Essence of MMOs

Essence of MMOs

What follows is the original text from a 2003 directed study and later updated in 2006 to include Guild Wars and World of Warcraft examples (highlighted as such). For this study players of the MMORPG ‘EverQuest’ were polled for what they enjoyed and disliked about this game and other MMOs they had played. Note that the intended audience were communication and sociology professors back before ‘MMO’ and ‘MMORPG’ was a common term and video game genre.

Essence of MMOs

Introduction

This essay is designed to highlight and explain different aspects of Massive Multiplayer Online [Role-Playing] Games (MMORPGs or MMOGs). The genre is distinct in its massive scale, the size of worlds, and its addictive effects on the customer. This essay will focus on (1) what defines the genre, and (2) what aspects should be important. This will be accomplished by setting up the different aspects that a “perfect” MMOG would have. Those aspects will then be broken down and analyzed through principles found in sociology and social psychology. While a truly perfect MMOG is impossible to create, having an ideal type allows us to set goals for creating the best possible game.

I make the assumption that the reader has cursory knowledge of this genre, the history of the genre, and the different games there-in. The examples in this essay reference the most notable MMOGs of past and present, as well as some of the author’s favorites. These include Ultima Online (Origin/EA), Everquest (Sony Online Entertainment), Anarchy Online (Funcom), Dark Ages of Camelot (Mythic Entertainment/EA), Guild Wars (NCSoft), and Shadowbane (Wolfpack Studios) World of Warcraft (Blizzard). Game mechanics referenced are what the author saw when in the games. Some of these game mechanics might have changed since I last visited the worlds, and I wish to apologize for any current game mechanic misinformation.

Language

On the topic of language, I try to use the most common or dictionary definition of words/slang being used to describe objects in MMOGs.

  • Avatar refers to the digital representation of the player in the game;
  • Character is the avatar plus the skills, abilities, and traits, basically the holistic representation in the game;
  • Stats or statistics are the innate physical and mental characteristics of a character like strength, dexterity, and intelligence;
  • Skills are the acquired functional characteristics of the character, these can include things like melee weapons, pistols, divination;
  • Uber is something great and often beyond the reach of most players;
  • Twinked being the status of a character who has been given equipment or money beyond what they could feasibly gain on their own;
  • Guilds are player made organizations;
  • NPCs or Mobs are computer opponents, shopkeepers, guards, or any being in the game that is not controlled by a player;
  • Factions are different alignments players deal with;
  • Zones are defined areas within a game that require a player to load the graphics of that area when entering;
  • Gimped is the status of a character who is beyond being playable;
  • Class is a set of skills and abilities prepackaged for players to choose from, examples are cleric, rogue, and warrior;
  • PvP is “player verse player” a combat style where players fight against each other instead of NPCs. Giving these definitions is to ward off confusion, not to force all people to conform and to all use the same words.



Requirements

Some may argue that MMOGs are nothing more than chat rooms with visuals, but it is the societies created, the psychological effects, human adaptation, and its cognitive effects to those playing this style of game have far exceeded anything a mere chat room could be. How do we define a MMOG? Genre definitions are always murky since many games try to be innovative by merging two distinct genres for a new game. This is why the term “Massive Multiplayer Online Game” evolved from the original genre title of “Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game” (MMORPG). To help define exactly what an MMOG is, we often must look to what it is not. This gives us distinct ideas we want to exclude and once we take everything out that does not belong, we can organize everything left. Here is a good guideline to use for determining what is and is not a MMOG.

In a Massive Multiplayer Online Game the world must first be persistent. This means that at any time of the day a player should be able to log back into the same world they had previously been playing in. This first parameter is what separates internet games, like the online First Person Shooters (FPS) or online Role-Playing Games (RPG), from true MMOGs. The non-MMOGs use staging rooms or areas that the players use to find groups and prepare for adventuring. A great example of this is the game Guild Wars where players meet and conduct business in a city. However, when players decide to leave the city to hunt, each group is given their own specifically made zone that reset each time the player leaves. The “World” of Guild Wars, which a player sees beyond the cities, cannot be affected by others and can only be temporarily affected by the player. There is no permanence to the world, and thus breaks the requirement for MMO status.

