Most modern MMOs require the player to make very few permanent choices. Permanent choices cause stress, especially in games where players feel they need to make “the right choice” in order to be successful (or “viable” or “allowed in groups” or “ungankable” or…). But on the other hand, permanent choices cause players to bond more closely with their characters. Every game has some amount of permanent choices…
Almost all MMOs force players to pick their character’s sex, appearance, and name before they play. That’s not very stressful because players assume these attributes have basically no effect on gameplay. Whether they name themselves “Atrigorn” and “StabMasta”, whether they’re nine feet tall or two feet tall, players know they’ll be having precisely the same adventures and experiences as other players. So these choices are considered fluffy, unimportant aesthetic decisions. (Ha ha, but boy won’t they be surprised to find out that in my game, female characters whose names begin with a vowel get a +15% damage boost from fire magic! (Just kidding.))
The choice of a playable race is usually the first stressful choice a game forces on players. The typical character-creation GUIs will make a big deal about how “elves make great archers, but are poor at cooking” or “dwarves have innate gem sense, but they’re afraid of true love” or whatever random abilities and modifiers this game has glommed onto their races. Then the player has to try to figure out which of these races is going to be the most fun for the way they want to play — typically impossible if they haven’t actually played the game before.
The irony is that race selection is usually stressful for no good reason: that +5 bonus to archery or that special “gem sense” ability may have an effect early in the game, but they’re almost always meaningless by the time you’ve been playing a while.
That’s why race selection is often a poor implementation of a “permanent choice”: it’s stressful, but it doesn’t have enough payoff.
A more successful permanent choice is class selection. Picking a class is usually stressful too, but players get a lot of benefit for having made that choice. Each class can have unique skills, combat styles, quests, tutorials, and so on. When the payoff for picking a class is a more structured game, it’s usually worth the pain because the game is better as a result.
Older games had many more choices on hand — allocating “attribute points” or selecting “skill proficiencies” or so on. Most designers nowadays will shy away from making players pick this stuff early on, unless the game is intentionally trying for an old school D&D vibe. Why? Because these decisions are stressful, and very complicated, and the payoff isn’t very big. In some games it may be as small as a few percent extra damage per second. Contrast that to the payoff for picking a class, and there’s no comparison.
If you’re going to make players choose something permanent, it should be important. But maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree. Why make anything permanent? Because psychology, that’s why.
We’re Happier When We Can’t Change Our Minds
We’ve seen games where every single element of your character can be changed. If we’re trying to avoid stress, isn’t that the best solution?
Not really, not in the long term, and the reason is that our brains are pretty sketchily put together. We feel less stress after making a permanent decision than after making a changeable decision, because when it’s permanent, we can easily rationalize any small flaws in our choices. When we’re stuck with one thing, and then realize it’s not quite ideal, our brains kick into overdrive to give us reasons why that’s not such a bad thing after all. “I like playing slightly gimpy characters,” you might say. “I picked skills to match my character’s personality, so who cares if they’re slightly non-optimal,” you might say. Or you might use the ever popular “actually this character has a lot of hidden power, and there’s not as big a difference between the choices as it seems anyway.”
These rationalizations are all going to be true, to some extent. But rationalizations also help us gloss over problem areas. Our brain’s rationalization gland works best when we can’t change our minds anymore. If you can change your mind, you’ll keep poking at the decision, second-guessing yourself, wondering if you made the right choice. (That’s on average, of course. This phenomenon affects different people to different amounts, and not all problems can be rationalized.)
And the “stress” of double-thinking your choices isn’t always bad. For some game decisions, the whole point is to create impermanent choices that cause a pleasant kind of stress. For instance, deck-building games derive much of their fun from the constant mental re-evaluation of whether you’ve made the best choices or not.
I’m not saying that all decisions should be permanent — far from it. But you should avoid the natural tendency to give people a way out of their important decision “just in case.” The majority of the decisions in the game should be changeable. The others should be permanent.
