Why men in tights work for MMO games

BioWare combat designer acknowledges that a lot of massively multiplayer online games look and feel the same, but adds there are some good reasons for it.

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AUSTIN, Texas--With the third and final day of the 2006 Austin Game Conference winding down, BioWare lead combat designer Damion Schubert held a session to address the common criticism that massively multiplayer online games are becoming homogenously World of Warcraft-like. Schubert didn't say whether he thought the trend was good or bad, so much as he tried to give good reasons why so many games are the way they are, from the basic concept of experience points to the swords-and-sorcery settings he called "men in tights."

Or as he asked in lingo-laden terms, "Why do we keep making grind-tastic, class-based, combat-oriented, men-in-tights-themed game-y games?'"

Choosing to go beyond the curt answer of "because it sells," Schubert went on to give his take on why massively multiplayer online games are the way they are, and why that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"I think that we as an industry are very myopic about what people really want, what they're actually looking for in terms of the innovation side of the industry."

As an example, Schubert cited the mobile phone industry of recent years, where extra PDA, camera, and other functionality wasn't so much what people wanted. He said they just wanted a small phone with a long battery life and a clamshell design that kept people from accidentally dialing out when they sat down.

One problem with the MMO market today, according to Schubert, is that too many people are focused on replicating the success of the industry's 800-pound gorilla, World of Warcraft.

"WOW is Coke," Schubert said, referring to the soda and not the highly addictive narcotic. "They are stomping everybody... Unless you have Pepsi money, you aren't going to be able to go head to head. You have to be Red Bull. You have to be Snapple. Although Coke bought Snapple, so bad example."

But innovation for innovation's sake isn't likely to work, either. Schubert says the key is to innovate smartly, choosing a handful of specific areas to key in on. He singled out a pair of points World of Warcraft lead designer Rob Pardo made in his Austin Game Conference keynote address. Specifically, Schubert praised the game's polish, saying it was "the first game in our genre that didn't release in an absolutely shameful state as far as connectivity, replayability, et cetera." He also emphasized that it flew in the face of industry convention by letting people reach the highest levels even if they chose to play through it entirely on their own.

"WOW comes along and says, 'Hey you know what? The problem with MMOs is sometimes your friends aren't [online] and everyone else is an idiot,'" Schubert noted.

From there, Schubert moved on to talk about the industry clichés that haven't seen much innovation and gave his reasons as to why the status quo has worked thus far. First and foremost, he talked about the combat-heavy focus of most MMO games.

"Combat presents an active problem," Schubert said, "a problem that you are solving pretty much in real time. You're given information, and you have to do something with that."

That makes combat something that players can do again and again, Schubert said, making for a different problem with every encounter as the player must assess the situation and make decisions as to how to handle the fight. It's also scalable, giving players increasing levels of complexity as they add a number of skills and abilities to their characters. It also works well for cooperative play, a real strength for multiplayer games of any sort, especially massively multiplayer ones.

Next Schubert addressed the abundance of class-based games. While not necessary for a successful MMO game, he said classes make a lot of sense for the developer. First and foremost, a class-based system makes the job of balancing the game easier.

"Your players are obsessed with fairness," Schubert said. "They are obsessed with both the perception and reality of fairness."

It's difficult enough making sure that each set of unique class abilities aren't overly powerful when combined and mixed. With World of Warcraft's handful of classes, Schubert said it would be relatively easy to add another class and balance it against the existing character types. Schubert said if a developer were to add a new skill to a system without class limits, the problem would not be easily solved.

"You basically have to compare a billion possible combinations to a billion other possible combinations," Schubert said. "Classes help keep that under control."

With combat and classes out of the way, Schubert turned to experience points and the concept of character levels.

"They work great," Schubert said of experience points. "[They] let players know where they are in the pecking order, both in PVP and PVE. It's really important for players to look at a monster and know whether or not they can kill it. The alternative is to run in and die."

As a game mechanic, experience points reward devotion over skill, Schubert said. That's particularly fitting for MMO games, as the current subscription-based business model requires devotion to make money. And as he said, the problem with skill is that "not a lot of players have it."

Almost as ubiquitous as experience points in the MMO genre is the fantasy setting: orcs, dragons, swords, sorcery, and the rest of the Tolkien-esque staples. Schubert gave a number of reasons for this, prefaced with his own experience in the genre.

