MMO Blender: Using older MMOs to build a perfectly paced world

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RIFT Sanctum creenshot
One of the issues I have with so many modern AAA titles is that when I play them, I immediately feel forced through a series of noisy and chaotic moments. I know that these tutorials are supposed to make me feel as though I am stepping into a sort of world-on-fire, but to me it just feels like a mess. RIFT is a great game, truly, but every time I want to start a new character or try the game out again, I dread going through the annoying tutorial. It's so demanding. It grabs my hand and pulls me through a linear series of non-discoveries.

Now, this might just be my fading gamer memory, but I distinctly remember how it felt to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere in an MMO. While there are a few modern titles like Wurm Online that basically do the same thing, the mystery and immersion of those first few levels in most major MMOs has been replaced by sheer noise. I don't like it.

Good pacing is a wonderful thing. If it's tweaked just right, players feel immediately invested in a world even while feeling completely lost. I'd like to make this week's dream MMO using those older-game designs. It's time to slow down.

Wurm Online screenshot
How many of you remember logging into a title years ago and saying to yourself, "Oh, what do I do now?" It probably hasn't happened to many of you for a while, unless you are willing to try some of the more daring indie titles or revisit older titles like Ultima Online. Even if you are willing to explore, you are not getting the exact same experience as years ago. Even older or more "hardcore" sandboxes often feature pop-up tutorials these days. Many of those tutorials are needed or are very handy; don't get me wrong. I have to admit that there have been times when I cursed a game because it simply confused the heck out of me. But confusing design and immersive pacing can be two separate issues.

I'm not just crying about how MMOs were made "in the old days." I loved a lot about the older games and still do to the point that I will be covering them a lot over the next few months, but there was much to be desired back then. I have never been a fan of bad UI design or confusing systems, and frankly, I'm not convinced that the lovely, sluggish gameplay I am referring to was not the result of inefficient design. Heck, it's possible that those awesome several-hour long treks through dangerous landscapes back then were really the result of massive, empty zones. Either way, the effect was the same: Afterward, I felt as though I achieved something. That something didn't come from conquering a massive dragon or dungeon but from traveling somewhere or discovering a new place.

I've pined for more realistic travel so much that I have actually created my own set of rules to force my characters to walk on foot or horseback. To me, simply getting somewhere should be an adventure, especially in a world that is inhabited by monsters.

Ryzom players, for example, literally use trekking as a social activity. Players can instantly teleport between areas on the map, but they must first unlock teleportation nodes. A new player cannot just walk to each node and hope to survive. Some of the nodes are nested in very dangerous lands, and a higher-level escort is required. I used to join up with dozens of other players just to walk around the world, unlocking teleport nodes along the way for those who needed them. I would spend hours on those treks sometimes, similar to the one in the older video I embedded above. These treks built community... we had to do it together.

EverQuest was notorious for its travel times. I was nowhere near the power-player my wife was, but I knew what it was like just to be able to travel to the next major area of the world. Before the easier travel times that the Planes of Power expansion brought to the game, we spent our time in one zone, leveling up or adventuring until we knew we could make it outside. If you did try to go somewhere, you felt as if you achieved something just by getting to that new place. Once you did, you met up with players and character types that were literally alien to you. It felt like real travel.

"If a game offers an innovative, fun, or immersive crafting system, then players will spend time in crafting areas or gathering materials instead of grinding through scores of monsters just to hit the next level."

Travel times are not the only way to encourage better pacing. A good crafting system, for example, can stop players from furiously pounding out levels. If a game offers an innovative, fun, or immersive crafting system, then players will spend time in crafting areas or gathering materials instead of grinding through scores of monsters just to hit the next level. Fallen Earth features a sort of chaotic tutorial like the ones I mentioned earlier, but once a player is out in the world, he or she feels a bit overwhelmed. In fact Fallen Earth is one of the few modern titles that gave me that same, old-school feeling, the one that made me go, "Whoa. What do I do now?" I spent hours and hours just gathering materials, crafting, and discovering new items. I toyed with selling them on the market, but generally I made my items for myself. Fallen Earth can definitely force players onto a treadmill, but it also offers an immersive, slower pace of play that needs to be encouraged.

Consider Wurm Online once again. I don't play it as much as I used to, and Massively's old deed is a bit painful to look at now that it is rotting, but every time I check back into the world of Wurm Online, I find new textures, tweaks, and gameplay updates that have nothing to do with frenzied leveling. Yes, players do grind through crafting levels or try to raise combat levels as fast as possible, but generally the players I meet busy themselves with crafting a place for a deed, a player owned plot of land. Earlier this week, I wrote about my friend Brian and his labyrinth on the Puzzles deed. It's a truly mind-blowing experience to get lost in the great maze and to realize that something like it would never happpen in most modern AAA MMOs. In most of those titles, I might come across something like a labyrinth, but it would be a scripted event with a single, linear path to take.

"I am only slightly embarrassed when I say this, but I truly enjoy some good old cheesy new-agey music when I am playing in many titles."

Good music or sound design can often make a huge difference in how quickly players play through an area. I am only slightly embarrassed when I say this, but I truly enjoy some good old cheesy new-agey music when I am playing in many titles. Soft, flowing orchestral music or the sounds of distant wind moving through the treetops can easily lower my blood pressure. Because I mentioned how rushed RIFT feels, I would also like to point out that the game world has some very meditative moments tucked in corners. Once I arrived at the central hub-city of Sanctum, I found my way into the castle. There I discovered a truly wondrous floating tower of lights and stone. I took several screenshots, put my character into walk mode, and enjoyed the scenery. Unfortunately, I had to make my way out into the prime time traffic outside in order to quest.

Perhaps developers could create systems that would allow players to stay in the moment, quite literally. Meditation is a skill in some MMOs, allowing players to heal their characters by sitting still. Campfires or portable camps are always a wonderful thing, but in current times, most players seem to want nothing to do with stopping for long. At the time of this writing, Guild Wars 2 has been out for less than three weeks and I'm already hearing rumbles of a content shortage. What an odd thing.

We can do better than this. If I ever make this dream MMO, I will be sure to include some of these designs that can make players stop, even for a while. We're burning through content faster than ever, so designers will probably need to start recognizing the need for a slower pace instead of continuing to feed the content frenzy. If we don't stop now, how long can MMOs possibly last in the near future?

I think I'll call this MMO "Ohhhmmmmmmm."

Have you ever wanted to make the perfect MMO, an idealistic compilation of all your favorite game mechanics? MMO Blender aims to do just that. Join the Massively staff every Friday as we put our ideas to the test and create either the ultimate MMO... or a disastrous frankengame!
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