Hoo boy, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it? The answer won’t deal with rules systems (tab-targeting vs. action combat, PvP vs. PvE, pay-to-play vs. free-to-play, themepark vs. sandbox – sort of) but with the deeper needs of MMO players, and, in fact, any gamers.
The spice of life
The short answer, I think, is variety. Put simply, we don’t like doing the same, repetitive thing, over and over and over again. We do it, in the form of dungeons and raids, because it’s what’s given to us, but the biggest moment of joy is when there’s a new patch or update with new content. Yay! New dungeons! For us to do… over and over and over until the next patch! And then…
That’s the general PvE cycle, which many, notably Scott Hartsman, have said is “broken,” in that game developers can’t keep up with the demand for new content. PvP does a better job of keeping things fresh and interesting, since, unlike with a PvE raid boss, you’ll never know exactly who you’re up against, what tactics they’ll use, and so on. That’s why I’d say PvP games like Team Fortress 2 and League of Legends have done as well as they have for as long as they have, despite very minimal changes, and why MMOs with PvE and PvP elements tend to have more PvE and update it much more frequently than they do PvP.
But what if you don’t like PvP? What if you want to have a (mostly) PvE game but with “renewable” content? Enter the voxel. In a game like Minecraft, you can’t ever really run out of things to do; there’s always something new to build. I think this is the primary reason why Minecraft has succeeded – it gives non-PvP players something new to do all the time, without requiring any actual additional content generation by a team of developers.
Maybe that’s the formula for creating a perfectly “renewable” PvE game, one that gives players plenty to do but doesn’t put enormous stress on the dev team. Toss in the fact that it’s easy to pick up and can be played by anyone (sorry EVE Online and other hardcore, player-driven sandboxes), and you’ve got all the hallmarks of something that could be huge.
There’s always going to be something new to do in a “building” game like Minecraft, Trove, or EverQuest Next. There’s always something you haven’t built, or, if you’re in a sightseeing mood, something you haven’t seen. Sure, you might get tired of it from time to time, but it’s not likely to be because the devs aren’t putting out new material fast enough or because you’re rocketing through content. And this doesn’t even get into the fact that such worlds are typically procedurally generated, in some form, thus allowing the actual computer-generated regions to be as varied as the man-made structures.
This isn’t to say that these types of games don’t have their pitfalls (and I don’t just mean the ones created when a creeper explodes). The underlying mechanics have to be rock-solid, probably even more so than in “traditional” games, because so much of their gameplay is irrevocably linked to it. And some people don’t care for building and general creativity and would rather just frag stuff. I tend to fall into that second category; I never got heavily into Minecraft, and while I like what EQN Landmark seems to offer, I wonder how patient I’ll be with it. The actual MMO elements will need to be strong to keep me interested in the long term.
That makes me a bit of an exception, perhaps; Minecraft has obviously done just fine without my heavy patronage. But would there be a way to make a game like this what didn’t have construction at its core? Could there be a game that espouses these qualities:
- Mostly infinite, self-regenerating content
- “Semi-friendly” gameplay; some competition, but more emphasis on cooperation
- Emphasis on MMO elements such as classes, combat, progression, story, etc.
Those, I think, are the three key elements to making a long-lasting, big-time, modern MMO. The first keeps players playing, the second draws in a mass market, and the third satisfies most gamers’ need for action, as well as being a nod toward familiar, traditional RPG gameplay. The “building” aspect of voxel-based games is a way to implement the first point (sometimes at the expense of the third), but is it the only one?
What about an infinite “territory control” game, like PlanetSide 2 or Guild Wars 2‘s WvW, but with a more PvE, cooperative bent, sort of like a massive, open-world, Left 4 Dead? Savage monsters swarm over your cities, threatening to engulf all your lands unless valiant heroes band together to push them back. Even with a full server, there aren’t enough people to counter the baddies everywhere, so every group movement is a tactical decision between what place is saved and what falls – for now.
That last part would be an important balance issue. Players are simply better than NPCs, so the game would have to throw more at you than you could realistically handle to ensure that players don’t just dominate the map at all times. There would also need to be enough variety in where the monsters spawn from and from what direction they attack so that the game doesn’t just become a basic rotation of “Clear city A, clear city B, clear city C, rinse, repeat.”
One way to address this might be to let the monsters think like players. And what do players want? The most possible gain for the least possible risk. That’s not just greedy/lazy gamers, either. Actual warriors in real wars have the same ideals. If a juicy target is well-defended, generals might direct their troops elsewhere – unless the target is so valuable or important that it justifies the risk.
Enemy forces could determine their spawn point and destination based on the value of a target, its distance from the spawn, and the number of defenses (fortifications, players, and friendly NPCs) in the area. You’d ideally still want a number of spawn points, to keep variety high, but monsters would tend to avoid large spawn-camping groups in favor of more lightly defended areas. The “value” of a village, town, or camp could be a number that starts at one and goes up a fixed amount every unit of time (say, five minutes), and is reset when the place is trashed by the invaders. The higher the aggregate value of all locations, the more loot/XP players receive serverwide.
Again, this sounds a little like what EverQuest Next is planning to do, but I don’t think it requires such AI gymnastics as to be that difficult to implement by any dev team. It would just require developers to isolate what the points are that make a long-lasting game and commit to them in design. Maybe my three points above aren’t the answer, but I’m pretty sure “more kill 10 rats quests and gear-grind dungeons” aren’t either.