Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Murder Safari

When my wife first observed me playing MMOs, years ago, she coined the term "murder safari." She was appalled at what the majority of MMO play consists of: killing grazing animals. It's not very different from poachers in Africa, when you think about it. We run out into the forest or plains, approach some innocent creature that is just minding its own business... and hack it to death! Then we carry off its teeth or hide to sell at the auction house. Now, every time I begin a new MMO I can't help but laugh and think of her assessment of what I'm doing.

Why must it be this way? At higher levels the monsters strike first. At low levels new players can't handle getting attacked without warning. When your character starts off they are too weak to handle aggressive monsters. These and many more lame excuses give us the tedious grind of MMO levelling. While I can understand that you don't want to give players too many powers to start off I don't understand why murder safaris are necessary.

Remember Megaman 2 (Rock Man 2 for our Japanese and Dark Otaku* readers)? In it you have to defeat several bosses. You can choose to tackle their stages in any order. Each of them gave you a weapon that was super-effective against another boss. This formula could make for an excellent MMO experience. Instead of needing to level by killing zillions of monsters I would set up a loop of  interesting challenges for the player. At the end of each challenge the player would earn a new ability. The order you tackle the challenges could be up to you, to a degree. Now I know that you're thinking it's easier to throw in monsters than create challenges, but what if you made simple challenges that put the monsters in a different perspective?

Here's one idea: the stealth challenge. The goal is only to get through the field of monsters to the other side. The monsters will attack if they detect you (MMOs can have various kinds of detection and methods of avoiding or suppressing it). If the gains from defeating the monsters are not worth the time it takes to do it, players will learn to avoid the fights and sneak past everything. Then all you need to do is put a stealthiness ability as the reward for a different challenge and you've created the first link in your loop of abilities and challenges.

Note: it is not cute to reward the players who successfully stealthed with a stealth ability - they don't need it if they are already good at it. Put that ability somewhere else so that players who are bad at stealth can get it before they tackle this challenge and those who are good at stealth can start with this challenge and use the reward ability to help them with a different kind of challenge they are less adept at.

Some other MMO challenge ideas that involve monsters but not just senseless murder safari**

  • Wolf in Sheep's clothing: in a field of sheepy monsters, find and kill the one that's not quite right.
  • Timed escape: similar to stealth, but detection doesn't mean failure, it just means wasting time fighting. Perhaps there is one fight you can't avoid near the exit and finishing it as fast as you can is key.
  • Get chased: get a particular monster to chase you, then lead it to a certain area. Run too far ahead and it will lose interest, too slow and it'll kill you (unless you heal a lot). Variations include a 2-player version in which you must get two monsters to cross paths so they can fall in love.
  • Multi-switch puzzles: Throwing levers and standing on switches to open the way forward. These are especially fun when designed for groups of players. (Monsters are incidental here, fastest to avoid them but clearing them out is allowed.)
  • Tag: You must touch each monster once, but not twice. Good luck keeping track of them as they move around. Can be brute-forced by having enough friends helping by each following a monster so you don't lose track.
A game's design doesn't even need to go this far to avoid grinding. Remember that the players will find the most efficient way to level up. Simple make killing monsters inefficient compared to quests or crafting or whatever you want your game to be about and players will soon realize which is the optimal path.

Look, it's not that I don't love a good battle against a monster. A good battle. I love the boss fights in which you have to team up and figure out the best way to defeat a challenging enemy. Better to spend your design time on 20 interesting boss fights than 100 dull monsters for players to grind on. I could imagine a game with only boss battles. The first few fights that can be tackled at low levels; they could reward enough exp for players to gain entire levels; they could be fun to repeat a couple of times, especially with different player (and class) combinations.

*Dark Otaku - fans of anime and Japanese culture who have an elitist attitude toward fandom. They have low tolerance for new fans and non-fans, and love to emphasize the Japanese versions of things over their American counterparts. Contrast with Light Otaku who, while having equally deep knowledge of anime and Japanese culture, love all fans and have a more positive outlook on fandom.
**Yeah, I just love writing it. MURDER SAFARI!