The second requirement is that the same game world must be accessible to a massive audience. Currently that massive audience consists of about two to four thousand people, per server, online at any given time. While online FPSs are capable of allowing four thousand players to battle each other, their actual battles are limited to around 32 players. In theory, a MMOG should allow all participants of that server to be in the same area interacting with each other at anytime during the day. Although valiant efforts have been made, this remains a theory due to the fact that no server system seems to be strong enough to support three thousand people in the same area at the same time.

Another requirement for the MMOG genre is for the player to be able to advance their character. This advancement is important because it keeps the player coming back to the world. These incentives can include completing a task, accumulating wealth or rare items, reaching higher levels or to get to an “end-game” situation. Most games in this genre, following the role-playing style which means they have trade skills, rare items (commonly known as uber), or hard to explore areas as a tempting prize for a pseudo “end-game” situation. Skill and level systems are also used for giving players small successes on that road towards the “ending.” These advancements should be semi-permanent so that the player can see progress from playing session to session, and it in turn adds another realistic attribute to the game. It is ill advised to use a skill and level system as a requirement for the MMOG genre, because future adaptations of this genre may make levels and/or skills obsolete.

Along with Advancement, the opposite is also a requirement: penalties. The main reason to have penalties is to keep players from become instantly, or almost instantly, extremely powerful. Restrictions and setbacks should be used to keep players working hard so that the player’s goals are worth obtaining. Often MMOGs will use a death penalty to subtract gains the player has made. For a death penalty, the player will be forced to complete a task or gain extra experience before normal advancement can proceed. Penalty systems can vary widely in their implementation and use. Care needs to be taken with penalty systems because the players will always be against them. However, not having them will cheapen the game to a point where no one would bother playing it for any length of time.

The final requirement for an MMOG is the lack of an ending to the game. In generally, most games have a set ending where after the final level is done, or the final boss is killed, the game is over and the player has won. With MMOGs, there should still be things to do after the player has completed every quest, mastered every skill, played as every class, and has been to every place. The true MMOG does this by allowing the player to engage with other players either through PvP or social settings (weddings, guilds, or social events). This includes events made by the customer service department to give a sense of randomness to the world. Games in the genre attempts to construct a simulated reality that establishes “real-life” goals, while not giving a permanent ending. This can be seen to its greatest extent in the game Second Life by Linden Lab. In this game there are no quests, monsters, fighting, death or other of the standard MMOG or RPG concepts; the game is a pure social world.



Aspects of a “perfect” MMOG

To begin to analyze what would make a MMOG a success we postulate what a perfect MMOG would include. Each of these points can then be further broken down to different methods found in some of the different MMOGs. The importance of many of these aspects can be debated, and is in the following section. They are written in no particular order.

