Do you like being a small cog in a big machine?

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

- Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy

Discussing raid sizes yesterday, it’s clear that some people just enjoy the experience of large raids. Milling around with tens or even hundreds of other people brings out the massive size of an MMO. But the experience can also be dull and impersonal. (Not as impersonal as people often think though – I knew every member of the team when I was officer for a 40 man raid.)

PvP has similar issues. Some people adore the huge city or fortress siege operations where half the server turns up to join in the fun. Others prefer the steel cage death match of a three man arena team. Or even hunting solo.

And it doesn’t stop at group activities. Some MMOs offer a vast virtual world to explore, where you can run for ten minutes in any direction without seeing a town or city. Others are more focussed (Aion comes to mind) and the zones are simply bunches of mobs and quests laid out in an interesting pattern — but at least you won’t get lost.

Then there is the economy. EVE offers a truly vast economy, where players can make every item (just about) that is available in game. They have day traders, haulage, and lots of scope for deep play by traders and manufacturers. Games like Guild Wars barely have crafting at all and trading is done via shouting on city channels.

Single player games typically offer a very crafted experience. The player starts at the beginning, goes on to the end, and then stops. In a single player RPG, the world exists purely to serve the needs of the game or the story. Games which have a large world to explore are rare. But in MMOs, you have a chance to be a small cog in a big wheel – the game is big, and you are small. There are many other players and you are just one. I wonder, though, if this aspect of game design is changing and perhaps players are less interested in being dwarfed (both physically and in terms of content) by a huge virtual world.

  • Do you like a game world to be so large that you will get lost when first learning your way around?
  • Do you like that there are so many possible activities that you will probably never be able to do them all?
  • Does it bother you if there is content that other people do and you can’t (assuming you have enough to do to justify whatever you are paying for the game)?
  • Do you like having lots of options (for example: massive raids, large raids, small raids, instances, solo) or would you prefer a more streamlined experience?
  • Do you like to feel totally immersed in the game world?
  • Do you like to feel like a small cog in a big machine? To be part of a larger virtual society?

Can we really have puzzles in MMOs?

One of the strange things we have learned via the internet is that if you get a massive amount of people together and challenge them to solve a problem, the answer will circulate very very quickly. It’s because those dratted players will talk to each other and cooperate, or post up answers on websites, or write addons to tell you the answer. Who’d have thought that a massively multiplayer online game might end up with massive amounts of people communicating? Not early MMO developers, that’s for sure.

Of course, in the beginning it didn’t really matter because the main puzzle that people faced was how to grind seven zillion rats (in a group, naturally) without dying of boredom. But when games like WoW leaned more and more heavily on quests, then suddenly websites and databases sprung up to list all the answers to every quest and loot related question ever made.  In some ways, we should thank MMOs for leading the way with social networking, crowdsourced answers, and encouraging massive amounts of people to use the internet cooperatively to solve common problems. I find that quite a sobering thought.

Today, players are just as likely to look up the answer to an in-game puzzle as to actually try it themselves. Andrew @Of Teeth and Claws laments the rise of people looking up answers in games. And if you’re uncomfortable with that, the greatest torment of all is that it has become for many people the default way of handling online quests. Get lost or confused for more than a second? Just look it up. And if you can’t look it up then complain that the quest is unfair or too difficult! The only real puzzle left is where best to find the information.

A puzzle in this context can include strategies for beating new raids or instances. It can include optimal ways to level or to spec. It can include map addons. It can include answers to just about any problem that devs probably thought people might want to figure out on their own. In a milieu where guides to new 5 man instances are posted the day after they have been put up on a test server in another continent, where people data-mine new patches to inform the playerbase well in advance what’s on the horizon, it feels as though actually getting to solve a puzzle yourself is the ultimate luxury. Unless you are strong willed enough to avoid all the spoilers.

