Friday, September 3, 2010

Repetition vs. Persistence in MMORPG Design: Why Arthas Won't Stay Dead

I was slow to jump on the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) bandwagon. I was content to play my single-player CRPG's and – occasionally – Action RPG's, devoting myself to faithfully enacting and reenacting the adventures of the Lone Wanderer, or Scion of Lionheart, or Bhaalspawn, or Darth Revan, or simply Hero. Going back to play the original Baldur's Gate in 2006 for no better reason than I'd run out of games to play was a pain, surely; but being able to immerse myself in the Forgotten Realms was worth the clunky animations and other limitations of the Infinity engine..

After eventually giving World of Warcraft a try and instantly getting hooked, I found that the game experience was lacking in something – not electronic ego boosts (epeen), nor the visually attractive wide-open worlds that the Elder Scrolls and Gothic series had lavished me with. There was an addictive crafting system, a popular PvP element, the PvE was rewarding and, and, and, the game was horribly repetitive and one was forced into doing the same things over and over.

Coming from a somewhat extensive and exclusive CRPG background, which extended to pen-and-paper fantasies, being out of the limelight and not being at the center of attention of the game world came as a pretty rude – even if perfectly reasonable – shock. My character in the world of Warcraft had no agency in the game world. I indulged in most of the things the game had to offer. The NPC's called my character “Hero,” I managed to get some text next to my character's name that proclaimed me a Champion of some sort, my character rode atop an enormous armored black bear, and was covered head-to-toe in fancy gear that bore testament to my character's numerous victories over heinous villains – hellish demons, corrupt wizards, megalomaniac warlords – and “enemy” players. But for all the alleged heroism of my character and the band of similarly acclaimed and accoutered adventurers that my character hung out with in Orgrimmar, we did not really have as much of an impact on the game's world and storyline. The *bling* gear, our majestic steeds and vainglorious titles were status symbols lacking in any inherent value, only appreciated within a narrow community of the game's players. Without much preamble regarding the indulgent escapism of players of video games and the dependency of video game media on the audience – the players – to immerse themselves in the content therein provided, I shall attempt to reconcile the idea of Agency, as that heroic footprint that allows players in single-player games to thoroughly affect the game world, with the “massively multiplayer” part of these games in the context of Bioware's upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: the Old Republic.

Three broad elements of gameplay are present in MMO games across the broad and are known as the Three Pillars: exploration, combat and character progression. It should be noted that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between these three pillars: the player engages in exploration and combat and is rewarded with progression; a broad term that means an increase in the strength and significance of the player character; this is accomplished by gaining a new ability, increasing the power of an ability, gaining score or – given the social nature of MMO games – prestige!

Somewhere along the road to having fun with the game, which is and should be the overriding reason people play games, the player community realized that it is possible, even encouraged by design, for all players to gain the same abilities, rack up the same scores and project the same in-game personality; bragging rights, then, become one of the key points of competition between players – how else does one define “winning” in what is an endless game experience? The objective is not just to complete a certain adventure, slay a particular monster or acquire a special treasure, but instead to be the first to complete the adventure, to slay the monster in the hardest way possible, to hoard a mountain of treasures from different sources and be able to show them off to people as trophies of one's unmatched success in the game. This is not an incidental development, either. The game is designed – by economic necessity – to reward the investment of time with character progression; in terms of items, abilities and prestige. The inclusion of achievement badges, trophies and honorific titles has absolutely no impact on the gameplay, but it does appease the burgeoning number of players who want to stand out from their colleagues, fueled by the remainder of the player-base playing catch-up to these competitive types.

Repetition is something we have come to associate with the very notion of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games. After all, users expect to be provided hours of daily entertainment from these games, and because there is only so much content that developers can realistically create, they are forced to recycle. This repetitive nature of gameplay is indispensable and reasonable in its entirety from the perspective of the developers. There are three broad themes of repetition in MMO games:

Content Structure
Content structure and format are repeated frequently throughout the game, with cosmetic differences with varying player levels, game world areas, factions and allegiances and the like. Consequently, there are the ubiquitous “Kill X of Y” quests, the “Rescue/Escort the Prisoner to Safety” quests, the FedEx quests and several other recurring quest templates and formats.

Another kind of repetition is that of content itself: enter repeatable quests, instances and material/currency farming. An artificial delay is introduced into the repetitive cycle by means of traveling time, respawn times on monsters, preventing you from doing a certain quest, instance or other activity more than once per day or week etc.