  1. Player vs Player combat (in any form) can be viewed as the ultimate challenge for players. PvP gives an unexpected element to any video game; the fight-or-flight biological mechanism is invoked giving an adrenaline rush.
  2. Death of the player’s avatar must be reasonable. There will always be lag, unexpected disconnections, etc, so to think that one will be able to survive to upper levels without death is faulty. Designers need to plan for this and the outcome of death needs to be explainable and reasonable so that players can recover from it with little stress.
  3. Foundations for community must be present, and community involvement must be emphasized. The nature of humanity is to interact with fellow humans; we are a social species. Whether or not a community ought to exist, players will find ways to create one. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the game to have building blocks for these communities accessible to players. This is one reason why guilds are so popular.
  4. Certain general aspects of the game must be difficult. Nobody likes the hassle of traveling or leveling but if they were easy, they would not be worth anything.
  5. Capability to diversify avatars is extremely important. Players have a tendency to want to be different, to stand out.
  6. Diversity amongst avatars must allow equal opportunities. There should not be one “best path” of existence. If there were, there would be no point in players taking any other path, reducing the diversity of the society and hence lessening the satisfaction of the game. There would be no thrill in trying something new, because it would be inferior.
  7. There must be several methods of achievement/advancement. Accomplishment is different things to different people and MMOGs should accommodate this.
  8. There should be a system in the game that allows the player to reverse decisions of character development. This does not have to include major decisions, but players should have some freedom to make mistakes without permanently “gimping” their character.
  9. Some activities in the game must allow players to focus on non-advancement fun. MMOGs should not just be a race to the “end-game” or highest levels. They must be miniature worlds in which people can choose to do anything or nothing if they please. This also includes "fun" things in the game, things that serve no purpose but to play with or laugh at.
  10. Customer Service must always be seen as a non-partisan arbiter. The moment CS takes sides or shows favoritism players loose faith in them. If the players are skeptical of the CS's decisions they will ruin the reputation of the game and its maker.
  11. Cheating must not be allowed or tolerated in any way, shape or form. If one person has an outside advantage they ruin the game for others who do not have that advantage.



Aspects in detail

Questions about the validity of these points are guaranteed to be raised so I have prepared a point-by-point explanation that should provide ample justification of these claims.


Player vs. Player

In almost every MMOG the main activity is combat; this follows from the action and RPG backgrounds MMOGs evolved from. Generally, combat is directed towards non-player characters (NPC), often referred to as Mobs (moveable objects). These NPCs commonly have greater health-points, armor class, attack rating, and/or a unique ability than the players. This is done because there is no mind behind the computer controlled mob to attempt to outwit the player. In contrast to this, many MMOGs offer player vs. player fighting. Since, in this setting, no amount or quality of artificial intelligence has thus far outwitted a real human, playing against another human gives a greater challenge and is generally more fun. Knowing that you can be ambushed at any moment keeps the mind alert and active; fighting another player gives the challenge of not knowing what will happen next. These factors raise the player’s adrenaline level by activating the fight-or-flight instinct. In a “perfect” MMOG player vs. player could also be done on a large scale; where huge armies fight one-another.

A great way to implement this is through land disputes and realms. Anarchy Online first tried faction based player vs. player, however it did not fully emphasize faction team work. They later came out with tower battles (fighting over/with, important faction structures), which did help promote large group PvP to a degree, but the system seemed to be needlessly complex with periodic changes in PvP rules. Dark Age of Camelot was next to try, and for the most part, it succeeded. The only thing it was lacking was not having PvP in all of the game, instead restricting it to certain zones/areas. While not necessarily bad, it prevents a true sense of danger when a player can level free from the dangers of PvP. World of Warcraft came on the scene with faction based PvP that seemed to have learned from the industry’s past. In their system, most zones are opened to PvP with conditional PvP in zones made for lower level players. In these “newbie zones” a member of that zone’s faction cannot be attacked by the opposing faction unless that player attacks first. It is almost a hybrid of Ultima Online’s and Anarchy Online’s systems. When they found that large scale griefing (the act of maliciously killing weaker players over and over again) occurred in popular hunting zones, Blizzard made specific battle grounds with their own unique rules and population caps; rules like “Capture the flag” and “King of the Hill.” I do not count Everquest’s player vs. player servers (Tallon/Vallon Zek) as true realm/team fighting because the game was still setup for non-PvP and would need major changes to balance the classes there.

With Player vs. Player the idea of equality is extremely importance, this is covered more on the section of equality amongst diversity.


Death

The threat of death should be behind almost every combat scenario. If there was no risk of death there would be no entertainment found in the combat of these games. Players expect to be penalized if they take a risk and fail, even if that expectation is subconscious. How the MMOG deals with death is extremely important to its success: does the game turn you into a ghost and put you on an alter plane, does it respawn you somewhere with or without your items, or is death permanent and the avatars that die are gone?

