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The anti-MMORPG

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17 November 2004

by Mike Rozak


When I began my effort to design a virtual world, I wrote "The trouble with explorers". While attempting to determine why adventure games turned into MUDs, I came up with the following thought experiment:

  1. Write a text adventure game.
  2. Put it online and allow multiple people to be logged into the game at once.
  3. What happens to the design?


The problem I quickly came up with was that the adventure game that took me one year to write, was completed in 40-50 hours by most players. Because virtual world players spend an average of 40 hours per month in the game, most players would finish all my content within the month, some sooner.

At that point, they'd start whinging that there wasn't enough content and I'd need a way to create content quickly to stop the whines. The solution was to add automatically generated content, which usually amounts to combat with randomly generated monsters.

At that point, a MUD is born, and the adventure game dies.



The cost of content

The problem that online adventure games face is that content is too expensive to produce. A text adventure takes approximately 1 man year to produce 40-50 hours of content. A graphical adventure like Myst IV takes approximately 1-2 man years to produce 1 hour of content.

CRPGs are somewhat cheaper to produce per hour of content (since they are more amenable to automatically generated content), and they have a larger audience, so online games quickly turn into online versions of CRPGs. (This is not always the case, though.)

But, even an online CRPG is too expensive to create content for.

Here's why: The average virtual-world player is online for 40 hours a month. That's equivalent to completing an offline CRPG every 1 to 2 months. However, the virtual-world player is only paying $15/month, while a new CRPG every month costs the player $50/month.

Of course, this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison:

  1. Given the $50 retail price, the game developer only gets $15-$20. So, realistically, if the distribution and Internet were free, an online CRPG that charged $20/month could provide the full content.

  2. The Internet bandwidth to support a player is a few dollars a month. Add $2/month for the Internet.

  3. Product support is also expensive, and even though I haven't heard a compassion, I suspect support costs for an online game are higher than an offline game. Add a $3/month for extra support issues.

  4. If the player were to purchase an offline game every month, the game would come with a DVD chocked full of new graphics and sounds. MMORPGs do not (yet) send out a monthly DVD update to their players, so a MMORPG's audio-visual elements won't change every month. MMORPGs solve this problem by putting out add-on packages every 6-9 months. If a DVD were mailed to every player, every month, you'd add $5/month. I won't include this in my guesstimates since MMORPGs do not currently mail out monthly updates.

  5. Virtual worlds have a smaller player-base than offline games. 500K players makes a virtual world is a big success, while 1M-2M is a successful offline CRPG. Fewer players mean that each player must pay more for the same quality. How much more? Twice as much?

Basically, if the content were kept up to CRPG standards, players would have to pay $25 - $50 per month for their online CRPG. Since they're paying $15/month, the content either has to be of lower quality, or it will run out.

There's another problem with providing that much content. If a CRPG is 50 man-years of work, then producing 12 CRPGs a year is 600 man years of work. 600 people all developing one world is a logistics nightmare. Even if each team is given a different region of the world to own (which will happen), items from one region can and will be carried by PCs from one region into another, causing all sorts of game balance issues. And what about conflicts in shared backstory that are created as one team invents some backstory for its corner of the world that invalidates the backstory from another part? Even if you could get players to pay the $25-$50/month, a full-content online CRPG would still be a no-go.

Consequently, the virtual world developer cannot provide enough content. Most users will reach a point where they have consumed all of the content, and the content-flow eventually dries up.



The drought

What happens when players run out of content?

Players do one (or more) of the following:

  • Leave

  • Whinge about not having content.

  • Try to produce their own content with whatever in-world tools are available. This may involve arranging various items to make artwork.

  • Sit around and chat with their friends, turning the world into a giant chat.

  • Kill each other, create rival economic ventures, or otherwise enter into competition. (When players in Uru Live, a non-violent, adventure-oriented virtual world, ran out of content they used the world's Newtonian physics to kick around traffic cones and invented "cone soccer".)

  • Replay the same content over and over and over again.

  • Turn the world into a puzzle and try to figure out how it ticks by reverse-engineering the world's laws of physics.


The last four bullet items correspond to Richard Bartle's player models in "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs", (http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm).

