So last time I posted about character progression, how it was a key characteristic of MMOs, and something clearly from D&D. The idea that your character is dynamic and grows in abilities and power over time is not unlike the level mechanic from AD&D of old.
This somewhat ties into what I feel is another key characteristic of MMOs, exploration. MMOs might remain in a fairly static game world, but the pull to explore this world is a major driving force for gameplay. Successful MMOs offer up a variety of environments, lands, and creatures to fight. That feeling when you move into a new area in the game world, and see the different art and environment which it possesses, ramps up the desire to see and explore more.
MMOs constantly thrive on pushing a player to explore more. To travel the game world and adventure. Fighting new monsters, investigating new dungeons, or just seeing the new sights, this is such an important part of the game experience. To remain in a uniform environment, with little variety of creatures and places to explore makes for a disastrous MMO. Variety is a must, simply because the players truly have a wanderlust and desire to explore these virtual worlds.
This dips a little into the story of the game world too, but I find it less so. Some might really want to know more about the history and lore of an MMO, while others might think it secondary. However, if you can structure the game lore to be something mysterious and engaging, it can be a definite plus. Something I think is key in understanding what makes a game enjoyable.
D&D caught on to this long ago. That excitement of opening a crypt and imagining the sights, smells, and sounds as your DM described the room. The choices of branching paths and doors to take, or the choice of heading back with a small bounty verses the thrill of exploring a set of ruins further for even greater treasure, it’s all such a powerful force for the game. I think exploration is such an important point of D&D and really taps into the feeling of traversing a wondrous world of fantasy.
This also touches on the characters players helm. Typically, they might have a precursory idea of their character when they first start. As they play and go through adventures, they learn more about themselves. They begin to explore more about what makes the character tick. A good DM will reinforce this process putting in elements of the character’s life into adventures, or at least put them into situations that make them make moral and ethical choices.
However, this is also one thing I think MMOs fall a little flat on. While a player can learn a little about legends and history of the game, maybe even align themselves with certain factions, most MMOs do not have the dynamic content to allow a character to explore who he (or she) is. I expect that this will be something that changes in the future. I completely expect MMOs to allow players to explore the different political and social interactions of different NPC groups. They’ll get wrapped up evolving stories where their choices make an impact on their play experience. I think it is that desire to explore and experience new things that will drive this. Something all ready that most players experience in their own D&D games right now.
Last time I posted about how adventure is a key component in D&D and MMOs. Another signature characteristic is character progression. Your avatar in the virtual world is not a static being. It is constantly changing and developing as you play in an MMO.
MMOs approach this different ways, but the concept of experience, levels, and the improvement of abilities and powers over time is undeniably an influence from D&D. I dare say this is likely the most important game design for an MMO. The advancement of abilities and skill, all keyed to playing time, is crucial to implement right. Have advancement too slow, and the game will seem repetitive where you feel as if you are going no where. Have it too rapid and eventually the novelty of all the new powers and skills wear off for the player. God forbid a player ‘hit the level cap’ or the ‘end game’ where they have no means to progress further, and eventually boredom creeps in.
Another means of progression is the acquisition of gear and items. Most MMOs have treasure and loot as an important part of the play experience. The acquisition of a new sword or armor, or obtaining some magic item from a quest. It is all a form of character progression. The player is constantly trying to obtain directly, or through in game resources (like coin and treasure), new items and gear. This is a huge draw to keeping a person playing, and again a form of character progression.
I think this has morphed over to other mini-games within MMOs. Crafting, fishing, and other non-combat pastimes a player can undertake in game. They are all types of character progression. The rewards may be small, but for many it is the draw to increase a skill by ‘just another 10 points’, or simply a means to gain other in game resources like gold (again for better gear and equipment).
I think the dirty little secret of a few MMO designers is that they have little regard for some players. I think these type of game design mechanics in MMOs tap into that desire for some to do repetitive tasks, over and over again, all to just see a number click over to the next digit. A lot of small mini-games in MMOs might be nothing better than treadmills, all so players can feel an accomplishment gaining a ‘skill’ increase.
