« Calling All Alts | Main | Multiverse > SL > WoW? »

Nov 09, 2006



What's the difference? Experience, money, equipment, it's all the same: a system of exchange wherein the length of time spent grinding = greater amounts of X that allow you more prestige, power, and ability to take on more dangerous, longer, and time-consuming quests. The only difference would be if you were talking real world money (in which case it would cease to be play, it would be your job).


Points replaced by objects which are really just points. It's all some equation of amassing X to achieve Y. Killing is common but as well look at GuildWars. A quick 20 levels in just a day or two and then the rest of what you are earning for is equipment or specific quests to capture new skills. The endgame is all about the PvP or now P+H vs P+H. Now I have to go questing for my heros to develop. Interesting recycling method they figured out.

Anyhow, if you subbed out killing you'd then do what, run around the country side to collect 50 plant fibers? Go around talking to 50 NPC's so I can open a shop? If your not very careful you end up back at the beginning and just changed some semantics and what the actions look like but a grind can be a grind with or without killing. Eventually no matter what mechanics you have its challenge/reward modalities and you can do that a myriad of ways. You can only do it well a few ;-)


You don't get any experience for killing anything in Eve, nor DDO (in a less strict sense, you get points for killing some bosses that are part of dungeons).

In general, killing is still prevalent - you need cash and loot... but the important thing about these games is that by moving the experience away from simple killing, you enable people to play more interesting roles in groups and the world, because they're genuinely useful in ways other than inflicting damage and buffing.


I agree with the comments so far. Accumulation of rewards via killing is still killing for "loot".

Some people like the typical individual-driven WoW 1-60 gameplay, while others like the typical group-driven end-game. Having just the 2nd course just means for many that there is no 1st course.

For example, Guild Wars got appertizer for the 1st course, while WoW got an entree for the 1st course. Many people looking for just the 2nd course entree play Guild Wars while other looking for 2 entree meal goes for WoW.

My question is what's the 3rd course? It better not be dessert.



When The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out, I was excited because they'd improved the theft mechanism so much. Instead of brute forcing my way through the game ("Give me your armor, or die!") I could hide behind people and steal their loot, then stealthily make my escape. My actions progressed my skills, and I rarely had to kill anyone (though when i did, it was by a poisoned arrow to the back).

I'm excited by games like Second Life, where the focus is on the creation of player objects. Though I think there are some major issues with it (bubblebees with correct male genitalia wandering through town square?) it offers an alternative to the kill-em-all mentality of WoW, which I get the feeling Mr. Bartle is addressing.

Another option is to go with Eve's example and make it all skill-based. Economics can be PvP, just as trading and diplomacy are. It's not killing someone, sure, but you're competing against other players and can progress your skills in it. The items you receive aren't necessarily from a grind but rather as a reward for your cunning and skills. Corp theivery takes nothing but trust and can net you, in the case of the EIB scam, hundreds of billions of isk.


I'm all in favour of a game which stops being about points. However, as i have found in attempting to implement it, the following arguments will be levelled at anyone who tries:

1. There's no point if i don't improve
2. That's not an RPG because it doesn't have any levels

Both of these are of course, nonsense. You don't "improve" in any FPS or racegame but you do keep getting better at them.

However, in order to do away with level-differentiation, it is necessary to offer every character an enormous amount of stuff-to-do which must be a) fun and b) rewarding. Since duplicating this for X number of classes will inevitably harm balance and and result in massive extra workload, it would be logical to set X = 1, therefore in essence removing classes.

No classes, no levels, no points. I'm starting to like this game. But all of sudden, the MMO-fanbois are back in your face and this time it's "wah, i can't differentiate my character, i'm just like everyone else, why can't i be teh ub4rz, how can i play a role without my numbers?!?"

My answer is usually "go away, this game's not for you. Go grind someplace. I don't want your money, i want people who won't take a second job to play a game instead because there are more of them."

But so far, few people believe this logic.

In any case, i'll make certain you get a tester's invite, Dr Bartle.


Until there is a system out there that allows for skill to be the definitive method of "advancement", I can't see a way around having some sort of leveling progression.

In my perfect world, skill would dictate whether you won a fight or not, and you would advance based on how difficult the opponent was.

Consider it a ELO-ranking system, but on the PvE level. The progressively higher mobs you fight, the progressively higher your mastery of the game becomes. And at a higher level, mobs don't just hit harder, or have more hit points, but have a variety of attacks, feints, and situational defenses that would test a player's reaction times, and knowledge of their abilities.

Take on a much higher level monster, and win due to superior skill, and your ranking goes up. Mobs of higher rank than you drop gear that would be a replacement for your current gear, which would then help you as you went against your next target.

Lose to a superior mob, and you don't go down much. Lose to a inferior mob, and your rank (maybe something called reputation or confidence) goes down, making you a little less fleet of foot, not as apt to keep your armor up to it's best durability, etc.

I haven't been able to break past the "x move counters y move every time" scenario though, but I know a solution is there. And it is a hodgepodge of ideas, but it's the best I have been able to do recently to break my mind out of the grind-mentality.


EVE is a good example of a game where the "grind" for skill has gone away. Your character advances at the same rate as everyone else does, whether you're out killing mobs or other players.

And there are a few other players that I know personally who, deploring the incessant killing prevalent in other MMOs, came to Eve *because* they could advance and earn ISK (money) without ever picking up a gun. Like the shopkeepers in the gold rush, they make their money as enablers - industrialists, researchers, teamsters (ok, transport pilots), and manufacturers.

What's the end game for this approach to play? Eve has a skill that captures it neatly - "Tycoon".


Ultima Online arguably had this model. There was some character development but it was a very flat model. Monsters had "loot" appropriate for the environment (no magic swords hidden on small birds).


Eve does have a "do stuff for points" mechanic in the form of NPC missions but it's really an optional methood of advancement. Completing missions for an agent increases your standing with that faction which lets you do harder missions with higher level agents. It also nets you "loyalty points" torward that agent which can be traded in for stuff via "offers" from the agent. However if you decided to ignore missions alltogether and focus on other aspects of the game, you wouldn't be at a severe disadvantage (unless you do R&D, which at the advanced levels requires a good research agent to work with).


The better question: if you removed killing things from a game entirely, what would you sub in as the de facto easy and repetitive method for acquiring points?

I was thinking about that friendly Assassins game that went on in NYC the other day, where you had to go up to your victims and compliment them in order to "kill" them.

What would be the virtual world analogue to that? Killing the NPC villains has been around since Space Invaders. There really is no substitute for it.


I think there's an interesting point that I haven't seen brought up yet. One of the ky things about points is that they are non-transferrable. If you are level 10, I know that you have invested at least X time into the game. (There's some flexibility there, of course.)

The same is not true of all equipment models (though it is true of many). Do you have the equipment you have because you invested the time and effort to get it, or did someone give it to you or did you buy it on ebay?

The distinction here is an important one. Points act as a visible indicator of status. Equipment can too, but it doesn't always.



Kthejoker wrote:

The better question: if you removed killing things from a game entirely, what would you sub in as the de facto easy and repetitive method for acquiring points?

In one of our MMOs, Lusternia (www.lusternia.com), you're able to gain xp by engaging in battles of will with NPCs. There's not a real difference there except in the fiction though.



There are also small virtual worlds (only text ones that I know of) in which advancement is significantly tied to how well you roleplay (as judged by other players or admins).



I would define a grind as follows:

Any repetitive activity which is done by the player for the purpose of advancement, but which the player does not consider fun in and of itself.

I realize that many players will do something fun and call it grinding, because they're focused on the end goal, but to me a grind only really is a grind when it's not fun, but you have to do it.

Killing things for points just represents one type of advancement system and one type of grind. You could just as easily replace it with "completing quests for points" or "killing things for money to buy skills".

Even other advancement mechanisms like use-based systems can result in grinds. Most MMORPG tradeskill implementations, for example.

You can't really remove progression mechanisms from your game and still have a game. Take away experience and levels and players will focus on skills and quests. Take those away and they'll focus on accumulating money.

Rather, a better thing to do might be to create a game where there are multiple ways to achieve the same end. Consider the example of the swordsman who wants to become better at wielding a blade. He has options: He can go out and fight people or things to get better. He can complete tasks for a master who then trains him. Or he could just pay the master for training.

