put a spin on the aspect. I like this idea, since I prefer to play single player games but this style is excellent too when done right.