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MMP Game Design Challenges and Their Solutions. Matthew Ford, Auran Games Australian GDC, Dec 2004. Purpose. Describe classic MMP design challenges Signs Effects Present solutions Used by released MMPs Mistaken solutions Some speculation, not much though Discuss. Me.

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Mmp game design challenges and their solutions

MMP Game Design Challenges and Their Solutions

Matthew Ford, Auran Games

Australian GDC, Dec 2004



  • Describe classic MMP design challenges

    • Signs

    • Effects

  • Present solutions

    • Used by released MMPs

    • Mistaken solutions

    • Some speculation, not much though

  • Discuss

Mmp game design challenges and their solutions


  • Not from around here

  • Amateur game making

    • Programming, card games, board games

  • Atari in California 1993-1995

    • Lead game designer, producermultiplayer arcade

  • Accolade in California 1995-1998

    • Lead game designer, producermultiplayer PC

  • Microsoft Games Studios in Redmond 1998-2004

    • Lead Program Manager for Asheron’s Call MMORPGs

    • Advising on Xbox online games and other PC MMPs

    • Lead action-game designer for Citizen Zero at Micro Forte, Sydney

    • Short stint as game designer for Mythica

  • Auran Games in Brisbane now

    • ProducerPC MMORPG

Mmp game design challenges

MMP Game Design Challenges

  • Bias towards MMORPGs

  • A good MMP game design is not just about solving problems

    • Nor slamming successful games

  • However similar challenges come up in most MMPs

  • Like any craft, we learn (aka steal) from each other’s effort and advance the craft

  • Don’t have too much pride to use others’ ideas: we are working collectively

  • Game logic trumps reality or story consistency

  • Let’s get on with it…

Note for readers

Note for readers

  • Click following Area hyperlinks in slide show mode to see particular areas and solutions

  • To go back to previously viewed slide (like browser Back navigation):

    • Right click slidepick Last Viewed

    • Or use mouse button mapped to “Back” for web browser (often the mouse’s most prominent side button)

  • Finish with Area hyperlink “Conclusion”



  • Social

  • Advancement

  • Player Opinion

  • Economy

  • Game Balance/Tuning

  • Crafting

  • Usability / New Players

  • PvP

  • Conclusion



  • Level gap

  • Queuing

  • Over/undercrowding

  • Grouping vs. solo

  • PvP consent

  • Newbie Welcome Wagon



  • Level gap

  • Choice regret

  • Macroing

  • The Grind

Player opinion

Player Opinion

  • Over/undercrowding

  • Queuing

  • Nerfing

  • Choice regret

  • Grouping vs. solo

  • Macroing

  • The Grind



  • Cash inflation

  • Balance loot vs. quest items

  • Balance crafting vs. loot

  • Craft yourself out of a job

Game balance tuning

Game Balance/Tuning

  • Cash inflation

  • Balance loot vs. quest items

  • Balance crafting vs. loot

  • Nerfing

  • Tuning inflation

  • Runaway exploits



  • Balance crafting vs. loot

  • Craft yourself out of a job

Usability new players

Usability / New players

  • Feature breadth vs. approachability

  • Tutorial

  • Newbie Welcome Wagon

Mmp game design challenges and their solutions


  • PvP rating abuse

  • PvP consent

Level gap

Level gap

  • Symptoms

    • Friends who don’t play same amount drift apart and can’t play together any more

    • Acquaintances drift apart before friendships formed

  • Effects

    • Limits audience to those with regular schedules or who play max amount of time

    • Increases class imbalance sensitivity

    • Advancement obsession can get too strong

Level gap solution chart

Level gap solution chart

Level gap solutions

Level gap solutions

  • Sidekicking (CoH)

    • Allow lowbies to team up with highbies and get a temporary power boost

  • Horizontal not vertical growth

    • Grow in versatility not power (PS)

  • Persistent XP sharing

    • Like a hunting group but permanent

  • Twink-Aid

    • Allow highbies to sacrifice group XP to lowbies

    • Fun to be highbie: reward extremely efficient play (FFXI)

