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  Mechanic #105 - Themepark MMO
Posted: 09/25/09

A massively multiplayer online game built upon the concept of individual, self contained attractions.

  Experience Points vs Achievements

I think that, given a long enough time line, those who examine the history of MMORPGs will see an interesting trend appearing. Early MUDs, and even early MMORPGs, were built around the concept of accruing experience points and leveling up to become more powerful. However, the shift has been more towards an achievement based system of progress. In my opinion, this is a good thing.

Basically, quests have become the primary source of player advancement. Much of the time, you can still get experience points through other means, but some MMOs, like Champions Online or Dungeons & Dragons Online, are so quest dependent that questing becomes the ONLY real source of progress. In CO, at least, the questing is metered out so precisely that you can only go up to the next level by finishing all quests for your current level. No longer about gaining experience points, Champions Online is about achievements. Do X, Y, and Z and you get more powerful instead of gather X amount of points. Experience points seem almost like a quaint hold over than a goal in and of themselves.

To this is adding a more deliberate system of achievements and perks. Starting, more or less, with LotRO's deed system, most major MMOs now have achievements on top of their quest-heavy focus. Ironically, these goals seem to reward even less for their completion, even though most of them are more difficult than a dozen quests combined (some ARE a dozen quests combined).

Progress has been slow, but with each new MMO released, I think we are seeing a shift more and more towards achievement based progress - which is a good thing, in my opinion (My zombie communist MUD was built around achievements and it predates even LotRO, so I've been on board for a while). However, nobody is willing to take that final step and just drop the whole experience point / grinding thing once and for all and jump in with both feet to the inevitable new standard.

This idea is sort of a philosophy for presenting, controlling, and making enjoyable an achievement-based system, built around something else that MMOs have started gravitating towards as well.

  The Overlord's Castle

A Theme Park is essentially a self contained, themed area on which achievements are based. In other words, a Theme Park is the fundamental building block of this brand of MMO, to the point where adding anything to the game (new classes, abilities, gear, whatever) is tied directly into a Theme Park. Want a bigger MMO? Add more Theme Parks.

Let's get a little more detailed. If you look at the average zone in a MMO, it is generally themed around a particular biome (desert, forest, snowy mountain). Within these zones tend to be smaller, themed areas which have a certain number of quests associated with them. For instance, the Overlord's Castle may include quests to cull the number of enemy knights, finding X number of flashing things, or defeating the Overlord himself. A Theme Park takes that and internalizes it all.

Everything you do in a Theme Park is contained within the Theme Park. All the quests and achievements are stored by and looked up by that particular Theme Park. Completing 30 quests in a zone does nothing, but completing missions X, Y, and Z in the Overlord's Castle earns you an achievement. Seeing five interesting locations within the Park nets you an achievement. Killing 100 enemy knights in the Park nets you an achievement.

Each achievement comes with a certain amount of points, and with these points you can purchase Souvenirs. A Souvenir can be anything from a novelty pet, cosmetic items, new equipment, and even new abilities. They are permanent, so once you purchase it, it remains with your character forever. All of this is themed to the Park itself, so if you see someone walking around with a super deformed Enemy Knight chasing around behind him, you know where he got it.

Souvenirs come in tiers, based on how many total points you have gained for that Park. So, early Souvenirs may be bought right out the gate after doing a few quests and discovering a few points of interest, while the better Souvenirs require investing more time in the park before they can be bought. If you 100% a park, you should have exactly the amount of points needed to purchase every Souvenir.

  Park Details

Parks come in different flavors, and there might be three or four per major land zone. At the most basic, Theme Parks will be split into solo, duo, or grouping parks. All content within the Park will fit to its grouping designation - there's no mixing of content so that a player knows what he is in for up front and can plan accordingly. Players can group in solo zones, but the quests may be sequential and not easily shared, while in a group zone, all quests are available from the beginning and sharable to all.

Parks are then built around a particular purpose, be it a dungeon crawl, hunting and resource gathering, exploration, stronghold, raid, or town. Even towns are Theme Parks, complete with their own exploration deeds, quests, achievements, and Souvenirs. Let's look at a typical Stronghold-type Theme Park.

The Overlord's Castle is a heavily fortified castle with an abandoned town out front overrun by monsters. Just inside the town is a small group of quest givers who will explain the Park's lore (achievement for finding it all) and give quests and direction. Some quests are always available without the need for quest givers - you are rewarded for killing 100 enemy knights the first time, not after being given the quest AFTER you've already slaughtered a thousand of them. Some quests are found, such as saving someone from the dungeon and them telling you of a treasure they overheard the guards talking about. Since Theme Parks are self contained, WoW's elaborate phasing system can be used to dynamically change the Park based on what achievements the player has gotten.

