Conventions

Sorry - not that kind of convention!

One of the best blog articles I have read recently was at Elder Gamer regarding genre conventions in our beloved MMO’s. It hits on a lot of interesting and valid points, and is a great read. I find it interesting that a lot of the ‘outside of the box’ MMO design discussions (from the armchair folk) tend to look for solutions to twist those around, and try new things. It’s true that we are trained as gamers to expect certain things, and when they deliver on those expectations the moans from the crowd are ‘oh, just like that game’. But we play on. When we throw out interesting and possible ideas that go against those expectations – but make sense to us – it’s likely a non-fundable industry idea. We went from WoW, to games that want to be like WoW (but different!), to games that want to be like games that aren’t quite as successful as WoW because copying WoW has failed. In most industries change is enacted by a need in the market. You get the outliers who work to make that change on their own to position their product or service in a better market position, but those are few and far between. If oil prices and the education about the environment weren’t so front and center in our everyday lives, then we would all still be driving gas guzzling cars – and why not? If it’s the most inexpensive way to create the product, and socially acceptable, that is what we are going to get. Now car companies are struggling to catch up on making fuel efficiency and alternate fueling methods the forefront of their companies – because people actually want them now (and governments are forcing them to). It’s all demand – on different fronts.

The fun part with Elder Gamer’s example, that in AC2 they didn’t want an ammo slot for arrows and how it didn’t work for them then – is that WoW is moving that way now. Goes to show how long, and what it actually takes to, make such a seemingly minor design decision. Imagine the timeline on the bigger ideas.

Where am I going with this? Cutting my lawn! (after the break)

This is not an analogy but an introduction to my thinking arena. I have a big lawn. I should probably have a riding lawnmower. I balanced out the need and cost of that riding lawnmower with how many trees I have in my yard. I would have to drag out a smaller mower anyway to get the grass around all the trees so instead I decided I’ll push my mower around my lawn. Takes 2.5 hours to cut my lawn. That is my free thinking time. I tend to obsess over my work (kind of expected of me, I suppose) but during that 2.5 hours I don’t think about work, or what I have to do that day, I think about everything except work – fishing, social plans, and yes, gaming. I design games in my head – not thinking of how to get it funded (because I’ll never make that game) but ideas that I find that could be fun and interesting, all tech and funding limitations aside. Over the summer I thought through a MMO design in a favorite genre of mine (Zombies) with a couple twists.

1) You don’t have a persistent character

2) The game ends

Those go against 2 prime genre conventions, but could they work?

The basis for the game is a sandbox city with a zombie infestation that you would have to survive. The city has a limited number of citizens, of which x amount were zombified, and y amount were immune. When you log in, you take control of one of the survivors and try to keep them alive. Pretty simple pretense. If you die, you don’t come back to life, but move onto controlling  the actions of a separate survivor. Once all survivors are dead the game ends. If all the zombies are killed off, the game ends. You can win or lose, and your actions are a direct part of that.

Of course, you can boot up the world again afterwards and start a fresh new city. Goal would be to have enough survivors and zombies to have it last a year, so there is still persistence and you can log in and out at your whim. Your character may still be alive (or not) when you log back in as they are not removed from the world. Sounds like tons of fun, right?

After that initial high level overview, I began to start thinking of how to shoehorn MMO conventions into it. Your character in an MMO is a pretty big reason why people return. Some sort of ‘reward’ would have to be given for playing well, and for a long term player you want the option to ‘improve’ in game. So the simple design angle here that while you get a choice of picking one of five in world people to play as each load, each have their own skills. You may play a cop in one play through, or a scientist in another. Depending on how long you survive you can actually learn their specialties – small firearms for cops, research and development for the scientist. The person behind the keyboard always has those. After your poor cop is torn apart by the Z’s (the catchy nickname survivors use for their enemies), and your scientist becomes lunch, your next character you have the option of building out a skill set based on what skills you have mastered from prior ex-survivors. You may load up a shop keeper with the small firearms skill. This customization makes for some neat gameplay options. The teenager you chose to play as may have parcour as a skill, and you can add research and development. Whiz kids do exist! While the player doesn’t control the same avatar who magically disappears from the dangerous world at the end of a play session, the person behind the avatar still advances in different ways which opens up different gameplay options for them in future play.

While that is a very simple overview of it all, basically the fundamental shift for the player (that they would have to accept) is no longer that they are investing in a single character but investing in a shared mission – survival of the human species. That is a big shift where players are counting on one another to do things for mutual benefit (something that is sadly absent from current MMO iteration on any larger scale then just ‘get guild, get loot’).

The sandbox-y nature is that players can build safe areas, need food and water to survive, and will play under the survival at all costs. I’d expect a group of players to get together and decide that the human race deserves to die and can try to disrupt movements of solidarity. Bullets and resources would be scarce. There would be key points in the game (randomized) that would require joint effort to complete. Let’s call them ‘Quests’. They would be focused on major city happenings. For example, the city may start with grids still having power, provided by the nuclear power plant. Of course it’s overheating and humans face the risk of losing power (light sources would be a big thing in the game) or worse – it exploding. People could participate if they chose to, but there would be major consequences to that power plant stopping working. It’s an option and you could have a lot of fun designing additional disasters in the world. Basically you would need an engineer to fix the plant, or shut it down (if it is going to explode), and a horde of people to get him there safely – under a time line.

I could go on and on about different parts of the imagined game and how to address areas that aren’t explained. It sounds like fun (to me) and I would bet to a lot of other gamers too. The point of sharing those thoughts wasn’t to build out a design document (which is why it is written so laissez-faire) but to share that even when imagining a game concept I started to think on how to fit common MMO conventions into it so players would feel comfortable.

Games like Minecraft (non MMO, of course) remind us now and again that game doesn’t have to fit the mold to be profitable or fun – but those success stories are a low percentage of what we get. My last 10 games bought, 9 were from major studios (the one being Minecraft).

Are genre conventions good for gaming – because they provide a common comfort ground for gamers to accept the title – or just another hurdle for seeing some really innovative and fun things enter into our gaming experiences?

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