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So You Want To: Write A Minor MMORPG
Well, by choosing this over Write A Major MMORPG, you've shown that you're aware of your limitations. This is good. It takes a huge team of designers and a huge budget to make something on the scale of World of Warcraft, and if you don't have the team (or the budget), it's better you set your sights on something you have a chance of completing.

This page, then, will help you figure out just what you're capable of. We'll stick to the tropes and advice that work with a low-budget, low-key, probably 2-dimensional MMO, and get you where you need to be.

It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Don't forget to check out Write A Story for general advice on how to make people keep playing. (I suppose we'll get a videogame-specific page up sooner or later.)

Necessary Tropes

Let's face it: The amount of design necessary to pull off an evolving world is probably well outside your scope. So your world is going to be Perpetually Static. There are a few ways to mess with this, but anything grandiose is going to be in Write A Major MMORPG, so don't bite off more than you can chew in terms of attempted aversions.

Death Tropes come in second. Even if you avoid fighting and killing as major sources of experience, you'll end up on the other side of the scale, working with Never Say "Die" and so forth.

Choices, Choices

Many of the basic elements of RPG's apply, including the need for some sort of stats and level gain. The choice is: What sort of stats are you after? You get to design a system, from the sweet simplicity of BESM's body-mind-soul to the complexity of a dozen or more basic stats, and probably dozens or even hundreds of abilities beyond that. And then there's the question of how you want to gain experience: Mostly fighting, mostly questing, mostly role-playing of some sort?

Not to mention, do stats go up automatically with each level, or does the player get a degree of control over which stats get focused on? Or do stats go up only with use? Same question about abilities.

Speaking of level — your characters are eventually going to run out of levels to get. When will that be? Level 50? 75? 100? After 4 billion experience points? Never? How far apart will people of different levels be, in terms of power and content? Will a Level 20 character ever see a level 1 character? If a said level 20 character wanted to adventure with a level 35 character, would it be a waste of someone's time? If that level 35 character's younger sibling started playing the game, would the level 35 character be able to do much with a level 1 character?

Pitfalls

While "grinding" in the sense of "spending time gaining levels" is a given, one of the biggest pitfalls is pointless grinding, that is, making players perform pointless quests or waste their time doing things they don't want to do. Some possibilities include "Go bring me that item I could easily fetch myself" and "run around the map a few dozen times talking to NPC's who eventually send you back to me because I had the item / the answer all along". Ask yourself "Would I use a macro program which allows me to grind stuff if that was allowed?". And, of course, Yahtzee's main gripe:
Wait a minute. Kill X amount of monster Y for stationary cockhead Z?

One cute little bonus that we shouldn't even be mentioning here: there are certain flaws, like play control, that you can flat-out ignore. The MMO model has gotten flak in the past because it places a value on The Player's time commitment instead of The Player's skill; the MMO wants to drag out gameplay for as long as possible, since that means another month of subscription fees. So things that create Fake Difficulty or Fake Longevity are, to a certain extent, desirable. Don't be too overt about it, though. The game still has to be fun, or at least fun enough that people will overlook the flaws, but it doesn't have to be perfect. In fact, that's the point we're trying to make: certain imperfections will be good for business.

Another issue that needs addressing is Pay To Win syndrome. While it is nice to offer bonus stuff to players willing to spend some real-world cash on the game and help keep you in business, giving the paying players too much of an advantage, especially if Player Versus Player is a big draw, will drive people who aren't rich or willing to spend crazy amounts of money on the game away.

Potential Subversions

  • There are a decided lack of scifi MMORPGs — and those which do exist are almost exclusively spaceship games. A science fiction MMORPG may be able to carve its own niche in today's overcrowded market. Similarly, a over the top kung-fu mmorpg (think the Xiao Xiao animations turned video game) would also be sufficiently different.

  • The MMORPG genre is getting big enough that it has its own in jokes, tropes, lingo, etc. A parody or comedy MMORPG may also be a hit. It would not have to be exclusively MMORPG in jokes — imagine a tongue-in-cheek romp through a fantasy world, like Discworld and Xanth did for fantasy novels. Dangerously Genre Savvy NPCs, the UI breaking down from critical hits (and NPCs accidentally walking into your quest log), quests dripping with sarcasm, the possibilities are endless.

  • Outside of Everquest and Warhammer Online, the earlier of which made it's faction system simply another form of grinding, very few MMORPGs allow characters to join evil groups. Even WarCraft's Warlocks, Undead, and Blood Elves are mostly Knight Templar and JerkAsses. A potential subversion would be to have the player characters be mostly or truly evil, fighting not for heroism but for outright personal gain.

  • A similar subversion would be changing the point of view of the characters — for example, instead of having the characters be humans adventuring against the invading Kobold hordes, have the characters play Kobolds defending their realm from greedy human invaders, or semi-sentient androids scouting a mysterious planet for future colonization. Or, in a further subversion, why focus on one character? Have the characters playing an entire group of people, such as a mayor of a town, or an adventuring party.
    • Being able to craft distinct characters and then put a few of them into an adventuring unit is something that ought to be explored. How many times have you played World of Warcraft as a soloist and wished you could easily switch between characters - to gather resources your one character couldn't gather, or to survive battles that would normally require teaming up with other players?
      • If you care to explore this design space, which only Granado Espada has at this point, beware your first pitfall: micromanagement. Final Fantasy XII had the excellent "Gambit" system, which was basically allowed you to program your characters, but you'll still need to map hotkeys well enough that The Player can grab any skill he wants at any time. Gambits weren't sufficient for FF 12's Final Boss, they will not be enough for Kael'thas. The UI and graphical presentation would need to be modified to display the information of multiple characters, as well as to let you find those characters in the scrum, since the camera can't follow all of them (or can it?). For that matter, think of the hardware limitations. What would happen to framerate and latency if all 40 raid members were represented by a 3-person party? What about a 4-person party? There are some technical questions you'll have to face, but in terms of gameplay this design space still begs to be mined.

  • Another subversion to the standard formula is the Class and Level System — doing away with it, replacing it with a Point Build System such as the one used in Asherons Call, may be a refreshing change. You can have your cake and eat it too — you could have premade "classes" that are just templates of skills, you could have rigid classes that allow characters to break the rules a bit — for example, allowing a Paladin to buy the Sneak skill (Shadowbane did this with limited success), or you could have rigid class skills but allow the player to decide which ones to specialize in.
    • Just beware Crippling Indecision. Some players jump up and down when given the chance to customize, while others prefer at least some broad outlines. Besides, there's the question of mis-clicking, or of putting points into something that turns out to be useless for you. A lack of "Undo" option makes sense from an in-universe standpoint—"Oh, it turns out I didn't need to be that strong, so I'll decrease my muscle mass and instead grow some extra neurons!" Yeah right.—but can be forbidding to the player. Finally, when doing a skill grid, remember that you need a lot of variety. Anyone who played Final Fantasies VII, VIII or XII can probably tell you horror stories about how homogenous their characters ended up being.

  • Fiddling with any of the "required MMORPG tropes" is also a given. How about wizards who just don't use mana — instead, they are balanced around runes, or cooldowns? How about a MMORPG without hit points, instead using physical conditions (broken arm, bruises, etc) to represent the character's health? Or an MMORPG without combat healers, where the boss fights have to be designed around a group makeup other than the standard tank-heal-DPS trinity? Or a MMORPG completely devoid of fantastical elements — no magic, no dragons, just bandits, swords and crossbows?


Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes and Aesops

Western High Fantasy and Scifi are the meat and potatoes of the genre right now. With the rise of Korean MMORPG players (which outnumber American MMORPG players by something around a 10 to 1 ratio — and rising), more and more Asian Fantasy MMORPGs are arriving on the scene. Low Fantasy games are still relatively uncommon, as are Scifi games.

Potential Motifs

Dashing heroes. Horrific villains. Plots that would make Xanatos flinch. Nightmares from beyond time. And all of them eagerly awaiting the player characters dashing in to stop at the last possible second.

Oh, and Loot. Lots of loot.

Suggested Plots

Typically your MMORPG will have some form of overreaching fantasy plot or 3, usually one for each race or kingdom. A civil war breaking out, an old rivalry between kingdoms, a mysterious plague striking the heart of the empire, etc etc. Take a look in Fantasy and Standard Fantasy Setting, and start picking out Tropes. If your MMORPG will have instancing of some kind, start thinking up villains of various scale to populate said dungeons.

Deciding how powerful you want your characters to get is important. Newbie characters fresh from the character select screen probably aren't going to be taking out gods, while characters that have been playing for months probably won't be fighting Kobolds. However, there's a lot of things you can do with a little imagination — and the bandits your new players thwart could turn out to be important keys to a Magnificent Bastard's scheme later on.


Departments

Set Designer / Location Scout

This is where you'll get to have fun, but also the place that you could end up screwing it all up. Avoid Patchwork Map. Try to ensure that the map actually looks like it could be a real world, or go the other way and make it as LSD-induced as possible just to avoid any comparisons with reality. But don't stick forests right next to deserts, or make rivers appears out of nowhere.

Also avoid Misplaced Wildlife, lest you fall into Artistic License - Biology.

Deciding if you are going to have set zones or a more free-range map is also important. Having zones allows you to instance (create pocket versions of content) for groups, this avoids any messy drama with dozens of people competing against each other for limited resources, but also cuts players off from people outside their circle of friends. Having instances also means you can have dungeons be larger on the inside than the outside, depending on how "realistic" you are aiming for, this may be a good or bad thing. It can also allow for more Action RPG style gameplay rather than the traditional open-world MMO.

Props Department

Gear is going to be your main issue here, although buildings and other scenery certainly count. Your players are going to associate with their gear almost as much as their avatars — indeed, most of their avatars are going to be vastly different looking based on their gear choices.

You should itemize your game with roles in mind — or throw that completely out the window and make truly randomized gear. Adding red herrings that do nothing but describe the item to your players, for example mentioning what material a given weapon is made of, or that a shield has 3-4 inlayed gems, adds a level of immersion and will frustrate powergamers to no end. It also will leave options open for adding spells and abilities that affect said items, for example, a boss that is immune to metal swords, requiring players use Obsidian or Stone weapons against him.

