Killer Apps - Inside an MMO game
Christmas may be a time for games, but there's nothing childish about Massively Multiplayer Online Role PlayingTuesday, 15 December 2009
Inside an MMO game
How do they attract players and how do they keep those players playing?
For the uninitiated, MMO games may appear to be a fantasy world having more in common with a teenager's bedroom wall poster than the realities of 21st century business. But as Sam Woelm points out, huge amounts of revenue can be generated by the ability of MMO games not only to draw players into their virtual world, but in getting them to commit real life money to acting out their online roles and building up the presence of their online avatars.
Mr Woelm illustrates the point with a fictional account of an 'Everyman' of MMO game playing, whom he refers to as Li Chen.
"Li Chen's an avid online game player. She's 28 years old and she's married. She and her husband work for large corporations. By day she's a marketing director for an equipment manufacturer. By night she's monarch of the Kingdom of Song, and she has many 'subjects' who follow her.
"Li Chen has money, but she doesn't have a lot of time. She used to play time-based games where she had to go through mazes and kill monsters in order to get to a higher level of the game. She found she'd often get a quarter or half way through and she'd get 'killed' and she'd have to start at the beginning again. This is frustrating to her because she has to work and time is valuable to her. So she finds out about a new game—it's called Sword Master. She's in an Internet cafe and a salesman comes up to her and says 'Hey, we have a great game for you. It'll be perfect for your lifestyle. It's more money-based rather than time-based. So Li Chen's excited and signs up for the game.
Five MMO 'truths'
"As I go through this story, I want to point out five common elements of an MMO game. The first is the fantasy world. There's a structure around an MMO game. It has a story that drives the action. It also provides a mission for players. In this case, Li Chen is born into the village of Chi. In her MMO 'storyline,' her blood and ancestry is of a noble line. Her ancestors were fierce warriors. Her mission is to go out and train a new generation of warriors and conquer the world.
"She's born as a 'level one' character, as all players are. At this stage she has no powers. She can't even leave the village of Chi.
"Li Chen says to herself: 'I can't walk around in the Sword Master world looking like this'. So she deposits money in her MMO account and she goes shopping. She gets virtual clothes and a weapon. She's now a higher level character and able to travel outside the village of Chi. That's very important for a lot of MMO games because it helps players navigate around the fantasy world," explains Sam Woelm.
Up in the world
"So Li Chen picks a place she wants to go. She's easily transported to a city called Pomonia. This is a happening, bustling place more Li Chen's style. It's also part of the Kingdom of Song. Under the Kingdom of Song, there are many factions and guilds. Li Chen joins a faction because in order to get higher up in the game she needs to work with a team. It's very difficult to do that on your own. This gets us to the second common element of an MMO game.—levelling up. Players spend a lot of time in an MMO game trying to become a higher more powerful character. To do that they need to get to higher levels. To get to that new level they need to do things like special missions. In this case, the faction leader comes up to Li Chen and says: 'There's an enemy at the gate. Will you go fight them?'
"Li Chen says: 'Absolutely'. She's transported to outside the city gates and there she sees a king and an ice dragon. Now Li Chen has just bought some special powers. These are fire bolts. So she stands back and shoots fire bolts into the air. A couple of minutes later a message goes all across the Sword Master world that says: 'An unknown has just killed the King of Tang'. This is a big deal. A low level character has just killed a high level character. So she gets big congratulations, she moves up a few levels. She's now an instant celebrity around the Sword Master world. She's getting fan mail, and praise from her friends.
"But not everyone is happy that Li Chen killed the King of Tang. And this gets us to the third common element of an MMO game. It's called 'PK' or 'player kill'. This is when players are trying to knock off other players. In this case, a friend of the King of Tang, a high god-like character, is not happy about this. So he wants to 'PK' Li Chen. He goes up to Li Chen and says: 'Did you kill the King of Tang?' And Li Chen says 'Yes'. So then the god-like character deals Li Chen what's called a 'death blow' or 'Sec Kill'. She's immediately killed. This is a very embarrassing way of being killed in an MMO game, because this message goes all across the 'world' of the game and the real world. At first, Li Chen is stunned, then she's embarrassed, and then the embarrassment turns to animosity, and then that animosity turns to revenge.
"Now we get to the fourth common element of an MMO game. When players are getting knocked off in PK situations, they want to get back at the guy that knocked them off. In this case, Li Chen wants to get back at this god-like character, but she needs to 'level up'—to become stronger to get to his level. That means she has to complete special missions. Every time she completes a special mission, she gets to a new level and then she needs to buy a new weapon. Buying a weapon isn't as easy as saying 'Give me one of those, give me two of these'. It's a two-phase process. In the first phase the player goes to what's called the weapons store and buys materials to make the weapon. Then, in the second phase, they go to the treasure chest and buy a component to complete the weapon. To give an example, if a player makes a sword with bronze, they will probably need a diamond crystal to put on that sword, or they will need some special power to activate the sword so that they have a complete weapon. Now these components are on a wheel inside the treasure chest. The player puts one RMB [Chinese currency] in the treasure chest, the wheel spins, and if it lands on that component, then they have a complete weapon. But if it doesn't land on that component, they put another RMB in and the wheel spins again. And they [the player] keep doing that until they get the component they need.
In one sitting, Li Chen can easily open a thousand [treasure] chests. She'll get more than one weapon. She'll get maybe a dozen weapons. So, over a few months she completes missions, gets to new levels, buys more weapons, and after a few months she becomes a really strong character—way different from at the beginning of the game. She also has thousands of subjects who call her the queen. She has to buy weapons for all her subjects as well, because she needs an army. Now she's the leader of the Kingdom of Song. She's at the top of her game. She's excited about this. She's really happy about the money she's spent and the time she's spent.
War: What is it good for?
"But now that she's a 'monarch,' she's a target for the fifth common element of an MMO game. It's called 'war'. Many MMO games encourage war. They want one kingdom to fight another kingdom. They want one faction to fight another faction. Because every time there's a war, someone's buying more equipment—more weapons—and driving revenue in the MMO game. You're driving the virtual economy. In this case, the Kingdom of Khan is waging war against our friend, Li Chen. Now why would he wage war against Li Chen? Well, let's look at his player stats: he's a high level character and there are 170 levels in the Swordmaster world. He's the second strongest right now, and he wants to be the number one guy. In order to do this, he needs honour points. How do you win honour points? You have to win wars! That way you can raise your [player] character level," explains Sam Woelm.
There's no way that Li Chen is going to beat the Kingdom of Khan. Her only objective is to last 30 minutes [in combat], because the Kingdom of Khan guys are saying 'We'll beat you in ten [minutes]. So they 'war' and 'war'. And Li Chen lasts forty minutes. Is she happy? