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MMOFPS Retrospective -- Part 3

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[Editor's note: CaffeinePowered loves himself the MMOFPS genre. I have to admit that I never knew about this genre until I heard about Huxley. If you've ever been curious about it like me, then reading up on CaffeinePowered's posts will give you a better understanding of it all. And yes, long post is long ... but very informative! -- CTZ] 

Welcome to the third and final part of my retrospective looking into MMOFPS games. In this part, I will build from scratch an MMOFPS and examine choices developers need to make when designing the game. If you missed the first two parts, you can read part one here, and part two here.

Technical Choices
To design an MMOFPS we’ll start with the base of any game, the choice of engine that the game uses. Planetside used its own homegrown engine, and some newer games coming out such as Huxley and Twilight War use modified version of the UT3 and Source engines respectively.

The choice of licensing an engine vs. designing one from scratch is a critical one. Some engines may not be designed to handle MMO environments or connectivity. Depending on the engine, it may require heavy modification in order to facilitate play. Designing an engine from the ground up may prove to work with MMO elements more fluidly. However, in the end, it will cost more and take more time to develop.

For our ‘MMOFPS’, a homegrown engine would be a better choice. It better allows us to handle network traffic and graphics, which are both key to a successful MMO. A successful MMO is will be as lag free as possible and have graphics that while not amazing, are set to such a point that most out of the box computers will at least be able to run them.

RPG Elements
Any MMOFPS is going to have some RPG-like elements. While you could make a ‘pure’ FPS game; MMOs require that players feel that there is some sort of end-goal or accomplishment to chase after to keep people on the subscriber list.

However, to what extent should these RPG elements go? Should players have a full set of RPG-like stats that improve? Should weapon damage and shot accuracy be based on dice rolls between players or should it be entirely skill based?

A leveling system would best be used to grant players access to a wider array of gear and to have a greater amount of options and versatility. Our MMO would feature Battlefield 2142 or Planetside like leveling. Players that are attracted to FPS games do not like the amount of damage they do or their accuracy to be based on what level their character is. A low level fresh character should be able to kill someone who has maxed out their character if they have better aim.



PvE, PvP, or Mixed
Should players be fighting only computer AI based enemies, other players, or some mix of the two? Planetside featured entirely PvP play and never will AI control anything in game. In Tabula Rasa and Huxley, there are enemy AIs that players can fight in a mission based system and instanced combat.

While PvE can help players advance or give them options if there aren’t a lot of people signed onto the server, fighting AI and simply using them to grind XP can get old for players extremely quick. No FPS player wants to sit forever in a CS, DoD, or Unreal server all the time playing just bots, they want to play actual human beings.

An ideal MMO I believe would include only other players as enemies. This can be quite difficult to pull off however. Some minimum number of players needs to be maintained in order for fights to remain interesting for all and should populations crash things can quickly spiral out of control. However, in the best interests of all players; they should only ever be fighting actual humans.



Balancing
I included this here because I feel that it is the issue that killed Planetside. Getting proper balance is key to success. No matter what system of balance the developers are aiming for, whether that is a rock-paper-scissors type or a CSS/TF2 type of balance.

No matter what the forums for the game will be a shit-storm of players trying to get buffs for themselves or their play-style. There are three things that developers can do to greatly improve balancing issues in their initial releases and in future content that is added on.

First off, it would greatly help if the developers and community relations people played the game more often. Some of the decisions I saw made in Planetside made it look like the people making them did not even play the game at all. While some developers may not wish to spend all their time playing the game they work on all day, it may be in the companies’ best interest to actually pay a group of people to do nothing but sit around and play the game, and I’m not talking CSRs. If a small group of players could basically get paid to play in live game situations, they would be an unbiased source of information regarding actual in-game situations and balance.

Secondly, keep extensive statistics on all of the weapons, what kills what, etc. This could serve a dual purpose, players could view their own stats, and developers could look at kill patters between weapons and better balance the game as a whole.

Lastly, much more extensive testing needs to be done before any live changes are made. Typically beta testing cannot properly simulate actual in game situations and the actual impact of changes. Longer beta server periods are needed to properly assess impacts. When a change is made, players can log onto a test server, not just for a day or for a short period of time, but for weeks. Players could be encouraged to play on the test server for these weeks. Battles that simulate the live server properly can be assessed and the statistics taken can tell the developers if the changes made are going to help or hurt the game overall.

Marketing
In order to pull in players, especially when facing juggernauts on both sides, WoW on the MMO side and CSS/TF2/CoD4 on the FPS side, the game needs to be extensively and aggressively marketed. However, they need to be careful to avoid unnecessary hype.

Over hyping and delivering something that does not live up to players’ expectations can kill the game. However, if players are not aware of the game, you are not going to get many subscribers. Some form of happy medium needs to be met and I feel that the best course would be to have an open beta for the game as soon as possible. Allow as many people to experience the game for free and spread the game by word of mouth before it gets officially released.

Learning Curve
One of the larger problems with all MMOs can be the large learning curve newbies have to go through before they can effectively play the game. There can also be a problem if there is little to no learning curve at all.

If the game uses a very shallow learning curve, players that sign up may quickly become bored as they reach the endgame, feeling like they know all the ‘tricks’ to the game and don’t have a different experience every time they log on. New players will find the game very easy to pick up and subscribe, but it all becomes a wash with the outflow of older players and the subscriber base does not grow.

On the inverse side, a steep learning curve presents much greater rewards and subscription lengths to players who manage to ‘stick with it’ and learn the game. Whether or not newbies stay is basically a craps shoot if they can find good people who are willing to tutor them. Older players stay longer, but fewer new ones come in, again ending in a stagnating subscriber base.

One idea that was tossed around for Planetside that I feel would work well with any MMO would be a ‘mentor’ system. Players online can voluntarily place themselves on a list that any player can access. Those players can then get into private chats with these mentor players and get assistance in learning how to play the game, effectively creating voluntary in game CSRs. This system, while dependent on a willing player base, I feel would be best for a future MMOFPS, but in general the learning curve needs to find some form of happy medium. Steep enough that veterans continue to feel challenged, but not so steep as to overwhelm new players.



Keeping Players Around
A problem that all MMOs face is a way to keep players returning and renewing their subscriptions. This is a much larger problem for an MMOFPS, in a pure FPS (PvP only); there is no ultimate gear or final uber boss to quest to defeat. This presents a difficulty once players have maxed out their character. What can developers do to keep those players interested in the game?

To keep the fight interesting and players coming back, developers need to roll out new content on a regular basis. While some should be in the form of new gear, provided they are able to properly balance it, simple changes like fresh map layouts ever few months can do wonders for keeping players interested in the long run. Change the terrain as the war progresses, add new obstacles, change base layouts, something, anything, to keep the maps fresh so it’s not the same monotonous fight day in and day out.

Another option is to have achievements or awards, as well as statistics for players. While these medals don’t change a player’s skill or allow them to do more damage, they serve as a badge of honor among community members. MMOs are partially about socializing and if it’s one thing all players crave, it's recognition among others in the community. This leads into keeping stats of all players in the game, and posting them on some form of leaderboard that is updated daily. Not just how many kills each player had, but with what weapon they did the killing, where, etc. The more statistics the better, and they serve a double purpose in being used to analyze balance by the developers.

Our Design and the Future
Based on the description of what I feel would be an ideal MMOFPS, it would be somewhat similar to Planetside, minus the poor design decisions that plagued the game. Recent release such as Tabula Rasa or Hellgate London look and feel more like an Everquest or WoW type of game, only with guns instead of swords. As long as dice are being rolled, it is not a true FPS.

The future does not look too bright either. Twilight War has fallen off the map and also has a similar design to that of Tabula Rasa. And despite the hype surrounding Huxley, even it does not look like a true MMOFPS. Huxley features both PvE and instanced combat for PvP. Instanced combat takes away the feel of a persistent war among factions by isolating battles between players. If battles in one area do not affect the outcome of a larger global conflict like in WWII Online or Planetside, players might as well skip the monthly fee and play Battlefield or Tribes.

Despite my slightly pessimistic outlook, SOE is developing a new MMOFPS, but details have yet to emerge and it is also possible that other designers are in design stages. Due to the problems with Planetside however, it may be some time before we see another pure MMOFPS on the market.

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