Rewarding Repetitive Gameplay
The game is structured by developers to reward repetition: gear, which is the main standard of progression in most end-games, is gained by repeatedly defeating an instanced encounter – perhaps on a resetting timer – until the desired items are randomly generated and received by everyone in the group who desires them, or raising a certain reputation score to the highest levels by means of repeatable quests and monster-killing, or entering a few instanced Player versus Player (PvP) areas again and again – win or lose – until the requisite tokens/currency/rank has been gained. This reward system leverages the repetition of content and content structures mentioned above to coherently bind the player to the game world and provide a broad set of “goals” for the players to work towards.

Whatever passes for epic adventures in such games are built by stringing together combinations of these content templates with a flimsy dressing of narrative, usually delivered by bland text boxes that most players skip reading. Some few adventures are actually well written, nicely choreographed narratives that have broad implications for developments in the story of the game world itself, but more often, story-telling takes a backseat in MMO games. Even when some major development takes place, such as the death of a major enemy from the game's overarching plot line at the hands of the player character, the killed character does not die in the game world itself, instead reappearing after a certain time and making no mention of his previous death. Indeed, even after the narrative of the game world acknowledges the death of such a character in the world's lore, the character is still very much alive and present in some dungeon. More than any death at the hands of the players, these all-powerful villains die of irrelevance; lurking ignominiously in their sprawling caverns that players no longer care to explore, sitting atop treasures that players no longer desire, lording over minions and underlings that can no longer earn their keep by attempting to keep Raiders at bay.

Of course it is not possible to remove content altogether once it is completed. As discussed already, repetition of content is an indispensable gameplay requirement. It is not possible for everyone to get everything the first time an encounter is defeated and it is not possible to remove content from everyone's game-world after one player or group of players has defeated it. To use an analogy from the Lord of the Rings:, it is not enough for one Frodo Baggins to defeat Sauron, it is not fair for the Nazgul to be destroyed by only one group of heroes; the Content is meant to be experienced by as many erstwhile adventurers as possible. Hence it is the “first” or “hardest” instance of an in-game achievement that confers bragging rights, and not the “only” instance of that achievement. These gameplay abstractions relating developments in the story to the game-world are left to the players to figure out and/or ignore altogether; story-telling is at once irrelevant to and unaffected by the gameplay. In these MMO games the player character's own story is (generally) shallow, and the broader world story arcs are not affected by any player actions, instead being tightly controlled by the Developer by means of playable content patches, revisions in canon, comic books, novelizations, game expansion packs etc.

Role-playing games have traditionally been about telling a story from the perspective of a key heroic role played by the player character. This detail has been lost and buried by successive generations of MMORPGs as something that could not be reasonably implemented within the constructs of contemporary MMO games. The traditional view has been challenged, however, by Bioware with their first foray into the MMO market with Star Wars: the Old Republic, it aims to leverage the studio's expertise in interactive narrative by making a bold attempt to innovate in a genre that has stagnated since its first iteration over a decade ago. This innovation comes in the form of adding a Fourth Pillar to the MMO design philosophy: Story.

Of course, considering the ease with which I give in to over-thinking and speculation, it did not come as a surprise when my enthusiasm for storytelling in a MMO context faded and I was left wondering if delivering to players millions of “Han/Fett/Vader/Luke/Emperor” fantasies was actually possible without instancing major portions of the game and hence killing off the “massively multiplayer” element. After all, having a million Luke Skywalkers slay a million Emperor Palpatines would – in my nit-picky eyes – detract from the idea of player agency. I am not convinced if Bioware will actually be able to pull off storytelling while allowing player characters to have an impact on the wider game world, I suspect it is not a priority and I will probably not know anything for certain until after I have played the game next year.

That said, it occurs to me that perhaps my expectations of player agency are over the top and unrealistic. It would certainly be that way insomuch as Galaxy-changing events such as the destruction of Alderaan are concerned (*hint* I would play the Grand Moff Tarkin class). By way of analogy, the problem appears to be one of having too many children playing in the same sandbox, one would only just start to build a sandcastle before another stomps on it, and no meaningful experience can be drawn from such chaos. One way, then, for players to have a heroic footprint without said footprints competing for severely limited “world space” is to reduce the radius of each to the point that they no longer overlap. The idea itself, like everything else in this post, is nothing unknown or surprising. Other MMORPG's, by reducing and limiting player agency to zero by means of widespread instancing and paying only lip service to story/narrative have accomplished exactly this. But is it impossible to allow the heroic footprint to retain some non-zero radius without destroying the structure on which the game's fun factor is based?