No developer likes their players leaving or whinging, so they do what they can to make the other activities more fun, perhaps as a stopgap measure. After all, the players decided that's what they wanted to do, so provide them tools that allow them to do what they want. The solutions are:


  • Keep the builders happy by allowing players to produce their own content, including creating equipment, buildings, and AIs.

  • Improve the world's chat functionality.

  • Provide sub-games for PvP combat, economics, etc., satisfying the killers and players that thrive on competition.

  • Provide automatically generated content (aka: monsters spawning in killing fields) to keep the achievers happy.

  • Explorers are generally ignored because they're such a small segment of the population. However, as a result of adding sub-games for the other groups, the explorers will find something to do.


The developer soon finds himself spending most (or all) of his time producing and improving sub-games to keep the players occupied, and little (or none) on content.

The MMORPG is born from the ashes of the online CRPG.

The "fun" in a MMORPG mostly comes from the sub-games that allow players to interact with one another, with only a small amount of fun coming from the content, in the form of quests. Some MMORPGs, such as Everquest II, are more heavy on content, while some are almost entirely content-free.



The instant replay

Did you see what just happened? An online CRPG (which may have originally been a online adventure game) morphed into a MMORPG. It's like a state change where ice suddenly becomes water. Or rather, a structured entertainment suddenly turns into an unstructured-entertainment, a sand-box.

In the TV-world such a state change is equivalent to a TV-series, which can only be produced at a finite rate no matter how much money is thrown at it, trying to fill in the 6 days and 23 hours between the next episode with stuff that is vaguely related to the original content.

Such filler doesn't work for TV; viewers have to wait a week before seeing the next episode. Why should it work for games?

It apparently does work... kind of. Millions of people play MMORPGs, and while they whinge about the grind (aka: fillter in-between the content), they keep on playing.

What if MMORPG players are an atypical subset of the general population? What if the majority of potential players are turned off completely by the grind, and want their content back?

Personally, I think that most people would take content over the grind. I know I would.



The other choice

When players ran out of content, the developer consciously decided to reduce work on new content and create PvP code, economic games, fishing, automatic content generation, improved chat, and other grindy things. What would happen if the developers didn't pander to their players' demands, but instead said, "Don't bother us, we're working on content. Come back in a week or two."?

I can tell you exactly what would happen. The players would leave and never come back. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The players who play existing MMORPGs are those that either like or don't mind the grind. The promise of better quality content if they wait is not enough to keep them.

  • Most MMORPGs charge a monthly fee to make money. If the developers had the "come back when it's done attitude", a new player would experience 6 months of inexpensive content as he plays for 40 hours/week and uses up what has already been created. Then, suddenly, he'd hit a brick wall and could only play for 10 hours/month since he'd be waiting on new content to be created. It would be like enjoying a nice warm shower and suddenly having it go ice-cold; the insult alone would cause people to leave.

    Pay-for-equipment business models would similarly fail as people would feel that their investment in equipment was suddenly devalued. Players that had already paid wouldn't be able to do anything about it, but they'd rightly complain about the problems on bulletin boards, discouraging other payers from paying for equipment.


Therefore, the first thing that would have to change would be the payment method. Payment would either be one-off, or based on advertising.

The virtual world would also need a less-rude means of telling the user to leave, something along the lines of, "You have just completed all the quests. We're working on a new one titled XYZ, which will be available next Friday. You can continue to play the game of course, either replaying old quests or hanging out with friends." When the quest is available, players waiting on it could be automatically E-mailed, although the E-mails should be staggered so not all the players show up at once.

If the company is large enough, it may have several virtual worlds and could recommend the user try one of the other virtual worlds while waiting for new content. The company could even sell subscriptions to several of its virtual worlds in a package, much a set television shows are all "packaged" into each TV channel.

Would this work? I don't know. Television does it all the time, but I haven't found a virtual world that attempts it.



For the purposes of this document, I will call the developer's "other choice" an anti-MMORPG. A MMORPG is what results when players are encouraged to stick around once the content (quests) have been used up. An anti-MMORPG is what happens if the players are encouraged to leave (temporarily) when the content has been used up.

If this anti-MMORPG model did work, it would radically change the virtual world's experience. Here's how:

  1. When a player first subscribes to a virtual world they will play intensely until the content is used up, and then only show up as new content is created. (Or for social reasons.)

