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MMObility: The clever design behind War of Dragons


Ah, the things that rev up the imagination of gamers. Right now I can almost feel the excitement as players all over the world are waiting to jump into games like Skyrim or Star Wars the Old Republic. I'm a bit excited as well, but honestly none of those titles tantalizes me like some of the browser-based goodies I have been playing lately. It could be the model railroad world of RuneScape or the epic scale of Illyriad that is inspiring me, making me spend hours of dog walking or drinking tea while daydreaming of game creation.

I've also stumbled across this newish world of semi-graphical, browser-based, MUD-like MMOs. They have shown me that text and description can still be very powerful tools, especially mixed with graphics or even basic animation. Then I stumbled upon War of Dragons, a wonderful browser-based MMO that shows me just how amazing browser-based gaming can be.

Click past the cut and I'll explain.

War of Dragons screenshot
First of all, I need to hand out a basic disclaimer to ward off any possible conclusion-leaps in the comments section. Yes, I know War of Dragons did not invent its gameplay. Also, yes, I have been made aware of the optional goods in the cash shop that, while wonderfully made, can be priced really high. And finally, I am very much aware that the game can feel like a grind or a bore, that it's wonderful in groups, that it features open-world PvP, and that it hosts volunteer players who wield a lot of power. I am aware of all of these things, although I have not experienced much in the game yet.

Anyway, what excites me so much is how elegant the game has been put together. It just works, and generally it runs without a hitch. While I'm getting pretty sick of seeing games made in Flash (it can run so sluggishly!), I always appreciate good design. War of Dragons is made up of bits of Flash or Java and other smart-person stuff like lines of code and ancient development languages. Generally I have had no issues with the game on all of my devices, right down to my HTC Inspire Android phone.

Let's first talk about the UI. The world is essentially a series of beautifully painted scenes. To "move" in the world, you can click on shortcuts in each scene, choose from a list of shortcuts, or use one of several excellent maps. I generally use a minimap that pops out of the side of the main window, then I click on icons or connecting zone markers. Quests will often feature key word links that open up a new window and show the item mentioned. A lot of the time the item is just part of the story or "flavor," making the pop-up information even nicer. Often those little bits of game flavor are ignored by other developers. Everything is accessible through your main window or pop-up windows. Clicking on another player can bring up a window that shows her animated character and a wealth of information about that player. You can see achievements, titles, gifts -- things that inspire you to play more. The UI feels like an interactive storybook. Here's my one true gripe about the game, however: The lack of text options is disappointing. I want to be able to change the size and color of the fonts (and so would some colorblind players, I'll bet), but it seems to be a no-can-do.

As you work your way through the landscapes performing quests for different NPCs, you are often asked or forced into combat. While the developers could have gone for a series of numbers bashing it out or even an instant summing-up of who killed whom and how, you are put into a miniature battle scene with your 2-D (but animated) character on one side and the enemy on the other. While I have not experienced multi-character combat yet, supposedly you do not see the rest of your group or group of enemies, but you do see what they do and how it plays out. With group battles sometimes featuring many players, I can see how keeping the animations to a minimum would be a good idea.

One of the most clever design bits in the game is the mount system. Normally a player has to wait a certain amount of time before he can switch from one scene to another. My character, for example, can take up to 25 seconds until she can move to the next scene. With a mount, however, the time is simply cut down. It's a neat idea that represents "moving" faster. I love simplicity.

"All of that math and all those bells and whistles and noise only serve to distract me from the emotion of playing a game, of escaping into an alien world or different time."

In fact, one of the problems I have been having lately is with bloated or overly complicated design that doesn't work in the end. For me, a game that tries too hard or cannot find its way to cleverness is like a Michael Bay film or a band with perfectly constructed and recorded music. All of that math and all those bells and whistles and noise only serve to distract me from the emotion of playing a game, of escaping into an alien world or different time. The saddest part is that many designers find wonderfully complicated ways to put out the same content we've seen before. Many times they use the exact systems as before and just put a new word on it. While I have absolutely no issue with borrowing or using ideas that have been shown to work for gamers (leveling, for example), it often feels as though the designer just wanted to get through the process of making the game.

Execution needs to be taken seriously, as well. I am leery of the word polish, simply because obsession over polish can often leads to bland products. In a musical example, bands like Green Day or Coldplay are very polished. Every note or snare sound is put through layers of production. Instead of sounding emotional or heavy, they come out sounding like a machine: soulless and bland. But you can have wonderful execution without too much polish. War of Dragons is polished, sure, but not to the point that the mystery or allure of the world is diminished. The developers have taken the time to craft a good product, but the beauty of the in-game art gives the game character. It is well-crafted without being overly crafted.

Don't get me wrong -- I can see how the game might not attract certain players. Admittedly I might be more lured into the game by the design possibilities that it makes me dream of rather than by the game itself. I haven't spent a year in the game or tried to achieve anything significant, yet. The point is to look at a game like War of Dragons as an example of simple, clever design. Execute design, do so with pride, and take your audience seriously. If you must localize your game, take the time to do it correctly. Try to do something different. Tell a story. Help your players if they need it. Provide information in the form on accessible wikis or tips, in case it is needed. Do not take pride in being confusing while calling it a "learning curve."

Now, if you don't mind, I am going to fix a cup of tea and do some daydreaming. I have been crafting an MMO in my head for some time now, but War of Dragons has given me even more inspiration.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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