This last feature is highly debated; can a game be successful with permanent death? The answer is somewhat complex. An MMOG with permanent death gives more realism but also more frustration, stemming from losing everything one has gained while that the character was “alive”. Needless deaths (lag while fighting, etc.) can also create animosity toward the game and its makers. One way around this are different degrees of death: unconscious (“mostly dead”) and truly dead. At the unconscious phase a player would receive the death effects/penalties (including how much time that must elapse before the character can awake) and would be considered fully dead to the NPC. This pre-death would resolve lag issues that can cause death because NPCs will be incapable of “finishing you off.” If the player wishes to risk his life, they can choose to get up early from this pre-death with some extra attack/fight capabilities. The disadvantage to forcing early consciousness is that the next death, within a given time period, would be permanent. In this system the winner of a PvP battle can choose to “finish off” the unconscious character, thus earning him/her a murderer or PK “flag,” which might have negative effects associated with it; the losing character would be permanently dead. The positives of this system are that it incorporates both semi and permanent deaths, PKing, issues of lag/bad connections. One of the major downsides of this system is that the pre-dead player is stuck where they fell which may be under the feet of an NPC that won’t wonder off. The player then cannot get up unless something makes the NPC move, which adds the needless frustration of pointless waiting. Another idea put forth by those for permanent death is the idea that the equipment of the deceased character is not fully lost. The equipment (or selected equipment) is given to the next character made as a sort of inheritance. This, however, is not without its disadvantages due to the major setback of re-leveling.

While the permanent death idea is plausible, death can be done in better ways than completely dead or respawning somewhere and having to go fetch one’s own body. A novel concept to death was used by Ultima Online. Their system is to turn the player’s avatar into a ghost who views the world void of color. The ghost avatar is unable to speak to other players and could only be seen for a limited amount of time. They are unable to interact with objects and the longer one stays a ghost the weaker they become (skills drop over time). To “cure” death the player has to find someone capable of resurrection; the ghost would then come back to life. Similar to this system, the player’s avatar could be taken to an “alter realm” of the dead. This place of several zones, which would have no fighting, acts as a “heaven” or limbo where dead players waited until their corpse is resurrected; if the MMOG uses a religion system their god can be in these zones as well. The corpses can be sent to zone graveyards where (in lower level zones) a healing NPC would resurrect the avatar and the ghost would be placed back into the body, with some residual death effects. These zone graveyards would not allow PvP combat. Players flagged as PKs (player killers) are susceptible to penalties such as NPC healers refusing to resurrect them. This keeps with the sense of reality by allowing the players to experience a “life after death” and having only one current body. It explains respawning and the ability to die multiple times.

I give these two death scenarios to encourage future MMOG makers to find unique and fun ways of dealing with death.


Formation of Community

One of the greatest draws of the MMOG genre is the idea that you and friends can all play in the same place at the same time and interact with each other, and strangers, in many different situations: guilds, nations, groups for combat, realms, etc. In a perfect or great MMOG there must be some factor to bring and hold these communities together beyond the physical systems used for categorizing player groups (like guilds).

This brings into focus the need for marginal types, a greater antagonist, and sources of pride. Marginal types, or people pushed into deviance, unite common players under a set of social morals. This is seen, as in Ultima Online, as player killer verse guild conflicts in which the guilds promote themselves as being player killer killers and/or guilds that disassociate themselves from anyone who is less than “honorable.” The greater antagonist is something that all players unite against or pride themselves as having no part of. In Everquest, and in most games since, there was always that “Uber” guild that did nothing but try to get the coolest “stuff” at the expense of any social fun. Those in the guild were publicly ostracized as ruining the game for others or hording the end-game experiences; even though a great number of these “nay-sayers” were trying to get accepted into the uber guilds. Another target for player hatred is the game itself. Oddly players seem to enjoy condemning the very game they love to play. It is an anti-establishment, almost counter culture, outlet of frustration, but since the game is something every player feels it is a source for gaining community. Last, but not least, are symbols of pride that keep communities active; things people use to associate themselves with. A perfect example of these is seen in Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot where the places of residence (guild halls, castles, houses and captured forts) were pride focus points for a guild.

