Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why You Can't Have Your Cake And Eat It

At the end of the NPC Creatures Populations post, I linked to an interesting read about MMORPGs; most importantly, it talked about holistic design in MMORPGs. Holistic design is one in which the developers realise that anything they change within the world will affect other parts of the world; and they try to design it so it will still work even after changing parts that could be broken.

The reason you're trying to keep your cake and eat it is because you're trying to satisfy two urges: the urge to eat that delicious source of dessertness, and the urge to keep the cake for later. MMORPGs
face a similar dilemma, in that they can't satisfy all the players; indeed, sometimes they can't satisfy some of the players, no matter what they do, because the players ask for contradicting things. On the one hand, players will want more money for themselves; they will ask for better drops, more item resale value and less money sinks. On the other hand, they don't want item price inflation, they don't want to have to farm their resources for long periods, and they certainly don't want the other players to have all this same, easy cash.

In a holistic MMORPG design, the developers would typically try to balance item drop and money sinks so that the players will like the drops they get, and still not acquire ridiculous amounts of cash. Holistic design is important to more than just money transfers, though. You want to balance realism in combat and balanced combat classes, otherwise you'll have cookie-cutter characters, who see no reason to differentiate themselves from the other pastries around them. But you will also want to balance realism and fun, because the market for players who want to immerse themselves in a true medieval experience, with the long hours, high taxes and constant hardships, isn't exactly flourishing.

Every feature should be well thought out before even getting a maybe at the meeting, to be completely certain that it will not go against previous decisions or other parts of the big system. Implementation of great concepts, in particular, shouldn't be thrown in because of their own merit, because they can have unexpected results on other parts of the system. For example, if you decide to implement monster migration, you'll want to make sure that your quest team won't assign players to kill creatures that have migrated away for the season; you'll want path finding for both short and long distances (your programmers will love you for that), and you'll want to make sure that the AI doesn't get stuck because there's unexpected elements in the way. There's tons of problems that could pop up if you don't consider the idea carefully.

The more a MMORPG tries to include a complex, living world, the more the players and developers realise that living organisms are actually quite weak things. Small mistakes, sometimes invisible to the naked eye, can cause long diseases and, in extreme cases, even death of an otherwise quite healthy game. Forget the arsenal of competitors, or even the sharp tongues of fanboyish detractors; your MMORPG is more likely to die because of small things attacking their health than because of bigger, visible threats to its longevity. And often, it's almost impossible to detect those threats before they're out of control, and any but the most well-thought attempts to fix the mistakes will remind you of the first rule of holistic design; anything you change can and will affect other parts of your world. So keep your wits about you, and think ahead as far as your collective intelligence scores will allow, because any mistake in wisdom can result in irreparable damage strong enough to even the most dexterous developers might not be able to dodge.

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