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.

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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.
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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