But even though we now understand that players will in fact talk to each other, I still see scope for puzzles in our MMOs. We can still have content that makes us think. It just requires a more lateral approach – MMOs need to ditch the debris of the old fashioned zork-alikes which depended so heavily on mazes and puzzle solving and embrace what they’re actually good at. We need devs to design massively, and players to think massively. Here’s some thoughts I had on puzzles that will entertain players just as well in MMOs as in single player games, if not better.

Puzzles that require collaboration

The easiest way to make a puzzle that needs a lot of people to work together to solve it is to give each of them a piece of the solution. Players enjoy working with others to create something or solve something, as long as they don’t have to be totally dependent on the other players. You can imagine mass collection quests where players can pool the information that they have collected or race against another team to complete mass scavenger hunts.

For example Mythic have run some fun PR events for Warhammer where they sent different clues to several different bloggers (who all blogged about it, naturally), letting all their readers in on trying to work out what was going on.

Working together doesn’t always require puzzle solving. For example, the Quel’Danas quests in TBC where all the daily quests done by every player helped to build the next stage of the city were very popular. People felt as though they were collaborating to unlock new content, without ever having to actually … collaborate. But it wouldn’t have been difficult to incorporate some kind of puzzle into the event.

The other form of collaboration of course is to incorporate the wowhead style databases into the game itself. Make filling out the answers and helping other players with information an actual part of the game.

Puzzles that no one will bother to spoil

If PvE is all about puzzles, then why hasn’t absolutely everything been broken down and posted? Because no one can be bothered to describe every single trash pull in an instance, or the minutae of how to get around an obstacle. Some puzzles are ignored, not because they are always trivial but because they aren’t directly attached to a quest or raid boss.

As a tank, every single pull in an instance is a sort of puzzle. The group needs to decide kill order, the puller needs to decide how to most safely bring the mobs to the players, and every other person in the group has to do some puzzle solving along the way. In some ways, pulling is the perfect MMO puzzle. It needs some situational awareness, can use line of sight or obstacles, needs the player to know a bit about the mob’s capabilities and their own capabilities, and can all go horribly wrong if it isn’t done properly.

This is the core of group play and it remains mostly unspoiled, at least for the first few times through. But it is true that current class design leaves a lot of this type of puzzle to the tank/ leader.

Puzzles that don’t really have one right answer

One of the problems I have with quests to model RL problems is the implication that all problems can be easily and neatly solved. But what about moral or ethical issues which have no single answer and where players will have to deal with the fallout of their own choices. We’re becoming more used to this type of problem in single player games as they become more sophisticated, but what about MMOs?

Sometimes the real puzzle is not how to solve the actual quest but to work out how to deal with the aftermath. Imagine you are sent to rescue some lost envoy and find that they are dead but their young son survived and needs to be brought home to safety. Up till now, games have thugged this type of quest out with unpopular escort missions but that’s because they haven’t really spent much time modelling what you’d have to do to look after a lost and frightened person and bring them safely home other than by fighting various spawns or patrols. And then … what do you do with them when you do get back to a place of safety?

I’m reminded of the various smart storytelling techniques we developed to solve the problem in tabletop games of: How can you run a mystery type scenario when there are player characters with telepathy? (It’s the same problem actually – if you assume PCs will instantly know the answer to any puzzle, how can you still make the game interesting and intriguing for them?)

Randomising Puzzles

What if players were each given different puzzles to solve? Or if one puzzle could have many different answers?

This is the category where randomised instances, randomised quests, and bosses that have several sets of random abilities come in. It isn’t possible for there to be one true answer because the question itself changes from day to day. Even if the only puzzle left is ‘which set of random abilities will we get today?’ that still requires some thought, adaptation, and preparation.

The drawback is that there can be balance issues – what if the randomised instance assumes abilities that the group doesn’t have? What if some classes or players adapt better to randomised content than others? And also the randomised content isn’t as polished as hand crafted instances and puzzles.  This may be a small price to pay for access to fresh puzzles, instances, and bosses.

