Second Opinion: Mounts
FangBlackbone joins us again today to ponder the multifaceted face of MMORPGs. This time, Fang explores the all too uncommon implementation of mounts in the genre, wondering whether more could be done with the beasts of burden, and why all that potential hasn't already been tapped. Are mounts only a faster method of travel, or are developers missing a fantastic opportunity to set themselves apart from the competition?
---MMORPGs are all about playing a role or assuming a character of your design. Players often reference fiction for inspiration when creating their online alter ego, and reflecting on fictional heroes they often share, among other things, a trusted steed. To me, the ideal fantasy of a hero consists of a knight in glistening plate, leaned forward with shield raised and lance lowered. The picture would not be complete if said knight were not atop his horse charging with thundering hooves, adorned with the kingdomÃ‚'s garishly colored shawl. It seems so natural that players in MMORPGs would want to acquire the majesty of fantastic mounts. Dragons, giant wolves, and war steeds all leap out as exciting possibilities. At least some other method of transportation beside simply walking should be available.
Cavalry has been the prize of many war generals for centuries. The force they add to the battlefield is astounding, a force that, in MMORPGS, can serve a purpose in the high end game. And, of course, everybody loves the high end game of killing gods, giants and dragons, but do you really think that 2 foot long sword is going to put a dent in that 5 story dragon or giant foe? Last I checked, that dragon or giant never asked for a medieval pedicure, the best players could likely hope for with a long sword. The credible power and threat for a dragon may be some players riding dragons of their own.
So why are MMORPGs so hesitant to implement mounts and mounted combat? Why deny the majesty of riding a dragon or the rush of trampling enemies under hoof? Those pesky Runnyeye goblins have been begging for hoof print chest tattoos! Not only can I explain the antiquated reasons why, but I have details on how it can be done right now.
When the 3d revolution finally trickled down to MMORPGs, the characters were very blocky. For performance concerns, due to a potentially massive number of players in view, avatars had a couple hundred polygons with either solid colors or pixilated textures. If you wanted to make a representation of a horse in those days, creating a basic series of tetrahedrons for all the body parts (body, head, legs, tail) is probably the best the developers could have hoped for. That doesnÃ‚'t exactly elicit the same awesome reaction as BraveheartÃ‚'s mounted Britons with bristling scale armor rapidly devouring the grass between them and the Scots. The horror!
Another problem must be dealt with now that game engines are powerful enough to detail believable mounts. Making mounts instantly available to everyone, whenever, will dilute their value. It is bad enough with characters that are an hour old running around with last month's most sought after uber weapon. Mounts are a major feature and a prestige item. Therefore, they canÃ‚'t be just given out; they must be earned. Maintaining that prestige and value is difficult since their popularity will cause an outcry should mounts be too limited. They must be a reward for hard efforts. Some players will naturally have an easier time with these efforts so the solution requires additional thought.
Yet, if we can draw mounts, limit their number and make them more than a cosmetic change, we would still need to counter the combat dominance that we desire. Developers would have to implement enemies and quests that were designed to battle knights on horseback. Otherwise any time a player rode his mount, he would just eradicate monsters designed for players on foot. This is probably the choke point in the decision to develop mounted combat in MMORPGs. All the rest can be trivialized, but scheduling additional time and resources on an already long development cycle may be the straw that breaks the camels back.
So, if we do add stuff for riders to do, how much do we need? Developers would keel over if you told them you wanted to add significantly more content than planned for at launch. New MMORPGs already have the odds stacked against them due to player expectations of content. Several MMORPG competitors have been around for years with all the additional monsters and quests you'd expect from such time. If your MMORPG doesnÃ‚'t approach the amount the competitors have mustered, you cannot expect to maintain your subscriber base past a few months. You may as well double the amount of things to do since the game would have separate needs for the mounted and not mounted. So, if you were a developer, the options are: include mounts and split current content between mounted and foot; remove mounted combat; and include mounts with double the current content. Based on what the answer has been, we know what the answer will be.