And don’t be fooled by what people say they want. If you poll people, nearly everyone will say they prefer being able to back out of all decisions, but really they’re often much happier without.
[This psychological tendency to rationalize things we can't change is becoming relatively well-researched; for more info, start with Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. It's an incredibly accessible book and should be required reading for any game designer.]
Join the Club
Another aspect of permanent decisions is that it creates a group of like-minded people that you instantly have something in common with. The more important the decision is to you, the stronger this cliquishness is.
For instance, most people who play a certain class in WoW don’t really feel a lot of camaraderie with others who picked the same class — it’s not a very important decision. But if you picked being a Hunter specifically because you love taming and collecting pets, you’ll find communities of likeminded people who want to talk and play with you.
You’re Different — Just Like The Other People In The Club
These cliques form in order to have like-minded people to talk to, but they can also form around any decisions that help a character stand out from the crowd. The more exclusive the decision is, the more valuable it is to be a member of the resulting clique.
In real life, we see this same logic in fraternity hazing rituals: the more painful it is to belong to a club, the more valuable it is to the people in it.
If your game is going to have permanent and meaningful character choices, it can be useful to make some of the choices more painful than the rest. Players that willingly suffer such a hazing process will feel special, and will tend to bond with other people who are special just like them.
(Obviously this idea can be taken way too far. It has to be done pretty carefully in order to get good results.)
Project Gorgon: A Free-Form Classless Game…
When it comes to making permanent choices, I have a bit of a dilemma in my game. My game doesn’t have classes — it’s entirely skill based. And the skills are designed so that you can pick up lots and lots of them. I’m using skills as a tool to help structure the game’s content and lead people into it.
Here’s a real example: you might start out picking some mushrooms, which uses the Mushroom Picking skill. When you’ve reached a certain point in this skill, you discover an NPC that can teach you a new skill: one that lets you grow mushrooms in dark corners of caves and dungeons. From there you may branch off to the skill for creating fungus-based poisons, or maybe you’ll discover the ancient language of the long-lost fungus-people (which in turn will lead you to master their ancient art of growing to twice normal size). And so on.
All of these skills are under the “Mycology” super-skill. Anyone can dabble in any of these skills — after all, the skills are designed in tandem with the game’s content, and I only have so much time to create content, so I can’t really afford to block off big chunks of my game and say “oh no, you can’t experience this chunk of the game because you don’t have enough skill points.” That’s also antithetical to the target audience: the people I’m hoping to attract are the ones who want to discover a vast breadth of game mechanics (and won’t be too upset that most of those mechanics are pretty shallow). It’s aimed at explorers, in other words: people who want to explore the world, discovering new things, mastering new skills.
Okay, great. But what about differentiation? I mean if everyone can learn all skills, eventually everybody will be identical, right? That’s a classic worry, and generally pretty overblown due to how advancement curves and expansion packs work… but players will still worry about it. After some amount of time being “normal”, many people will feel the urge to be “different”.
They can do this by maxing out certain skills that have very steep progression curves — this is how people differentiate themselves in crafting skills in WoW, for instance: they push their chosen craft skill as far as it can go, which takes a lot more effort than most people are willing to put in. But that seems like only part of the answer.
So I’ve got another differentiation tool in mind: permanent game experiences that change and alter you. The ideal permanent decision is one that:
- Players can research at their leisure
- Can’t be undone, ever
- Has significant meaning to gameplay
- Isn’t something everybody would choose
- Has a somewhat painful initiation process
With that in mind, I’m planning to implement several content-based choices for players. Let me give you an example.
Under a Full Moon…
In a village near a small forest, the townsfolk constantly worry about werewolves. They come out during the full moon, and if they bite you, you’ll be cursed with the dread disease! There is a cure, but it has to be administered quickly to be effective. Once someone becomes a werewolf under the light of the full moon, their fate is sealed.
Actual game mechanics:
- “Werewolf” monsters appear in this forest, but only during the three days of the full moon (in real-world time).
