Picking Fun Game Verbs

When you’re designing a game, one of the key things you have to decide is what verbs are available to the player. “Verbs” in this context are anything a player can do at a conceptual level. Typical MMO verbs are things like attacking, running away, running around exploring, buffing people, taunting, and so on. Our traditional MMO verb list is pretty well established, and pretty dull.

Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary Nintendo designer, once explained that making a new Nintendo game involves picking the verbs first and adding context later, once you’re sure you have fun verbs. MMOs should be no different — during the planning stages you need to know why classes are fun, what powers players can look forward to as they advance, what neat tricks they’re going to be able to pull in dungeons and so on.

New verbs can make anything feel fresh. Want to make yet another fantasy MMO? No problem — just make sure it has lots of fresh new verbs!

Of course, there’s a reason we’ve settled into the limited set of “traditional” MMO verbs: they’re easy to code and easy to balance. The more we break the mold, the more work we have to do. But that’s the difference between an amazing new game and another me-too game.

Let’s look at some examples of fun but tricky verbs that some MMOs add to their repertoire:

Feigning Death in World of Warcraft

Feign Death: With feign death, the character falls over and pretends to be dead. This is a relatively low-tech verb, and shows up in lots of games. But even so, this one is rife with exploit conditions — detection-sphere issues if your game has server-side physics, for instance. Plus, you have to handle all sorts of special cases. If I kill 51% of a monster and then feign death, does the monster go back “on the market” so that anybody can attack it? If so, do I get any of the XP from the monster when it finally dies? You also have to work out how group aggro works in tandem with feign death, and many other special cases.

It’s actually a tricky and time-consuming verb to add. But it’s fun!

Invisibility: Another inherently fun power is invisibility. Developers fret about this a lot, because if a game has invisibility that means that every dungeon has to be designed with invisibility in mind. Important guards need to be able to “see invisibility” so they can keep players from just tromping through the whole dungeon without fighting anything. (Nevermind that this is exactly what the player expects invisibility to be good for!) Most games that give players invisibility go out of their way to dramatically limit its usefulness in PvE combat. But as long as there are still enough times where being invisible “pays off”, it’s a fun power for players to have. In EQ2, it’s a great way to go AFK — if you turn invisible, only a few of the wandering monsters will be able to detect you.

Flight in City of Heroes

Flight: The ability to fly is just inherently fun. You don’t even have to work at it, it’s just fun. But it’s not so easy to add. With flight, players can simply hop over those impenetrable mountains, skip the ambush up ahead, and go right to the boss. It takes a lot of careful planning to make flight a viable — but still useful and fun — game power.

An even bigger problem with flight is the engine requirements: most MMO engines simply can’t do flight very well. When you’re up in the air, you can see a lot further, which means a lot more scenery has to be rendered, which means the client engine needs to be that much more robust.

City of Heroes has flight, and it’s one of the most fun things about the game. They don’t cheat people out of it, either — flight really is often a useful shortcut to solving problems. This makes players feel clever. World of Warcraft has flight for its new expansion-pack areas.

Many games have “flight on rails” as a travel method — griffons in EQ2 and WoW, for instance. This isn’t the same thing at all, though you have to solve some of the same tech concerns in order to provide it. I will give EQ2′s version kudos, though, because you can jump off your griffon at any point in the travel. That gives you more options for getting places faster, and makes it feel less like a really long, unskippable cut-scene (which is what WoW’s griffon flights are). Of course, at low level, leaping off a high-flying griffon is basically a suicide jump …

Charming: This is another fun power that is terrifying to developers. “Wait, so players can just CHARM the guards into helping the players kill the boss? That’s an exploit, not a feature!” It just sets balance on its ear, making your pretty spreadsheet infinitely more complex. But it’s fun!