To expand on that, the downfall of most games (at least in my opinion) isn't that they use levels and experience points, it's that there's only really one way to get those levels and experience points - by killing. What if you could get those points by playing your character instead. If fighting is what you do, then fighting earns you points. If you're a merchant, then buying and selling earns you points. If you're a sneaky rogue, then not getting caught earns you points. If you're a scientist, then doing research earns you points. And so on.

Of course, the hard part of this is balancing progression rates so that all your players don't immediately become scientists because that's the fastest way to advance, and then decide to pick up a sword later - but you can solve that problem through a variety of means, like class distinctions or retraining costs.


To me, what differentiates games (even Second Life in this regard) from chat rooms is the concept of advancement. For advancement to have any value (meaning, etc), there have to be gates (or hurdles, etc) that must be cleared to advance. The traditional “grind” in most games is an awful, unoriginal, stale mechanism to give advancement meaning, but its dominance probably means something.

I’m personally an EVE nut, because I love the feeling that I’m “advancing” in the game while sitting here in my office writing this. Advanced Spaceship Command lvl V will finish tonight around bedtime whether I do anything in game this afternoon or not. My capital ship skills will be done around February as long as I make enough cash to pay for them all. But it could be argued that such a form of advancement has less meaning. In Eve, there is a big distinction between skills and “skills,” because its easy to get time-based skills trained up, but harder to become a good PVPer (which requires skills residing in the player, not the avatar).

The same is probably true in WoW. Certainly there are strong lvl 60 warriors and weak ones even with the same equipment, due to the player’s differences in effective ability.

What is really interesting to me is how the different advancement mechanisms across games reward different characteristics of players. This also touches on the RMT problem. What is so hideous to people who hate RMT is the sense that people are buying advancement. People can “win” because they have lots of disposable income. A completely grind-based advancement mechanism rewards people with lots of disposable time (if pretty free of RMT problems). EVE, in my opinion, rewards people with patience and/or other things they have to pay attention to (so that patience is easier to supply).

If that’s all true, how should we interpret the domination of grinding in most games? Is the market of potential players dominated by people with just enough time on their hands to keep them invested in progressing by grinding, but whose time is scarce enough they are willing to generally respect those people who have managed to advance higher than they have?

I think this all has a lot to do with attitudes toward: noobs, RMT, twinks, “ebayed” characters, paid power leveling, etc.

All threaten the integrity of the gates used in the game (or in the case of noob-hostility, disrespect to people who haven’t made the same investments).

Why so little experimentation with advancement mechanisms? Do we respect grinding so much?


YES. For several years now I've been agitating for exactly this kind of design. This industry is desperately in need of a MMORPG that's about actually playing a character, not grinding to grow a character.

Detailed opinion time. (Veteran designers, please have your baseball bats at the ready.)

It seems to me that the single most common cause of grinding in MMORPGs is the design choice of giving characters "levels" that determine the character's abilities. As soon as the assumption that this is required gets baked into a design, the same results always follow:

* levels are increased by gaining "experience points"
* XP is gained by performing specific tasks (quests, killing random mobs, etc.)
* different tasks give different amounts of XP
* some tasks give little XP, but are easy/safe
* players repeat easy/safe tasks (i.e., "grind") to rise in level with little risk
* grinding easy/safe tasks takes time and is boring

The overall result is that the first thing players get to do in all of these games is to spend weeks or even months in mindless, double-plus-unfun grinding before getting to the "high-level game" that is (theoretically) where the really fun content becomes available. Players don't have to do it this way, but they do because the design rewards it.

Grinding is thus an inescapable consequence of having character levels.

So why have character levels?

Cael points out a couple of the usual objections, which all tend to be examples of "but that's not what we're used to!" I'd hope the defects of that argument are too obvious to need much rebuttal.

It's also the case that a gamer who's determined to grind will find a way to do it in pretty much any game. Even so, why should designers shrug their shoulders and only make games that cater to this mindset, thereby turning all players into grinders?

Another objection (made by several folks in this thread already) is that players absolutely must have some way of becoming more powerful in the game world (why? is that really the only thing that should matter?), and thus that without character levels, players will simply replace grinding for XP with grinding for loot or in-game currency. There's some merit to this objection. In RPGs without character levels, character possessions become more important as one kind of marker of a character's personal history.

My suggested response to this boils down to loot atoms being "bigger" than XP atoms -- compared to XP-generating content, I think it's a little easier to define ways to generate loot (including money) that lead to less grinding because they occur less often. But that's open to debate.

A final objection is from the somewhat cynical customer-control perspective: designs that require players to grind out character advancement levels offer simple gameplay that keeps people playing. In other words, grinding for XP is a deliberately built-in time sink intended to keep subscription money rolling in.

That might seem to make financial sense, but it's not exactly a fun-centric approach to designing a game, is it?

On the other hand, there are counter-examples of successful games without character advancement... at least, there are in the tabletop RPG world. Probably the best example is Marc Miller's Traveller RPG. Traveller (and its descendants since 1977) offered an extremely full-featured character generation system, but once that was done you simply played the game. There wasn't any levelling or grinding necessary; the game was all "high-end content." And yet Traveller was at one time the most popular science-fiction RPG. (In fact, it's still popular -- June 2007 is the scheduled release date for the newest incarnation, Traveller5.)

In my copious free time I've been developing a design document for a MMORPG that doesn't force players to level up their characters before getting to The Good Stuff. But I'm just a self-funded amateur with a day job. Where is the pro developer willing to profit from this desire to play an RPG that's all high-end content and no level-grinding?

I don't claim that this is a perfect solution to grinding, or that it's "the future of MMORPGs" or any such thing. I just wish someone would give it a serious AAA shot so that we can see if it might work after all.



I'll keep on the EVE bandwagon here: as one of the EVE forums reads, the grind isn't for skills, it's for ISK. And there are some clever non-grindy ways to earn money, but most people (?) seem to mine, hunt NPC pirates, haul NPC trade goods, or run NPC missions for their cash, all of which tend to be repetitive. As Aeco alluded to, you do need money to buy access to new skills, as well as to actually buy new ships or new blueprints or ...


I think a virtual world needs to have rewards, but the rewards need NOT be packaged by NPCs and their quests, nor by level "dings" after a grind.

The reward should be the virtual life you live, and the betterment or protection of it. Period.

UO was one of the best worlds that had meaning in this way. Everything you did had purpose that was a direct benefit of the action. I did not mine ore just for a better mining skill. Nor did I do it for faction. I did it for the ore so I could smelt it and so I could smith.

Nowadays the MMO games we have are dumbed down versions of arcade games that have little risk involved in them at all. If you put in a solid pvp, and a truly player run economy, add permanent death (over time...say 50-100 deaths adn you're done) then you will have a place in which skill gain is necessary and fun, and probably never looked upon as a grind.

By the way, I have been following Trials of Ascension, a virtual world in development for 4 years now. My hope is that it will bring back the skill systems of UO with some really open ended play.


"this is called grinding, which people don't like but do it anyway."

People do like to grind.

In another post on this board a writer discussed the joy of grinding. Mindless activity that provides a distraction from the real world.

But, people often choose to grind.

In EQ2 it is possible to take your toon to max level without ever grinding out levels. There are enough quests to get you to that point. However, grinding to level 70 is faster than questing to level 70 - so people choose grinding.

The best items in the game are reserved for those level 67 to 70. So, to equip yourself with the best gear possible players choose to grind to the next level.

And so on.

What you seem to be missing is what someone else said, it isn't the grind, its the accomplishment.

Richard Bartle wrote: In short, what if the endgame were the game?

yes please!

People do like to grind...

...it isn't the grind, its the accomplishment.


so do they like to grind? or do they like the accomplishment?

nobody i know likes to grind. the real world is a grind for most people.
wake up at the same time, head to work, do the same stuff day-in, day-out, go home, eat dinner, entertain yourself, go to sleep, repeat till dead.

there may be a few odd-balls out there who honestly enjoy grinding.
but EVERYONE likes accomplishment.

the two are NOT mutually exclusive.

and dave, don't you realize that questing is actually a grind as well?
unless EQ2 is RADICALLY different from most other MMOs, each quest is largely the same type of actions, in not-so-cleverly disguised mini-narratives.

go here and kill 10 rats. go there and deliver this, and then kill 10 rats. go here, talk to this guy, he'll give you this thing to bring there, then go kill 10 rats.
tastes like GRINDING!

there's no choice in how you get to the next level.
you either go out and randomly kill things, or you go out and kill what the NPCs tell you to kill.