  2. As a result, players are likely to take part in several virtual worlds at once. Most players today only play one virtual world at a time; this has significant social ramifications.

  3. At some point, someone in the development team will create a histogram showing how much content a player consumes before getting bored and leaving the world. Even with an infinite amount of quality content, the histogram will show that 80% of players play for more than 50 hours, 50% of players play for more than 100 hours, and 20% of players play for more than 200 hours. (Or whatever.)

  4. In order to maximise profits, bean counters will realise that the optimum "size" for a virtual world is 150 hours (or whatever) of content, just like book publishers know how many pages a book should be, according to their market analysis. (... I say cynically.)

  5. As a result, the scope of virtual worlds will shrink. Shorter duration virtual worlds will, in turn, attract more of a mass-market audience. The mass-market audience will, in turn, want an even shorter virtual world. Exactly how short the final experience will be, I can't say, but it'll be much less than the typical 1000-hour experience that contemporary virtual worlds aim for. See Steady-state approximation for more thoughts.

  6. Shorter duration virtual worlds will be cheaper to make, resulting in more experimentation. There will be more variety, and some of the worlds may be experiences that would be unacceptable with a 1000-hour game. A 10-hour VW can go even further. For example, I'd be willing to spend 10-hours playing in a hopeless, totalitarian-controlled world like George Orwell's 1984, but not 100 hours, and definitely not 1000 hours.

  7. Since more people will play virtual worlds, and since the worlds take less time to complete, more virtual worlds will be produced. Either a few companies will produce most of the virtual worlds, and/or a suite of virtual-world development kits will appear. See below.

  8. If a virtual world is only 100 hours long, then somewhere between 100 and 1000 players will be in a shard to prevent overcrowding of content. (It would be possible to have a huge shard with private instancing, but what's the point.)

  9. If a virtual word is large, with 100,000 simultaneous players, and 100-1000 players per shards, there will be 100-1000 shards. With that many shards, developers will target individual shards at special interest groups (a left-handed golfer's shard), or at specific real-world geographies (Boston, NYC, LA, Madrid, and Cairo). The locality-specific shards are convenient because people (especially singles) can use them as a tool to meet people in the real world.


Both a MMORPG and an anti-MMORPG

Another possible configuration is to combine both a MMORPG and an anti-MMORPG. This configuration is commonly done, whereby a few hundred quests are provided for "newbies". When they graduate from the quests (aka: run out of content) they join the rest of the experienced players in PvP.

The combination seems to work, but there are problems:

  • In a PvP world, the newcomers are easy prey, and must be protected. Of course, this problem exists in a solely PvP world. The difference is that players who don't want to play PvP but who do like the quests and camaraderie must also have to put up with the griefing. Conversely, those players who only want PvP must put up with quests.

  • An ideal PvP world is a naturally changing landscape of guild-controlled regions where players vie against one another. When content is created, the content needs to reside someplace which is somehow protected from the rest of the PvP world. After all, if an important quest is hijacked by members of a guild, no one will be able to finish the quest. This often results in some regions that are "sacred" and protected against PvP.


As the number of virtual worlds increases, will players naturally segregate themselves into quest-oriented (anti-MMORPG) vs. PvP-oriented (MMORPG) worlds? Will a mid-point like Everquest II still exist?


How many MMORPGs can there be?

As a programmer, I like the MMORPG sand-box concept, since it means that I can put all my effort into writing code that allows players to interact with one another in fun and interesting ways. There is no content to develop either. (MMORPG developers will call a larger landscape, more monsters, and new spells content. I suppose they are, in a sense, but I see them more as elements upon which the quests, the real content, can be built.)

Looking at virtual worlds from a business POV, I don't like sand-boxes. The problems I have with building a sand-box are:

  • I don't think the majority of people will consider a digital sand-box an adequate form of entertainment. Hence, I don't think MMORPGs (as they stand) can go mass market.

  • I don't think there will ever be many MMORPGs. There are only so many shapes for a sand-box, and only so many colours of sand. Likewise, the number of sub-games provided in a MMORPG is limited. When you boil away the graphics, there isn't much difference between the underlying mechanics of a science-fiction MMORPG and a fantasy MMORPG. (Science-fiction MMORPGs even find a technological excuse for implementing magic.) Furthermore, even within the same genre, there isn't much that differentiates one MMORPG from another. As with any market where the products can't differentiate themselves, the market will either turn into a commodity (airlines) or a monopoly (operating systems).