EQ2′s Coercer class can charm creatures and use them as pets. This is incredibly satisfying: you can charm a gnoll guard into attacking other nearby guards, killing two birds with one stone. Or if you’re feeling cruel, you can charm a baby spider into attacking its mother, so that momma has to kill its own offspring. (Coercers are an Evil class, after all!)

But it seems EQ2′s designers couldn’t stand how powerful this was (especially in a raid situation), so they’ve nerfed Coercers again and again. These days, Coercers have a hard time maintaining a charmed pet, and it’s not as much fun to play anymore. Too bad! Making this verb into a fun, yet balanced, mechanic is very tricky. (Though for the record, I think EQ2 is erring on the side of weak instead of fun.)

Taming is a controlled version of Charming. You can use this to bypass a monster (in the right circumstances), but usually the monster loses most of its powers once it’s tamed. Plus, there are always limitations on the creatures that can be tamed. Nevertheless, taming is a fun part of WoW, DAoC, and UO.

What are your game’s fun verbs going to be?

NEW VERBS are where it’s at. The game’s setting is much less important to me than what I get to do. I could easily enjoy another 20 fantasy MMO’s, as long as they all have fresh exciting new things for me to do! This is where designers’ creativity is really put to the test — can you invent a bunch of fun new gameplay options, and then reign them in so that they aren’t overpowered, but are still tons of fun?

Some other fun verbs to think about:

  • Transforming into a beast or monster (like AC2′s Alchemist or WoW’s Druid)
  • Controlling hordes of pets at once (like City of Villains’ Mastermind or AC2′s Elementalist)
  • Growing 50 feet tall — and becoming kick-ass as a result (instead of it just being a visual effect)
  • Controlling the in-game weather
  • Being able to create dopplegangers of yourself (like EQ2′s Illusionist)
  • Transportation powers like teleportation and portal summoning
  • Causing earthquakes on the terrain
  • Imprisoning your foes in alternate dimensions (like AC2′s Oubliette… interesting in PvP)
  • Controlling nearby water to create tidal waves on command
  • Creating long-range turrets that can decimate foes at distance (like AC2′s Tactician)
  • Powers that change with the season or time of day (becoming more powerful at night)
  • Innovative movement powers, like skiing downhill, leaping tall buildings, super-speed, or drilling through the ground (City of Heroes has many of these)

You can’t slip these sorts of verbs into your game at the last minute. You have to plan them ahead of time. So pick as many fun verbs for your game as possible. This is the designer’s chance to really shine. Worry less about balance and more about being amazing. Just be amazing! Almost everything else will be forgiven if you’re amazing.

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4 Responses to Picking Fun Game Verbs

  1. Azaroth says:

    Haha, good post. Amazing, even.

    I think taming got a raw deal on air time, though. Seems generic, usual, maybe even boring. But it can be a huge draw to demographics that aren’t necessarily traditional. It’s also something that can be made REALLY fun for people with a little imagination.

  2. Babs says:

    We use these devices in Simu games and they are pretty awesome. But of course, that’s text, and built for a different sort of player. Back then, the poor guy stuck in an earth-rumble while receiving a mean crit from a war troll was hardly ever concerned because it was a roleplaying game. A good slap upside the head of the caster was about all it took to get even and move on. I do not know, given the current evolution of “roleplay,” if this kind of thing would go over as well. Which is sad, as you’re right – soooo much flavor with stuff like this!

  3. HelenHandbasket says:

    You forgot “Diving”.

    Those bridges in Shoushi weren’t there for nothing. :)

    It wasn’t tactical or strategic, but it was really, really fun to see if you could make yourself twist around before plunging into the depths.

    I miss the unique AC2 classes. The healers/tanks, the basic DPS… not so much. But hivekeeper? tactician? mentalists?? Crazy, neat, inspired ideas that never got the chance they deserved (not for your lack of trying though… you fought the good fight).

  4. Thank you to those who offered advice. Is is a game that you have to fight in or can die if you do something wrong? Big Fish Games Fan.