It is December of 2002, and Asheron’s Call 2 has been launched for a month. It is already clear that the game is not going to be a huge success, but I still want to work on it. I have pushed hard to get myself onto the AC2 Live Team (effectively giving myself a demotion from the more-prestigious Core Engineering team to do so). It is my first week on the newly-formed live team, and I am overhearing my boss, producer Ken Troop, talk on the phone to a friend.
Ken: “It’s just a more streamlined game. No, it still follows the important conventions of the genre. No, it…”
(other person talks for a while, Ken rubs his temples)
Ken: “No, you don’t have to buy arrows. But that doesn’t mean rangers have magical quivers… arrows are just abstracted away. Right… it’s just an abstraction. … No, not like that. I mean, you don’t have to sleep or use the bathroom either, right? And that’s not weird, right? That doesn’t mean you have magical bowels, we’ve just abstracted… right. Same with arrows.”
(other person talks for a while)
Ken: “No, there’s no encumbrance in AC2. That’s abstracted away too. It’s… no, seriously, listen, it’s not important. It’s just not. … Yes. Right. Nobody complains in EverQuest when tiny pixies drop 100 pound maces. They should have been over-encumbered, right? That’s… exactly! It’s the same thing! It’s an abstraction!”
This went on for a while. And I gotta tell you, I was completely on the side of the guy giving Ken a hard time. I asked myself why I was working on a game that didn’t even have encumbrance penalties.
I mean, I liked AC2, but I fervently wished it hadn’t done those cheesy “video gamey” abstractions. It made no sense to me that there weren’t arrows to buy. And the lack of encumbrance meant I could literally carry two or three house’s worth of furniture on my person and it didn’t slow me down at all. How stupid was that? I could really see the benefit of some of the other streamlining that AC2 did, but some of it just felt “cheesy.” And the quest NPCs had huge question marks over their heads? What the heck?! I knew many gaming friends who refused to play AC2 because of these sorts of cheesy, broken things.
A few years later, when WoW came out, we discovered that it had stolen all the best things from every MMO to date. What did it take from AC2? NPCs with question marks over their heads, for one. (Though they improved that concept about a million times beyond what AC2 had done, to be clear.) Their inventory system also lacked encumbrance, just like AC2’s did… even though all the other big players at the time, like Dark Age of Camelot, had intricate encumbrance systems. But one thing they didn’t take from AC2 was abstracted ammunition. You still had to buy arrows. And that was probably a good call, because that was still too taboo.
To modern WoW players this probably seems ridiculous. In fact, I understand the WoW live team is working to remove ammunition from the game, abstracting it away, because it causes them balancing headaches at very high level. Nobody seems to be screaming that doing so will kill verisimilitude. Anymore.
So when did this change, and why? If you’ve been around MMOs for a decade or more, your first thought may be that “games are just too easy now.” But that’s not really relevant at all. Having to buy arrows wasn’t about making the game harder — it was about meeting genre expectations.
Genre Conventions Are The Key
Back when EverQuest 1 launched, they also implemented restrictions on ammunition, harsh encumbrance penalties, and so on. At nighttime in the game, the whole screen turned dark. It got so dark that your screen would literally be pitch black unless you had a torch or night-vision. Sounds like EQ1 was trying to be a gritty, realistic game, right? Nah… they were mostly just parroting the expectations of the hardcore MUD culture at that time. Wherever MUD culture had a genre expectation, they followed it. But in any other area, EverQuest happily implemented crazy-ass designs and nobody batted an eye.
The EQ1 Bard is a great example. The bard could play three different songs at the same time, switching from song to song every few seconds, in order to keep the magical effects of all three songs going at once — such as a gentle melody to heal allies, a dramatic march to boost damage, and a discordant song that made monsters wince in pain. All played at once. (Thank goodness bards didn’t create actual in-game music — talk about wincing in pain!) To stretch things even further, a bard could instead opt to make some melee attacks in lieu of a song or two, rapidly switching between foppish musician and deadly swordsman every four or five seconds. This was completely acceptable to players. This did not break our expectations of the genre. In short, we were cool with this.