There are essentially two camps for gear — "Everquest Style" and "Asheron's Call Style", with EverQuest's style being vastly more popular. In EverQuest style itemization, monsters and bosses have very set item drops. Sir Squishybits the Paladin of Cheese is always going to drop a random item from a set table — his Cheese Hat, his Sword, his Shield, etc. This has a few benefits and drawbacks: You can itemize every single item and min/max the risk vs reward — but you have to itemize every single item and min/max the risk vs reward. Players will know exactly what areas and bosses to fight in order to get items they can use, but will also know that once they have gotten all the items they need off the fan created loot lists, they won't have anything left to do there.

Asherons Call style loot is infinitely more random. There are very few set drops, instead items are randomly assigned characteristics per a point system. For example, in Asheron's Call, a weapon that drops might be assigned a base type (Sword), subtype (Broad Sword), adjustments (+5 to hit, -5 to parry), element (Fire), enchantments (Heart Seeker 3, Bloodletter 4), activation requirements (Arcane Lore 250), material (Jet), gems (a Ruby and a Sapphire), and mana (1000 max, 5 per minute). Each of these characteristics are given a point value, a given encounter drops a certain amount of gear. This has a few interesting possibilities - you do not have to itemize the gear in your game, save for specific special items. Also, You can tune bosses, treasure chests, and encounters around a points system, allowing players to never run "out" of content in a given area — there's always a chance that a boss will drop something you can use. However, it tends to devalue the individual items over time.

A third option is a hybrid, such as what World of Warcraft does. Warcraft has very specific (Everquest style) drops from bosses, with specific drops that appear off certain groups of enemies. However, it also has pseudo-random items that drop off of random enemies, so called "junk greens". Unlike true randomization, these items have a base type based on level and a suffix that gives a very specific set of bonuses based on a point system. Even the set items are based on this point system, with a given item having a certain amount of abilities that adds up to a specific total in points. Warcraft does add a "rarity system" to the mix, higher rarity items of equal levels have a higher points total. This rarity style system would easily be back-portable to true Asherons Call style random items as well.

Your game may or may not be big enough to have a crafting system, it depends ultimately on the scope you are aiming for. If your game will have one you should decide early on if it will replace, supplement, or merely distract from other sources of gear. Most current MMO[=RPGs=] go with the later two — crafted gear is vastly under-performing compared to items from dungeons, and outright pitiful compared to raids (big dungeons).

Some ways around this include making crafted items take a long amount of time; make crafted items very random; make crafting items require supplies from dungeons; make crafted items only work on EXISTING items (for example, altering items' enchantments or changing them cosmetically); or making crafted items equal or lesser than items with a greater risk-reward — but allow crafters to tailor make items for better use.

Costume Designer

Gear choices are pretty simple — if you are going with a fantasy MMORPG, you are going to have leather, cloth, and plate. You can get as fancy as you'd like, or go Strictly Formula, it is up to you. There is a lot of legroom in designing say "Platemail", for example, take a look at the current "Tier" armors in World of Warcraft — while the T7 Death Knight and T7 Warrior gear are both Platemail, they are both extremely different looking. However, going the opposing route — designing armor to look very similar to real life armor — is something that has not been done much (and which opens up interesting merchandise options).

Scifi is a bit more complex. Leather, Spandex and Rubber is probably going to be a mainstay, as will be glowing and blinking lights. Outfits and Fashion should be considered when you are building up the backstory of your world, and armor will likely follow closely. Research modern day military uniforms, if your Scifi game has military forces in it, they should have a professional looking uniform to match. Remember that most gamers are male, but this stereotype is changing rapidly — Stripperific outfits may not be a wise choice.

Consider developing your gear around the idea that you will allow it to come in any color you want (or one of a set number of colors), perhaps as both a primary and secondary color. This will make adding Dyes to the game much easier, and giving players choices is never a bad thing.

Casting Director

There's a lot to say in this category, but let's start with a personal complaint: Why is it that female characters unfailingly possess large breasts? Could you think outside the box of D+ bra sizes and consider that girls might want to see a more sensibly proportioned heroine - or even one who's flat-chested (though decidedly not male)?

Stunt Department

Licensing a big name graphics engine is an option, but probably a poor one — licensing such an engine will likely eat up most of your budget. A homebrew engine or one based on an open source engine (for example, Quake's now GP Led engine) may be a bigger return on investment.


Extra Credit

The Greats

  • Although most of it's remaining fans would take objection to it being called Minor, Asherons Call remains a small scale MMORPG that does quite a few things right. The game is concentrated on one small map in the greater world at large, the enemies are weird subversions of MMORPG tropes, and the game is designed to be very easy to update, so the developers do so once a month — and have for the past decade.
  • Kingdom of Loathing has managed to make itself last six years thanks to not taking itself seriously at all, and despite the fact that most of the playerbase has actually beaten the game several times.

The Epic Fails


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