As you listen to lore, find points of interest, slaughter enemies, complete quests, and accomplish the occasional difficult task (kill X knights bare handed), you will earn achievements, and with them points with which you can buy Overlord's Castle Souvenirs. The cosmetic stuff might just be some Overlord-theme furniture for your house, a t-shirt that says "I killed the Overlord and all I got was this lousy shirt", a super deformed Overlord pet to follow you around, or perhaps a silly hat. But beyond that, you'll be able to upgrade your character with new abilities, improve your stats, get better gear, and so on. Of course, group content will yield only rewards that support doing group content (like a morale stat that affects how well one plays with other players), so the solo player is never screwed.

  Player Advancement

I see this idea working best with a player advancement system that does not work on a treadmill. Since all progress is based on doing achievements for Theme Parks, it makes sense that the player should not be able to out level a Theme Park and make it trivial. As such, I'm advocating a system of lateral advancement for players. Rather than becoming more powerful, players become more specialized.

Players are defined by their class. They do not level up and they always have the same 10 or so abilities that define the class. For instance, a wizard might have a single target damage, a damage over time, area damage, a self heal, and a wizardly pet. When you buy Souvenir abilities, they provide optional power replacements that doesn't change the nature of the ability, but does focus it toward somewhere.

For instance, the wizard might be able to replace all his magic spells with ice spells or fire spells, or even have a fire target damage and an ice area damage. Beyond elemental damage and defense, a warrior might have a skill that attacks several enemies at once (a cleave attack). Different variations on it may involve hitting two enemies for more damage, hitting more enemies for less damage, stunning enemies that are hit, knocking them back, draining health, or drawing threat. A thief may have a fast moving stealth that isn't as strong, an impenetrable stealth that is very slow, a stealth that works better in darkness, or a stealth which masks scent and works against animals but not humanoids. These are power replacements, so you will always have a stealth ability (and just one), but you get to decide which one you take with you into a particular Park.

The idea is that each class has the same basic core abilities that do the same basic things - a high damage, single target attack will always be a high damage, single target attack - but differ in focus. You can choose between that attack doing more damage with no special ability, or doing less damage with a very strong special. You create different class builds by mixing and matching abilities, all predictably located by Theme Park.

This applies also to equipment you can purchase. A tier 4 sword from the Overlord's Castle will be roughly as powerful as a tier 4 bow from the Elk Hunting Grounds. They may be focused towards different purposes and have different special abilities. Armor works the same way, except broken into heavy, medium, and light. All heavy armor is roughly the same in what it does, but each version may look different or have different abilities.

In addition to abilities and equipment, players can also buy Perks. A Perk is an equippable benefit, like having an accuracy boost at night, being able to find more money on defeated foes, getting discounts at stores, and so on. You can only equip a few at a time, and they are balanced by Anti-Perks, like less accuracy during the day. Each Perk is worth positive points and each Anti-Perk negative points, and you can equip as many of either, so long as the net effect is zero.

  The Problems With This Idea

Besides the fact that, if too geographically isolated, it will result in a very broken up world, this approach has a very fundamental flaw in that since everything is done by achievements, there is no crafting, no trading, and no money.

If you soften the requirements a little bit, you can keep the Theme Park system on top of a system where enemies drop money and items. The Souvenir equipment you buy may be more powerful, more unique than the stuff you find, or Souvenirs can be largely cosmetic (personally, I think for most players, that would still be incentive enough).

For crafting, make the Souvenir equipment unlock special abilities and visual types, such that one can craft a heavy breast plate just fine, but if you want it to have +50% protection from crushing damage, you need to unlock the Overlord's Breastplate, and if you want it to look like underwater armor, you need to get the Breastplate of the Sea King. Crafting as a way to customize and design, rather than simply a treadmill towards the best gear and auction house sales.

As for the system breaking the world up into self contained pieces, this can be helped through careful world design (just because the Overlord's Castle is self contained does not mean that it needs to look it). When you enter a Theme Park, just announce it on screen and let the players pick the fancy "I" button in the corner to look at the possible achievements, quests, and souvenirs for the Park. Also, one can make the geographic zone which houses several Theme Parks into a Theme Park itself, with some achievements being success within those smaller Park and others detailing content outside of them.



Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.