Cael's in the right.
break free from the shackles of XP, levels, and classes.


Here's a thought experiment virtual world based on Jane Austen novels that I worked out after the Ludium a year ago. There are no pints, but there is alot of scoring. Enjoy!

Pemberly Online: A Thought Experiment

Here's a more concrete example of a socially-oriented game or world. Consider it a thought experiment, just to try out some ideas. Since the Ludium, I have been playing with the idea of an extremely socially-oriented online world, based on the works of Jane Austen. The core idea is really my wife's- when I told her we were trying to find a way to make simulated worlds more socially oriented, like a Jane Austen novel, she said "Well, why not just make an online version of her world?" Why not indeed. Welcome to Pemberley Online!

The physical side of Pemberly Online is a world full of Empire dresses, frock coats, magnificent estates, coaches-and-fours, vast wealth, incredible poverty, balls until dawn, high teas, gorgeous horses, drives in the country, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth in a top hat. The novels have been made into movies fairly regularly, and the movies are always glorious costume epics. Visually, Pemberly Online would be magnificent.

In terms of programming, the idea is to do some literary sociology and deduce some sort of rules that Jane Austen's characters follow, then translate those rules into an online setting. I've been rereading the novels, and there is an amazing amount of score-keeping and gameplay going on in these books, which I think could be adapted to an online world. It would be completely unlike any current world, but it could work. Characters in JA novels spend most of their time visiting each other and gossiping. The prime amusement is the whole "I wonder what he meant by that" game coupled with some fairly nasty politics-of-dating. The unmarried females are shamelessly predatory, and are constantly looking for a “suitable match”. In the world they live in, it's their only hope. (The online version would be gender-equalized, or course.)

The basic move in Pemberly Online would be to attend a social event, meet people, and leave a good impression. Eventually people would start to hint that you should host your own event, which might range from a simple tea to a ruinously expensive gala. Good players would have to be very smooth social climbers, who spread charm around like butter on bread. Social standing is completely determined by who comes to your parties, and who invites you to theirs.

The finance of JA novels is not clear. Male characters "have incomes" from their inherited lands, and that seems to be enough detail. Of course, they obsess endlessly over wills and inheritances! Families in JA novels are VERY complicated, and who-will-inherit-what is a major topic in a land where everyone lives off investments made by previous generations. The online version would have to be quite different here, and include a realistic model of stocks, scams, bubbles, insurance, investment, farming and finance, which would interact with the social world. Persons of great wealth would have a multitude of “investment opportunites” to choose from, persons with less wealth would not.

I have no idea how to score this thing, but I suspect it would be best if there was no visible scoring at all; as you advance you just find more (and classier) invitations in your post-box. After all, in RL social situations there is no explicit score, but everybody knows more-or-less where they stand anyway. Figuring out just what other people think of you (and perhaps surprising them) is an endless source of entertainment.

At least at the beginning, Pemberly Online would have to have a large population of not-quite-player characters, by which I mean real human players who are in on the joke. These players start off owning everything and issue the first rounds of invitations. This fits in perfectly with the world of the novels, which is ruled with iron fists by grande dames who will take any nonsense. Eventually, other people will advance to the level of hosting parties, and will hoepfully keep the rules alive. If not, they can be cast into social exile.

New players start off as cousins from far away, adopted by existing families (which happens all the time in the novels). They will need to be taken under the wing of an established family and guided through their first steps, perhaps invited to tea to meet some other people around the neighborhood or asked on a hunt.

Anyway, this world sounds like it could be really fun. Players might even learn something- fine manners, at any rate. And any game that can teach teenagers some manners would be a big sell in a lot of households. All sort of difficulties are lying in wait, and will need to be figured out, but that's what R+D is all about.

Pete Border ([email protected])


the problem is the fact that we cannot generate a sense of accomplishment in a game unless it takes some effort. There has to be a cost. In these games, many things are fun and exciting. If all advancement comes from doing those things, there cannot be much sense of accomplishment. I'm not more cool if I watch an exiciting movie or read a great book. I'm satisfied and had a good time, but no one is impressed.

To me, the whole point of having other people in a game with you is to interact with them, to impress them or beat them up, or help them, etc. For any of that to have any kick, the activities have to have a cost. Gettting the ability to do impressive things has to be costly, or they are not impressive things.

Imposing costs in a game is hard. It may be that imposing entertaining costs is impossible, because entertaining things are less costly in-game.



Peter Border wrote: "Pemberly Online: A Thought Experiment..."

In other words, the NPCs are the game... which is something I've been working on; several other teams also seem to be working towards the same goal. It's a difficult genre that will take decades before it gets to the complexity that you describe. (Random comments on http://www.mxac.com.au/drt/NPCConversationWall.htm )

Another way to think of it is this: In a typical computer game, players wander around 3D space. In a social game, players wander around social (connection) space. 3D space still exists, but it is less important.

In your scenario, Richard Bartle's question still holds: Do you give experience points for every date your character goes on, every well-timed joke, etc.? Or is there a different mechanic?


"Wow! I feel as if I've passed some arbitrary experience value and gained more power!"
-Marcus, Fallout 2

I'm still waiting for the game where your experience of actually playing IS your leveling up. Then again, I'm also waiting for a MMOFPS where dwarves run around with double barreled shotguns.

Go figure.


"I'm still waiting for the game where your experience of actually playing IS your leveling up."

Isn't every game that isn't an RPG this sort of game? The more I play chess, the better I get (hopefully). Someone who's played 10 games could still beat someone who's played 10,000. The knight moves the same way regardless of how many games I've won, and when I win, I don't get an special piece I can use next time to pwn noobs.

After spending a good 100ish hours in MC and getting zilch, the experience of chess is sounding pretty damn good.

Games without artificial progression regulate the player's advancement through puzzles, twitch skills, story, or other mechanisms. RPG players typically eschew twitch skills, while puzzles and story are easily documented in walkthroughs 4 days after release. Progression through the use of XP bars, equipment, skills, and other abstractions exists in part because it's an easy way to regulate the rate at which players consume the content.


A few other points to make:

1. As noted above, equipment can be exchanged/bought/sold while levels are typically not which inherently seems to make equipment less 'valuable' as an indicator of progress (also mirrored in the real world?).
2. Grinding came out of D&D (maybe even before that) where levels were given out based on XP earned as a simple way of tracking progress. Almost every RPG has adopted that in some way since then (makes no sense to me that because you killed 10 kobolds, suddenly your level goes up, and your ability to pick locks improves?). Leveling in tabletop RPGs was far slower, and from the games I played, not the primary reward (having fun was).
3. RL has grinding, but it's far more skill based. If I want to play the piano better, then I keep playing the piano (and/or get an instructor, etc.).
4. Grinding is among the simplest game mechanics to implement. Since it is the lowest hanging fruit, many game companies jump on it.
5. The more complex the grinding experience, the more enjoyment I get. If grinding requires you to constantly push the envelope, living on the razor's edge, then I personally find it enjoyable. If every battle is a constant battle of wits, then it becomes more interesting. The more repetitive and simplistic grinding is, the less I enjoy it. If all I had to do was hit the spacebar over and over again (in ever increasing amounts) to level, I would quickly become bored. I suppose that's why I became so bored of WoW as the combat and leveling is utterly boring whereas I found Guild Wars a lot more enjoyable because combat was so varied (don't like the skills, swap them out on the next run, whereas in WoW, you're stuck with the same skills almost exclusively).
6. There is definitely a 'need' to value one's progress in relation to others, by whatever means. We are a social animal, which has both the pluses and minuses (go watch a nature show on a group of chimps or other primates). Status is unbelievably important, and even more so in persistent online world.


