We MMO players are a tricky bunch. As such we’re pretty hard to please in numbers, even though from time to time there are some great big successes which penetrate even the mainstream popular culture. Everquest almost did it, World of Warcraft is a recognized part of current popular culture.
But what makes a MMO click and tick in a way to make people to stick with it and stay with it, adamantly defending its strong points and absent mindedly forgetting the weak ones?
I guess its neigh impossible to say exactly what it is: one game does it brilliantly and captivates the player for good, while the same game causes the other player to twitch and shiver. And the games which have been successful have been copied with usually pretty disastrous results.
There are better and more knowledgeable people than me to do the scientific and in depth analysis’ on the subject, but from my own experience the reasons are pretty obvious.
The game should be as simple as possible to play. The initial mechanics have to be such that they attract even the first timer elderly people and hook them in the game in a way that they can easily feel that they are part of the game or the story. At the same time, the game -and it’s mechanics- should provide enough complexity to make it feel personal and personalized. I guess that most of the current, successful MMOs do that pretty well, and the customization of the characters -either in their skills and talents, in their outlook or in the best case, both- brings extra depth to the immersion factor of the game.
It seems that Cryptic is doing extremely well at the moment in these fields by combining the character outlook and skill customization in the character creation in Champions Online. It seems that Star Trek Online isn’t any worse in this context. In the in game development and customization all the games fall into the pit of cookie cutter builds and compositions, which isn’t easily avoidable in the games in which the damage dealing and sustaining are the main challenge to overcome.
Like I stated earlier, the game has to be easy to play. The initial learning curve should be steep enough to give at least some sort of challenge, but not from the playing mechanics side: the more intuitive the actual playing is, the more emphasis can be put on the game event side. And the curve can become more challenging as the game advances. The current trend of adding more powerful, more challenging monsters to the end game is actually voiding the content as fast as new monsters are introduced.
If the world is too complex and too shattered to the player, s/he will be left as an outsider. The quests may be interesting, the interaction with the NPC’s may be fascinating, but if the world doesn’t offer any feel to it, the player won’t get any attachment to it. That’s what happened to me with EQ2: loved most of the mechanics and the outlook, but couldn’t connect with the world or it’s lore.
The game has to be set in such an environment which provides possibilities to be interesting to the player. It cannot be just a stage for mindless quests and mobs, but it has to have that something which is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
At the same time as the game should be interesting in concept and easy to play, it should be challenging and rewarding. Spinks wrote a nice piece of rewarding the player or rewarding the character, to which I can only say that it doesn’t matter in the end: the player –if the game has been designed well enough- is the character, and all the rewards reward the player in the end. Overcoming a challenge is a reward in itself, as well as gaining a craved piece of equipment. Your mileage may vary, but in the end, all that matters is to have fun experience in the game.
This is a term that has been used to describe Blizzard’s games: they release their games only when they are ready, instead of sticking a date on the release. However, their games and expansions are perfect to play from the box, without the need to wait for the fifth patch to make them playable. This should be the state of all MMO publisher’s quality control.
The game has to be intriguing, interesting and -above all- fun. It can be gritty and realistic with the fun factor being in it. As a friend of mine said about Dragon Age: “It’s gruesome and realistic, but I haven’t giggled and laughed on a game since Baldur’s Gate.” Clearly a sign of a winner combination, sadly in a single player imitation of a MMO.
So in short, what makes a MMO concept click in people’s mind is a combination of easy to play/start, challenging, polished and fun game set in interesting and ‘alive’ world/surroundings.
The real challenge for the game designers is the fact that each and every MMO player has different interests. This only means that there is space for more variety in the MMO genre than there currently is. The challenge is to find the niche and make the game click for the players.
We aren’t that hard to please, now are we?