I really feel this behavior latches onto the psychology of certain players. Mind you this is something clearly out there in plenty of other video games (take Bejeweled, Mafia Wars, or Farmville). However, as tedious as some people might find it, I clearly see it as some manner of character progression. And I think most MMOs would have subscribers clamoring for these mini-games if lacking in an MMO.
So progression, from gaining ungodly powers, to becoming a better cook, is such an important part of MMOs. The gradual development of abilities, your character becomes a dynamic creation and not something set in stone from day one. This is the constant push to reach that next ‘level’ to get a new power, or obtain that new set of armor that draws so many people to play MMOs.
You can’t deny the influence of D&D on this characteristic of MMOs. And I have to admit that D&D does implement a pretty good curve of advancement among the editions. The broadening of powers and abilities, it varies from edition to edition, but that experience of gaining a new level, getting new spells and abilities, all have a strong influence on a player’s desire to keep playing. That feature of D&D, where your character is not some static creation but something that grows and changes, is something that MMOs have tapped into. Clearly a nod to how important D&D has been on so many video games and MMOs out there now.
As I posted a bit earlier, I thought I’d list off a few things I think MMOs have taken from D&D. I think when you look at it from this perspective, you really see how the typical MMO game characteristics are very close to what you find in your typical D&D game.
A key point of most MMOs is something that D&D simply oozes from its books, adventure. Most MMOs just don’t have you act as a farmer. You’re not playing a medieval simulator where you work as a peon. You don’t sit around and make pottery all day. You are an adventurer. A hero. You’re exploring dank crypts and deep forests, fighting monsters. You’re a hero saving the world (or at least filling your pockets with treasure).
Granted some of these more mundane aspects have creeped into MMOs (something I’ll touch on later in another post). But the bread and butter of your game experience is fighting things. Combat is a huge part of the game play.
D&D is also all about fighting stuff. Kill monsters, do quests, earn XP and gain treasure. It’s a basic formula and I dare say most campaigns out there, even those with a strong story, still have a component of adventure and exciting melee. It’s something that D&D does very well.
You can have a campaign of political intrigue, where players talk their way through everything. But I think these games sort of show the flaws of D&D. It really does not sport a robust social conflict system, where you are able to fight out ideas and debates through words. I think skill challenges have provided a DM with a way of adding some game structure to non-combat actions, but it might not be as robust as other games.
Some folks might chide D&D for being a simplistic RPG because it doesn’t have these types of systems. I’ll give them a nod for having a point, but D&D does these types of RP situations poorly because it has an emphasis about adventure. And one facet of that adventure is fighting monsters. D&D does combat pretty darn well, and I think with 4E the tactical options for melees have raised a few notches making combats even more engaging.
Because this is such an integral part of game play, MMOs dedicated to fantasy games have followed suit. They’ve managed to latch on to that fun concept of the classic dungeon crawl. They’ve discovered the sheer glee of wading through a pile of monsters, hacking away, and emerging victorious.
Sure, you could be a MMO player that enjoys wandering around a city, crafting endless amounts of virtual junk, never stepping outside the city gates. But I can guarantee that if that was the only play aspect of an MMO, it would fail. People crave for excitement and adventure. The ability to jump into a world as a powerful wizard or a stalwart warrior has a strong pull. Something that MMOs have latched onto, and quite simply most folks that have played D&D found out a long time ago.
So MMOs have taken a page from D&D, and provided people with a way to find adventure. D&D laid the foundation of having people adopt a fantastic persona, and helm that character to have adventure. Something that obviously hit a resonance with many folks out there, as MMOs and video games have built on that idea and made it a staple of game play. More to come…
One comment some 4E haters say is that it plays like WoW. That the idea of having abilities based on a unit of time independent of the game day and more on a single fight is a lot like an MMO, with powers and cool downs. The concept of character roles, and the tactical feel of combat is closer to a video game, rather than the AD&D of old. I’m not going to fan up flames of an edition war, but I think folks need to look over that MMO impression of 4E a bit.