Response to Mike Rozak's question:

I'm thinking that there really is no scoring done by the game. As you go to more events, meet more people and impress them favorably, they include you on their invitation lists, where you can meet more people and impress them. The game does no scoring at all- it's all done by the players, who just decide whom to invite to their parties. If you make an ass of yourself in front of people, you can forget about going to their next 'do.

There are problems galore with this idea, but it could work if the players were all into it (which is another reason to use Jane Austen novels- Austenites are a very dedicated bunch).

If there must be prizes, one could use the matrimonial sweepstakes of the novels, and whoever winds up with a "suitable match" wins. Perhaps there could be rounds of a month or so, culminating in a Grand Ball celebrating the engagement of the visiting princess to the most eligible bachelor in the county.

Like I said, it's a concept. But I think it could work in Second Life with a few sims and a couple hundred dedicated players.


Richard asked: "What if quests gave you money or objects or reputation or training, but no experience points?"

Aren't those just stand-ins for what experience gets you in most cases anyways? Kinda like saying, what if my job paid me in food, rent, and insurance instead of money? Ok... you've cut out the middleman to some degree, but it's still "pointless killing" to my way of thinking.

And the reason it's pointless -- and the reason most all grinding is pointless, too -- is because there is NO game-goal external to the cycle of character development. As has been said; kill (grind), develop, kill more/bigger. If any of the types of grinding be fun for you, then the cycle is a virtuous one. If they aren't... not so much.

In RL, we grind for reasons that are external to the grind processes; we practice an instrument to get better at it, yes... but because being better explicitly means that we will produce more pleasing music. There is an end state that is better than the beginning. We grind at work to get paid, at the gym to get healthy, etc.

If a game had goals -- either player or group based -- that were external to the cycle, but were reinforced by it, that might provide additional motivation and fun, regardless of XP or no XP.

I know... that's what quests are supposed to do. But they mainly feel like excuses to kill, collect and find. IE, grind-shells. [Does that make the Jane Austen game a "meet grinder?" ; ) ] If the meta-game was "kill to defend homes," or even "build homes and keep them from being destroyed for X days," then killing isn't an end... it's a means.

I'm reminded of the "Wonders" in Sid Meiers' Civ games. You had to pour all kinds of resources into them, but when built, your civ got all kinds of benes. What about a game where uber-goals like wonders, when completed by a guild, faction or race, provided ongoing benefits to that group until destroyed by other players or NPCs?

XP is meant to simulate growth. But growth, in RL, is usually directed toward a goal, not just "more growth."


Pemberly Online sounds great!

Advancement through social standing is an interesting idea- honestly it's how I see SL working already, and that because I guess it's a microcosm of the regular world. I've watched people in SL go from awkward fresh faced new residents to the centres of large coteries of cheerleaders, through no obvious abilities other than socialising- they then reaped the rewards when that level of "fame" paid off. There are also people who just don't get many friends, or get frustrated at being excluded. I'm not sure how cool it would be to play an obviously competetive social game- being shut out by the In World Heathers is, I think, worse than being endlessly hit in the face by some PvP bully. In those games at least you can find some quiet spot to do your own thing- in a socially driven game, if you're not in, you're out. I would see a lot of meta-gaming by cliques (and alts :) ) to fortify social groups for mutual and self benefit- to the exclusion of others. There would need to be something to mitigate that I think- some other means of, if not advancing, at least laying groundwork for advancement without being "permakilled" by the game's resident harpies.


When I put in the character advancement for MUD1, levels were just one of the options I considered. I wanted for people to have intermediate goals they could aim at, so they could feel they were progressing in the game, and I looked at character skills and equipment (and some wilder alternatives) as possible ways to do this. I went with levels because such a system was simple and easy to understand, it allowed rewards for a variety of activities, it didn't require a lot of disc space to store, and it could be used to give players an immediate sense of their place in the game's order (like a mouse-over, "Polly the sorceress" tells you what level she is - there's no need to examine her to find out what her skills are or how good her kit is). Some of those reasons are inapplicable for today's virtual worlds, of course.

An equipment-based system (particularly the collect-a-set version) gives you a more coarse granularity; it's like a points-based system that only gives you 1 or 2 points at a time after, and only after you've killed some boss. The "levels", such as they are, come when you have a set (or near-set) of equipment and can begin working on upgrading to the next set.

Skills-based systems are like levels-based ones that operate in multiple dimensions at once. This allows people to specialise, but it makes it hard to tell how good someone is. You can aggregate a level from skills, or offer players the possibility of describing themselves in terms of the skill they're most proud of, but skills themselves could also be broken down into equipment or whatever if you wanted to go that way.

As for why we need any sense of "advancement" or "progress" anyway, well I put that in MUD1 because I wanted people to feel they were progressing; I wanted them to be able in some sense to "win", to feel good about themselves. In the earlier versions of the game, we didn't have progress - people did what they did because it was intrinsically fun. This might have been fine in a single-player world, but it was a multi-player world; people wanted to be able to talk to each other about what they were doing, and to do things together, and that meant they needed some way to gauge themselves relative to one another at a glance. Also, it didn't feel much like a game - it was more like a playpen. Thus, there was pressure from the players for this kind of thing anyway (not that we had many at the time).

Personally, I'm still quite fond of experience points. I'd like to see more experiementation with alternatives, though. For example, the whole game could be, in effect, a choose-your-own-adventure game wherein the quests linked to one another in a vast, overarching plotline, and reaching the next plot point is equivalent of going up a level. Players would still need rewards that showed off what they'd done, but there wouldn't be any need for experience points or equipment fetishism. It would probably be easy to get stuck, though...

I wonder what other mechanisms there are out there that we haven't thought of yet?



I have a question...
Why is this being asked as a what-if?

There are quite a few, popular, NWN modules which only give quest experience...


I think it's a false division. In the WoW example, the mechanics change (slightly) at level 60, but not the substance. Whether you're leveling up or obtaining rep for items the end result is identical--more damage delivered, less damage received.

Of course, it's possible to create a vastly different game world in which killing isn't rewarded and there is no abstract incremental improvement system at all--but that's a different question altogether.

The endgame *is* the game for a great many WoWers. They might equally well consider the first 59 levels the pre-game.


Response to Ace:

You're right- if the world is small and competitive with an obvious single scoring mechanism, most people will be losers and know it, and therefore will be unhappy. Clubs, gangs, etc are all ways to game social scoring systems by advancing one's own set at the expense of everyone else, and will have to be dealt with.

But if the world is larger, those who lose in one area can form their own society elsewhere. Or if there are several kinds of scores, people can gravitate to whatever mixture they find appropriate. I think avoiding any numerical score is a big advantage here. If the prize is a "suitable match", well, that's a fairly personal goal anyway, and there are lots of ways to win that game. If a group of In-world Heathers wants to promote each other endlessly, let them! They will not be coming to any of my parties....

The JA novels provide examples of people who certainly win the game but don't get the most desirable mate. I finished reading Mansfield Park while watching the election, and the heroine of that novel actually turns down the most desirable man in the county because she does not trust him (she is vindicated in the last 20 pages). Not everybody wants to marry the visiting prince, though I think everybody would like to be invited to the Grand Ball.

The JA novels are wildly sexist, and that would have to be changed for a modern MMO, of course.

Another interesting point of Pemberly Online is the notion of adoption. All the MMOs I know of have some legalized form of partnership or marriage, but I dont think there are any that incorporate parenting (OTOH, there are a lot of MMOs I know nothing about, please forgive me if I've missed something). Anyway, marriage by itself is a very important part of how humans interact, but it's only the beginning of the familial network. Adding some form of parenting opens things up immensely- sudenly there aren't just parents, but also siblings, aunts/uncles, grandparents, brothers-in-law, and so on. Adding in the possibility of divorce (and, in SL anyway, sex-changes) makes things even more complicated. It's possible that after a year or so, everyone in Pemberly Online will be related to everyone else (somehow), rather like medieval Iceland.

And families are drama, from Ishmael and Isaac to the present day. And drama is compelling, addicting, and highly non-grinding. In the world of the JA novels, families are immensely complicated and inheritances even more so. Getting inheritance to work in an MMO obviously requires people to die and give up their property, which I don't know how to do, but several possibilities leap to mind.

