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MMOs and Gaming, Part the Seventh

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If Disney can start the Star Wars franchise up again, then by Mecha-Thor so can I.

Well, not Star Wars, but you get the idea.

I find it strangely entertaining that of the MMOs I've looked at recently, the one that interested me most from an overarching design perspective does not exist.

Leaving aside the whole cliche "if you die in the game you die for real" aspect of Sword Art Online, and the neural interface virtual reality fantasy, the theoretical game has some interesting twists on classic MMO design.

From the most basic perspective, it's a game with no combat support classes and no magic. For that matter, there are apparently no defined classes as such; while the game is a hybrid level/skill-based system. The anime doesn't exactly go into great detail on how that works, but the implication would be that presumably each level grants a specific number of points and those points can be allocated as the player desires.

It's not unique, since a lot of offline RPGs take that exact approach, though it would be fairly unusual for an MMO.

The lack of combat support classes (Bards/Corsair equivalents in XI terms) and magic in general makes for a significant twist. In one sense it makes it relatively egalitarian; with no "princess" jobs, all players are on theoretically equal footing in that respect at least. On the other hand, however, it gives major advantages to the players that can make the most money, since they'll be the ones with the best gear and the most healing items.

What I found intriguing about the theoretical game wasn't those basic design aspects though, but rather the framework of the game itself.

A true-death MMO with a finite population and an overarching community goal designed to take years to complete.

SAO uses the aforementioned cliche to force players towards that end; nobody can log out until the game is cleared, and anyone that tries to (or dies in the game) is immediately killed by their computer. Trying to build a real game around that sort of framework would be considerably more challenging, but if it could be done, the end result would be very interesting.

To use SAO as the example, imagine a game with a max 10,000 player server capacity. No multiple accounts; those attempting to do so would be banned. Accounts that go inactive for more than a certain time period will be dropped from the roster, though not erased; returning players would theoretically be able to reactivate their accounts, but only if the server was below capacity at the time.

Throw in true-death for characters, if not accounts. Players could always restart with a new character, but nobody has had the balls to pull that in a triple-A MMO. Ultima Online came close, but even they allowed for some possibility of resurrection.

The tricky part would be engineering that overarching goal, something that the entire community would pull towards. In SAO, the goal was simply to be able to log out of the game, but obviously that wouldn't apply in a real MMO. The core mechanic of having 100 floors, each with a boss that can only be killed once, would also be suboptimal for a real game unless that game was given a positively vicious difficulty; in SAO, the population quickly stratified into one where the vast majority of players were just making ends meet, so to speak, while less than 10% were actively trying to clear the game. While most MMOs typically have a divide between the hardcore and casual players, that level of stratification would be difficult and undesirable to achieve.

In some ways I suppose the easiest carrot to dangle would be expansions; servers could only advance to new content once that goal was cleared. The game development would have to be set up to take that into account, however, and its been my experience that a lot of devs apparently have no idea how quickly the content they spent months designing can be cleared. The true-death aspect of the game would help a lot in that regard though; a lot of the ability of players to rapidly clear content comes from the fact that most MMOs have functionally no death penalty anymore. With players being forced to be vastly more conservative, content would last considerably longer.

I can't imagine a game like this succeeding; it's way too hardcore for the modern MMO audience. But it would certainly be interesting to see.
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  1. Excalibur -
    Excalibur's Avatar
    Only XI vets would be hardcore enough to play it.