Massively Overthinking: Making MMOs 'sticky' without vertical progression
Today's Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter backer Jersey C, who asks,
If you were asked to design an MMORPG without vertical progression like levels or gear grind, what kind of system(s) would you implement to give the game long-time appeal, or "stickiness," instead of the usual grind? "Interesting PvP" is too obvious an answer, so let's assume the game you're making is going to be PvE only.
Why not open our series of Kickstarter-inspired staff questions with a really meaty one, right? I polled the Massively OP staffers for their thoughts.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Removing all progression systems from an MMO feels like a really big ask, but games have existed for a long time without things like levels, unlocks and gear with stats. In many ways, progression feels like a cheap way of keeping people playing in the long term, with goals spelled out explicitly for the player and dangled like a carrot on a stick. It's a very easy way to motivate people, so it will need to be replaced with intrinsic motivators strong enough to keep people actively engaged and playing.
I could imagine a sandbox game based around the idea of territorial warfare fitting this requirement quite well. Imagine EVE Online but everyone automatically has the maximum skills, and the draw of the game is about working together to build empires together and wage wars over control of space. Or a game like Wurm Online, which let people build cities together in a land based environment. Ownership of the game world and gaining a degree of mastery over the game mechanics can be a more powerful motivator than any progression system ever could.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): You'd probably assume I'd launch into an appeal for a deep economic system that underpins the game, or maybe even make the case for housing, or maybe I'd start talking about a lovely horizontal free-form skill system with plenty of non-combat activities. I want those things. Those things are important. But to maximize stickiness without gamey progression, it's not mechanics at all I'd turn to; it's community, community, community. MMOs must find ways to make their community awesome so the sticky happens in spite of or in addition to the mechanics. People will play terrible, awful, no-good games with wretched mechanics if their friends are there, if the community is friendly and helpful, and if the GMs and other socially interfacing devs are down in the trenches with the players day in and day out. This is how games like Ultima Online have continued to hum along so many years after the mechanics have become old hat. Toxicity is discouraged; cooperation is encouraged. The gamemasters are still running RP events, the devs are still posting their phone numbers on the company blog to help players with bugs, and the players stick out for each other and celebrate their members. Heck: Look at City of Heroes' community. The game no longer exists, and those guys are still mobilizing, still making projects happen, still inspiring academic research. Or look at how the community for Camelot Unchained, which doesn't even exist yet, has rallied around its cause and its devs. That, my friends, is sticky. MMORPGs should be harnessing that. It's magic.
And this is why when studios draw down their community services, all I can do is shake my head.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I think there are a couple of good places to go with this. Fire and foremost: the skill system. Use something that hits points of both the original Guild Wars and its ornate system of skills with Transistor's multi-functional skill setup; a given skill can augment another skill, act as a passive, or go in as an active ability. With a limited action set, this means that more skills serve to offer more options without any strict vertical progression; your character build would become more flexible and useful, but the actual power cap would be pretty fixed.
Content-wise, I'd love to see a serious attempt at bringing the dynamic potential of RIFT's eponymous rifts into a cross with territory control mechanics a la Saints Row III or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. You could have a world where there are invaders creeping in around the edges, a constant battle to push them back and maintain control, even fit in a light form of PvP in terms of contested control if not direct combat. (Final Fantasy XI uses a similar system; you aren't fighting other players directly for control, just competing for influence.) Having access to more spaces and more safe regions along with more opportunities to explore and take quests in relative safety would provide a decent carrot.
All right, so there'd be a little verticality there, but we aren't grinding item levels here.
Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): My answer to this would depend on whom I had to design an MMO for. If I could design it for myself and players like me, there would be very little focus on progression, and the "stickiness" would be up to each individual's imagination and desire to make his own fun using a variety of toolsets focused on a) roleplaying, b) crafting/trading/terraforming, and c) combat.
If I had to design it for the majority who need constant direction and developer-driven stimulation, I'll defer to my usual do-it-like-Star Wars Galaxies answer. Thirty-two skill-based professions including crafters, combatants, and socializers provided ample opportunity for grinders to grind and grind and grind while also providing people like me with the opportunity to master a couple of combat professions and a crafting profession and happily hold my own in PvE and PvP without ever grinding again.
And the theorycrafters had a field day mixing and matching various professions and skills when the devs did the usual change-for-the-sake-of-change buff/nerf cycle.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): These days I think that a lot of people are embracing the theme of creation in games, so I'd look to give players outlets for creativity in building a world. How about a literal virtual theme park, where you are in charge of one of many, many sub-zones that make up the best amusement park in the world? I'd allow players to do missions, visit other park areas, and achieve objectives to get more materials with which to construct and create and then turn them loose to make rides for others and design the music, aesthetic, etc. Yes, I was a huge Rollercoaster Tycoon player back in the day; why do you ask?
