[This is the end of day #4 of TORTUROUS DEBUGGING. I'm just trying to get the game stable and playable on a real internet connection (instead of local LAN). I've tracked down most of the critical bugs, but two remain, and they are both apparently bugs in SmartFoxServer 2X. Worst case, I may have to rip SmartFox out entirely and plug some competitor in... which will take tons of time. This is so damned frustrating and so tedious. I thought for sure I'd be able to invite people to try the game out today... no dice. But while I bang my head against the wall for a fifth straight day, here's some other things to read.]
In my last blog post about group combat, Ross Smith made an astute comment:
are you sure you aren’t paying too much attention to group content? The further a game is toward the indie end of the indie-to-AAA scale, the lower its population is likely to be. For a small private project like Gorgon, I would have thought solo playability should be a higher priority than grouping, simply because you have to attract a substantial audience first before group content becomes viable.
It’s a good question. Based on the amount of time spent on it, I’m pretty confident that I’m not over-spending on group combat… it’s actually kind of gotten the shaft so far. :) But I do think it’s important for this game.
My game can’t be like the other MMOs you’ve played. I’ll be lucky to have 1/20th the number of quests as WoW. I’ll be lucky to have a fraction of the voice acting of SW:TOR. When it comes to the usual reasons why soloing is fun, my game will come up short. If your reason for playing is to stab monsters while seeing a story unfold, SW:TOR is a much better choice.
Systems Explorers Welcome
So I have to ask myself: what sort of person do I want playing my game? Why are they playing this game over another? To answer that, my game is trying to hit two basic gameplay styles, and any variants in between.
The first “target player” is a systems-explorer — somebody who likes to dig into little aspects of the game and see how they work. As they advance, they may find niches for themselves, where they dive deeper into one specific element of a game system. They might become, for instance, the best damned kimchi maker on the server, or the guy everybody goes to for curse removal, or whatever. (To make this work, I’ve had to do a fair amount of planning so that I can keep adding new game systems after the game launches, ideally one or two per month, so there’s always something new to explore and master.)
This gives soloing its main purpose, too. Instead of having a million kill-quests, you’ll often be soloing in order to collect stuff you need for these other systems. You’ll need to collect a lot of deer body parts in order to create Deer Golems, or gather honey from giant bees to make Giant Bee Mead, or so on. So I expect people to be soloing more often than not.
Small-Town Social Scene
The other target player is someone who’s attracted by the friendly small-town atmosphere they’ll hopefully find in this MMO. Werewolf howling is a good example system for this. Werewolves get benefits for howling near other wolves. It’s not difficult (just pressing a button), and you never have to talk to anybody to do it — just be near other werewolves. But my hope is that certain spots become general werewolf congregation spots, where they get together to Howl and chat, and then a few will go off to do something together. It’s very casual, and not nearly as anonymous as other games — you’ll see the same people each day, since it’s not like there’s millions of players! Hopefully you’ll make a few casual friends.
If neither of those two angles strikes a player’s fancy, I’m not yet sure why they would play my game. They still might! Nick Yee’s research on MMOs showed that there are many emergent reasons why players keep playing their favorite MMO. But I can’t plan for emergent motivations — I need to plan the big-ticket selling features first, and then adapt my plans as I see what happens.
So when it comes to planning the “back of the box features” for the game, I’ve been focusing on intricate crafting/creation/pet/NPC systems, and small-group combat/social mechanisms. But keep in mind that my groups are only 3 people. And players will be able to go back and solo group content later, and still get meaningful rewards for doing so.
But I haven’t sunk so many hours into group combat that I’m betting the farm on it, at least not yet. (On the other hand, I am already betting the farm that many of my players are interested in lots of intricate interconnected little game mechanics.)
Now, I’m going to go scream at the computer some more until the networking bugs are fixed. Screaming helps somehow! Otherwise, why would I be screaming?