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 Community: The Third Element

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Master Jedi Consular
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PostSubject: Community: The Third Element   Fri Apr 02, 2010 9:30 pm

Massively multiplayer games are not new. The first true massively multiplayer game was a text-only virtual world called MUD, put together by Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw in 1978. This little window of dizzying text descriptions was a far cry visually from the seductively lush 3D virtual worlds of today, but it was enough. Enough to get the genre started, and enough to get armchair designers across the world to imagine the possibilities, and debate philosophical matters of game design. One of these questions, still asked today, is whether or not massively multiplayer environments should strive to be games or to be worlds.

Advocates of the world philosophy see the space as a simulation or a sandbox. Fans of this viewpoint favor freedom and realism above all else – players have the ability to use and abuse almost anything around them, including other players. In ‘world’ MMOs, players tend to have a wide range of possible actions, most of which have relatively little depth. The depth of the world MMO comes from the interactions – players are urged to explore the world, and to find their own fun. The world MMO hates artificial constraints like classes or level requirements.

The game philosophy is quite the opposite, of course. Advocates of this view favor fun and balance more than anything. The game MMO is often described as being more like a theme park than a virtual world – player activity is tightly controlled, in such a way to help maximize the chance the player will have a fun, balanced and interesting combat experience and, in general, not be nasty to each other. The game MMO has no problem with introducing arbitrary rules to provide a tight, visceral gaming experience. Players can perform fewer actions, but these actions tend to have greater depth (such as a deeper, more balanced combat game).

I have had a long history of making MUDs and massively multiplayer games, and in working with and building them. I’ve come to the conclusion that both extremes have serious design problems. Worlds offer great freedom, but that freedom comes at a great price: they tend to be harsh, and offer the new player little in the sense of goals and direction. Many players are overwhelmed by the freedom, or can never find the fun. Often, a world is only as good as the people who have arrived before you – depending on that level of serendipity makes designers nervous.

On the flip side, pure games have their problems too. Freedom is a true part of the magic of MMOs, and artificial constraints and mechanics can undermine the fiction and the sense that you are living in the virtual world – and when you have a brand as rich and textured as Star Wars™️, the last thing you want to do is undermine it. Even worse, the depth and visual splendor of Star Wars™️: The Old Republic would be completely lost if players couldn’t jump off the rails and just live in the space from time to time.

I’ve long advocated that moderation is the way to go, and I believe on The Old Republic we are successfully travelling a middle path, a centrist path that takes the strengths of both: provide a directed and balanced game experience inside a lush, free-form Star Wars world.

But I also believe that the game vs. world debate is missing a third element: community.

Community is the crazy notion that massively multiplayer games are more interesting when other players matter. Advocates of this viewpoint savor competition and cooperation above all else. Community-driven players want, above all else, to be able to interact and gather with other players, in a civil way. They share ideals with the other schools of thought: community-driven players tend to value balance and fairness, but they also want the freedom to express themselves and interact with others.

To me, as an MMO designer, community is the whole ball of wax. Let’s face it, if you wanted to play just a ‘game’, you’d be off playing a single player roleplaying game. If you wanted a ‘world’, maybe you’d play a life-simulation game. But community – well, that’s the whole ‘massively multiplayer’ part of MMO. When you look at it this way, ‘community’ is at least as important as ‘game’ or ‘world’ in this debate.

And probably more so.

Consider our multiplayer dialogue system. The Old Republic is in every way shape and form an MMO, though if a player desires to, they can solo all the way to max level – they'll be missing some great content, but we don’t want players to feel they have to group. But we really want them to want to. As such, this has been an area of ripe experimentation for us, and has led us down some fruitful paths. Multiplayer conversations, where players can cooperate or compete to respond, has proven to be fun (and often hilariously so), in our playtesting (and no, another player cannot jack your dark side score with his response). But we’re not satisfied with just extrinsic rewards – we’re now experimenting with rewards that are unlocked for helping party members with class quest objectives, and we’re generally pleased with how it’s playing.

Crafting is another area where we’ve talked a lot about community. The systems design team is not satisfied with some other crafting systems that we’ve seen, where many players craft almost exclusively for themselves. We’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing how to ensure that crafters – true dedicated crafters – can make a name for themselves and be important in their community. But that is a discussion for a future letter.

In fact, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more from me and the other systems designers in the coming months as we talk about the systems and features that are getting locked down inside of the game to the degree that we’re comfortable talking about them. Like I said earlier, The Old Republic is an MMO, and it’s these systems and features that really help define that fact. You’ll likely hear a lot of design theory around them. As we do so, you’ll likely see a common theme: us constantly asking ourselves “Is this feature better because it leverages other players and the community?”

Damion Schubert
Principal Lead Systems Designer


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Khasa Jorn
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PostSubject: Re: Community: The Third Element   Mon Apr 05, 2010 4:23 pm

this is so true. most online games fail on three parts: direction, community, and system.

Look at Eve Online for instance, no direction anymore. It's an oustanding game if you started playing it 6 years ago. As for community, games like WoW and SWG were great because they managed to develope a game based on the players, not the game. System if sooo important, combat and crafting can make or break an MMO even to this day! Look at Age of Conan, although most will probably disagree with me, but it is in all technicallity was a terrible combat system. Now thats not to say that Age of Conan has its place in MMO history as the first "twitch" based fantasy mmo. Not to mention brutal and satisfying! They just opened up a new level of system for more companies to innovate our most beloved worlds.

I have a great feeling about this game. Will they find the balance between direction, community, and system? What do you think?
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