"At Ubisoft, when we were talking about what MMO to put out after Shadbowbane, we talked about eight possible settings, and we came back to men in tights. Management was actually asking us to be sure of that."

Schubert started justifying the fantasy setting with the very quality that critics have bashed it: its inherent familiarity.

"The thing about fantasy games is that people know what they are almost universally," Schubert said.

He pointed to two Sid Meier games, Alpha Centauri and Civilization IV, as being a pair of similar games with wildly different settings. He asked the audience how many people played the sci-fi Alpha Centauri for 15 minutes and then longed to be playing a historical Civilization game instead.

"It's pretty much the same game mechanic, but we know what the wheel is," Schubert said. "We understand what the railroad is. We get that intuitively, whereas Alpha Centauri was trying to teach us all these terms in this fiction that they created."

He also mentioned the idea of double-coated media, a property that appeals to two different audiences. He referred to Bugs Bunny and Animaniacs as double-coated, enduring properties because they give kids wacky antics to laugh at but also throw in references and jokes that only adults would understand.

"Compare that to trying to watch Blues Clues with your kids," Schubert said. "It's very successful, but watching that if you're a parent is really like killing yourself slowly."

Schubert said that fantasy, despite the role-playing nerd stereotype, is a double-coated setting. As evidence, he pointed to the massive mainstream success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the abundance of unicorns, wizards, and other fantasy staples seen in the aisles of arts-and-craft stores like Michaels.

Fantasy is also suited to MMO games because it's ideally suited to the player's sense of progression. It can start players out against giant rats and move along to orcs, dragons, demons, and other nastier creatures.

"If you take away anything from this talk," Schubert emphasized, "have a vision, and deliver the promise of that vision. That is the most important thing for choosing a genre. That is the most important thing for choosing a gameplay trope."

He then turned to the issue of MMO games based on licenses and how they don't always work. Schubert said that EA considered turning Harry Potter into an MMO game, but wandering around killing giant rats wasn't really in keeping with the character, who is more of a sleuth than a soldier.

"If you want to make Harry Potter, you really need to figure out how to deliver the essence of Harry Potter," Schubert said, turning to a list of licenses that would be problematic for MMO games.

Both the film Stargate and its TV adaptation, which are already being turned into an MMO game, feature an archeologist main character who can't do anything in combat and gets captured a lot. Schubert said one of the developers on the game confided to him that one of the team's biggest challenges was to deliver a Stargate experience that feels like Stargate without that character.

He also brought up Highlander, which he said had massive appeal with mass market awareness.

"The problem with Highlander is perma-death," Schubert noted to laughs from the crowd. "You're talking about a franchise where the only rule that cannot be broken is, 'There can be only one.'"

He also looked forward to the upcoming Star Trek MMO game, because he wanted to see how the team would address a number of problems related to the source material, which features space explorers who shy away from fighting.

"Combat is a last resort," Schubert said of Star Trek. "There's a real sense that your crew has failed if they go into combat. How do you slap a grinding experience onto that? ... How do you do that multiplayer experience where one guy's supposed to be the captain and the others are the crew?"

Finally, he addressed the issue of people making MMO games as open-ended virtual worlds like Second Life or Eve Online instead of mere games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest.

"I've noticed that the game-versus-world debate was set up by the world guys to make themselves feel important," Schubert said, again drawing laughs. "Let's face it: Games are small and trivial. Worlds? That's something we can all strive for."

Schubert said he was on the game side of that debate, but offered some advice for those making worlds. World developers need to make the game experience easy on the new player, with clear and simple directions to help them find their own fun. He also emphasized that it was crucial to make open-ended worlds fair and balanced for all players.

He also said the runaway success of World of Warcraft--and its subsequent copycats--has greatly exaggerated reports of the virtual-world subgenre's demise, noting that virtual worlds Second Life, RuneScape, and Eve Online have all found success, while games like The Matrix Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online have met with much more limited success, relatively speaking.

"I'm not saying don't innovate," Schubert emphasized. "I'm really not... but I really want you guys to be sure that you're not over-innovating, that you're not going out of bounds. Be sure that your innovations are things that players want."

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