Creating Worlds: Developing and Maintaining a Modern MMOG

As you probably know, an MMOG is a massively multiplayer online game, which allows many players to play simultaneously in one game world. This requires an internet connection, and uses client – server technology to enable players to communicate worldwide. Up until recently, this technology was exclusive to PCs, but since the sixth generation of consoles, including Microsoft’s Xbox, and the Sony Playstation, MMOs have become much more popular and common – due to the fact that consoles now have internet capability. The most common MMO system for consoles at present is Xbox LIVE,  an online service which supports and distributes MMO games for the Xbox and Xbox 360.

The majority of today’s MMO market is owned by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which, with 11.5 million monthly subscribers, takes 62% of said market, as of April 2008.  This game also represents the most popular genre of MMO – the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. At present, however there is Massively Multiplayer versions of almost every gaming genre, including Real Time Strategy, First Person Shooter, and Puzzle games.

The supported number of players online has also grown massively since the introduction of MMOs, starting with games such as Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 which used Battle.net technology to connect players, and Neverwinter Nights(1991) which supported 50 players at one time – to the present day where we see games such as EVE Online, which on 9th February 2009, broke the 50k PCU (Peak Current User) record with “51,675 pilots logging in to the single-shard world that is EVE Online. That’s well above the previous record of 48,065 and signifies the largest PCU jump [they’ve] ever had to break the 50k milestone.” (EVE Insider).

MMOs can present themselves in other forms rather than just the traditional MMORPG such as World of Warcraft or Lineage. Traditional games with thriving communities such as Counter Strike: Source or Left 4 Dead can also be classes as MMOs, and the use of services such as Steam which provides tools to create groups or “clans”, and enables easy communication between said groups, make this even easier. MMOs can also come in the form of a social network and game, such as Second Life, which is more like an advanced version of social networking site Facebook than an RPG, and so even though this is more like the opposite of WoW – game with chat features, whereas Second Life is social networking with game – they can still both be classed as MMOs, and are both popular in their own right.

The design of these MMOs has to be very different than normal games. The key aim of the designer of an MMO is to make money, and the way to achieve this aim, they have to encourage people to play, keep playing, and not stop. Therefore they have to find a way to acquire and retain subscribers. There is also a lot more play time required from an MMO than a normal game, where a normal retail game may have 20-40 hours playtime, an MMO can sometimes be required to have this, if not more, every week. Many MMOs, normally MMORPGs, will try to provide content for the four main player types – Killer, Achiever, Socialiser, Explorer (From research by Richard Bartle) – this will encourage the maximum amount of players to take part and play – and if players can enjoy the game with their friends who may be a different player type than them, this will in turn encourage many more people to play.

The main concern for developers when creating an mmo is that it is very expensive – therefore they must be confident that they will be able to make the money back – and of course profit on top of that! Therefore to ensure this, great thought must be taken in the preliminary stages to answer some key questions. For example, who the target audience are, how much it will cost to produce and how long, and how much profit can be expected once the game is established. An example of such figures can be found for World of Warcraft, the setup costs of which amounted to $62.8 million (at today’s exchange rate), and has had maintenance costs of around $200 million since 2004. Reports also show that they have reached an annual revenue of $200 million from subscribers, and $50 million from games sales. This shows that with a good game design the original investment can be made back in a year of revenue once the game is fully established.

Within these questions, there are sub-issues to be addressed, such as for the community – what is being sold for IN-game community and what is being sold for OUT of game community – these are very separate issues which need to be considered. Once the game is established, the out of game community will often sort itself out – for example Counter Strike: Source, which has no controlled communities as such, but the system of clans which has arisen, and is being aided by systems such as Steam, is now a very big part of the game.

Another challenging issue for the MMO designer is the fact that every player who joins the game will have different expectations of the game, and will want the game to accommodate their play style. Furthermore, the designers will have to make sure the game is engaging for all levels of players, for example, making intense gameplay and complex structures for the highest tier of player, whilst still giving the low level players interesting gameplay and things to work towards until they reach the highest levels in the game.

Many areas of the player profile must be addressed, such as the solo player, the grouping player, the PVP (Player-Versus-Player) player, the guild member player, along with both deep and shallow gameplay. Complex achievement ladders must be organised, to, in effect, split the players into different groups of players who can come together to achieve one main goal. One good example of where an MMO has achieved this is World of Warcraft, which has a complex system of ways to group players, such as Parties, Friends, Guild, Local Area, Zone, Continent, and Faction. This helps to manage players effectively, and providing players with tools such as the Friend system also means that the players can solve many intra-player conflicts themselves using things like the Block and Ignore commands, hence reducing problems for Game Masters.