- Players that are bit by these monsters have a chance to contract “lycanthropy incubation”. This disease doesn’t do anything to them — it just sits in their status window. But it doesn’t go away, even if the player dies.
- The NPC villagers can help a player create a cure for Lycanthropy Incubation. It takes an hour or so of effort to collect the herbs and ingredients. If they do this during the next month, the disease disappears completely.
- If the player doesn’t cure it before the next full moon, the incubation period ends and they are werewolves forever more. Every month during the 3-day period of the full moon, they involuntarily shape-shift into wolves.
- In wolf form, they have potent claw attacks, but they can’t wield most equipment. This makes it impossible to use many combat skills, such as swordsmanship or fire magic. Other skills are synergistic, though: players who have mastered ki healing can still use that skill as a wolf, for instance.
- Townsfolk generally refuse to interact with wolves in any way.
For the next three days, the player is kind of screwed if he had other plans: he won’t be crafting any armor or weaving any cloth, that’s for sure. He’ll discover a small enclave of werewolves in the forest, where some primitive necessities are available — buying and selling supplies, perhaps access to an auction house — and there may be a simple kill-quest or two here, but mostly, he’ll have to spend the next few days discovering what he can accomplish as a wolf.
When the full moon ends, he’ll be able to revert to normal form, with a few improvements (for instance, perhaps his “improved sense of smell” gives him a bonus in combat even as a humanoid; that sort of thing).
He can also transform back into a wolf at will — turning into a wolf is easy, in fact. But it takes effort to get out of wolf form. Reverting to humanoid form requires a skill check, so until the player increases their Stop Being a Wolf skill, they’ll end up stuck as a wolf for a while each time they transform. In a similar vein, wolves have several different combat abilities, but at first they’re mostly inaccessible — they have to be trained up. So using your wolf form as a day-to-day combat technique it will take effort to master those skills.
And every 29 days, the full moon comes again — and once again the player is forced to be a wolf for three days.
Decisions with Permanent Repercussions
Lycanthropy is one of three such choices that I intend to launch the game with. I hope to eventually do more than that — in fact I have 12 different ones planned, but the time constraints are very tight. These work well in live updates, though, so I intend to add more after the game is launched.
You probably get the general idea by now, so I won’t go into much detail about the “becoming a druid” or “selling your soul to a demon” choices. They all follow the same formula: it’s something you have to willingly fall into, it has potent up-sides, and it also has debilitating down-sides.
The net result of these changes is an increase in power, but a decrease in versatility. The player is thus choosing to specialize themselves. By doing so they also join a “club” — the club of players who also made the same choices. Hopefully this will end up being a fun mechanic and a way to help create social bonds in the game. Hopefully. But I don’t know for sure.
The Plan So Far
It feels a bit odd to talk about game mechanics like this before I’ve implemented them to get a feel for how fun they are. (I haven’t even gotten the bugs out of the “turning into a wolf” code yet.)
I’ve left out pages and pages of details that help bring the idea to a coherent whole — I’ve already spent way too long on this blog post, and it’s way too wordy as it is! But I’m still worried I’m omitting some detail whose absence makes the plan sound completely insane. So if something sounds crazy, it’s probably due to details I’ve left out… but then again, it may be because it’s crazy.
I’m not really worried about the little details, because they’ll all change during implementation. But I do have concern that the overall balance won’t be obtainable. It may be impossible to counterbalance the down-side of being stuck as a wolf every month. The up-side can only be made so good before it becomes too good. If players feel that they “have to become a werewolf to be competitive”, that defeats the whole point. I can’t really tell if I can balance these concepts until I implement them and get players to test it out.
But flexibility is the key. I’m confident that if my original plan isn’t fun, I can find something that is fun and fits the same goals. As always, I want to stress that an indie MMORPG must take risks and try new things. You have to enter uncharted territory. You can’t recreate WoW. WoW already did that. Try something new and iterate on it until it works.