Community is surprisingly very easy to create. This stems from the fact that humans are social animals. All that appears to be needed to build community (within the game) is a barrier between groups of players and competition between those separate groups. This is often known as the “US vs. THEM” or “the grass is always greener...” concepts.


Difficult Elements

There are always systems in a game that players may feel are needlessly difficult, but some of these systems serve important functions and must remain challenging. The effort of this is to keep the integrity of the game, and not “cheapen” it. Far too often, a developer will yield to pressures on this issue; either because of player outcry or decision makers trying to sell more accounts. I cannot stress enough how important it is not to concede. In the long run it will help the game survive because those who have reached those upper levels, those who gain the rare items, and the communities made around cities will keep the existing players happy and give new players goals to reach. Examples of these elements are leveling, traveling, and gaining high-end/“uber” equipment. While there are many more, I choose to focus on these three as the largest ones.

It is true that when leveling is too difficult players get deterred from the game. However, if a player could level to the top bracket within a very short period then there would be no point in having levels at all. One solution used was to have an exponential slope to gradually make leveling harder, but this can lead to the problem of monotonous leveling or “grinding”. If a system were created to allow several paths of advancement, or even different routes along the same advancement path, the problem of “camping” would be reduced. “Camping” is sitting in the same place for hours on end just to kill the same monsters over and over for experience or loot. Methods that promote players grouping together in order to level seem to help alleviate the tedium of leveling. This is due to the social interaction that is present in such groups. Another way is to gain experience or levels in PvP since there is more interaction and less change of monotonous routines.

With traveling, games that allow players to instantly move from one part of the world to another lose their city communities and culture. Two good examples of this problem are Ultima Online and Everquest. In Ultima Online several spells allowed players to instantly teleport from city to city. There were even Moongates put in by Origin to promote the instant city to city travel. In Everquest both the wizard and druid classes had teleportation spells that sent their groups all over the world. Later, in the expansion Planes of Power, the “Alter Plane of Knowledge” allowed players to traverse from city to city with only three zonings. In both cases, it is not hard to reach to the other side of the world instantly, taking away sense of city community. Cities get reduced to mere restocking station. Vast and beautiful landscapes are wasted and the sense of nationality is weakened because players can simply teleport to and from.

There will always be a struggle between balancing the game and making new equipment for players to obtain. Players naturally want the next best thing, because of this there should be items that are rare and difficult to acquire. This drives the economy, and motivates players. Unfortunately this causes strife between those who possess enough resources to get the items and those who do not. It also results in price gouging, and forces the designers to keep producing better equipment, thus unbalancing the game. Conflict between those with and those without is not entirely negative because it often gives those without something to strive for. Price Gouging can be solved if rare equipment is rare not because of the stats it gives, but because of its aesthetic value. To help alleviate unbalancing the game due to the addition of better and better equipment, Anarchy Online (followed by several other games), put minimal levels on items to prevent “twinking”. Everquest took this further by putting level caps on several dungeons and dragons to keep higher level players from hunting there and easily killing those sought after NPCs. This strategy keeps low-level unique items rare for the intended lower level players and keeps newer items (designed for high level players) away from “twinks”.

The effort of all this is to keep the integrity of the game, and not “cheapen” it. Far too often though, a developer will cave in on these types of issues; either because of player outcry or decision makers trying to sell more accounts. The author cannot stress enough how important it is not to give in on these issues. In the long run it will help the game survive because those who have reached those upper levels, those who gain those rare items, and the communities made around towns/cities will keep the existing players happy and give new players goals to reach; and when existing players are happy they get others to play.


Diversifying Avatars

Most players like to make their avatars noticeably distinct from others. Distinctiveness can manifest as anything; from having different colored armor to choosing unusual skill combinations. Games in this genre must allow for diversity in some way, shape, or form. The more diverse a player’s avatar and character can be, the better. Most MMOGs try to accommodate this by having face or aesthetic options during character creation. While this is not bad, once equipment and armor are donned the avatar’s facial features are masked, rendering this character distinction almost useless. Several games made different colored armor and robes, which is fine until the most common, powerful, and standardized armors and colors outweigh the benefits of having a uniquely colored armor. An example of this is in World of Warcraft where the best armor for each class has a static look. Any mage with this uber class armor ends up looking like every other high-end mage. Routinely the choice for the player comes down to looking unique and being gimped, or being unoriginal and more powerful. They should not have to choose, the player ought to be able to be both unique and expressive.


Equal Opportunity

Diversifying is not just a problem with equipment; a character’s skill faces the same problem. Ideally any combination of skills, stats, and equipment would allow the character to have a plausible/useable niche in the world. The reality is that people with less-than-best equipment, or whose skills are not set up just right, are often overlooked for those that are twinked or uber. Often this causes stress and animosity towards the game.

In Everquest, this aspect was highlighted when players realized that to complete different dungeons, or to accomplish any advancement, a group had to always have specific classes: cleric, enchanter, and warrior. No other class could do the assigned jobs as well as those three so no substitutions were allowed. Groups without all three would wait hours, without having any fun, for these classes to join and all three to be represented. Contrast that with Dark Age of Camelot where each faction has these “must have” classes represented in several varieties and with Ultima Online where characters are not classified in classes and players can pick different skills suit what role they want to play; so there is no “must have” classes. A word of caution with having a skill and not class based system. Players will try to find a perfect skill combination and if the game is not balanced right several skills will become unusable, thus creating a “cookie cutter model” and cheapening the game experience. If the classes, or skill combinations, are not equally balanced players are drawn towards the one strongest class or skill combination. This will eventually make the game very frustrating for creative players and they will stop playing.

The balancing of skills and classes deserves a lot of attention both before and after the game’s release. Unfortunately every MMOG has faltered in this, to some extend. With more practice and “trial-and-error” future MMOGs will get closer and closer to a beautifully balanced system.


Character Advancement

Not everybody is combat driven and fighting monsters can become boring. Something must allow the player to advance their character without, or with minimal, fighting. Such methods have taken the form of trade skills, quests and PvP. This author includes PvP because it is different each time one engages in it. The idea is to let people do what they are in the mood for while still allowing them to progress forward

Advancement from trade skills and quests does not have to be the same type of advancement that normal combat would give, but if it does it needs to be balanced for its risk vs. reward. For example, working a trade skill might give less experience points to the player (per each item they make) since there are fewer risks to working a trade skill. Also trade skills might cost a lot to engage in if the products made are not sold to players. An argument against having different methods of progress, feeding into the same type of advancement, is the idea that if a person can advance to higher levels without battling the MMOG loses its risk. Players could get to the same status just as easily as someone who has fought and died during their game career – instead they took the proverbial “easy street.” To counter this, MMOGs could have a different end-game status – maybe a special title for experts in the art of war and one for people who have made their fortune in trades. This is something Ultima Online has done very well. In Ultima Online, the player can control all the means of production (from mining the materials, to selling a finished product) and they gain merchant, smithing, tailoring, fishing, etc. titles based upon the skill of their craft.

As for questing, an entire game full of dynamic quests is impossible so static quests have become implemented for everything but company run events. Although static quests are not completely without merit, they do present a problem. If one can repeat the same quest over and over, and the NPC acts surprised each time the quest is finished, questing becomes boring. Everquest made a good system with the addition of “flags” to the character in their Planes of Power expansion. These flags (often binary) would signal the NPC to whether or not the player allowed to be given their quest. A system like this (or one more intricate) would allow quests to be done once, have a progression or storyline, and maybe even show a pseudo-dynamic environment where the NPCs change their reaction to a player based on the flags the player possesses. Having millions of flags (and thousands of different faction levels) to create a fully dynamic system would take a huge amount of resources and would have to be server side, but it is a viable direction for MMOGs to take.