The game artists also encounter many problems when creating an MMO, since they want as many people as possible to play the game – having to make the game as simple as possible in terms of graphical intensity – but still aesthetically pleasing and attractive. To solve this problem they can create very simple models which have low poly counts and use texturing as a method to show detail in said models. Another way to solve this problem is the way that was chosen by CCP, developers of EVE Online – who released two different clients, one simple, and one for more powerful computers, meaning they can reach out to the widest audience at one time. However, considerations must still be taken into account for people who many not have such graphically powerful computers, and fast internet connections. Furthermore database management is a large issue for MMO artists, as usually a large amount of artwork will be created. The answer to this lies in good management and staffing and can be solved with referencing and using the simplest of practices such as practical file naming and organisation systems.

As far as MMO Gamers go, there are three main types – Hardcore, Moderate and Mass Market (Casual). Hardcore players are the most loyal usually, and are more forgiving of instability in games. They are also less likely to be scared off by subscription fees, since if a large amount of their time is spent playing MMOs, they will not be bothered by spending a larger proportion of their budget on MMOs – which is the main difference between them and the Moderate gamers. The mass market are the area of the market who are unlikely to participate in subscription games, will not be interested in and sort of Beta testing of games, and tend to have shorter gaming spans than the other percentage of the market. The market make-up is comprised of 70% Mass Market or Casual gamers, 20% Moderate gamers and 10% Harcore gamers, with the revenue generation being split in the same way. As an MMO designer, it is important to study these models in such a way to maintain a healthy gamer lifecycle. The (ideal) expected cycle goes as follows:

  • Less than One Month – Confusion – Don’t know how the game works, may be confused about the user interface or how to move around in the game. Studies show that the “player is 90% more likely to stay through the confusion stage if they receive effective help.”
  • Two to Four months – Excitement – learning about background story of the game and making social contacts. It is expected that if the player makes enough social contacts, for example joins a guild, they will move to the involvement stage.
  • Four Months to Four (Plus) Years – Involvement – Community involvement, takes part in large story events and team based events.
  • Two to Four Months – Boredom – Lose contact with community, no new content or features.

 

It is necessary to avoid this boredom stage in order to ensure the players will stay in the involvement stage, and, if the game requires subscription, keep paying, or if it doesn’t, tell their friends about the game and encourage more people to play. The way to avoid this boredom stage is to release new patches and/or expansions regularly, as seen by many common MMOs such as EVE Online, and smaller MOGs such as Team Fortress 2 or Left 4 Dead. These patches are also used to fix bugs and exploits that have been found by the player since the last patch. This helps rejuvenate interest in the game, and may even encourage new players, or coax back old players who have since left. Once all these issues have been addressed, the development of the game can begin, which usually follows this standard format:

Prototyping
Asset Creation
Live Development
Testing
Launch

Another issue which must be considered in the design of an MMO is what type of player interaction will be taking place. For example, will the players be working together against Artificial Intelligence, or will they be working against each other? There are many standard types of gameplay, with the standard single player game being a case of a single player against the game, but they are not much different once you enter the realm of the MMO. There is obviously the Player Versus Player element, but this can come in other forms except just one player vs another player, such as Team vs Team (ie Team Deathmatch, Unreal Tournament/Team Fortress 2), one player versus a team of other player – called Unilateral competition, Everyone vs Everyone – called Multilateral competition, a team of players vs the game, or players individually competing against the game but in the competition of each other.

Once this has been decided, the architecture of the game must be decided, such as how many zones there will be, and how many end game events such as dungeons there will be. Furthermore these dungeons must be connected to the world in a way to ensure that the players will only be able to reach the dungeons which are applicable to them. A good example of this can be seen in World of Warcraft, for example the low level dungeons such as Wailing Caverns or Rage Fire Chasm, which can be found either in the Capital city themselves, or just outside, as opposed to a higher level dungeon such as Onyxia’s Lair which can only be reached by higher level characters since the monsters roaming around that area are high level and so can kill lower levels. Furthermore, the players will often acquire quests which will direct them to the places they need to get to, to make sure they stay in the general area which is right for them.

The player should also know how they are supposed to reach these other areas, such as in EVE Online the use of menus, auto pilot and star gates in unison helps to make sure they know where they are going. The world should also be organised in such a way as to make sure not too many players are in one space at any one time, a problem which was encountered in World of Warcraft – who found that the players were congregating around the mail boxes, auction houses and banks in capital cities, which were often placed very near to one another. Since the Burning Crusade expansion, there are signs of attempted fixes of these problems, such as with the Blood Elf capital city of Silver Moon City, which has many more mail boxes dotted around, along with two auction houses and banks.

Combat systems often differ greatly from game to game, but most MMOs these days offer some sort of Lock On system, which ensures that the player will keep attacking the same target, and helps the player to maintain aggro from monsters and have a more strategic play style. This can be seen in EVE Online, which has a Lock On command once you are close enough to the ship you want to attack, and World of Warcraft, which has the Attack command, which will continue to attack the same target with a basic attack until it is turned off or interrupted by another command. There are also party tools to help co-ordinate attacks, useful for raiding, which help to for example to attack the same target as a particular player, or give you on screen alerts to tell you which mob the raid leader wishes you to attack at that particular time for most effective battles.