It's an interesting thing to play with!
Pete Border


Grind seems to be a cheap way to stretch out an experience. Its an unimaginative filler between places where interesting things happen. The game designer has a financial interest in stretching out the game content over time as much as possible, especially when monthly subscrition is involved. It is much more expensive to create content to fill 20 hours than to create grind to fill 20 hours.
What draws a player from stat A to B in the game? It is the belief that there is some reward at state B. With XP and levels the reward tends to be the unlocked content, because level is a way to pace the player through the content. That drawing power must be high enough to make the user wade through grind. If the player does not believe that there is a reward after the grind they will not do it. For existing games it becomes a balancing act between how much grind the player will tollerate for the new content.
I think the question that Dr Bartle is posing is wether there is a model that does not use this simple delay tactic to unlock content.
I think the definition of content needs to redefined outside the limitations of level/XP. One of the major drawing points of pen and paper RP games is the fact that every player has a unique experience. Your character class mostly serves to guide your qunique experience. No two druid players will have the same story to tell, even if their stats/levels/equipment end up being the same. The drawing card also tends to be "what happens next in my story" instead of "I will get to swing a bigger axe"
So, the game needs to be story based, and the story needs to be unique to every character. Progression is then also measured differently. Being experienced means having a longer story or more interesting stories to tell. The social activity of actually telling stories also becomes part of the experience.
Something as simple as a random quest generator would be a step in the right direction. If such a system could generate multipart quests it would be even better. If it could generate quests that link multiple payers' quest togeather even better. If the system could generate quests based on player behaviour with some understanding of dramatics...
Every player is the hero of her own story and every action is motivated by the story.


Pete Border's "Pemberly Online" is a great example of what I mean by innovative thinking.

For those of you who say, "We have to have some form of grinding", I say you are only looking at this from your own personal preferences. Or even worse, you are looking at it from "That is the way we've always done it".

With this kind of thinking, is it any wonder MMOG's are dominated by male players?

If you build this game, and build it right of course, I predict you will be a very wealthy man.


Players kill in games for many purposes. XP is only one. Loot is another. Fun is another. Challenge is another. Because It's There is another.

If you build it, they will kill.

In order to remove "points" from killing, you have to remove killing.


If the Endgame were the Game, your title would suck.

The gross majority of MMORPG players do not participate in the Endgame out of choice.

If the Endgame were the Game, your title would suck.

The gross majority of MMORPG players do not participate in the Endgame out of choice.

please tell me you're kidding.

where did you get this notion?
and please explain why players would choose to not participate in the endgame of an MMO they're playing.

by the way, i would think that most players only kill because there are no consequences for killing in most MMOs.


@ Kohs: The raiding endgame satisfies a strong minority. The majority of players, in WoW for example, are still happy with the 1-59 leveling gameplay.

@ Richard: I also think XP is an elegant, easy, but imperfect solution to advancement tracking. In a 4X strategy game, there are no levels. However, you track your progress easily by how much you explore, expand, exploit and exterminate. In the formative PvE stage, all is good and is an analog to the PvE leveling experience. However, the next stage of gameplay in a 4X strategy game is PvP or competition vs equally strong competitor (human or AI). In the standard MMO game, this is the raiding gameplay. For both games, the learning, edge, advancement, et.c are very incrementally small at this stage. So, players generally exit at a certain stage (would be interested to see if PlayOn has stats for attrition and churn at this stage).

So, my question again is that is the 3rd stage of gameplay? Some players will make up their own game like metagaming plots, unending diplomacy and politics, and so on. However, I don't that would a suitable gameplay.

But, back to your original questions: various treads have discussed trophies, badges, social standing, ladders, and other specific concrete forms of tracking. I'm sure there are more, but I think XP is the most elegant, simple and wholly abstrat form of tracking.

However, I fondly remember a NetHack or Rogue ASCII hack-en-sack game that measure your advancement by what level of dungeon you can get to. If you got down to level 100, you may not be level 100 in XP, but you sure can prove you can survive down there.


The raiding endgame satisfies a strong minority. The majority of players, in WoW for example, are still happy with the 1-59 leveling gameplay.

ahh. i think i understand now.
so basically what you're saying is that many players enjoy endless progression? and that the endgame marks the end of any possible progression?

well then what if the whole pre-endgame of an MMO continued infinitely.
not to say that players could continue to gain levels infinitely.
this type of system would work better without levels.

maybe something more like EVE, where players could continue to progress and NEVER reach the end of the line because there are just too many skills.

or maybe something we've just never seen before.
a game without levels or XP, or any of the standard trappings of an MMO.

that's another way of interpreting Richard's original question of "what if the endgame were the game?"


I wonder what other mechanisms there are out there that we haven't thought of yet?

In Meridian 59, one mechanic I love that has not been put into other games is what I call "exploration-based advancement." In order to get more mana for your character, you had to go find nodes and "bond" with them. These were hidden in various areas, or sometimes even just out in the open. Some nodes were very easy to find, some required a long complicated quest with an amusing backstory on what it was included. This meant that the lowly newbie could dodge into areas and grab some nodes, but others pretty much required a bit of experience under your belt. On the other hand, there were no strictly artificial reasons why a newbie freshly created couldn't try to go grab every node before gaining a single skill percent or hit point.

A friend of mine likes to point out that this is a similar mechanic in many of the Zelda games. Go hunt out the hidden goodies scattered around the world. In the original game, you could gain quite a few hearts before you conquered even the first dungeon. Of course, conquering dungeons also gave traditional advancement rewards in the form of additional life hearts as well. :) It was difficult to get to some areas, but not impossible. Contrast this with the level-based systems in most online games, and the practical impossibility of sneaking past fast-moving high-level monsters that will paste you if you even dare to enter visual range.

I think this is an interesting possibility for advancement in games. Why not have it so that you can go exploring around to make your character more powerful. Bond to mana nodes, find remote teachers or scrolls of learning, learn of the virtues to become the avatar, etc.

Many more possibilities exist, too. Sadly, few people really look at them. Thankfully we have Dr. Bartle to encourage such thinking. :)

My thoughts,


Andrew Crystall>Why is this being asked as a what-if?
>There are quite a few, popular, NWN modules which only give quest experience...

OK, well the first thing is that didn't know about the NWN modules. I was expecting maybe that some olde textual worlds might have experimented in this area, however. I wasn't therefore saying "what if" assuming that no-one had done it before; if people have done it before, that makes it all the more easier to get an answer.

The second thing, then, is what is the experience of the NWN module designers? Could such a quest-only model sustain a virtual world that people would play for 2-3 hours every night for 18 months?



>>The better question: if you removed killing things from a game entirely, what would you sub in as the de facto easy and repetitive method for acquiring points?

Insult sword fights?


Personally I'd prefer a more diversified "class" structure (I've never warmed to calls for 'classless' systems). I don't think killing should be removed from any game, but would like there to be satisfying non-killing gameplay. In WoW, for example, I get satisfaction from my tradeskills, and would happily devote all my gameplay to the development and maintenance of those skills--but in WoW that's just not possible.

I'd like to be a high-level tailor, or enchanter, with poor combat skills. One who needed to gather a party of 60s to escort me to gather my Felcloth or whatever. Make it so that killer classes just couldn't gather the materials they need, and this sort of escorting would be commonplace, and add considerable depth to the game.

It would certainly be more difficult logistically, but I'd love a game world with very few NPC's, for questgiving perhaps. Anything that can be bought can be manufactured--by a player character (of course this raises the issue of customization, which WoW sorely lacks). You might point out that Second Life has these qualities...but there's no monsters and killing. I want it all in my game world!


Re the comments on Endgame being/not being The Game, almost no-one I have met in 8 years of MMO play has had any interest in the Endgame. Very few of my virtual friends and acquaintances even reached the raw max level , let alone filled out all the ancilliary skills/gear etc. or participated in the gameplay that happens after that. Most of the estimates I've heard over the years suggest around 10% of subscribers reach and maintain Endgame play.

On the original question, I have always wanted to see a "flat" MMO. The killing and normal high-fantasy tropes can all stay, because that's what I mainly seek from the genre, but the levelling up can all go, and along with it all markers of progress or advancement, from levels and ranks to improved skills and better gear - junk the lot.

