"A company spokesperson is promising fixes for the multitude of problems in Star Wars Galaxies that have plagued the MMORPG for the last five years. â??This time you can trust us,â? said SOE director Constance Phuckup, citing the companyâ??s extensive experience in dealing with glitchey, poorly implmented, unbalanced MMOs."

The Little Things

That quote from Slashdot above is a pretty harsh dismissal of a game that was once, a long, long time ago, one for which many gamers had high hopes. And yet, it’s also a pertinent reminder of the fact that the success of every designer, producer, and developer will ultimately depend upon the way in which their games are perceived by the gaming public. Unfortunately, it will not matter how brilliant your overall design might be if you can’t successfully articulate it to those responsible for developing it, if you’re saddled with an incompetent producer or development team, or if you make a bad design decision that has the effect of multiplying all of your good decisions by zero.

There are some decisions you can’t do anything about as a designer because they don’t fall within your area of responsibility. For example, it’s quite clear that Vanguard was released long before it was ready, which appears to have had a significantly negative effect on the numbers of players interested in playing it. This probably wasn’t the designer’s decision or the producer’s, but it’s one they’ve had to live with nevertheless. Contrast these results with the habitual lateness of two very successful developers, Blizzard and id, who are famous for their ‘it’s done when it’s done’ approach. Would more time or a better ability to estimate the time required from the start led to happier results for Vanguard? While it would be nice to think so, that’s not necessarily so.

Since some important decisions are beyond our scope, it’s important to focus on the ones that are not, especially those relating to areas where a designer can easily trip up. The most basic one is setting and genre; one of my biggest mistakes was to take what was intended to be a graphical showpiece and setting it in space! Now, space and science fiction are practically synonymous with state-of-the-art special effects, but they also involve an awful lot of boring black real estate on the screen. Throw in a few landings on rocky moons and nickel-iron asteroids and you’ve got yourself one monochromatic visual spectacular. It doesn’t matter how many polys you spend on the models or how high-resolution your textures are, at the end of the day you’re still showing off some rocks on a black background.

Now, consider the limited genre range of the games being produced versus the observable range in other marketplaces. Fantasy and science fiction represent only ten percent of the overall fiction market, and yet they serve as the basis for the overwhelming majority of MMO games currently available and in development.

Worse yet, the high fantasy of medieval elves and dwarves that is virtually synonymous with the MMO and most fantasy games has been largely supplanted in the fiction world by the female-dominated urban fantasy that has rapidly taken over the SF/F section in most bookstores. Westerns are not popular today, but the romance and mystery genres continue to sell well, so the wise designer should at least consider the possibilities offered by these other genres before simply proceeding automatically with yet another SF/F, military, or gangster design. There isn’t space for a similar discussion of interface, but this is another area where design assumptions often substitute for contemplation.

Even some basic mistakes which are, strictly-speaking, outside the designer’s responsibility should be anticipated when they are easily fixed. Just to give one example, I couldn’t help but notice that the basic walking and running animations of the player’s character in two major MMO’s I played recently were simply terrible. This is a minor issue from a technical perspective, about as minor as it gets, but it has a tremendous effect on the player’s perception of the game, its quality, and the likelihood that it will be entertaining as he gets further into it.

How does this not get fixed when it’s so simple? Because it’s simple! Technical guys are always focused on the bugs, on solving the mysteries lying beneath the things that don’t work at all, and they tend to assume that they will be able to go back and take care of all the low-hanging fruit later. But, as is all too often the case, later often doesn’t arrive before the drop-dead date. The designer who understands and anticipates this tendency to prioritize the difficult over the merely important can be of real assistance to his producer by raising the probable issues before they arise.

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