  1. Wandering in the wilderness (preferably with a band of "brothers"), fighting things, and enriching yourself thereby is more than just a cliched formula. It resonates with our primeval hunting instincts. Successful hunting and plundering makes you feel good in a way that successful sneaking or successful fleeing just can't match. Much as I'd like to see more diversity in game play, it's hard to argue with success. Like you, I'd like to see more diversity and think there's room for it, but I don't see us moving all that far away from murder safaris.

  2. Wolf in Sheep's clothing, Timed escape, Get chased, Multi-switch puzzles, Tag.

    These all sounds like mini games from ffxi missions, nyzul, assault, and in some cases even limbus and dynamis. ;) I've always found, again, at least in ffxi, that the murder safari was essential for honing group teamwork skills. It wasn't until nyzul (at the very end of ffxi's life) that this also became a viable waying of grinding as well.

    With a very diverse set of skills and jobs, you needed as much practice as you could get with skill chains, tanking, nuking, etc, etc. It also seemed to be the playground for unlocking or 'finding' new ways to 'kill better' (the art of magic bursting comes to mind), sometimes using techniques the game designers may not have even thought of (the discovery of the nin-tank in ffxi). Is there a similar gap in 'player skill' between casual and end game player in other MMOs to warrant the same murder safari?

    But I agree, there's no reason to saturate the experience of an MMO with murder safari if you can intimately integrate lots of other mini-games/goals that can teach teamwork skills just as effectively. Assault with it's varying missions, ranks and rewards is the perfect example.

  3. I might have mentioned this before, but something I think should be considered a key concept of game design is, "Don't reward boring behavior." It's true for all games, but I think MMO designers need to hear it the most. It goes against the common idea that if something was really dull and time-intensive to accomplish, then there should be a really big reward for it because "Wow, you went through all that effort!"

    Any situation where a skill is increased by using it is likely to run afoul of this law without some more sophisticated mechanics, because the best way to improve often reduces to repeated uses of said skill in tedious situations. "Crafting" is often particularly brutal with this.

    I remember in the opening to Lineage, you were shown the basics of combat in a zone with a bunch of training dummies. You could attack the dummies for XP to advance a few levels before going off to the "real" adventuring world. I thought it made for a horrible introduction to the game, as players were inclined to spend a long time hitting the stupid dummies to advance because they were afraid they weren't yet tough enough to survive on the mainland. The game would have been improved by capping the XP you could get by attacking dummies to advance only one level, or maybe removing them entirely (the combat mechanics were not very complicated).

    I got bored with Shadowbane in part because, while the PVP / empire-vs-empire stuff was really cool, the character advancement was nothing but Murder Safari at all levels. Acknowledging the problem, late in the game they simply decided to give out significant XP for PVP, which lead to players rocketing up to the maximum levels quickly and essentially removing most PVE from the game. But since that wasn't what anyone was playing the game for anyway, it was actually a major improvement. So for some games, I think the answer to "What do we put in place of Murder Safari?" can be - "Nothing!". Ask yourself if the level treadmill is what attracts people to the game in the first place, and if not, remove it altogether.

    When it comes to "fun" I think there's rarely any replacement for carefully-human-crafted content, but I couldn't agree more with what you said about efficiency. Certainly if one isn't careful, players will ignore all the beautifully detailed quests in favor of chopping heads off buffalo for hours on end, because they know where the herds are and it's easy. And then they'll complain that your game is boring.

  4. Great comments guys!

    It is interesting that while MS can be quite boring it can come with some sort of visceral thrill, as Jonathan suggests. I find that in games with better attack animations I can enjoy an otherwise boring fight because the character's actions create a sense of power and achievement in me; when they are swinging a big axe or releasing the string on their bow I can feel empowered.

    JD, it's true! FFXI did eventually have a plethora of very interesting quests (Assaults). As for the practicing, the games that have combination attacks (like skillchains) are few and far between. Even if you do need some practice with your character's abilities, you don't need hundreds of hours of it.

    Lineage, and other MMOs from Korea that I have played include that new player zone. You're so right that player's don't know when to leave it. In Maple Story (they may have changed it by now) the resting skill (to regain HP) could only be learned in this initial zone. If you left without talking to the correct NPC you could leave without it. I had to delete my character and start again or forever be missing an essential game ability.

    Aaron's last paragraph gives us a great take-away. Players will find the most efficient method - it's up to the game designers to ensure that it's the most fun method.