It is also necessary to provide the players with a large amount of quests in order to make sure that they will not be always doing the same thing as everyone else, to help them understand the lore of the game, and the encourage players who have quite a solitary play style to still continue with the game. Team based players can also enjoy a large amount of quests, since in most games there is the ability to search for other players who are also on the same quest as you, so you can party up with them.

To create a successful MMO it is necessary to examine which of these elements are necessary for the game, what new elements can be added and how they will work together to create the best possible gameplay for the user.

The technical design of new MMOs is a large issue,  since with each new player the Bandwidth and PC power needed to run the game increases. Therefore the architecture of the game must be organised in one of many ways, the main ones being Cluster Based Approach and the Zone Based Approach. Precautions must be taken to reduce bandwidth usage, but this can affect gameplay, for example reducing the amount of messages sent to the host will reduce quality of interaction between the user and the environment. Strategies can also be used to mask latency, often used in fast paced games such as First person Shooters, such as extrapolation and interpolation on client side or latency compensation on the server side.

Interaction modelling is also a important issue for MMO design, since it helps to calculate what is being done, how urgent it is for that to be done right now, and then enables processes accordingly.

A major part of why people play MMOs is the community and social aspect of the game, which is why the designers of the game are required to focus a lot of energy into this, even before the game has been released.  These communities can come under many different categories including Guilds/Clans/Corporations (which can also be in game and out of game), Server groups and Forum groups. There are many benefits to a player for being in a community, such as team chat facilities, organised events, and it can be useful to the developers if this occurs, since the guild members are more likely to sign up to games together, and will develop third party things which will promote the game such as Radio Stations, which is common in EVE Online.

If the community building begins before the game is released, that will encourage alot of people who are considering joining, to join. Forums are the main way of establishing these, and help the players to circulate the information they have about release dates etc to each other – increasing hype. In game community development tools are also useful, such as guild creation and support for these – including fansites and IRC channels – although it has been known for these clans and guilds to develop out of game, through tools such as forums or Valve’s STEAM – which has excellent tools for chatting, groups and organised events.

Communities help players to organise world events and raids, and tournaments in FPS games such as Counter Strike: Source through Steam. Voice chat is also a major part of communities and comes as part of many MMOs such as Steam Games or WoW, but the use of third party programs such as Team Speak or Ventrillo is usually more common due to the higher sound quality and the fact that this is less likely to affect game performance. Communities have been known to greatly interact with the designers to help maintain quality and performance in game, for example let them know when big raids are going to occur so that the GMs can provide more bandwidth for that particular area. It has been proven in the past in games such as EVE Online, that listening to the communities and giving them what they want is advantageous.

Customer Support is a major feature in MMO design, since it is imperative to please your players to ensure they will continue to play. Many services are provided to players in modern day MMOs such as altering their personal details, and their character – including changing servers and avatar appearance – as seen in World of Warcraft. Billing support also comes under the umbrella of Customer support, and most MMOs will give players the option of paying for 1, 3, or 6 months – often with a discount for the more time bought. Most credit cards and payment options should be available to players also, to open the game up to the widest audience available. Customer support is also provided with the use of Game Masters (GMs) who enforce rules in game, but also have their own rules to follow in the form of the GM Rulebook, which is often kept secret from players so it cannot be exploited, but includes common sense rules such as not killing players or causing a player to be killed, or altering loot tables so as not to upset the game economy – a hard thing to balance at the best of times. GMs are assigned to solve in game issues and usually have an easily identifiable avatar.  Good support is necessary in MMOs to make players feel valued and make them ultimately more likely to keep playing!

The revenue for MMOs doesn’t just come from the game itself, although this can come from both boxed versions of the game and downloads, through programs such as Steam, or getting the client from the website – and also the subscriptions for the game if that is applicable. Extra profits come from merchandising for the game posters, clothing, energy drinks, models and spin offs such as trading card games. Money also comes in from in game advertising, which is becoming increasingly popular as time goes by. Hiring volunteers and attempts to minimise piracy keep the costs down for developers, ensuring the highest revenue possible. This may seem like easy money for developers, but this can impact greatly on smaller games companies who may have to change their game to comply with the advertising, along with the fact that in game adverts can negetivly affect immersion in the game.

Recommended Reading

http://www.eveonline.com/news.asp?a=single&nid=2765&tid=1

http://www.ubergizmo.com/15/archives/2005/02/world_of_warcra_1.html

http://wow-europe.com

http://www.eveonline.com/

ftp://ftp.lambda.moo.mud.org/pub/MOO/papers/mudreport.txt – Richard Bartle

http://mud.co.uk/richard/

http://secondlife.com/

http://store.steampowered.com/stats/

http://www.mmogchart.com/

 

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