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Perfect Ten: What making games taught me about MMO development


Since 1998, I've created and run countless games in my role as a youth minister. Despite the accusations from some corners that games waste time, I've been a firm believer that they're one of the most universal bonding experiences and can be used for a purpose.

I've also learned a lot of lessons while coming up with my own or adapting others' games. You can have the perfect game on paper, but throwing it to the "test server" of a group of insane teens can show you just how wrong you are. It's through games that I've tied together my hobby and professional life, and it's definitely opened my eyes to some of the complex issues that developers deal with on a daily basis.

So you know how they say that you have to walk a mile in another's shoes to understand where he's coming from? Well, I've done this with games. Here are 10 lessons that running games taught me about developing and operating these complex MMOs we love.

Perfect Ten What running games taught me about MMO development
1. Nobody likes to be put on the sidelines.

Not all games are created alike. There are some types of games that I avoid like the plague, and one of those types is any game where participants are eliminated and forced to sit on the sidelines. Since one of my aims is to keep everyone involved, this proves to be death to the interest of some. I mean, how fun is it just to sit there and watch others enjoy the game? So pretty much all of my games will either avoid elimination or have something for eliminated people to do.

This made me appreciate how Guild Wars 2's Survival Games handled the issue of elimination. Firstly, the devs instituted a grace period so that even if you got out, you could jump right back in. Second, once the grace period was over and you got out, you came back as a spirit that could harass the participants. Even though you couldn't win at this point, it was still a lot of fun (because revenge is fun I guess?).

2. Players will always try to bend the rules, exploit the rules, and rules-lawyer you.

For any game that I prepare, I will spend probably twice the set-up time thinking of ways that participants will try to bend the rules in their favor. It's important to not have too many rules (that loses people's interest fast), but the ones you do have need to be airtight. Even so, "exploits" can and will happen, and it's how you deal with them that can be a crucial factor in whether the game tanks or succeeds. Leveling creative punishments for exploiters is usually my response.

And c'mon, this is what happens in MMOs all of the time. Devs are on the hook for setting up the rules and making sure that they're airtight because soon they're going to face an unstoppable army of lawbreakers who will constantly throw themselves against those walls until they find a weak spot.

3. Emotions can run high during a game, even when there's no prize.

An odd observation I've had over the years is that even if I tell everyone that there's no prize or reward on the line for winning, people really, really want to win anyway. Because of this, emotions can be heightened and generally nice people can become really aggressive and snippy with each other. That makes me at least empathize with devs because when it comes to our characters, there's almost no limit to how protective, angry, or frustrated we can get when things aren't going our way.

Perfect Ten What running games taught me about MMO development
4. As the referee, I will make mistakes.

Yup, this will happen. I'm not perfect. I can't foresee everything the player will do. I'll miss a call or create a mechanic that just fails in practice. At this juncture, I own up to it, make adjustments on the fly as needed, and move on.

5. If players feel that the teams are unbalanced or they're up against too much skill, they'll stop trying.

I tried an interesting variation on dodge ball the other week. Instead of having players be eliminated (see #1), I told them that if they got hit, they had to go over to the other team. It was fascinating to watch because you could see people stop trying to win because there was no team identity and the teams quickly became very unbalanced.

I've seen this in large-scale PvP too. Everyone likes to be part of the dominant zerg and not so much the smaller one. Morale can be sapped quickly, and people will move elsewhere because game time shouldn't be super-aggravating.

6. Players can come up with great variations on the game if you give them a chance.

I try hard not to assume that I'm the only one who can be creative. I've seen players come up with far better variations and rules in games that I've made, and more often than not we'll just give them a try. Players aren't mindless sheep; they're actively invested in your game and want the best possible experience. This is a great motivator to looking for ways to improve that experience for everyone.

7. Games bond friends and strangers together.

Want to break the awkward tension that brews in a group of strangers? Play a game. It's a universal method of tearing down social obstacles and bringing us closer together. Maybe the UN should play more games. I'm just saying.

Seeing the power of gaming put people at ease with each other and strengthen friendships is one of the reasons that I'm a big proponent of MMOs. I don't think they're a waste of time because we don't game in a void. We game with. We meet people we probably never would have otherwise. We enjoy time together with friends even if we can't be in the same room. It's worth the trolls and pug horror stories, in my opinion.

Perfect Ten What running games taught me about MMO development
8. Games that allow for creative solutions can be the most fun of all.

Open-ended gaming can be really tough to set up, but the pay-off always makes it worthwhile. I find that people have become tired of binary win thresholds ("do X to win, otherwise you'll lose") at an early age. I mean, we still do that sort of thing all the time, but it's all old hat. But if you offer multiple paths to victory or allow for creative solutions to a gaming problem, eyes light up as minds click on.

I get why MMOs have to be so structured. But I admire the heck out of players who come up with really creative solutions to quests and situations, just as I admire developers who can be flexible enough to allow for such out-of-the-box thinking.

9. Not everyone wants to be the quarterback.

I think there's a misconception in gaming that everyone wants to be the star who carries the team. In fact, I've seen people who look at a game and completely balk because it's more physical or cerebral than they like or just not their thing. And instead of sidelining them, I find another role that suits their interest. Maybe they want to be the referee instead of me. Maybe there's a support role that will make them feel important. Maybe they want to be a creator and help set up the next round.

If you create a game for just one specific type of person and rigidly assume that's what everyone will want, you'll be proven wrong quickly. That's why a good MMO allows for players to find an activity that suits their playstyle instead of trying to force the player to fit within a certain mold.

10. Taking feedback is important, but it's also important to consider the needs of the group as a whole.

Even when you're running something as supposedly lighthearted as a game, you're going to get some criticism and feedback. Not every game's going to run smoothly, and not everyone's going to always be happy. That feedback can be put to use refining the game for the next time it's played, hopefully resulting in a better experience. As important as it is to remain open to that feedback, it's also important to not let one or two loud voices override the feelings and desires of the entire group.

This is a tricky balance that I see played out daily on forums. MMO gamers are passionate and loud creatures, and when we're unhappy with something, we don't bottle it inside. Smart studios listen to that feedback but take it with a grain of salt, constantly looking at the big picture to consider the folks who aren't complaining but might be actually enjoying what MR. ALL CAPS is yelling about. Letting the loudest person in the room sway the course of development for a game is a sure way to tank your title in as quick and efficient a manner as possible.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

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