    • Highbie trophy incentive

Over undercrowding


  • Symptoms

    • At launch, newbie areas too crowded

    • After first rush, newbie areas too dead

    • Popular high-level hunt spots mobbed

  • Effect

    • Overcrowdingfrustration, rudeness, childishness

    • Undercrowdinggame not sticky

Over undercrowding solutions

Over/undercrowding solutions

  • Instances

    • Area in game world replicates multiple copies to match crowd

  • Spawn rate sensitivity

  • Work to get to prime spot, force exit

    • Timed quest effect teleports you

    • Forced back to town for selling, healing

  • Accept newbie overcrowding

    • Spawn rate sensitivity essential here

  • High-level, encourage grouping through dynamics not proximity



  • Symptoms

    • Players waiting in place for a spawn

  • Effects

    • Immersion breaker: heroes in line

    • Rude behaviorservice calls

    • Boredom

Queuing solutions

Queuing solutions

  • Rapid spawns

    • Beware incentive for non-questers to keep killing: have only reward be quest

  • One party one kill

    • Whole party needs to kill it just once

  • Unpredictable placement

    • Must wander and get lucky

  • Earn your way in

    • Must get rare drop to enter destination area

Cash inflation

Cash inflation

  • Symptom

    • Average cash holding per character rises

  • Effect

    • Inflationary pricestuning out of whack

    • New world tuning vs. old world tuning

    • Haves, have nots

Cash inflation solutions

Cash inflation solutions

  • Cash sinks

    • Items

      • Beware upward cycle of items which increase earning power

      • Status items avoid this cycle

      • Convenience items good but time=money

    • Taxation

      • About as popular as real world equivalent

    • Transfer friction

      • Limit inventory and charge transaction costs to store more

    • Cash not the be-all and and-all

      • Trophy economy: All about rare-drop items, cash incidental

      • Items have advancement requirements so cash ceiling hit

  • Speculation: self adjustment

    • Holy grail that AFAIK has not been successfully attained in a big game

Balance loot and quest items

Balance loot and quest items

  • Symptoms

    • Quest stuff is so good that you won’t find its match while hunting

  • Effects

    • Quests become “must do”

    • Hunting boredom, item incentive gone

    • Advancement jumps: qualify for questjump in power from quest item

Quest loot balance solutions

Quest/loot balance solutions

  • Quest items good in a way different from loot items

    • Quest items better in specialized situations, loot better in general

    • Can encourage questing chains

  • Quest items add status and boost to loot item

    • Ex. Purple fire, black dye (AC)

  • Quest rewards not in items but unlock other content

Balance crafting and loot

Balance crafting and loot

  • Symptoms

    • Crafted stuff is so good, why bother hunting for loot, or

    • Hunted loot is go good, why bother getting crafted

  • Effects

    • Crafting becomes required, or crafting ignored

Craft loot balance solutions

Craft/loot balance solutions

  • Hunt for raw materials for crafting

    • Loot drops of materials are like “items in waiting”

  • Crafted items good in a way different from loot items

    • Crafted items better in specialized situations, loot better in general

  • Planned obsolescence

    • Crafted items wear out fast, loot items as fallback

    • Also keeps crafters in business

Craft yourself out of a job

Craft yourself out of a job

  • Symptoms

    • Crafted items fill the market after which demand for them decreases

  • Effects

    • Players unhappy that craft skills needed less

Craft out solutions

Craft-out solutions

  • Wear-out

    • Crafted items wear out fast

  • Rising tide

    • Constant stream of better recipes

    • Beware tuning inflation



  • Symptoms

    • Game out of tunedecrease power of items or skillsunhappy players

  • Effects

    • Player frustration

    • Pops the bubble of constant advancement

    • Tuning hypersensitivity

    • Constant tuning flux

Nerfing solutions

Nerfing solutions

  • Bold beta tuning

    • Nerfing in beta is painful but saves many times the pain later

  • Friendly facts

    • Expose players to clear hard stats proving what was overpowered

  • Raise not nerf

    • Make low-powered things better, not high-powered things worse

    • But beware tuning inflation

  • Obsess less

    • Demand for perfect tuning often a symptom of a game that’s not very fun to play and level gap problems