Player Mistakes

MMOGs and its predecessor, the RPG, are based upon progression of the character’s skills, stats, and abilities during game play. In RPGs one can load a previously saved game if they made a mistake in resource allocation. Resources can be anything from skill points (like in Anarchy Online, Dark Ages of Camelot, and World of Warcraft), to time with progressive “learning” (found within Ultima Online and Everquest). In MMOGs there must be a way for players to reverse their mistakes when developing their character. Some illustrations of this concept implemented are: Anarchy Online which uses reset points, a character gains when he attains certain levels. With these the player can put the skill back to zero. Dark Ages of Camelot lets skill trainers reset different skills using “respect points.” In this game characters get a total wipe to use once in the character’s life, a single skill respec at 20 and one at 40, and the player can purchase more in the game. Ultima Online allows players to toggle their skills to “decrease only”, meaning a player will stop gaining skill points and, over time, the skill will decrease from disuse.

One argument against allowing players to redo their skills is the possible that a player will change their invested skills every day, depending on their current situation. For instance, if the player decides they want to go on a raid that evening, they might switch to a skill set more specialized for that task. Then after the raid, the player would switch the characters skills back to a PvP build. The scarcity of reset points (in games that use point distribution systems) seems to balance this issue.


Non-Advancement Activities

Video games are made for the player’s entertainment; they ought to be fun. Unfortunately players have the desire to “win” or get to the end of the game – so much so that they sometimes complain that different spells, items, or places are a waste because they do not help in leveling. These items, spells and places are needed as they promote community and a sense of completeness to the world. These items can be trivial things like the chessboards and books in Ultima Online. They can give background and lore to the game, like the “useless” quests and dialogs of NPCs in Everquest. They add aspects of role-playing and can act as stress relievers, like the clubs in Anarchy Online. Sometimes they are just silly and show case the developer’s sense of humor like the talking leets in Anarchy Online, the loading bar with non-sequitur sayings on it found in Everquest, and all those rare silly items found in Ultima Online. When a developer stops putting in these seemingly pointless things the game risks loses its identity and style, and becomes monotones. All MMOGs should add more and promote them to the community (promote as in put events or stories around them). Throw out hints, books, scrolls, signs, markers, notes, and tidbits of information about everything that gave that world its unique character. These things do not help a player gain another level, but they help spark conversations and interest in the different aspects of the game.

Fun spells often take the most flak for being “useless.” This is most likely because, unlike items, spells should have gone through class balancing; which translates into the idea that every spell has a purpose in keeping that class on par with all the others. Yet, fun spells do not need to be “class balanced” for their usefulness. A perfect example of this are the illusion spells in Everquest that did not fool any monster and barely added fighting capabilities; players complained that these spells did nothing and should be replaced for something helpful. At the time players did not notice that these spells were filling a vital role in alleviating the combat and goal driven atmosphere. There were there to be fun!


Customer Service

Customer service representatives are, in essence, arbiters – people that solve major problems among players without bias. They need to be objective, procedure oriented, and fair (like peer mediators). If players perceive that customer service is less than perfect they begin to spread the idea that the system is unethical. Mistrust of the system can become a problem when players are allowed to volunteer as customer service representatives and some “bad eggs” slip through the application process. However, those that have been volunteer customer service reps. are often the biggest supporters of the game’s Customer Service (CS) department. This is why volunteer customer service would be a very plausible system in the “perfect” MMOG. To counter the bad CS reps., anti-favoritism policies should be in effect and strictly enforced. Nothing should be allowed to tarnish the image of the CS department.