    To me, it appears that the best way to differentiate one MMORPG from another is by its user-base. At the moment, most MMORPGs have been so focused on being mass-market that they accept any and all comers. Many MUDs, however, have decided to target and control their user base, creating a differentiator.

    Conversely, the combination of sub-games used to create quests are infinitely variable, just as the 12-musical notes can produce any music. I expect thousands of "anti-MMORPGs". They may all be based off the same codebase though, just as all books are printed using one of a handful of fonts.


Virtual world as platform

A virtual world is internally subdivided into several modules, each one built (more-or-less) on top of a lower module. The internal structure of a virtual world looks like this:

Content - Quests, NPCs, special equipment, special monsters.
  • Server scripts (NPC personalities, plot lines, quests, etc.)
  • Client (3d models of specific NPCs, sounds specific to NPCs, etc.)
MMORPG-specific - PvP code and other modules designed to allow for player interaction.
  • Server code (PvP rules, economics rules, players building houses, etc.)
  • Client (Building UI, etc.)
World-dependent - Code and assets for a specific world, based on a genre. For example, this code includes the monsters and magical items from Middle Earth, along with the Middle Earth geography. This does not include quest-specific material and NPCs.
  • Server scripts (world map, item descriptions, races, etc.)
  • Client (3D models and animations, sounds, etc.)
Genre-dependent - Code and assets for a specific genre (such as fantasy), which can be used for any type of fantasy world (whether Middle Earth, Earthsea, etc.)
  • Server scripts (how magic works, weapon code, etc.)
  • Client code (3D models an animations, sounds, etc.)
World-independent - Any code or assets that can be used for any genre of virtual world.
  • Server code (networking, billing, laws of physics, NPC AI, etc.)
  • Client code (networking, 3D engine, etc.)


Actually, most virtual worlds are not divided this way because most developers don't have the mental bandwidth to see more than a couple years down the road. Most virtual worlds are developed as a one-off system, so all the modules as interwoven; this is a huge design mistake. A few companies, such as Turbine, have isolated the world-independent code from the rest. Ultimately, I think the best solution is to divide the modules as shown because it provides for maximum flexibility.

When an online-CRPG development team gives up on producing content and instead decides to produce a MMORPG, with PvP, economics games, players with building abilities, etc., the development team stops working on the content components of a virtual world (blue) and instead puts work into MMORPG-specific portions of the virtual world (yellow).

At the moment, virtual worlds are all MMORPGs, which means that not too many are built annually. As a result, almost every MMORPG has its own home-grown world-independent code, genre-dependent code, world-dependent code, content, and MMORPG-specific code. A few companies are trying to sell world-independent code, but I don't think they're being too successful. (I could be wrong.)

If, however, virtual worlds shrink in duration (as described in this whitepaper) and hundreds of them are produced every year, companies that sell the world-independent components will do well. After all, if a virtual world is short (100 hours), there's no need for home-grown technology at the world-independent level.

Furthermore, there's no reason that the same companies couldn't sell a genre-dependent component for fantasy vs. science fiction worlds. They might even sell a world-dependent component, containing a nondescript and generic fantasy/sci-fi world. Then, any company producing a virtual world could modify the generic world to their needs and spend more of their time on content.

This is why I think of a virtual world as a platform. Everything in grey (world-independent, genre-dependent, and world-dependent) can be licensed to companies whose strength is producing either the content, or the MMORPG-specific code. Alternatively, one company could write and keep the grey modules in-house, while providing dozens or hundreds of independent virtual worlds by changing the content or MMORPG packages.




MMORPGs are the way they are because designers de-emphasise content (quests) and emphasise automatic content (monsters), chat, and PvP interactions. They do so because content cannot be cost-effectively produced at a fast enough rate to keep their players occupied.

If a virtual-world developer were to tell users to take a break once they had used up all the content, the nature of the virtual world would change dramatically, including a reduction in size from a 1000-hour experience to a 100-hour experience.

Would a virtual world designed to provide a mere 100 hours of entertainment work financially? I don't know.



Copyright 2004 by Mike Rozak. All rights reserved.
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