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): Personally, I don't like the gear grind. I play for interesting mechanics in group activities and story. There are many things that Star Wars: The Old Republic might have got wrong, but I do believe that it is right about story being a major pillar that had been missing from many MMOs. BioWare, of course, told "story" the BioWare way. I don't fault them for that, but there are many ways to tell a compelling story through the mechanics of the game not just in cut scenes. EVE, for instance, tells great stories -- and I don't mean with its mostly silly trailers -- the stories of the battles and corporate takeovers make the game at least interesting to watch and one that I'd play more if I weren't a disembodied spaceship for most of the game. It could also be possible to tell compelling stories by allowing the playerbase to make them with storytelling instruments like Neverwinter's Foundry or SWG's storyteller skill line. Personally, I would go with a system like SWG's Storyteller skills to make the game more sticky because it allows for a innumerable amount of players to participate and isn't confined to a dungeon group size.
Mike Foster (@MikedotFoster, blog): This one is super difficult, especially for someone who is almost always hooked by PvP over anything else. We've also seen a few titles try this and fail. For example, the original beta build of Firefall didn't have vertical progression, and it resulted in a very boring experience where every combat scenario felt exactly the same. To create stickiness, you need something that players can aspire toward. If you start a game and immediately have access to everything it offers, what's the point of even playing it?
I'd say the core components of a good game still stand out. You need a beautiful, interesting world that rewards players for exploring it, if not through gear and levels then through learning more about the game universe and through discovering unique vistas or hidden secrets. You need character customization so that the player feels as though he or she is represented in that world. And you need deep trading, crafting, and roleplaying mechanisms that make interacting with other players the best way to survive and succeed. For this to work, a developer has to make building a community inside the game the primary win condition.
Actually, this is one area in which a survival theme might actually sing. Build a dangerous, threatening environment that simply can't be explored alone. Put resources in that world that player communities require to survive. And then give players the choice to either work together to find those resources or watch their community starve and die. It would be niche, but interesting. EVE Online is pretty close here, if one were to ignore the game's skill points.
The trick is to build a game that's rewarding to play without worrying about the next XP bar or recipe or item drop. The gameplay itself has to be engaging and fun -- most MMOs absolutely suck at this. If the philosophy were shifted from "what sticks" to "what's fun," we might see more games without the built-in grind.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Wow, that isn't a quick kind of answer at all! I honestly think the key there is to make a world that feels like a home that folks want to spend time in and always want to return to. It has to have many different things players can actually do, depending on their mood. And social elements are a must! While it is really hard to pare things down, these are my top components:
I would absolutely have a housing system with very robust decorating; everyone needs a personalized place to call his own and give him a feeling of true ownership to bond him with the game. I swear the reason I can never leave EverQuest II is that there are so many building projects I still want to do! I'd also pay particular attention to crafting and the economy, making crafting be superior to drops and rewards. I would also make the system interdependent: Crafters need other crafters, fighters need crafters, crafters need fighters, decorators need fighters and crafters, etc. Items should never bind to players so that there can be a market for them. Even for the markets themselves I would encourage social interaction by having player-run marketplaces/vendors that can be set up in shops all across the world that players travel to in order to purchase (though to search for these goods could be from a major hub or city).
Even if some don't like to admit it, it's often the roleplayers who hunker down and really settle in the worlds. That's a good thing! People who use creativity to tell/participate in stories are invested in the world, and once invested, they find it harder to walk away. Even if you don't generate the content yourself, there needs to be a way for players to generate compelling content that others can consume. I'd want to be sure there is a robust mechanism for storytelling, like the system from Star Wars Galaxies that was out in the open world. This brings up another vital point: I would make sure my world isn't instanced and gated off! Let players play with friends regardless of levels, and let people roam wherever they darn well wish -- even if it is at the risk of instant death.
To further personalize the experience, I'd make sure there was an amazing guild interface that can be made to fit the needs of the group, from personalized permissions to rank names to even a running achievements board. I'd go further and create an alliance system for guilds to take advantage of. The more ownership players have of their experience, the more it fits into their style and needs, and the more ties to the game and community, the more they will feel a part of the world. Ergo, they stay.
Tina Lauro (@purpletinabeans): This is a question I think about all the time! I would design an amazingly complex and interconnected skill tree that allows freeform character development that suits the individual player's unique playstyle. Instead of levelling, you would hone skills as you explore the virtual world, and each decision you make or action you take would affect how your character progresses, leaving you with a character that is perfectly adapted to how you like to play. The "stickiness" in a system such as this is that without input and dedication skills simply won't improve; just as in the real world, effort is required to get anywhere. You could also be rewarded skill points for questing, exploring, or any other task that may not benefit any one particular skill, which would give players a degree of control over their characters' skill development.
You would start at one area of the skill tree based on your character selection choices, sure, but then you would have endless possibilities for making your character your own. Steps away from the expected skills of your class would be costly but not impossible at all. A ranger who can wield a greatsword, or a mage who can don the heaviest battle armours without spell encumberment? No problem at all, providing you don't mind spending the time or skill points to get there! Most of the fun of this mechanic would be seeing how far you can break the usual character archetypes.