Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Downtime

Downtime, not the server one, but the in-game one, is a factor that has a large influence on an MMORPG's success (Although server downtime is also important, World of Warcraft is a good proof that it does not preclude success). I have discussed previously of World of Warcraft's convenience in every aspect of the game; rarely is a minute wasted in World of Warcraft because of a bad game design, or to force the player to slow down. If we look at other MMORPGs, like the Everquest or Lineage families, you can see that downtime is often prevalent in any combat activity: players have to sit for several minute between each fight just to recover their lost hit points and magic power. This is often a common cause for grief for players who wish the game was faster.

But really, what purpose does downtime server? The obvious answer is, to decrease the amount of cash and experience the player acquires, thus ensuring that they don't become rich or attain the maximum level too fast. World of Warcraft has little to no downtime most of the times, with the effect that the maximum level of 60 (70 after the expansion) is easy to achieve, and players have to deal with money sinks left and right, often having to farm their own money, or buy it from a third party source, just to be able to join in that twentieth dungeon raid.

What, then, can be done to reduce downtime, without damaging the quality of the game? One reasonable way is to make downtime a player's choice. A fighter who fights as a berserker will dispatch enemies faster, but might need more time to recover after the fight. It's the player's choice whether they endorse this tactic or not. One should be careful not to fall in the trap of having choices affecting a wider range of players; magic-users sometimes have downtime imposed on them, due to magic having to be replenished. If this trend is imposed too widely, it could incur a dissatisfaction with the magic-using classes, leading to players leaving their mages and healers for 'better' classes, i.e. those without the extra added downtime.

Another important concept within the idea of downtime is the ability to travel at great speeds. Whether there be mounts (horses, machines or golems), inter-city travel (teleporters, mass transit or pre-defined mount paths) or any other concept, these have to be balanced to offer the maximum convenience at a reasonable price (whether that price be cash or something else). New concepts, however, can be developed to improve travel experiences. Nature players like rangers and druids could be given skills which improve their walking speed in nature, or decreases the penalty in places that might slow it, like swamps or snow. Roads would become more than mere decorations if they offer players a possibility for faster travel. Mass transit could be defined as Ed offering rides on the back of his chariot as he rides back to his farm, or maybe Frank selling room on his teleportation spell to reduce his own costs.

What about hit points, magic powers and whatnot, can those reasonably be recovered without unbalancing the game? Blizzard offers the players the possibility to eat and drink to recover lost powers, but those are simply their way of enforcing another money sink so that players never amass too many riches at once. Cooking helps, as it should in a game that's about actual fun, but there can be more steps taken. Ultima Online had a meditation skill to recover lost mana points, and bandages (re-usable after washing) to recover hit points, mostly between fights.

Other methods can be applied as well, with careful consideration. Downtime should be reduced as much as it is necessary to improve the fun the game provides, but never to the detriment of game balance.

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