i worked for over a year as sr. game developer on a massively multiplayer online casual game for kids and tweens called GalaXseeds. i learned a great deal, and am happy to share these tips about MMOG development.
Tip #2 – Reward
One of the key elements of good game design is the principal of risk vs. reward. Every time your player risks something, he gets a reward. The quality of the reward should be proportional to the degree of risk. If the player risks losing a health point by fighting an enemy, the defeated enemy could drop additional ammo, coins, or health. If the player risks losing an entire life by battling his way through a level, the reward for completing the level could be a new weapon, extra lives, or a new story segment. This is nothing new – if you’ve played a few games in your life, you’ve cottoned on to this principle.
Every challenge you set up in your MMOG should be rewarded. If you have too many unrewarded challenges, your players might see your game as a waste of time and will move on to something more fulfilling. Gone are the days when players can play a game, and are rewarded by the simple joy of playing. Virtual capitalism has run amok in the MMOG space; assuming you’re developing a game that falls in line with its competition, you’ll have to reward your players for every task, big or small.
Launch day is too late to start thinking about your maintenance plan and the rewards you’ll offer. The structure you plan for and build from day one will determine how often and how richly you can reward your players. The better your reward structure, the more addictive and exciting your game will be.
1. The fastest reward you can develop will overrun your game.
This is a very easy trap to fall into. When your product is live, and you have a finite maintenance budget and a limited production schedule, you will gravitate toward whatever is easiest to build or implement. Before long, your game will become overrun with that one reward type.
In the Sitekick Project, an online collectible loyalty program/game hybrid i designed for YTV.com, players own a little yellow robot. The robot runs on Chips, which are programs that can be discovered and collected throughout the site.
Chips can do many amazing things! Some Chips change your robot’s appearance – you can dress up your bot with different hairstyles and costume pieces. Some Chips contain MP3s that you can listen to using a music player Chip. Some Chips change your robot’s environment, while others launch or contain mini-games. One Chip lets the user print out a customizable cut-and-glue 3D paper model of a race car.
Obviously, the fastest, easiest Chips to develop were the “Face Pieces” – the paper doll Chips. Extra functionality takes extra time, so it’s very easy to just sit and bang out a series of Chips that are essentially still images. Since these were the fastest, least costly rewards to produce, they soon became the only Chips that were produced.
You can look at the encylopedic “Chipendium” to see this … most of the interactive or animated Chips appear early in the list. As the project went on, paper doll Chips become more and more prevalent, until they entirely take over.
The result is that the application became the reward type. With nothing but paper doll elements being produced, Sitekick has become a paper doll application. As such, it’s quite popular. Paper doll apps do very well online. Most MMOGs avatar systems are essentially paper doll apps. But now that the majority of the 500+ Sitekick Chips are paper doll pieces, it seems odd to have that handful of functional Chips. From a player’s perspective, they feel like they belong to an unsupported feature.
So make lean rewards!
When designing your MMOG, maintain a strict bottom line cost for your reward development. Try to get the development time and cost per reward as low as possible through shared code libraries, a streamlined production process, and fast, easy-to-use admin tools.
2. Commit to Supporting Your Feature Set
In your maintenance plan, commit to developing x number of “easy” rewards, and y number of rewards that are more costly to develop. Bite the bullet on that one! There’s no sense in developing a reward feature that you will never support because its rewards are too expensive or time-consuming to build. Eventually, players will start wondering why there’s a pet shop with only one kind of pet in it, or why there’s a crafting system that always produces the same three swords.
3. Structure your rewards around numbers.
The simplest way to reward your player is to make a number go up or down. In GalaXseeds, players can be rewarded with (among other things) money, XP and Level numbers. Numbers go up, numbers go down. Easy. Your software handles this “reward generation” for you. You can even link number rewards together. When you level up in GalaXseeds (number goes up), your inventory capacity increases (number goes up). Countless RPGs have blazed this trail – many of them amount to nothing more than baseball box scores with a graphics overlay. Kill a monster for more experience (number goes up). Gain a level (number goes up) to improve your Strength stat (number goes up).
The more items and features you design around numbers, the more quickly, easily and abundantly you can reward your players. GalaXseeds has a few different item types – among them are Gear (furniture) and Get-Ups (costumes). Developing an item is obviously more costly and time-consuming than allowing your game to dynamically tweak numbers up and down. But you can wrap a costly reward in numbers to get more bang for your buck.
Sure, you have a fridge … but do you have a level two fridge (number goes up) that can hold three more pieces of food (number goes up)? How many style points does your bowtie have? (number goes up)
Then, just design a mini-game or activity to tweak those item numbers up and down (furniture battle? i dunno:). There you have it. Lots more gameplay, lots more reward … much less maintenance work.
You can even tie simple programming mechanics into this reward system. Maybe you give your player a telescope. When the player looks through it, he sees an empty starfield. But the more games he plays/trades he makes/things he buys etc, the more random stars appear in that starfield. This solution is simple, it’s programmatic, and your artist just has to draw one simple star.
3. Overdoing one reward devalues it.
While it’s easiest to tweak numbers up and down, be careful not to lean on this too heavily, and be careful to go easy on your in-game economy. If you keep giving players money with nothing to spend it on, money as a reward will be devalued. No one will want money any more. And once your player stops desiring your reward, there’s no incentive to play, and all but your most loyal fans will move on to a new game.