Instead, have a foreground of quests, storyline and plot in the familiar fashion of offline rpgs and adventure games and a background of enmities between races/towns/deities etc. Then make the combat mechanics entertaining in and of themselves, so much so that fighting well gives the same satisfaction as playing a musical instrument well.

You can then log in and follow the storyline, akin to watching a movie or reading a novel, or you can hunt the enemies of your race or town, simply because it makes RP sense to do so for your character and entertainment sense for you.

I have characters in most MMOs that I play who don't level or search for better gear. They live where they live and I log them on when I am in the mood and have them do what they might do in context of the lore they have been given in the game background. It's a thin experience in a commercial MMO, so I don't do it as the main thing I do in any game, but I believe it would be perfectly possible to design a fairly traditional MMO with no xp, levelling, status, faction, gear upgrades or other carrots.


Bhagpuss>Very few of my virtual friends and acquaintances even reached the raw max level , let alone filled out all the ancilliary skills/gear etc. or participated in the gameplay that happens after that.

There are stats available for WoW that allow you to see how many people of which level have played over the past 30 days. They show a basically flat line from level 1 to level 59, then a huge stack at 60.

Some people must be enjoying the endgame.



Interestingly random thought:

I suspect that if you created a MMORPG where players went instantly to the end game that it wouldn't work.

I suspect that it wouldn't work because, for people that play the end-game, levels 1-59 serve as a huge time investment that effectly eliminates/minimizes anonymity. Without levels 1-59, end-game characters would be be reputation-free and, as a player, you'd know less about who you were playing with.

Of course, level 1-59 also act as a "boot-camp" that psychologically bonds a group (aka: guild).


The level 1-59 is a sort of an achievement qauntlet or "boot camp", which many go through slowly, go through quickly, or quit midway through.

I personally believe stage one (the boot camp of learning) and stage two (the raids of performing) are necessary. What I thinking of is stage three.

In MUDs there is the wizard stage. I'm not thinking of this as stage three, but what would be suitable stages in between.


On another note as the standard design is accumulation of X via Y, just have to expand the list of X's and Y's.

In the pursuit of identifying, cataloging and describing various component methods and also the grammar in which to connect these components, is there a wiki or common depository online?



In the OP Richard asked, What if you got no points for killing things?

Since then there's been an interesting if meandering discussion mostly focused on different ways to... give players points for killing things.

I'm surprised that so far no one has mentioned Nicole Lazzaro's "4 Fun Keys" in which she describes four basic different emotional drivers for gameplay. Of these four, the bulk of the discussion here (and in most MMOG design) has focused on "hard fun" -- goal-oriented, achievement-based gameplay that carries the promise of feelings of accomplishment, victory, fiero. Some mistakenly go so far as to say that this kind of gameplay is all there is.

But this is just one kind. We're virtually ignoring the rest. There have been a few mentions of "easy fun" activities such as exploration. Aside from the Jane Austen ideas we continue to dismiss "people fun" as a valid source of gameplay (hint: social play is not just about chat). And we give virtually no attention to contemplative "serious fun" activities.

I believe this says a lot more about our short horizon than it does about what can actually be fun and engaging in an MMOG. Each of these areas are goldmines with at least as much gameplay in them as the all but exhausted achievement gameplay area that we all know so well (I know, I'm not providing specifics here; I'm not prepared to do that just yet).

One difference between these kinds of play is that achievement/fiero gameplay gives the designer an easy out: it is sufficient in itself with no additional goal or justification required. Questions like "why are you killing rats?" or "why are you trying to drop that block into that gap" have the same equally satisfying answer: the doing of it is its own reward. We gain a sense of accomplishment without requiring any other external meaning. When pressed about why having all purple armor or getting three jewels in a row is satisfying, much less important, we tend to come up with all kinds of rationalizations since there is no real "reason" behind the satisfaction (this is not a character flaw; it's how we tend to interpret unexamined emotions in general).

On the other hand, the other kinds of fun require some kind of meaning or goal beyond just the doing of a thing or the obtaining of an instant reward. This makes game design more difficult (it's always easier if I can tell you to go kill ten rats without having to justify why you should do so beyond some paper-thin game fiction) but I think in the long run the more meaning-laden the gameplay is the more satisfying it will be. Moreover, I believe that many people -- especially but not only women -- who don't find current gameplay formulations interesting might be attracted if there was more obvious meaningfulness in the play itself. Killing rats for many people is not only boring, it's absurd. The same people might not balk at in-game activities if they were more clearly linked to a relevant goal that had meaning for them (uber-armor doesn't). The trick for designers is to re-conceive what game design means, to build on some of these other kinds of fun, and to break out of the well-worn tropes of killing-for-points and its inbred cousins.


In some posts above it has been suggested that players only grind for things/levels that give them more power (more damage, etc). There are games where players grind for title/items, which grant only the prestiege of owning them, but no additional power. For example item/armour skins in Guildwars.


Mike Sellers wrote - I believe this says a lot more about our short horizon than it does about what can actually be fun and engaging in an MMOG. Each of these areas are goldmines with at least as much gameplay in them as the all but exhausted achievement gameplay area that we all know so well (I know, I'm not providing specifics here; I'm not prepared to do that just yet).

I see two separate issues:

1) Do MMORPGs need to be about killing things? (To which I'd say that I agree about your social comments, and that I'm not prepared to discuss them in detail just yet either.)

2) Does a MMORPG need to give points for killing, socializing, or whatever the MMORPG is about? (To which I'd agree with you and say "no".)


Random anectode about achievement and combat-based gameplay:

A few months ago I wrote up a 5+ page article describing the gameplay model I'm using (aka: NPCs are the game) and sent it off to some of my friends. (I haven't posted it yet because my game is always three months away from even a very short public demo.)

One friend, who is very intelligent and has also played a lot of MMORPGs, replied with some comments. From the comments, it was pretty obvious to me that he was trying to understand the gameplay that I was describing through WoW-colored glasses.

So when you ask why no one is talking about something other than the well-worn tropes of killing-for-points and its inbred cousins, remember that if you've grown up in a world that's entirely red, then blue is a difficult color to imagine.

This is also a huge marketing issue that I haven't figured out; I expect that most players who download and try the game will complain that there aren't any orcs to kill, and that they can't find a way to advanced their character to "level 2". Then again, twenty years ago, if you had a game without geographic levels (ala donkey kong, pac man, mario, and every other game in existence at the time) then players would be completely perplexed too.


I'm one of these guys that apparently doesn't see the point. Doing away with levels is an interesting challenge, but doing away with killing sounds political. I think people prefer the finality, power and consequence of "killing", even in simulation. Players are allowed to achieve a result that they can ultimately rest assured that the recipient did not intend. :) The real world is full of villains that cannot be simply slain, and on some level I think these games are psychologically therapeutic. Sorry if this seems divergent, but my notion of "play" isn't about mere distraction, but taps the darker side of the human mind. People want to kill the bad guy, but in real-life they cannot act on those impulses. This is why I think our play trends violent - we want to get those feelings out.


Mithra: I think people prefer the finality, power and consequence of "killing", even in simulation.

Some people do. Many (many more) do not. This is evidenced by the huge number of people playing casual, non-violent, non-killing games online, but who are turned off by current MMOGs. Your POV is indicative of those who see Nicole's "hard fun" as the totality of gameplay. That's fine, if that's what engages you. But only a minority of people are primarily engaged by this kind of fun. Game developers and publishers have been slow to recognize and act on this -- it means going outside of what has been done and what is comfortable.

Mike (Rozak): Three years ago we designed, prototyped, and pitched an MMOG without killing where "NPCs were the game." It was well-received in meetings, but nothing ever came of it. One major publisher was really blown away by it, said great things, and then said, "... but we could never sell it."

This to me is the reality of the MMOG market right now: yes you can design and develop MMOGs that don't include killing or similar overt achievement gameplay. You are unlikely to garner a significant marketshare with such a game however -- and thus are unlikely to obtain funding, publication, or significant distribution. I expect this will change, slowly. I expect the change will be forced by games that come out of the long tail as so many things do, until it's just "obvious" to the major devs/publishers, and they'll say it's what they've been trying to do all along. At which point we all roll our eyes or try not to bang our heads on our desks.


Mike (and Mike), it's precisely that question of personality-driven game design that's been consuming me for the past couple of years.