Thank goodness we arenÃ‚'t stuck in the old days of early 3d accelerators. Times certainly have changed and a recent graphical revolution has begun in MMORPGs. Characters are approaching 1000 polygons, with detailed textures more reminiscent of airbrushed portraits. Bump mapping is rapidly becoming the norm to simulate folded ripples in character clothing. Horses and mounts have been implemented with polygonal splendor. However, they serve only as a cosmetic change to the playerÃ‚'s avatar. It would have been funnier if they had saved polygons and just included a "Brave Sir Robin" animation. *clip clop clip clop* Also, some horses are resigned to duty as a monorail system between settlements.
Addressing concerns of a limiting access and availability is not as hard as it seems. It is no harder that limiting access to equipment and skills. In a simple solution, developers can limit access by level, class, and income. We can also offer tax credits to those who can already afford expensive mounts to increase mount spending. In this system, more powerful mounts become available at higher experience levels. Different styles of mounts are offered to the many classes at higher costs to purchase and maintain the more powerful mounts. We will have our Porsches and BeamerÃ‚'s and our Ford Focuses (Foci?). This adequately solves issues regarding prestige and value. But good enough is not enough.
There is a better way. I know "time sink" is an evil concept but hear me out. This time sink complements trade skills and combat leveling. Jaded gamers will groan, but if its fun, they will flock to it. This time sink deals with training and leveling your mount. So if an experienced player hasnÃ‚'t spent a lot of time with his mount, then his mount wonÃ‚'t be as powerful as a player who only trains his mount without adventuring. Ala Don Quixote riding Pegasus and Charlemagne sitting atop the donkey from Shrek. There is a hugely successful horse racing arcade game. Players spend most of their time playing mini games with their horses to increase the horseÃ‚'s stats. These mini games are so addictive that avid players build whole stables of different varieties of horses. Place your horse in a race against other players to earn money. Did I mention these arcade machines earn tens of thousands of dollars per month? These elements can be programmed into a MMORPG and players will eat it up. Not only can developers allow racing of horses, but mounted arena combat that can include coop and PvP game play.
Another aspect of limiting availability requires mandatory refresh timers. In many games, access to powerful items or skills requires them to be reset. This timer lets the player select a new horse/dragon/spider every few minutes should it die while riding it. ItÃ‚'s a cheese explanation, but you can role play it as the horses soul takes a longer journey to travel back to its host. Of course it may be just as well to not say anything and not draw attention to it.
The last essential key to limiting availability, involves stable locations. Stables should be spread far apart, but without overtly exaggerating inconvenience. This will offer the players a choice of jumping right into the action or traveling a little further to come better prepared or more powerful on a mount.
Balancing doesnÃ‚'t involve everything being equal. However, everything should have real sugar. I mean everything should have an appropriate counter. From history we learn that pike soldiers were very effective at thwarting cavalry rushes. No reason exists why this cannot carry over to MMORPGs. Just like the old rock, paper, and scissors, cavalry runs over the archers who shoot the pike men who skewer the cavalry. Fair is fair, so the icing on the cake that would allow both AI monsters and players the opportunity to play the role of archer, cavalry and pike men. This could definitely add another dynamic to grouping since the ranged, cavalry and pike man roles could be class independent. Further balancing could include hybrid roles. For instance a possible character could be a mounted archer or wizard, a mounted pike man, or a ranged pike man. (javelins?) Or the ever popular Moupikard, but that sounds like the name of the captain in the Chinese version of Star Trek.
So it seems the real issue with mounts is really finding time to implement a credible amount of content. Honestly, if I had my wish, instead of chopping mounted combat from the feature list, I would transfer work put into the crafting system into mounted content. A large contingent of the population does enjoy crafting and trade skills, but it can be argued that those same players might enjoy raising and training a stable of horses or mounts. It would definitely be a more exciting time sink than getting carpal tunnel syndrome from baking 34 cakes and 71 loaves of bread. Despite the fact you use an easy bake oven until level 26.