Six Design Decisions That Could Make or Break an MMO
by: Adele Caelia
; edited by: Michael Hartman
; updated: 4/17/2012
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Game developers have to make decisions that will in the end determine the outcome of the game. Many of the basic elements that are found in MMOs are thought to be unnecessary and are pushed back to be added later, however, these few elements have more sway than the developers may realize.
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Many developers think that player housing is not needed.This simply is not true. Players love to have a place to call home. Many consider the world within the game, a home away from home. Games that have player housing also have trophies, clothing, and other awards that can be displayed within. This adds a sense of nostalgia as players grow. Viewing past items that were gained over a few years gives a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of “Wow, look at how much I’ve done". Players also need a place to kick back and relax after a hard week of saving the world. Their home gives them the perfect place to do so. This goes for guildhalls as well. Games that have guildhalls always have player created events and extravaganzas. Player housing adds to the realism of the game, and ups the immersion. The level of immersion in an MMO can make or break the game.
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Art (not Graphics) and Character Creation
Why the distinction between graphics and art? When people talk about a game having great graphics, that often refers to technical aspects. The number of polygons, fancy graphical effects, etc. These are nice, but what really matters most is the quality of art within whatever medium or engine is being used. In a text MMO, the medium is the written word. So the writing must be good. In a graphical game, the quality of art must be good, regardless of how advanced the actual graphical engine might be. This is one reason why cartoony style graphics have performed better (on the whole) that games that go for a realistic style. It is a lot harder to get realism "right" that it is to get stylized, cartoonish, or anime style graphics.
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Good Character Creation
And let's not forget character creation. Give players plenty of options to create a unique character before they log in. Scroll through faces are frowned upon, and while many developers think it doesn’t matter because no one gets close enough to ever see the detail on another face, it does matter. The players will look at their characters, they will know, and they will feel pride in what they created. Many players spend the first hour or more of a game using the character creation tool.
Character creation is the first impression players get of a game. It has to be interesting and it has to provide enough variety that players feel they can make a distinct character in the world.
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Emotes and Jumping
Emotes and jumping, like player housing, add immersion. Immersion is key to an MMO. It is after all the RPG in the MMO. The first action many players attempt when logging into a game is to jump. Don’t laugh. Don’t deny it. Everyone hits the spacebar and tries to jump straight away. If the player cannot jump, the game loses something. It becomes claustrophobic. Who wants to be stuck to the ground their entire life? To lose points so quickly after a player has logged in is deadly. This includes emotes that happen on their own, and emotes that occur when a player types in a phrase are equally important, such as the dance emote. This creates a world that feels real. It adds life in the same way that the wind blowing back a cloak or bending the grass in a field does. Emotes add fun, they make players smile, and bring players together.
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Perhaps the only design aspect that alone can truly ruin a game is combat. Combat is at the heart of every MMO. It is how the player grows in the world, gets to new levels, and gains prestige. If the combat doesn’t work correctly, the game is broke. While this may seem like a given, countless MMOs fail to grasp the importance of combat. Combat that is chunky, twitchy, and comes off as forced and unrealistic will ruin the game. Combat that is slow and drawn out can also ruin the game. Players do not wish to stand around for an eternity waiting for one spell or skill to complete. Combat should be quick, smooth,powerful, and fun. Yes, powerful. Players want to feel like they are someone right away. While they may be weak in comparison to what they will later become, they should feel powerful right from the start.
Classes should also not imitate one another. Each class should have its own set of unique skill sets and abilities, even when compared to their counterpart on the other side. However, at the same time, classes should all be balanced, but not so much that they become boring, and everyone feels the same. Each should have something that helps the class stand out. A thin and tricky line to walk, but with creativity, extensive testing, and patience, it can be done. Players should not be thrown a plate of poorly made classes just to get the game on the shelves by a certain release date. Combat (and healing) should be one of the most well thought out aspects of any MMO.
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Right up there with combat is community. This should be obvious, but while the community pays the bills, they are often forgotten. A great community can turn a so-so game into a great game. A strong community will keep players around longer than they would have stayed otherwise. A good community will have players logging in to do nothing more than talk with their guild mates and friends. This may not seem like a part of game design, but it is. It is up to the designers to create a game that is community friendly. There should be elements of the game created to entice the community to grow and play together. This can be easy grouping options, needing to group, or simply fun elements that allow players to create their own events, parties, and other activities. Much of this can also be built into the crafting section of a game. A good community manager will also entice and rally the community to greatness by holding player events, contests, and being well known and loved by the players.