I don't mind that there are Achiever/hard fun-driven games. But why must those be the only kinds of games?

There's a kind of chicken-and-egg thing going on here. Most MMORPGs are designed from the ground up around Achiever/hard fun assumptions, so they attract that kind of gamer. Not surprisingly, then, if you want to make a popular game and investigate "what gamers like," you can only conclude that you have to provide Achiever/hard fun content. And so we get more games about establishing hierarchical relationships, and the cycle continues.

As Mike R. said, it's hard to even conceive of the concept of "blue" when all you've ever seen is red.

And it'll stay that way until someone ignores the conventional wisdom and makes a good game that's not purely Achiever/hard fun-oriented. At which point there'll be the "Oh, yes, that's obvious" responses, but fine, at least there'll finally be an alternative to "kill ten rats for no particular reason."

We need games that are designed from the ground up as Explorer/Socializer games that have some Achiever content as well -- and not the other way around.

It can be done; someone just has to do it.



It definitely can be done. We're working on it. It's good to hear that others are interested in seeing this as well.

Back to work.


...But is an Explorer/Socializer game really a game? It seems to me as though that leans more heavily on the worldy end of the spectrum and far less so on the gamey end of things. It also seems to me as though RPing MUSHes hover very close to that territory.

Even if you toss out the Achievers and Killers, the game still needs conflict. Player-engendered social conflict ("why wasn't I invited to Lady B.'s latest soiree?" is one option, but that only works for the Socializers. Combat is the most obvious form of conflict to model, which is why many lazy and not-so-lazy designers use it - but it doesn't change the fact that conflict is a very important element of virtually any game.

Marginally relevant digression: I vaguely recall that one (possibly more) of the Crystal Singer MUSHes had a fascinating idea. The gamey side of the game (as opposed to the RP side - this is a MUSH, after all) was built around finding and collecting crystals, as the fiction suggests. Essentially, the different crystal locations in the game were player-created (and moderator-approved) content, built as a sort of puzzle. You'd go flying around the planet in a shuttle, "sense" a crystal vibration, and land the shuttle - this put you at the starting point of a random player-created area which was built like a traditional interactive fiction puzzle, from which point you would try to solve the puzzle and reach the chamber which contained the crystal. Scoring a crystal and getting back to base would earn you game currency, if I recall correctly. I wonder how this would work in a larger game, but it's certainly an interesting example. Perhaps there would be a nominal fee for submitting a puzzle, and a reward if it's accepted by the mod team - which then opens the moderators up to scrutiny...

In any case, for an Explorer game to be interesting, there needs to be conflict - it could be in a form as simple as the tired old Red Keycard, but there needs to be conflict. I say this because elsewise the act of exploration devolves into traversing a nondirected graph, which is typically dead boring. This sort of comes back to the original idea of the topic, and in that sense yes, we could make it work - make it a game of exploration where the goal is to discover different places and collect unique bits and bobs, and the critters are simply there as roadblocks which can be circumvented in one or more ways (stealth gameplay, anyone? *sweat*). The catch there is that the designers need to come up with tons and tons of different places and unique bits and bobs, unless you run with player-created content or procedural content. Even so, my instinctive reaction is that after awhile, the different places all look the same.
Which then comes back to making them different - changing the landscape. How about taking some of the ideas from Perimeter and putting them in, such that players can "settle down" and shape the land where they see fit?

/random braindump off


But is an Explorer/Socializer game really a game? ... Even if you toss out the Achievers and Killers, the game still needs conflict.

A game needs contingency; the player needs to be able to make meaningful decisions that carry them closer to some goal. The goal may or may not be overtly achievement-oriented. And the decisions may or may not involve overt conflict. Many people do not enjoy overt conflict and find other games that abstract this or create different sorts of contingencies. As I said before, the fact that MMOGs have been slow to feature other avenues of meaningful decision-making beyond simple combat-conflict says a lot more about our narrow design ruts than about what's possible and engaging.


Hear, hear, Mike.


Even in WoW, meaningful decisions aren't made only in the context of skill trees and combat tactics. Guilds are replete with enough political maneuvering to make Machiavelli proud, if not blush. There's no formal game system there, but it's definitely a game, one packed to the gills with conflict...and one many Achievers are terrible at. There's a fine line between building a game that appeals to Socializers and formalizing the existing social game to appeal to Achievers.

I agree that a Socializer-focused game wouldn't look like a game at all. The Sims Online is roundly considered to be a pretty lousy game...by achievement-focused gamers. However, one gaming monthly (Massive?) had an inset article on the people who still play it. Why? They want to hang out and chat, free of levels and other distracting, gamey notions. The Sims Online isn't exactly a resounding success, but if we loosen our thinking a notch we're in MySpace or CyWorld territory. Again, not exactly MMORPGs, but no doubt that's where the Socializers are at.


But that brings us back to the objection that if it's not about collecting points, it's not a game, which sounds very much to me like an Achiever definition.

Mike's point about contingency, rather than conflict, is something I believe strongly as well because it's a more inclusive definition of play. It's another form of Sid Meier's observation that fun comes from "interesting choices." For some people, those choices are about conflict and competition; for other kinds of people, the choices are about optimization or grouping or cooperative production.

So why should the only interesting choices available be how best to maximize one's resources (loot, money, prestige, leader board ranking, etc.) at the expense of other players? Why should the folks who like that kind of thing be the only people a game world is designed to attract? Is everybody else's money stinky?

Of course a game that just wants to be a great adrenaline-fest doesn't need to worry about this. But a game that has aspirations of being a world, that values narrative and imagination as well as conflict and accumulation, needs to reach out through its design to more than just Achievers.

And I do mean "more." There's nothing that says a MMOG that's trying to appeal to Explorers and Socializers can't also offer entertainment value to Achievers. This isn't about excluding Achievers (even if some of them will see it that way). The question is one of striking a balance so that the game doesn't become overwhelmingly Achiever-oriented, as is the case for most of the current large MMORPGs, but maintains a healthy diversity of playstyles.

Conflict and competition for scarce resources are part of the human condition, and I would argue that they need to be in any MMOG that wants to be a complex and satisfying game world. But cooperation and the creation of new resources (things at which Socializers and Explorers excel) are important aspects of being human, too. I believe that a truly satisfying game world must -- by design -- offer plenty of opportunities to do those things, too. And it must work to maintain that balance over time even though it's easier to add simple, tangible Achiever-oriented content.

Finally, speaking of Explorer content, I'd like to suggest that "exploration" shouldn't be considered just as geographic mapping. It's easy to think of it in those terms when we're talking about an online game world with terrain, but that's just the most obvious form of exploration.

More broadly, exploration is about illuminating the unknown -- it's about filling in the blank part of any kind of conceptual map. Sometimes that's traveling around to fill in a literal map, but it's also about learning how systems work. A rich crafting system, for example, attracts Explorers because it's a complex system whose nuances beg to be understood -- not for Achiever-like profit, but simply for the joy of making one's conceptual model of the (game) world more accurate.

That's the sense in which I'd like to see someone design a game world that's satisfying to Explorers. Not about being the first to find hidden places, or having the largest collection of maps, both of which are the kinds of tangible first/most/best rewards that attract Achievers, not Explorers. I'm looking for a designer who understands exploration in the larger sense of the game world being a vast system of complex and deeply interacting subsystems whose characteristics and behaviors can't be fully uncovered even by thousands of cooperating players over years.

Again, there is no doubt in my mind that it's possible to create a MMOG like this. I also believe that such a game world, if polished, would enjoy commercial success.

It's just a matter of someone having the will, the time, and the money to do it. Easy, right?



FWIW, I believe I first heard the "contingency" formulation here on TN from Thomas Malaby. I like the broader view 'contigency' gives over 'conflict' and it does fit closely with the "making significant decisions" description of games from Will Wright, Sid Meier, Greg Costikyan, and others.

I completely agree about exploration not just being geographical. You could very easily look at research and development as exploration. To capture this in a game though, you'd need an ontology as varied as the physical landscape itself. A worthy goal, IMO, and one hinted at in various MMO and single-player games.