Our Galaxy is a big, fascinating place. The Star Wars galaxy is perhaps as big and certainly not as fascinating to a scientist – hokey religions and all that – but it is filled with tens of thousands of inhabited planets, populated by visually distinct but anthropomorphic alien species and improbable conspiracies, romance and drama. The Star Wars galaxy is not a zero-sum, closed-loop system. The Galactic Civil War that Luke helped to end in the movies did not have much of a bearing on events in the Unknown Regions or the Hapes Cluster. Life goes on, there are pirates, warlords, criminal syndicates and unpopular governments aplenty in this fantastic place, and you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting some plot point that could bring everything crashing down for everyone.

Luke, Leia, and Han – joined by an endless stream of poorly named characters from the Expanded Universe – are not only omnipotent and immortal as they need to be to resolve disparate crises one after another and escape unscathed; they are also omnipresent. To quote a certain irate Yuuzhan Vong Warmaster from another galaxy ever farther away: “Is every third person in this Galaxy named Solo?” One may excuse the Warmaster for thinking so, given how almost every major event in the YV invasion across the entire Galaxy was affected pervasively by the Wesley Crushers of the NJO. What does this mean for storytelling in SWtOR? Simply that heroic adventures are only a stone's throw away, your average Joe is neck-deep in some exhilarating quest, and the bad guys find redemption only too often in a self-sacrificing blaze of glory.

What this ubiquity of excitement and adventure confers on the designers of the Old Republic is the ability, the license, to craft – or allow a human-assisted computer system to cobble together – an enormous number of adventures using the templates provided by the novels and comic books of the Expanded Universe. If we are afraid of everyone being Luke Skywalker, the simple alternative is to tone it down a notch and allow everyone to be Kyp Durron or Nomi Sunrider instead: flying away to far flung parts of the galaxy, infiltrating criminal elements, raising squadrons of starfighters, waging anti-piracy campaigns, discovering some subtle hints of an overarching conspiracy – a resurgent Ssi Ruuvi, for instance – and following mostly solitary but convergent paths until they coalesce into an epic (shared: cooperative or competitive) climax for everyone involved, but it needs to be a climax that does not or cannot have rippling implications for the broader galaxy in the context of story. To illustrate: the final encounter in such an adventure can be with the leader of a band of Weequay pirates, not someone as irreplaceable as Admiral Ackbar.

I find it expedient to imagine this kind of encounter/content design as something akin to oversight by a 'Dungeon Master': throwing hordes of monsters and traps and riddles in the path of intrepid explorers on their way to rescuing the Princess. Not the same monsters nor the same obstacles, nor indeed the same treasures at the end of the adventure. The content structure, the content itself, must repeat, that much is a given, but the degree of variation, however superficial, must be heightened in order to offer a higher degree of immersion and a sense of Agency in the game world.

There is no reason this cannot be extended to other fictional universes. To cross over into Warhammer 40,000, consider that since “in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war,” allow players to fight said wars on obscure planets and actually conquer them. Offer a clear path starting with a “deep strike” to secure the Spaceport and leading up to the final defeat of a Demon Prince of Khorne.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are attractive and addictive; not least because persistence and social interaction bring them a lot closer to the “real world” than other games. Repetition detracts from the experience offered by the sense of finality that persistence can lend to these worlds. Developers have sidestepped this design conflict by widespread instancing of game content and trivialization of the player character narrative. However, I feel that the trade-off between accessibility and agency need not be dealt with in binary terms. It is possible, by limiting the player's expectations of agency and toning down the scope of the content and the player's role in it, to enhance the sense of player agency. This will create an experience containing a coherent, player-centric narrative and allow for the repetition of content to feel less like a meaningless grind.

In sum: some degree of repetition is required to appease the player-base within a reasonable amount of unique content; what this “degree” is and what constitutes a “reasonable amount,” of course, is open to debate. Agency demands, however, that things once done cannot be undone or done a different way, that the player character is a heroic influence on the game world, or a very small part of the game world, and as such holds sway over the pace and direction of the narrative of that part of the game. Their achievements are theirs alone and are visible for the rest of the server's population to see, even if most never happen across those hyperspace lanes anyway.

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