Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Give up the reins

Sorry for the late blog today. I'm still getting situated after moving out of my apartment.

Today, I just want to expand on something I said over at Cuppy's. It basically goes back to the design element I always talk about: dynamics.

The point of including dynamics is often to provide surprises and a sense of discovery to the gameplay.

That's not always the case. Some dynamics aren't about surprise. The field choice in a football or soccer game (home field or the opponent's field) affects the gameplay, but nobody arrives at the field shocked at what they're walking into. In this case, the setting dynamic is mainly intended to alternate certain advantages between teams.

But dynamics are often included to deter predictability and enable discovery. In old boardgames like Monopoly and Sorry, even in PnP games like Dungeons & Dragons, the primary factor in success or failure was the roll of the dice. The player has at least a vague sense of the odds and exercises some control of his or her experience through other actions, but chance/luck is pivotal to gameplay -- and that's at the very heart of what makes such games appealing.

In Mario Kart, much of the fun was in not knowing what weapon would be awarded for crossing a weapon tile (meaningfully designated by a big question-mark). Where a player could find a weapon tile that hadn't yet been used was also generally luck. In Diablo 2, another title with blockbuster sales, loot was acquired from heavily-randomized loot tables, special "named" or "hero" enemies spawned randomly, and levels were rearranged for each replay to encourage some wandering.

Dynamics for discovery/surprise don't have to be so random as that game's, but a larger pool of potentials generally equals a stronger sense of surprise.

I've always known that any MMO design of mine would generally take a radical step away from the predictability of current MMOs.

Rewarding effort
Current MMOs are primarily concerned with rewarding effort: "Here's the goal. Here's the path. Here's your playbook. Now, go do it!"

This model is essentially linear. It generally promotes active performance but passive imagination and limited character involvement. Non-character skills, like coordination and strategic planning, are rewarded. Character personalization and empathy are deterred by ideal skillsets, ideal gearsets, ideal group configurations, and such.

Discovery is subjugated to efficiency. Most players of these MMOs appreciate explorative gameplay, but the implicit direction of the games is funneled achievement; and players usually go where the game directs them.

Rewarding discovery
My MMO would be primarily concerned with rewarding discovery: "It's a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road... and there's no telling where you might be swept off to." -- Bilbo Baggins.

This model is essentially open. Performance takes a backseat to reception; to absorbing, experimenting with and playing with (rather than merely employing/expending) the wonders of the world. It rewards tactics (reactionary planning) over strategy (planning before the experience begins). Characters are unique and personal because the majority of their gear, skills, and so forth were acquired unexpectedly. Unique characters reflect unique experiences... experiences which were chosen only indirectly (like encountering a grizzly bear because you chose to wander through the woods, though you were just as likely to pass through that forest without even seeing a bear).

In the words of Will Wright (who I respect more than perhaps any other game designer):
"By far, the most interesting stories I've heard from computer gamers are always the stories that they tell me about what they did in the game."
Rewarding both, but favoring discovery
Please note that I have no intention of completely shirking linear and achievement-based experiences in my game design. What I'm saying is that I would place the emphasis on the opposite end.

I believe the most rewarding affection of any game is a child-like sense of wonder and awe.

It happens when a Halo player sees his character go flying through the air as a rocket explodes beneath him. It happens when an Oblivion player climbs over a hill to be presented with an incredible view of distant ruins or a lush field of wildflowers. It happens when a Mario Kart player watches her green turtle-shell bounce off a dozen walls before finally smacking into her own vehicle. It happens when a Battle for Middle Earth 2 player watches the troll he just killed take out a few of his men in its death throes.

That's the sort of gameplay I want to design... the sort that makes your eyes go wide as you breath the words "Oh, cool." =)

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