Mini Games in MMOs - New Dimensions of Gameplay
Combat is really just an elaborate mini game. Unfortunately, it is the only mini game that really gets much attention in modern MMOs. In the days of MUDs, mini games were common and varied. They added many layers of gameplay. MMO designers should put more focus on mini-games.
The History of Mini Games
Mini games rarely attract much attention, so there is certainly no definitive history of them. So I am speaking mainly from personal experience in almost 20 years of game development.
Threshold RPG was brought online June 11, 1996. Opened to the public in basic, playable form, the game had classes, gear, and areas to explore. With the basics covered, what was my next goal? Was it more content? More classes? More gear? No. Mini games. I immediately started working on a deck of cards with which people could play 5 card draw. I soon followed with in-game chess boards, some dice for playing craps, and a variety of other mini games.
13 years later, people still play 5 card draw with that deck.
That is a testament to the fun and longevity of mini-games.
Why Are Mini Games So Great?
In some ways this is a very strange question. What makes combat so great? What makes games great? For that matter, what makes FUN great? The question itself begs so many other questions that I almost cannot answer it. I am reminded of Physicist Richard Feynman when he was asked why magnets repelled each other. The question is so core to our understanding of the universe, that asking "why" is an almost impossible question.
Mini games are great because they are fun. They are repeatable. They are social. They give people a variety of things to do. They make people feel like the game is a world, rather than just a fancy sandbox. As I once wrote in my blog, Muckbeast:
We have tons of mini-games in Threshold and people love them to death. Trial Arcanus (laser tag), Fishing (and ours is actually mini-gameish, it isn’t just cast, wait 10 seconds, retrieve), Saber Dueling, Quail Hunting, carnival games, Snowball fights, Snowman building, Foo’s Chit, and more. Most of the mini-games have no “benefit" as far as xp, loot, or anything like that. They are just fun. That’s why mini-games are awesome. They are a fun activity you can do with your in-game friends while you hang out and socialize.
Why Don't MMOs Have More Mini-Games
Because their designers are insane? Just kidding. Because players don't ask for them? Because players don't know what they are missing? I think if players were vocal in a desire for more mini-games we would see them start popping up a lot more in MMOs. But we are in an era of MMO design where the focus is almost completely on character development, leveling up, and gear. These are valid aspects of MMO design, but they should not be so dominant.
Are MMO Developers in a Rut?
Most definitely. The huge success of WoW has made it hard for developers to make anything that diverges terribly from WoW's "level up by questing, gear up through raids" cycle. It will take a mass market success (perhaps Star Wars: The Old Republic) to show that varied gameplay is not just viable but preferable. Again, to quote my blog entry on the subject:
Developers get in a rut and focus on doing what has already been done. They see combat and raiding and maybe crafting, and they duplicate those. Sometimes they put their own little spin on those features and think they are being special or unique. But every single time one of those games comes out, people complain about getting bored of “the grind." They aren’t having fun on a day to day basis. When they login to their favorite game, they immediately know they have one thing to do: kill stuff. Doing the same thing all the time is boring, but even more disheartening is when you know you don’t have any other options. If there were alternative fun things to do people would login and do them. And whenever they did go off to fight/grind mobs, it would be the result of an actual choice – not simply a default action.
What About Crappy Mini Games?
One of the many beauties of mini games is that effectively, there are no crappy mini games. You might already be thinking of examples of some bad ones you have played, but I ask: were you ever forced to play them more than once? If you were, then I grant it might be a poor mini game. One of the few legitimate gripes about Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was that in a few cases you had to beat some weak mini games to advance the story.
But I don't know of an MMO where you have to participate in a mini-game to progress. Most of them just lay dormant unless you choose to participate in them. So getting back to the first sentence of this section, that is one of the many things that is so great about them. They are totally optional. The only people who will spend significant time with them are people who love them. This means they are a form of content that is enjoyed for its own sake, rather than for some arbitrary carrot dangled at the end.
As an MMO developer, if you can create content that people love purely for its own sake, you have scored a titanic victory. If players will play a part of your game with no levels or gear motivating them, this means they are playing because it is FUN. Hooray!
What Makes For a Good Mini-Game?
1) A good mini-game is a break from other types of content in the game, not a gateway or barrier to continuing the game. As already mentioned, mini-games that prevent you from advancing the story line can be bad. If a player is not good at the mini game, they will have no recourse and no way to progress. The mini-game will lose its fun factor and instead of something people dread.
2) A good mini-game is fun in its own right, regardless of (and preferably without) any reward. MMO developers are obsessed with using rewards and loot as a way to get players to do something. Yes, loot is nice, but fun is its own reward. A little more focus on fun and a little less focus on the reward would really improve a lot of games out there. If the only reason someone would play your mini game is for the reward, scrap it and try again.
3) A good mini-game attracts multiple players to the same location so the game becomes a social activity. Social interaction is the try "killer ap" of MMOs. Good mini-games have the potential to draw many players to the same general vicinity. Once you do that, they will start interacting with each other. Yes, some of it will be negative, but even that kind of interaction gets people hyped up and telling stories about things that happened in the game. When people are hanging out with other players BY CHOICE (not because they need 40 people for a raid), all sorts of great things will happen.
Some of My Favorite Mini Games
Threshold RPG - Trial Arcanus: This is basically laser tag in a medieval setting. It was one of the first mini games on Threshold and it has endured as one of the most popular. There are people whose primary activity in Threshold is playing Trial Arcanus. It complies with all three of the above stipulations. It is so popular, in fact, that we play a version of it at ThreshCon every year called Murder Arcanus. We use rubber bands, and people stalk and hunt each other down throughout the convention weekend.
Arcomage - This is a mini game from the Might and Magic series of games. While not an MMO, it still demonstrates the power of a great mini game. Arcomage was a card game that had some Magic: The Gathering elements, but it was not quite as involved. It was so popular that many people would keep Might and Magic installed just to play it. Eventually, 3DO released it as a stand alone game. There is now an open source project for simulating the game online: MArcomage.
What are some of YOUR favorites? Please post yours in the comments.