Stop. Right now. Stop, turn, walk out the door. You do not want to do this.
That is, unless you actually have a giant company backing you, a huge team of designers and a huge budget to match. Not to mention plenty of time. A major MMORPG takes a lot of work, and if you're considering making an MMO with three 20-year-old friends in somebody's basement, you'd better head over to Write a Minor MMORPG first. Because almost certainly you won't have the resources you need to make something as grand as World of Warcraft.
Then again, maybe you do, so, in case it's possible, here's the advice to make it good. To make a huge, trend-setting, big-budget MMO, almost certainly 3-dimensional, with jaw-dropping graphics and the potential for millions of subscribers. And, one would hope, millions upon millions of dollars.
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.)
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.
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". And, of course, Yahtzee's main gripe:
- Wait a minute. Kill X amount of monster Y for stationary cockhead Z?
One of the biggest gripes about something that seems inevitable is the gripe against Perpetually Static. If you manage somehow to avert this, you will probably usher in a whole new era of awe. And pull players away from lesser MMORPG's, which is probably something you want, overall.
To avert Perpetually Static, you'll want to meet the following criteria:
- NPC's interact with the player and with other NPC's. They don't stick to the same rigid schedule, the same Welcome to Corneria dialogue (hang out around the NPC's in Stormwind for a while for a taste of the slightly-improved version of this), etc. Ideally, they'd eventually age and die, but you can avert Perpetually Static without getting tied that closely to time.
- NPC's remember what you've done. (Mostly - real people don't remember everything, and neither should NPC's.) If you've saved their kids or their farm, or brought them a long-lost heirloom or the like, they're going to have an improved attitude toward you in the future.
- If you've gained a reputation in a particular area, NPC's in that area acknowledge this. Shopkeepers lower their prices. People stop asking you to do pointless tasks that are really beneath a General in the King's Army ("Fetch me that pail of pig slops"??).
- Some quests are repeatable ad infinitum, but many quests are limited. This is key.
- Once someone rescues Bob, Bob no longer needs to be rescued (unless it's established that he's an addle-minded fool who wanders into danger, perhaps). You won't wander by only to see the same sad person still stuck in the blue light you supposedly rescued him from.
- Once someone kills the Mob Boss, the Mob Boss is dead (although someone else might take his place). Van Cleef will finally be released from his eternal torment.
- Once enough hobgoblins have been slain in the East Forest, the East Forest has no more hobgoblins in it. Or, for the opposite, if adventurers ignore the danger long enough, the zombies will actually take over Duskwood, thwarting Take Your Time.
- Shops that are on the edge of bankruptcy unless you bring them supplies will, upon receipt of said supplies, no longer beg them off of other random strangers.
- Unless, of course, you set up one or more of these as outright subversions ("Penny, go and hide the goods. I see another gullible traveler approaching").
Suggested Themes and Aesops
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.
Ah, yes. The mostly static Aesthetics. When designing and placing props for diverse environments, you should make sure that the props are diverse as well. Make sure the architecture is unique and varied. Don't just give the farmhouse a slight retexture for each environment or variation. It can also get quite repetitive if the player trudges through the forest through similar patches of trees. Please, try avoid the Copy-and-Paste Environments. Give the props their own characteristics and add a bit of lore into them. Don't just stick to the usual. Change it a bit, but not too much...
Just like it's not a very good idea to have a bland, standard world, it's also not very good to have a world that looked like it came from Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot or Cloudcuckooland, either. You could just add so many flavors into it before it turns into a light brown gunk that tastes like caramel. You could also just coat it and change it so much before it becomes overcoated and the original intention is lost. Also, making every prop have hundreds of unique variants is not very healthy for one's harddrive, especially if you expect millions to play it.
Also, don't forget to place these props in the environment! And try being creative. Use the landscape to your advantage, and all that.
- World of Warcraft, obviously. Created by Blizzard, Wo W has a humongous player base who are devoted to the game. If you want to learn how to make a major MMORPG, World of Warcraft is your best learning tool.
The Epic Fails
Here's the sort of stuff you ought to be studying:
- Extra Credits, from Escapist Magazine (same place that hosts Zero Punctuation). Their short videos go into detail on the good and bad of video game techniques, including some talk specifically about the MMORPG. One of their latest vids discussed the skills you need to be a game designer, especially geared toward the larger games that require big teams to put the pieces together. Go on, have a listen.