Seems a lot of folks will cry that World of Warcraft is the end all, be all of MMOs. Yeah, there was Ultima Online, and text-based MUDs beforehand, but let’s not completely forget about Everquest. Everquest pretty much ruled the fantasy MMOs being the first ‘3D’ world and was a huge success.
So I wouldn’t say that WoW was the most innovative MMO ever. It took a lot of game play ideas from it’s competitor at the time, Everquest, and pretty much improved on it 10-fold (not to mention the significant graphic boost WoW provided). Already you had a group of people grinding away in Everquest. Once WoW hit, folks took the jump and never looked back, with WoW being the fantasy MMO that has become the industry juggernaut it is today.
Looking at WoW and other MMOs out there, clearly they’ve tapped the pulse of a lot of people that like to play games. But is the game play that innovative? Were these video games a culmination of such unique ideas they were never used before? Of course not, and I’d push that many game design qualities of MMOs today are taken right from Dungeons and Dragons.
I think there are four common characteristics of most MMOs. These game design ideas are straight out of what made D&D unique as a role playing game. So over the next week or so, I’d like to talk about some key features of MMOs, and what they’ve taken from D&D. In the end I think we tend to forget the impact D&D had on the video gaming scene, and if anything, most MMOs are pale mimics of RPGs, not the other way around.
This is an interesting bit of news that has been circulating around the video game sites. According to an article in Business Management video games have been giving more traditional entertainment industries a run for their money with sales. Comparing the box office numbers of Avatar vs Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (see graphic below), each has taken in over 1 billion world wide in sales.
Even modest returns have gotten some notice with the movie industry. Batman: Arkham Asylum took in unit sales nearly 2 million within the first month (average $45 USD/unit = lots of cash). Warner Bros. decided to get in on the action and take a role in pushing out the sequel, dropping Eidos (the company that developed the game) as the middleman developer.
I notice in this splash page that little blurb on World of Warcraft. Nearly 100 million every month in sales. Everyone that has played D&D knows the inspiration for a lot of fantasy MMOs. Levels, classes, forming groups to battle monsters to gain treasure and magic items, at the core of a lot of these games you can see D&D’s fingerprints all over them. I’m certain there is a chunk of MMO players that cut their teeth on pen and paper RPGs, and moved to MMOs. At the same time, I am absolutely certain there are a young generation of folks that have experienced fantasy worlds solely through video games.
I think the big challenge for the RPG industry is to try and tap into this younger generation and, in a way, ‘take back’ the influence and inspiration D&D and many other RPGs have on MMOs. The incorporation of digital tools is a pretty good step. I’m hoping that that expands even further as improvement in technology allows for more interactive computers. However, I still think some efforts have to be made at an even younger age.
One of the strongest elements about D&D is the social aspect, and that everyone is gathered around the table top interacting with each other. Kid RPGs might be a good step. I think children find role playing a natural extension to a lot of normal play. But I think that boardgames are also a good introduction.
Something physical with miniatures to move around and colorful boards can spark imagination. Also, boardgames have a structured style where there is a winner and an end. It’s a concept that is a little easier to pick up over a continual story like most RPGs. Something that kids can sit down, play for an hour, and move on to something else would fit the bill nicely. I think some companies have picked up on this theme, and even WotC has jumped onto the bandwagon, which I think is a solid move.
I see entertainment growing from a passive form to something more interactive. I think the next big generation will be drawn to forms of entertainment where they are more involved in a story rather than just being an audience member. There is big money here too. So you can bet that industry types will be looking at getting into this market. I think the challenge to RPGs as an industry is to try and reclaim a bit of the very thing they helped create. I think without D&D, you would have never had an Everquest or World of Warcraft. The challenge will be to capture a younger generation that never knew about D&D, and reintroduce them to the world of pen and paper (likely a computer too) RPGs.