On the other hand, we would not have been cool with an archer who didn’t have to count every arrow. Talk about overpowered! If an archer could just shoot his arrows all day without having to buy more!? Nevermind that archery wasn’t a particularly effective skill in early EverQuest 1 — infinite ammo still just couldn’t have been tolerated.
The difference is genre expectations.
WoW Sets New Genre Conventions
In the past, many conventions were quite established after decades of MUD play. Since EverQuest brought in a lot of MUDders, it was difficult to break those conventions. But WoW changed that a lot. WoW was intended to be enjoyed by the same MMO culture that was enjoying EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot, but it turned out that those players were dwarfed by the millions of new people that showed up to play WoW. Many of the old, well-established conventions were washed away in an instant, never to return. Now WoW itself has set many of the genre’s conventions.
For instance, quest-givers are always specially denoted now — you don’t have to just walk up to every single NPC in the universe and click them to see what they do anymore.
As another example, WoW created user-interface conventions in a field that previously had no set conventions. It’s now a given that if you drag an item from your inventory into the main GUI scene, you are attempting to destroy it, not drop it on the ground or wield it or whatever other random thing previous games did. And all modern MMOs need a compass that is also a mini-radar. All modern MMOs let you right-click to attack enemies (a user-interface pattern that was completely unheard of before WoW, by the way). And so on.
Unless you’re one of the few people who reminisces about EQ1’s first-person camera perspective, these WoW user-interface conventions are a good thing. In fact, most of WoW’s influence on the genre has been positive — more positive than they could have imagined.
Make no mistake, though: WoW did follow most of the subtle conventions of its time. It’s just that players who weren’t around a decade ago won’t even recognize them. For instance, I remember arguing vehemently about whether AC2’s “fighter” classes should be able to use all melee weapons. Of course they should! This was the DikuMud norm, inherited straight from Dungeons and Dragons: your game had to have something that could pass as a “fighter” archetype, and he had to be able to wield spears, swords, maces, axes, daggers, you name it. If a fighter couldn’t eventually learn to wield all the traditional melee weapons, then the game was stupid and broken. WoW followed this convention with its Warrior, too, because otherwise WoW would have seemed stupid and broken to existing MMO players. But nowadays, if a new game comes out where only staff-warriors can use staves and only swordsmen can use swords, that’s completely acceptable.
Why did this change? In old games, useful weapons were hard to find, and when you found one it would have been randomly chosen from many different weapon categories. So you might literally be unable to find a useful weapon for many levels unless you could use many different types of weapons. Giving fighters access to many weapon categories was an important, well-understood class benefit. Rogues, who did more damage overall, couldn’t use as many kinds of weapons so they had a harder time finding equipment upgrades — this was part of class balance! Nowadays, MMO loot doesn’t work like that. The traditional D&D fighter has stopped being a genre requirement — and nobody cares anymore.
To its credit, WoW was definitely trying to diminish the genre conventions of its time. But it ultimately played it pretty conservatively. Blizzard couldn’t have imagined the effect they actually had on the genre: all these millions of new players never knew the old MUD conventions. They wiped much of the slate clean.
Are There Restrictive Conventions Left?
So are there genre conventions left? Oh yes. Plenty. A few random examples:
- Game activities are mostly location-based. For instance, you have to go to an auction house to bid on items, which means you can’t be fighting monsters while you shop.
- Players move at a relatively sedate and “realistic” speed. (In earlier games this wasn’t necessarily true; in Asheron’s Call 1, players with the right character configuration could run at about 35 mph, sustained forever. This would seem weird and stupid in a modern game.)
- Attacks do not use real physics — you cannot sidestep a projectile; it either hits you or it doesn’t, and that’s determined before the arrow even enters the air. (This is another thing that games experimented with earlier, but would feel weird now.)
- You cannot tab-select creatures that are behind your character. You must manually orient your avatar towards whatever you’re attacking or you can’t attack it.
- Players can trivially die by falling off of cliffs. It’s accepted that avatar movement is purely a player skill, not a character skill.
And tons more. The genre is still full of conventions… hell, you could argue that a genre is defined by its conventions; without them, it’s not even a genre.
