Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Happened to MMORPG Design?

Asheron's Call got me excited for MMORPGs for the first time.
I've been a huge fan of MMORPGs since I was 13 years old, back in the days when having a 56k modem made me the envy of all my nerdy friends. Since then I've played a number of MMOs, most recently culminating in my experiences with SWTOR, which I've written about several times. Recently, a friend and I have started playing the first MMORPG I ever played, Asheron's Call. Released in 1999, this game is actually still running, and has a robust population on its most popular servers.

The experience of playing Asheron's Call again has awakened something in me that I forgot existed: the pure joy of playing with others in a virtual world. The slow evolution of the genre had numbed me to the numerous failings of modern MMO design, and playing this gem has revealed gaping disconnects between modern MMOs and the fundamental concept of an open, virtual world.

These days, playing SWTOR (and almost any modern MMO) feels more exclusive than inclusive, more antagonistic than friendly. Modern endgames are designed to encourage people to treat each other with disdain and disrespect, and other players have become expendable at all levels of the game. Forced class roles and the requirements that every player be perfect in every way have made raids and group quests tense and hostile. PVP groups must be perfect in every way, and anyone who plays less than 8 hours a day is summarily booted from any high-level groups.  People who are slightly under-geared are kicked out of groups as if they don't matter, and silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat.

I'd like to repeat that last sentence -- silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat. When did the MMORPG experience become as tense and important as heart surgery? When was the sense of exploration and camaraderie designed out of the genre entirely? When did completing high level raids become about angrily insulting someone for being 1-hit, or having hostile arguments about aggro or healing? And when in the wide world of eSports did silence become a rule in raid voice chat!?

I don't want this post to be an advertisement about Asheron's Call (although I highly recommend it as a once-in-a-lifetime gem of MMO design), but let's contrast the way that this game from '99 works to the way that SWTOR works.

In Asheron's Call (AC), any player can train any skill at any time. No one is forced to play any role. Every character can handle tanking, dealing damage and healing to certain extents. This means that groups can consist of as few or as many players as desired, and there is no incentive to exclude people simply because their role has already been filled.

In AC, players are rewarded generously for taking new players under their wings, whereas in SWTOR the answer to every noob question is "Google it, you idiot," followed by "Shut up, troll," followed by "Ignored and reported."

In AC's high-level dungeons, any player can die and return at any time without halting the group's progress. This prevents the necessity that every player be perfect in every way. In SWTOR, if your healer dies, all progress stops, meaning that any casual healers will be insulted and eventually booted from groups.

In AC, everyone's armor is different, and the sky is the limit to the possibilities. In SWTOR, you must have the exact gear that the designers intend for you to have to even participate in a group raid. SWTOR's group finder allows players to que for raids that they are not geared for, in which case the other group members will kick the player immediately. In SWTOR, group members check each other's gear immediately to determine who they have to kick out; in AC, group members check each other's gear out of curiosity and a sense of discovery.

I could go on for days about the huge shortcomings in modern MMO design that I'm discovering by playing one of the originals in the genre. The bottom line is that the first MMO's were designed as virtual worlds to explore, and in which to adventure with friends met along the way. Modern MMO's are designed to exclude people in every way possible, and to force players into following prescribed paths in every area, whether leveling, crafting or gearing up. Modern MMOs are designed to force silence to be a rule in raid voice chat (I know I've said it three times, but it's just insane to me). It has created a cynical elitist culture that excludes anyone who does not wish to spend hours each day grinding through the same boring things just to be able to try and fail at a high level raid several times in a row.

Who has the courage to design an MMO that brings people together in a spirit of adventure? Whoever can achieve that will find my money shoved in their wallet! Until then, I'm going to be on a quest of my own, to discover whether any MMORPGs on the market today are designed to be fun. I'll keep you posted on what I find!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Free Collaboration Tools for Remote Teams

I've just finished my first full-scale game development project, from design all the way through post-launch marketing, and I've learned a great deal in the process. My development partner and I started from scratch to develop a new Hangman app for Android and the Web called Classic Hangman Game (very original name, I know, but it's necessary for discoverability on Google Play until genres and descriptive terms can be searched for).

One of the things we had to tackle right away was to put together a viable workflow and a suite of tools that would allow us to work together, even though we live on different sides of the country. After a few hours of trial and error, we found a group of tools that allowed us to work efficiently throughout the project, whether we were working independently or at the same time.


The first challenge we faced was figuring out how to share and concurrently access project files and resources. We both needed continually up-to-date access to source files, images, sounds and all of the supporting files that Unity produces on its own. We found Dropbox to be an excellent solution, and we've since used it at the Global Game Jam 2013 in Denver.

Dropbox is a free cloud file-storage system with options for premium upgrades. The service allows users to synch folders on any PC or mobile device to any other, while also being able to access the folders and their contents on the web. After a quick download, we both had Dropbox folders on our machines, and we could both access the same files at will. As an added bonus, we regularly received notifications when files in Dropbox folders had been changed, so we always knew when the other person had worked on something.

Google Drive

Google Drive works in much the same way as Dropbox, but with the added bonus of having Google Docs built in. Dropbox takes a bit of time to synch files, whereas shared Google Docs are updated almost instantly for all users. We used Google Drive and Docs to share text files -- mainly our design document. We found that we could both have the design doc open, and changes made by one of us would immediately be reflected on the other's screen. We revisited the design doc frequently, and usually designated one of us to make changes to the doc while we spoke over Google Talk.

Google Hangouts

Google Hangouts is an excellent tool for remote collaboration and communication. The things we found most useful were the speed and ease of setting up a conference, and the ability to share our screens with each other. Using Hangouts, one of us could view the other's screen, if needed, while we worked. This proved invaluable for solving engineering problems together, or walking through administrative processes such as setting up various developer accounts online. The one drawback to Hangouts is that it tends to be processor intensive compared to other voice chat services. To solve that problem, we turned to Google Talk.

Google Talk

Talk is a much more lightweight and simple voice chat program than Hangouts. Whenever we needed to free up resources, such as during play tests or project building, we would switch from Hangouts to Talk for a smoother experience. This is also our go-to program for Starcraft 2 breaks, again to free up system resources.

With this suite of tools in hand, we were able to successfully see our project through to completion, from design to publishing and post-launch support. If you've found this article helpful, please take a moment to check out the fruit of our labor: our first game, Hangman for Android! If you would rather play on the web, come on over to my portfolio website at

Play Classic Hangman Game (Free) Now on Android!