In a perfect game the customer service is not only a problem-solving department, but seen as an accessible part of the game’s community (a “shoulder to cry on”). Ultima Online utilized this with a CS building in each of the major cities. This was where players could find the counselors to chat or get a problem solved. These little things really do make a difference in how the players see the customer service department. Along those lines, scripted answers – the “canned” answers – are a huge annoyance to players even if they seem like a small issue to the CS department. It makes the players feel insignificant.

While speaking about customer service, it is important to include the public and community relation departments. It is this author’s opinion that all customer oriented departments should be working together. The public relation department gives information to the customers; how that information is packaged and how the PR department treats customers does have weight with the players. In Everquest the PR representative "Absor” was depicted (in such comics as GUcomics.com) as a puppet or voice box for the company, not as a liaison. The PR department needs to be seen as the voice of the players inside the company. This was once used on the Everquest website. There was an “Arch Mage” persona that spoke frankly and honestly about things people asked him. He was later taken off the site because he contradicted several things the company put out as fact and his frankness was a threat.

In terms of crisis (dealing with crisis is a part of the PR department); the company behind the games needs to be as open and honest to the players as possible. If they are going to ask a fan website to shut down, or deal with a personal player incident (due to the addictiveness of MMOGs this is starting to become a common occurrence), the company should release as much policy information as possible, be forthcoming to the player community by answering questions in a friendly and timely fashion. The more closed, stubborn, “our way only” the company is seen the less players respect the company and its games.

As a side note, due to the customer service being seen as a complaint department the author recommends the CS personnel being trained in how to handle emotionally distraught and unstable individuals. Also some fun in-house stress relief for customer service employees always benefits the CS department; so the employees can let off steam and anxiety built up from work. i.e. a video game consoled in the break room, some comfortable chairs, and maybe even free doughnuts.


Cheating

Exploiting and cheating in any form should not be allowed. Rampant cheating is absolutely the worse thing that could happen to a game. Debate comes from the question: should players who exploit (even unknowingly) be punished? Exploiting is the use of a bug in the game’s mechanics that allows the players to gain an unfair advantage. Those against punishment for exploitation state that the game is bugged, the developer’s fault, and that if players have the ability to do something in the game they see it as a legitimate route. Those in favor of punishing for exploiting give the argument that the player should be intelligent enough to know if something is bugged or not, and should have the respect to not exploit such bugs. Both sides have their drawbacks. One promotes finding and using unfair bugs, thus making complaints when something is “nerfed”. The other promotes players to complain about unfair punishments when they did not “know” something was bugged. The lesser of two evils seems to be some type of reward system for finding bugs, and having a rather small punishment for bug exploitation. In truth this problem is too hard for this essay to attempt to solve completely, in a perfect MMOG there would be no bugs to exploit.

Another way cheating can occur is when a cheater uses an extra program to give him an unfair advantage in the game. These “third party programs” range from helping a player macro (doing things in the game without the player physically pressing the keys each time) to allowing the player to see the placement of all NPCs around him (if the game does not intend for this) or worse. It is up to the game developers to decide which third party programs are illegal; some extra programs might be benign and help the game. If these programs are tolerated by the developers they need to be given an official sanction and have set visable policy for what. Pretending they do not exist or not fully addressing the issue of their legality only creates player confusion. Most of all a developer should not condemn all third party programs then allow a few benign ones to still exist; this sends the wrong message to players.

Either type of cheating should actively be searched for and stopped. This can be left to a small group in the quality assurance or a group in the customer service department, or be a separate department all together (which might also include bug hunting). A separate department to deal with cheating and player punishment might also be suited for handling CS favoritism issues and/or EULA (end user legal agreement) problems (i.e. E-baying).



Summation

After reading this essay some might disagree with the opinions stated here. However these concepts hold valid truths and should not be dismissed because of disagreement over semantics or syntax. It is the hope of the author that this essay sparks discussion and arguments over what the genre has to offer and needs, and in the end helps to progress the games forward for both the players and the designers.

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Christopher Axthelm

Creator of Mad Hatter Worlds games. Facinated with logic, world building, and software systems.

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