    • Designers can develop unhealthy obsession… be imperfect

  • Allow respec

    • Let those obsessed with the perfect class change their class

    • Beware reduction of replay

Tuning inflation

Tuning inflation

  • Symptoms

    • As items and abilities become generally more powerful, challenge goes down

    • Mobs that were perfect for given level become too easy

  • Effects

    • Tuning work creates more tuning workburns time

    • Game loses fun quietly

Tuning inflation solutions

Tuning inflation solutions

  • Balance nerfing and powering up

    • Beware nerfing effects

  • Logging and mining

    • Plan for good data logging and mining

    • Monitor it regularly

    • Plan ahead of time the action for any discovery you make

Choice regret

Choice regret

  • Symptoms

    • Players wail and gnash teeth when they realize they made a dumb, permanent, irreversible choice

  • Effects

    • Increased demand to fix what they chose

    • Player despair at being “gimped”

    • Distrust of future choices

    • Gimping can increase level gap

    • Pariah class

Choice regret solutions

Choice regret solutions

  • Let them eat rerolls

    • Some say let players rerollmore replay

    • Can have small reroll incentives to fast-forward over newbie content

  • Respec

    • Let players reverse decisions (AC2, DAoC)

    • Can cost advancement or rare item/quest

  • Delay the choice until informed

    • For example, no character stats or develop them later

    • Delay choice of spec class (DAoC)

  • Try before you buy

    • Allow players to test out a choice before locking it in (PS, ?)

Feature breadth vs approachability

Feature breadth vs. approachability

  • More choices and data = more fun for gearheads = more daunting for casuals

  • Symptoms

    • Design battles and tradeoffs

    • Require tutorial, then fight over pace

  • Effects

    • Gearheads think game too simple, or

    • Casuals think game too daunting

Feature breadth solutions

Feature breadth solutions

  • Pick an audience and deal

  • Elegance: emergent breadth

  • Unlocking complexity

    • Basic GUI simple, can “unlock” complex version (WoW chat, mods)

  • Layer by layer complexity

    • As you advance, add new features (Ragnarok)

  • Tutorial (if done right)



  • Symptoms

    • Players bored by tutorial

    • Players show ignorance later of things taught

    • Quit during tutorial (log this)

  • Effects

    • Bad first impression

    • Ignorancefailed appreciation for your genius

Tutorial solutions

Tutorial solutions

  • Allow skipping?

    • People misestimate their need for a tutorial

    • Can allow skips after previous success

  • Call to action and story: invisible tutorial

    • Grab player by giving them important goals (Halo, CoH, EQ2)

  • Praise achievement

  • Must demonstrate knowledge to advance

    • Allows fast progress by those who know (if not much tedium)

    • Must restate how to succeed if they are stuck

  • Use multiple channels

    • Some key off of audio, some visuals, some patterns, some text: use them all

Grouping vs solo

Grouping vs. Solo

  • Symptoms

    • Players complain they can’t solo

    • Players leave because they have few friends

  • Effects

    • Retention

    • Tuning uncertainty

Grouping solo solutions

Grouping/Solo solutions

  • Decide on your mix

    • Explicitly discuss your goals for solo vs. group play

    • Decide how it changes during advancement

  • Game dynamics

  • Some classes solo oriented

  • XP bonus in group

  • Make grouping painless

    • Looking-for-group and –friend features, default

    • Easy teleport to group leader

  • Items that fill in missing role

    • Can cost about as much as a share of the loot that missing group member would get

Pvp rating abuse

PvP rating abuse

  • Symptoms

    • Players consensually kill each other to gain rewards

    • Players defect from fight from fear of rating loss

  • Effects

    • Real fighters resent wannabes who cheat their way up

Pvp rating abuse solutions

PvP rating abuse solutions

  • Zero-sum system

    • One party gains as much as other loses

    • Where do points come from?

