Go Big or Go Home

“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!

This entry was posted in Design, Production, Project Gorgon. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Go Big or Go Home

  1. Fitdz says:

    I think you need to bin the NPC interaction stuff. It is a MMO and ultimately no one plays for the NPCs. Spend whatever art resources you have on items and player focussed stuff.

    You obviously will recall The Hub in AC which was the greatest market* in MMO history and will be able to count the NPCs involved.

    I would have vendors and maybe put some database type different behaviours (if you sell them lots of iron, theysell iron swords etc etc.) in there but don’t view NPCs as a big deal.

    Does this sound likely–>”You have to play Gorgon, they have great NPCs.”

    The other three, I don’t think you have much choice but to try for Bigness.

    *for young’uns – you had to /trade, there was no mail or auction house and there was no /2 to bother people with so you stood in this big mud walled room underground that had lots of portals and actually hawked your wares in person. Some people loved this. Some people loathed it more than seemed reasonable, but no one thought it was boring.

  2. Longasc says:

    I think you nailed it why even contemporary MMO juggernauts fail at PvP. The usual approach seems to tack it on top of a PvE game in instanced arenas/battlegrounds and create special rules and gear in a desperate attempt to balance it. For some reason people expect “balance” in trinity based DIKU MUD inspired MMOs as well, which IMO is innately impossible.

  3. Syl says:

    You’ve summed up so many basic dilemmas here I don’t even know what to say, unless maybe ‘so so true’. PvP in WoW was an afterthought from the start – and yet, considering that and how many countless times they have meddled and fiddled in this area, they still did better on balancing issues than other MMOs which supposedly have more PvP focus. I wonder sometime how big WoW PvP could’ve been if Blizzard had actually wanted to make a grand PvP game…

    Also, while I’d love to see more random loot again, special/rare crafted items and overall rare drops, this is a sort of backward wish: to up requirements again and create less accessible items is an outrage in the times we play in. everyone wants everything and the majority doesn’t think about tomorrow. the exact same thing can be said for the real world.

  4. BryanM says:

    > ”You have to play Gorgon, they have great NPCs.”

    It could be if it was a design goal. NPCs you could make fweinds with, employ to work for you, put babies into, enslave to build your castle, kill so you can get the delicious mineral node all to yourself, etc.

    … but if that isn’t the crux of the game, ye they wouldn’t even be silly little robots.

  5. mavis says:

    Of the four that you’ve listed – I’d say that the NPC’s are the one to go.

    The reason for this is that the other three all feedback round into each other. So skills affect items, items combat, and combat determines the skills you want. Where as NPC’s – there totally seperate.

    Oddly you could turn that arguement on it’s head – drop any one of those three and you’ve still got a core playable game AND you’ve get great NPC’s.

    I might be suffering from lack of vision – but great NPC’s speak of control of the game – leading it in the directions you want. Which sounds different to Emergent game play to me. So perhaps you should look at ways of removing NPC’s and allow other players to fill those roles.

  6. Steven says:

    Hi, reading your blog quite long (several years), and currently especially interested in your thoughts about your own Gorgon project.
    I see your frustrations in that you don’t know where to go with your game. So I wondered, have you got already any type of background information for your game? Any world story, any story at all?
    If you look up those guides on creating your own (fantasy)story or game, it lists exactly these questions first…before starting about characters and other details. It asks:
    – What kind of world is this in?
    – What story and background does it have?
    – Where will it develop into?
    – Which age /year?
    Often games can be directed in a certain direction when there is a clear storyline already available. This was the same mistake I made back in 2000 when I started a project with 60 people on a game or MMO. We had no storyline but a global idea of what we could put into this game. In the end we ended up with a concept with conflicting designs and no storyline where this would fit in. It was then also very hard to find a storyline that would fit to all the possibilities of our game concept and game engine concept.
    Simply said: you don’t really need an extensive skill system if your game is about flying spaceships.

    Also you need to find out about the direction of your game. Is it about getting max level and enjoy endgame content, than putting lots of time into how to get to max lvl might be uninteresting, while when you create a game that is about a lot of fun during the trip it takes in the story without much endgame, apart from replayability and crafting, than you might have to put a lot of time into making this happen.
    Without raids, big group dungeons and pvp I suppose you have to concentrate on certain systems that will be important for your game, but once again I will have to point you towards that story… it is the “everything” of your game. It has to make sense. Anything a player does in your game needs to make sense.. have a connection to the world and the background of the game and gamestory.
    NPC interaction can be very important for picking up quests, getting more story out to the player, and perhaps have hidden clues or hidden quests.

    I know as a coder myself I rather go and dive into coding mechanics straight away, but it is often much better to go back to the drawing board and spend some more time there before making the mechanics; implementing stuff at a later point can mean that by some change of plan, you have to recode half of your game again later (or website in my case).

    Could go on and on on this subject or give you some ideas, but will save those for later.

  7. Eric says:

    “You have to play Gorgon, they have great NPCs.”

    Yep, I do indeed think that’s a plausible thing to hear! At least, more plausible than “they have great combat.” NPCs are an uncharted wilderness of great game mechanics that nobody’s bothered to flesh out yet, so it’s a place where my game could shine.

    I’m talking about systemic content, not elaborate talk trees or what have you. It includes a system of “favors” to make NPCs like you — kind of Harvest-Moon-esque, and indeed you could “marry” an NPC if you worked long enough at it. But the more common reason to complete favors is that it factors into the prices that vendors will give you, the quests/rewards NPCs offer you, and the services they provide.

    NPCs in the game are tied into many skills: Fred the Barkeep sells drinks, but he’s also the world’s expert on brewing. If you got to know him well enough he’d teach you the skill. If you really got on his good side, he’d start giving you basic ingredients for free, to help you get started. But to do that you’d need to have earned the trust of his barkeep, his son, and his favorite customer, to really push his friendliness to the maximum.

    I think that NPCs can integrate into the rest of the game just as well as combat can, and can be a lot fresher and more interesting than we normally see. Even though they won’t have a lot of dialog or movement or so on… that’s not really what I’m talking about here. (Those things aren’t technically hard, in fact I already have talk trees for NPCs… but they take a ton of time to write content for. So I’m talking more about systemic content.)

  8. Eric says:

    @Steven – yeah, I have a backstory and a world concept… but they’re more defined by target audience. I think the real place to start is “what sort of person do I want to enjoy my game?” and from there, create a story and world that will help you make that person happy.

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