However, these conventions aren’t nearly as mandatory as old conventions were. I’m not 100% sure why that is, but it’s true. Suppose you created a game where players could run at three times the speed WoW characters do. You’d probably get some gentle mocking. Reviewers would mention how “unrealistic” it was. But it wouldn’t ruin your game. The producer of your game probably wouldn’t have to defend this design choice to his friends, like Mr. Troop had to do about “abstracted” arrows. At worst, only a small percentage of hardcores would refuse to play over that… whereas in the past, most of the audience was the “hardcores”.
So these conventions are no longer a straitjacket — they’re mostly just expectations, not requirements.
Conventions Hamper Imagination
Nowadays, the bigger restriction imposed by these conventions is in limiting designer’s imagination, because they are too often taken for granted. When you design a fantasy MMO, you might not even spend a moment of time to consider whether it has auction houses or not: of course it does! (Even if it’s a sci-fi game, it still seems to have fixed locations where the auctioning takes place.) Now don’t get me wrong, there are good practical reasons to want to bring people together in city hubs. I don’t think we should throw out location-based activities on a whim. But if you’re a designer who implements auction houses without a strong understanding of why you’re doing it, then you’re just parroting, not designing.
Back in the day, AC1 let you run 35 mph because the engine couldn’t implement mounts. By contrast, when WoW made you walk really slowly, it was for the opposite reason: they had cool mounts and they needed the mounts’ faster movement-rates to be a tantalizing incentive. There are reasons for all the conventions, and many of the reasonings are still valid for most new games — but sometimes those reasons won’t apply to your specific game. And worse, there are plenty of conventions whose reasoning has been lost to the mists of time and doesn’t make a lot of sense anymore. Yet designers parrot them anyway.
Why can’t you tab-select things behind you, and have your character automatically rotate to face any enemy they attack? In other words, why should players ever have to see a “You are facing the wrong way!” error message? WoW implemented it the way they did because they were following a pre-existing genre convention set by EverQuest. But EverQuest was a first-person game. Having a first-person camera spin suddenly without your direct control will make you seasick fast. With WoW’s third-person camera, there’s much less reason for players to micro-manage which way their character faces — and unless it’s somehow fun in your game, you should consider removing it. (And yes, this has been done before: both AC1 and AC2 auto-turned your character to face your opponent, and it worked fine. But EverQuest was much more popular, so its system became the permanent genre convention, even though it was originally designed for first-person camera schemes!)
Similarly, game engineers have known how to let characters edge-slide along cliffs for at least fifteen years now… there’s no particular reason that players should be allowed to accidentally plummet to their doom because they pressed the arrow key a bit too long. Prior to EverQuest (a first-person-perspective game, remember), any MMO that let you trivially walk off a cliff to your death would have been considered pretty hardcore. Now even the most “casual” games have this “feature”. It’s kind of dumb and unnecessary.
If you feel anger rising in the back of your throat now, and have a strong urge to denounce these suggestions — “of course turning to face your opponent is necessary! It’s <insert hollow excuse here>”, then you are probably feeling exactly how I did about abstracted arrows in AC2. But resist your urge to defend the status quo… at least without doing some serious consideration and introspection first. People who choose to become MMO designers tend to be pretty hardcore, and the hardcore can have a hard time seeing beyond genre conventions. Game designers aren’t super scientific by our nature, but we can sure make up scientific-sounding reasons for why things are the way they are. If I had a buck for every MMO feature that was “required to ensure a plausible world feel” that is now missing from WoW, I’d have like… $20. Which isn’t a lot of money, but is a lot of examples.
I admit it: it’s hard to look beyond what you’ve always known and seriously consider other implementations. But this is an exciting time to make MMOs because, unlike 2002, if you find a better way to do something, most players will follow along. Very few, percentage-wise, will get hung up on the old way of doing things.
I’m serious. In this more enlightened era, your game won’t automatically fail because you let characters edge-slide along cliffs instead of plummeting to their doom. Designers are the reason these conventions remain in place now… not players.
Choose Your Conventions
So genre conventions still exist, but they’re just the default. If you have a good reason not to follow them, don’t follow them. You won’t get boycotted because you didn’t support right-click-to-attack, as long as your design is as good or better. Think carefully about what conventions you are following, and why. You no longer need to parrot conventions to keep some nerdy MUD players happy. Make great games instead.