MMOG Design in a Nutshell

Massively Multiplayer design is an extremely complex issue. So complex that I’m going to be up front with you: I have a very poor grasp of it. I’ve never worked as a designer on a game (though, obviously, I’d like to). However, I have been following MMOG design as an interest of mine since the early days of Ultima Online. I’m traditionally a pen and paper roleplayer, and the distinction of the tabletop setting and the Massively Multiplayer setting is somewhat thin. At the nitty-gritty level, choices you make a person running a tabletop game (“Do I hit them with the gnolls just after they enter the forest, or should I let them find the grave first?”) are very similar to ones you find in MMOG design (“Do I put the encounter here, or here?”). Now that I’ve insulted every game designer reading this, I’d like to state that there are some extraordinarily important distinctions. Budget, time, and manpower considerations, as well as a host of other issues both economic and technical mean that a table-top GM and a MMOG designer are very different animals. The thought process, though, seems to be very similar. So when UO first came out I was hooked. Here was a whole industry of people making money off of doing the things that I did every week for my small group of players. And these folks weren’t just doing it for a rag-tag crew of 5 or 6. Their design decisions impact hundreds of thousands of people every day. Ever since, I’ve been researching the people and processes of MMOG design, and at this point I feel as though I’m beginning to get something of a grasp of the field.

I’m going to break MMOG design out into a nice bulleted list. This may be the most overly simplistic analysis of this field that has ever existed so if you don’t see something that you think is important it’s because I was trying to keep this short. While they have no particular order, some of these are fundamental decisions that must be decided upon before moving forward. A virtual world with Permanent Death is very different from one without it.

MMOG Design in a Nutshell

What is it?
Is it a game?
Is it a world?
Is it a social club?
Permanent Death
Have it? – How Permanent?, Any exceptions?
Don’t Have it? – What does “death” mean?
Setting
Fantasy – Magic?, Races?, Technology?
Sci-Fi – Single Planet? Space based?
Modern – Difficult, How accurate?
Other – What tropes? How familiar to players?
Geography
How many continents?
Terrain Types?
Big game or small game?
Players
Which player types are being catered to?
How many players?
Newbie Game (Greeters?)
End Game
Unending Persistence or Circular
Unending Persistence – How fast will content be added?
Circular – How often will the world be reset?
Economic Model
How realistic?
Fixed Prices?
How much player participation?
Player vs. Player Combat
Opt In/Opt Out/No choice/Don’t Have it?
In entire world, or specific places?
Anyone, or within certain range?
Consequences (Lost Xp, Lost equipment, Lost Fame?, Lost Life?)
Rewards (Xp? Equipment? Fame?)
Combat System
Turn based or Real-time?
Show numbers (“Hit for 5”) or descriptions (“Weak hit”)?
How does Magic fit in?
Advancement System
Levels/Experience or something else?
How quick is leveling?
Level cap?
Character Generation
How many races?
How many genders?
How much customization?
Modify attributes now or later?
NPCs
How much interaction?
How many of the PC perks do they get?
Randomly killable?
Crafting
How deep is crafting? (how many options?)
How important is it?
How easy to master?
Competing with NPCs?
Quests
How important are they?
How many different types?
Mostly solo or mostly group?
Raid content?
As you may or may not have already guessed, you’re currently looking at an outline of my column for the near future. I’m not going to go in the order I’ve listed here, but most or all of these topics are going to be touched on at some point in the coming months. Now that we have an outline to work on, it would be useful to have some references when discussing this topic. To this end, here is a small bibliography of texts that touch on the topic of design as I’ll be talking about it in this column.