“Go Big or Go Home.” I hate this phrase. But this comic made me realize it’s less intimidating than it sounds. Of course you can just go home! You don’t have to fight every battle. Sometimes it’s smarter not to go at all.
PvP: Hard to Do Well
PvP is a great example: if you’re going to have PvP in your game, it’s going to suck unless you Go Big. You need to invest a lot of time and thought and effort into it. If you don’t, you shouldn’t even bother: the PvP will be unappealing and it will hurt the rest of the game in the attempt.
That’s why my MMO “Gorgon” has no PvP. I can’t afford to “Go Big” on PvP. It’s not something I have any expertise in creating, it’s not something I particularly enjoy in an MMO… so it ended up being cut out of the schedule entirely. This will limit my audience, but that’s okay. I can’t make a game for everyone.
(Hey, I guess cutting features isn’t that hard after all! As long as they aren’t features you’re personally excited about…)
Item Systems: Hard to Do Well
In the discussion about item decay, it was pointed out that item decay is hard to do well. This is very true. I’d go so far as to say treasure systems in general are hard to do well. Most MMOs, including WoW, have rather boring item systems that don’t try very hard. They aren’t the heart of the game. A game like Diablo 2, on the other hand, where the item system is a large part of the game itself, tries very hard indeed.
A great item system requires random loot in many varieties, interesting trade-offs that are nonetheless easy to understand, the ability to customize and enhance your items, and a built in reason to keep looking for more loot. This is a very tall order. It’s easy to say you’re gonna do that, but it takes an incredibly long time to get the details right.
My current feeling is that I have to “Go Big” on my item/treasure system because the game has so many non-combat mechanics. All my systems need to feed into each other in intricate ways. Mushroom farmers, animal skinners, herbalists, necromancers, geologists — they’re all collecting or generating “stuff”, and it’s not always going to be directly useful to the skill they got it from.
At the moment, I think the item system ties the game mechanics together, so it needs to be deep… really deep. But I know firsthand how long that will really take to make happen, and I know it will be quite difficult to pull off.
Trade-Offs: Short-term vs. Long-term
Whenever I spend a day designing a system, that’s a day that I didn’t code a game mechanic or create a new quest or write a new NPC’s dialog. Being just one guy means no delegation of responsibilities. So can I really afford to “go big” on my item system? Well, not nearly as big as I want to.
But I also really hate the idea of launching the game without a robust item system — because that’s not something you can patch in later. I could launch with very little content and patch content in later (assuming the lack of content doesn’t kill the game outright). But the big-ticket game systems, like PvP or complex item systems, don’t get to change that much later, especially if your game is centered around emergent gameplay like mine is. Changing something so fundamental will alter everything, and players don’t generally enjoy this, because it destroys everybody’s game knowledge and treats them like paying beta-testers.
what I’m really deciding is: how good can my game ultimately be? When I examine each game system, I ask myself: “If the game is successful and gets thousands of paying players, am I going to hate myself for not having implemented this before the game launched?”
Go Big or Go Inevitably Sad But What Can You Do
Unfortunately, that doesn’t narrow it down enough. In my game, I want to focus on the skill system, the item system, the combat mechanics, and the NPC interaction system. If I short-change any one of these areas, I’ll be sad later. But I can’t give all four of these areas the attention they deserve.
This is a place where having a producer would be helpful: someone who could see the forest for the trees and help me decide how to spend my resources best.
I’ve talked about this problem many times on the blog: designers can’t make the best choices for the long-term when they get too invested in their game. And I’m just as susceptible to this as anyone else.
My natural inclination is to say “all four of those systems are critical. I just have to do them all to 100% perfection!” But were I to succumb to that, the game would fail. I don’t have time to implement all of those, and even if I did, it would mean the game lacked content or critical infrastructure. Something precious to me has to get cut. Many things, actually.
Seek External Help
At least I realize that I’m not able to make the best decisions in this case. So I’m not going to work on any of these systems this week: I’m going to code some other things to get my mind to switch gears. Then I’ll sit down with Sandra and pitch the problems in detail, discuss the exact plan, and get her to help me figure out what to cut.
I may have a slight advantage over the average indie developer here… but even if your wife isn’t an experienced MMO producer, I bet you can still find someone to pitch your problem to and get feedback from. It needs to be someone whose opinion you respect, and someone who can take the time to fully understand the problem. And you need to be detached enough from the problem to be able to deal with the feedback.
Not Just For Indies
I just want to reiterate that every MMO team I’ve ever seen has fallen victim to this, and sometimes they pull themselves together… and sometimes they can’t. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ve seen me ranting about WoW going off the rails: biting off more than they can chew, overpromising and underdelivering. If a game with the size and success of WoW can succumb to this problem, it’s not about money or team size.
Nobody wants to make the painful cuts, the ones that make your game less perfect than what you had in your head. This is true in any MMO, be it a AAA box title, a web game, or anywhere in between.
Sometimes ignoring the resource-allocation problem works out fine. Sometimes you get lucky. But lest we forget, only one in four MMOs gets from start to completion. And that’s announced MMOs. Who knows how many MMOs die before they even make a whimper? The odds are stacked heavily against you, and part of the problem is how hard it is to allocate resources.
If you think you’re immune, you’re probably wrong. (In my experience, the sort of personalities who are immune to this problem are not the sort of people who become game designers.)
If you think it doesn’t apply to your game, you’re probably wrong, too: you just don’t realize what you’re trading off yet!
Next Week: Can Talking About Engineering Ever Be Interesting?
So I’m currently working on low-level stuff that has to get done, like chat and persistence and generators and GUI. Join me next week when I desperately attempt to make networking code sound interesting!