I believe there are similar analogs for those focused on interpersonal and intrapersonal gameplay too; although die-hard achievers may not see it this way, socializers aren't just chatters. There are many social contigencies that can be elevated to the level of gameplay much as combat has been for point-counters, but without turning this into an overt achievement game. The last thing I want is a bunch of bull-in-a-china-shop achievers doing some "social" quest because it'll give them the next notch on their belt. Constructing exploration or social gameplay like that completely misses the point.


I'm not sure if I mentioned this writeup on Terranova:


Basically, I was toying with the idea of mixing games(inductive understanding), puzzles (deductive understanding), and an Australian term, "stickybeaking" (aka: exploring, but with non-geographical connotations).

Each of these have goal-oriented versions, as well as experimental (toy) versions.


Mike R., thanx for that new word (and the link) ;-))


Just thinking out loud here, but it might also be possible to apply the "carrot and stick" approach to leveling. In the broadest terms possible, you do something right and your level goes up. Do something wrong, it goes down.

It could certainly be applied to Pete Border's "Pemberly Online" idea.


I hate to deflate "the novelty" of the (otherwise excellent) idea of "Pemberley online" somewhat but pretty much every existing (decently good) online dating service already provides the "Pemberley Online Experience" including experience points for dating (your own score keeping of "X people like me enough to invite to..."), "level 60" for "you-know-what" and the "end game" of actually finding a mate, getting into a steady RL relationship, and so forth... awful to put that experience in such technical terms, is it not?

Online Dating seems to work well at least in those cases where the dating company is able to target certain slices of the population so that customer expectations with regard to "attributes" are met more often than not... and this works pretty much like "the ball at Netherfield", simulating the process of selecting who gets invited and who does not, who is to make contact or "dance" with whom, what is "appropriate behaviour", etc.

So the business opportunity I do see here is a dating service that works around the "Jane Austen's world" metaphor -- you could do that almost instantly by "modding" an existing dating service software/layout/text... ;-))


... and by organizing accompanying RL events, including "empire style" coustume balls ...in fact, what does keep companies from offfering such service today?


Part of the problem is that coding an exp grind is easy. Coding alternate forms of advancement is harder, and it get much harder the farther you get from repeated, simplified action. To take an example from earlier; making a system where you get points for killing is basic. Making a system where you get points for trading is a little harder. Making a system where you get points for not getting caught is much harder. Not get caught how? Doing what? Making a 'standing' system, where you are the level that you play to? Nearly impossible with in-use AI.

One of the big limiters on alternate forms of advancement is mob AI. So many potential options for a MMO are either out of reach or too expensive due to the difficulty of creating a useful AI to guide it. Want to kill higher monsters with hit and run tactics? Sorry, too expensive to make an AI deal with Z axis and obstruction problems. Want to have non-static quests and dynamic NPCs? Too hard/expensive. Want to have set piece encounters like monsters attacking towns and such? Modern AI tech would require such a clunky and strangely built AI to guide that event that players would rapidly find out how to break it and bypass/simplify/grief it.

This is why in WoW, for example, the difficult content is either other good PvPers or large, horribly overpowered, strangely created set pieces (Elites and Raids). Let's face it, if even a single 5man pull in the lvl 60 instances had half a human's brains they'd be invincible vs. a 5 man group. Much less instance bosses or raid bosses. 'Go for the one in the dress,' indeed. But 99.99% of mobs have an AI that a cockroach could outwit. There is one group of mobs in the entire WoW that has an advanced AI, the BRD arena fight on the Tier .05 questline. The fight is fun, fast paced, and always different because the AI is a work of art for those mobs. Unfortnately, they are the ONLY mobs in the game with an 'advanced' AI.

Borrowing the desire based AI in Assassin's Creed might have great potential for an MMO. It gives the option of much better AI, with mobs that react and possibly quests that change. Need to make nice with a guard or bribe that ogre? Where before you did a static quest to bring wine or collect 6 bear asses for a farmer, now you might have dynamic needs that change based on the enviroment, who did what recently, or just random chance. A mob AI that just did purely random things every once in a while would go a long way to making combat better, so long as the mobs aren't overpowered to compensate for bad AI like in EQ and WoW. A mob AI that learned and adapted? Who knows what could be accomplished.

Take a farmer. The farmer has needs. He needs various predators thinned out, local humanoid tribes scouted, appeased, or initimidated. Random or seasonal invasions of mobs or pests, and seasonal harvesting, harvesting preparation, and guarding. A system that tracked all these things, and put forth them as 'quests' based on which ones needed to be dealt with, perhaps plus a social aspect to access other things, or better rewards, or a time lag penalty if you take too long. Something closer to a living, breathing world over the static questing system. You could have advancement by accomplishment, advancement by renown, advancement by conquest and others.

But all that is ruinously expensive to do by hand, and AI just isn't up to the task.


You're right, these are really hard problems, and more advanced AI will help a lot.

We're working as fast as we can.


It strikes me that MMO’s could attract a broader population if there were a greater choice of in-game occupations, many of which did not involve killing. Saga of Ryzom uses a skill based system, so that there is no overall character level, but rather individual skill levels. One can choose to focus primarily on one’s harvesting or crafting skills versus fighting.

I recall having played Star Wars Galaxy a bit when it first came out and there were quite a variety of occupations available such as musician and dancer. The key is to create an interdependent world so that the skills of each occupation are needed by the community.

Many MMO’s make the focus on crafting difficult because in order to acquire items and travel you need to attain a higher and more powerful character level for the purposes of safety. I’m sure there are some creative ways to get around that roadblock. You might have “safe” pathways, or perhaps players skilled in fighting may act as bodyguards or escorts for those who cannot defend themselves in dangerous lands. Perhaps one could receive a special cloak upon reaching a skill level in one’s occupation that would allow one to travel in safety. There are numerous possibilities.

Asheron’s Call 2 had a unique guild system in which individuals earned experience for one another (a patron had vassals). The patron, usually a higher level character, looked after the well-being of their vassals. Meanwhile, a certain percentage of the vassal’s experience would also be added to that of the patron. Might we have a world in which people could form formal relationships with other players pursuing different ability paths so that they could contribute to each other’s experience? Perhaps I could be a blacksmith who formed a cooperative alliance with a warrior. I would gain a percentage of his fighting skill and he would gain a percentage of my crafting skill through that agreed upon alliance.

I think with a little imagination we can provide a world not only for players who enjoy the current path of fighting and killing for experience, but an entertaining environment with alternative paths for different styles of play.


I wonder what other mechanisms there are out there that we haven't thought of yet?

I believe one can benefit from looking at non-computer multi-user games. There is little innovation in the MMO realm as they tend to present themselves as D&D variations, so there is little to learn from studying MMOs...

Fortunately you have games that are quite different from this. I am particularly interested in Magic the Gathering and Nomic-style games at them moment.

Brian: In Meridian 59, one mechanic I love that has not been put into other games is what I call "exploration-based advancement." In order to get more mana for your character, you had to go find nodes and "bond" with them.

Yes, I think the mana-node implementation in Meridian 59 was wonderful. I dislike the abstract nature of experience points, being able to collect "energy sources" is much more satisfying. However, this is more a presentation issue than a concept issue. Mana nodes are equivalent to collecting points/gear by doing quests.


I think the issue is not so much one of the type of gameplay, but how it is presented. Here's an idea for you.

Imagine a game where there are competing cities. Each city has it's own style and citizens. They start with basic skills: basic harvesting, basic crafting, basic warfare. From these skills, and the items created, they can up a variety of non-combat skills: smithing, stonemasonry, etc. Along the way, they have the option of making armor and weaponry.

Combat would be largely without advancement. What you can do depends on what you are equipped with. In general, it's a level system, with everyone roughly equal in combat. At this level, combat is about skill and reflexes, rather than quirks in how the characters fight.

Equipped characters can use their skills to kill creatures in the lands between towns (hunting), as well as people inside the towns. However, when someone dies, their skills are gone, unless they bequeathed some of their skill on an apprentice. As such, it becomes in the best interest of each town to protect their skilled workers and laborers.

Add a further mechanic where the bodies are fully lootable, so that any items crafted can be stolen by the other towns, and survival becomes a premium (and perhaps scavengers become as useful as others).

Set 'em loose, and see what happens.

The comments to this entry are closed.