Massive Amounts of Puzzles

There are so many puzzles that it just isn’t possible to keep up with them all, or at least it’s always possible to find something new. This would be where player created content enters the fray. Give players the ability to design scenarios, instances, levels or puzzles and they’ll come up with a vast array of content. Much of it will be rubbish but even sorting through the possibilities to find the gems will keep a lot of people happily occupied.

Constantly Evolving Puzzles

The puzzle is complex and chaotic in nature and it’s very sensitive to conditions which change either with player activity or with tweaks in every patch. Even though a player may have solved it once, there will probably be a different solution next week or next month.

For an example of this, look at the amount of work that goes into figuring out optimal dps rotations in WoW. This is a sensitive and chaotic problem. It can change when new gear is introduced. It can change when new abilities are introduced or existing abilities are tweaked. It can change when new encounters are introduced. It can change depending on which other players are in the group and what they are doing.

I hope and believe that at least some of these types of problem will make up a lot of future MMO gameplay. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether people actually like puzzles in their games or not? Or would they prefer a more predictable setting where no thinking is required beyond ‘what should I wear today?’

Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

What might our games might be like if we couldn’t communicate via text? It’s a difficult concept, because text based communication has been absolutely core to every MMO I’ve played. No guild chat? No whispers? No way to carry out multiple conversations at once? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if text chat is one of the big enablers of massive games. Without them, our communication is limited to the number of people we can reasonably see or hear at the same time.

But if consoles are going to be the next MMOified platform, this is a barrier that they will have to cross. Will it mean more voice chat? Will consoles get keyboards? Will we have to pick our texts from a list instead of being able to input them freeform? Does it matter? Is text an old medium that just slows our games down and adds more pointless information for players need to read?

As a society, we have a long, long history with text. Historically, Victorian text chat — or telegrams, as we like to call them– was the great enabler for the modern internet. And back in those days, if you needed to communicate with massive numbers of people, you put a text advert in the local paper or published a pamphlet.  (If you spend too long thinking about this, you can see why some people hail the printing press as the greatest invention in human history.)

  • Text carries a sense of permanence. Someone can read it later than the time at which it was written. It may not be much later if it is in a text box that scrolls off the screen, but communicating via text doesn’t mean that both the sender and receiver need to be time synchronised. Voice messages can also be stored but it is less convenient.
  • Text is fast, but voice is slow. It takes much longer to listen to someone speak a sentence than it would to read it. If we have to rely on voice for all communications, we simply won’t be able to pass on as much information in the same timescale.
  • Text is easily searchable. You can skim through a box of text to find the amusing typo and copy it to all your friends. Skimming through voice chats means listening all the way through, and hoping that someone has bothered to index which topic came up at what time so that you can fast forward.
  • Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people, chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone else standing next to you. Voice chat — not so much.
  • People can’t talk over each other in text. They may ignore each other, but you don’t have the issue of more than one person trying to talk at the same time.
  • Texts can mix private with public conversations. At the risk of embarassing mavs, you can have a private and a public conversation at the same time. This is why you can discuss your cat with your best friend at the same time as explaining a boss fight to your guild.

I wonder if text based chat is required for any kind of massive game experience. If we forcibly keep the group size small, then voice chat could totally replace it. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone outside the group but maybe that wouldn’t matter. If we make sure that all the information needed is provided by the game, then you might not need to explain fights to people. We could imagine using menus to select what we want to say from a list of options (ie. instead of typing), but that feels restrictive. Or maybe we can communicate via symbols, emotes, interpretive dance on screen?

Or, I suspect, the other alternative is that people still use text. They just find ways to do it outside the game. Maybe everyone has a netbook running IRC, or uses their iPhones to text each other instead. They chat via text boxes and bulletin boards and only log on to actually play instanced content.

Possibly console type MMOs just get less massive. Maybe you don’t need to talk to anyone outside your immediate group ever. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.