This goes beyond money. If you keep giving players the same item – the Golden Whatsit – no one will want a Golden Whatsit any more. If you keep increasing a player’s level, and there’s no power or privilege associated with higher levels, players won’t care. It becomes a meaningless stat with no inherent value, like score. One type of gamer is highly motivated by seeing his “score” number (money number, level number, etc) go up and up and up. The rest of us are after something more meaningful.
4. Create aspirational rewards.
One of the rewards in GalaXseeds is room access. Reach level x, and you can enter Area Y. Accessing a new area may not be a compelling enough reward. It’s not enough for players to simply visit a new area. They had to do something there. As GalaXseeds progressed, more and more content was added to these special access areas.
This makes sense. There’s this whole idea of functional vs. fashionable items. In some cases, having a non-functional hat is enough of a reward. Being able to visit Area Y isn’t a compelling reward because there’s no way to “wear” Area Y … you can’t take it around with you or brag about being able to go there. To solve this, you could put a special item in the Area Y that only players who went there are able to wear. That way, they can parade their success and privilege in front of the other players, inspiring those players to pursue the same reward. GalaXseeds does this with its monthly parties. Club Penguin does this with its visiting pirate. Puzzle Pirates puts rare resources on different islands that only more experienced players can access.
You have to do some soul-searching when it comes to developing aspirational rewards (just as you have to commit to developing more time-consuming and costly rewards to support your feature set, even though the temptation is to just bang out the quick content.) The challenge when you develop level 70 Happy Pants is that most of your players are at level 1, so you’ve just spent time and money on content that most players won’t experience. But if you DON’T develop level 70 Happy Pants, there will be no reward for your level 70 players. They’ll feel that your game was a waste of time, and they’ll leave angry. And the level 1 players will have nothing to strive for. They’ll think “what’s the point of levelling up?” Suddenly, your whole levelling feature is a wash.
World of Warcraft handles aspirational rewards very well by ensuring that the experience at its maximum level is exciting and rewarding, and it’s different depending on your character type. The result is that there are many players reaching the top level and then, instead of leaving the game because there’s nothing left to do, they choose a different character type and start all over again. That’s the kind of player commitment MMOGs should strive to foster.
i’m a huge advocate for aspirational rewards – game content you can’t experience until later – for its sheer stickiness. These are some key factors to making aspirational rewards work:
a. Your players have to be able to showcase, flaunt, or brag about an aspirational reward. How are you going to know that you want the +99 Sword of Ass-kicking unless you see a level 70 parading through the town square with it?
b. Aspirational rewards have to appear attainable. If i get the sense that i’m going to lose 90 hours of my life trying to get that Sword of Asskicking, i might move on to something else. If there’s some glimmer of hope that i could get that sword – me, a brand new bright-eyed player – i might give it a shot.
c. Players must know the path to the reward. Microsoft released a game called Viva Pinata that messed this one up.
Their game is all about collecting pinatas. As with Pokémon, the game gives players a blank encyclopedia (do this in your game!!), providing players with some idea of which pinatas players are missing. At no point did the game drop a hint has to how players could collect certain pinatas – they left that up to the extra $40 game guide, i suppose. i stopped playing that game after checking a cheat site. In order to earn one of these special pinatas, i had to use a certain tool on a certain object on a certain frame of animation. In a game with many tools and hundreds of objects with thousands of frames of animation, this was too much to bear. There was no way i could discover these pinatas on my own, fair and square. If the only way for me to complete the game was to cheat, i was ready for a new game.
5. Find clever ways to reuse rewards.
Japanese role playing game designers figured this one out quickly. Their games were huge, but cartridge memory was small, so the enemies in the back half of the game were just repainted versions of enemies you fought earlier. Green slimes? That’s so first level. Powered-up players battle golden slimes!
They used the same technique of tweaking number values. Crank up a green slime’s attack, defense, and hitpoints. Then paint the sprite yellow and change its name. Voila – the golden slime is born.
i, for one, hate battling golden slimes. What a chincy way to add enemies to your game.
But furniture? Bring it on! If i can get a blue couch to match my blue dresser, and the colour “blue” isn’t available in the GalaXseeds paint shop, i’m a happy player. It’s a very easy reward to set up, and somehow repainted furniture doesn’t seem as chincy an addition to your game as repainted enemies. Ditto Pokémon. i knew that if i searched long and hard enough, i could find colour variants in the game’s creatures. No special abilities – i would just have a blue Pikachu. And i could show off my blue Pikachu to other players via the “trade” and “online battle” features. Rewarding.
6. Start building items now, and don’t stop until your graphics guy dies.
My final tip is this: of all the rewards you can muster, items will likely be the most ubiquitous, and therefore the most needed. And of all the items you can create, functional items will trump vanity items. Players don’t just want the pointy hat – they want the pointy hat that enables them to fly.
Plan ahead now to get your item development flow as tight and speedy as possible. Then start churning out items. Create a massive stockpile of items. Pile items to the virtual ceiling. You will always, always, always need items. Better still, create a crafting system whereby players can create their own items.
Give your players a book or catalog or encyclopedia to keep track of which items are in the game. The bigger the list, the more exciting your game will be and the longer people will hang around trying to collect all the items. (See: Sitekick Chipendium, Club Penguin Catalogs, Pokémon Pokédex, etc)
Reward items with more items. If your player collects all of the superhero costume pieces, reward him with a special additional mask or cape.
Do these things, and thy game shall be awesome.