      • New players, who must advance a certain amount to get a pool of losable points

    • What about newbie ganking?

      • Chess-like rating system accounts for level

  • Lower rewards for rekills (PS)

  • Prevent defection

    • Vulnerability before teleport/logout

    • Debuff runners

  • Punish defectors

    • Defectors treated as losers, no matter what the excuse

Pvp consent

PvP consent

  • Symptoms

    • Too consensual: jerks have no fear, lose sense of paranoia

    • Not consensual enough: preying upon the weak just for fun

  • Effects

    • Lowbies scared off

    • Highbies pursue boring play

Pvp consent solutions

PvP consent solutions

  • Two layers: consensual and non-consensual

    • Non-consensual costs the aggressor dearly but it can still feel worthwhile (Lineage)

    • Allows some paranoia and jerk punishment but checks rampant ganking

  • In lowbie areas prohibit highbie first strike



  • Symptoms

    • Players use macros to gain while not at keyboard

  • Effects

    • Rapid advancement from 24-hour play

    • Robots are antisocialgame more antisocial

    • Players feel their advancement cheapened

    • Players resent lack of action by developer

Macroing solutions

Macroing solutions

  • In some cases, see as design request

    • People may be macroing what is too boring or click-tastic

  • No advancement for things which are that easy? But:

    • Some players are less skilled than good bots

    • Gimpy players get stuck

    • Bot skillz can amaze you

  • War on Drugs strategy: forbid it and push it underground

    • Macroers must go where less likely to be seen and reported

    • Does not solve it but makes “respectable” players less agitated

  • Speculation: “Macros welcome” server?

The grind

The Grind

  • Symptoms

    • Players complain about time it takes to advance (but they always will to some degree)

    • You can’t stand to play your own game

  • Effects

    • Audience limited

    • Players may leave

    • You can’t relate to your players

Grind solutions

Grind solutions

  • Accept it

    • Some day it’s the lifeblood of a good game, and it’s like the weather…

  • Multiple advancement axes

    • Trade one grind for another sometimes

  • Careful enticements

    • Slot-machine / pokies strategies of rewards of various rarities

  • Tons of content

    • If the reason for the grind is to prevent rapid content burn, spend millions on heaps of content

    • Expansion pack earnings can justify spending even more on content

Newbie welcome wagon

Newbie welcome wagon

  • Symptoms

    • New players feel lost and unconnected with only other newbies to comfort them

      • And many of those may be busy rerolls

  • Effects

    • Conversion rate suffers

    • Early content rushed through

Newbie welcome solutions

Newbie welcome solutions

  • Highbies want what newbies got

    • “One person one vote” systems such as allegiances (AC) give highbies a reason to help newbies

  • Quests with multiple layers

    • Highbies need newbies to do their part in a quest stage with upper level limit

  • Mentoring requirements

    • Require mentoring to advance (SWG)

Runaway exploits

Runaway exploits

  • Symptoms

    • Players use exploit and advance rapidly

    • Gold rush as exploit news spreads

  • Effects

    • Players top out of content fasterretention loss

    • Players who missed out resent it, and get hit with level gap

    • Often can’t reverse material exploits because it has propagated

Runaway exploit solutions

Runaway exploit solutions

  • Advancement cap

    • Any one gain only certain % of your level (DAoC)

      • Build at low level

    • Speculation: You can only gain so much in a given time window

  • War on Drugs strategy: forbid it and push it underground

    • Exploiters want to pipe down and do it quietly

    • Does not solve it but makes “respectable” players less agitated

  • Public punishment for exploiters, reward for reporters

  • Paper towels: tune game to match advancement

    • Have-nots hurt along with haves

    • Different servers may have different spreads of exploit



  • Design is not just solving problems

  • What’s fun, not what’s clever

  • Shared craft: “borrow” solutions freely

  • Filter signal from noise

  • Sympathize with player

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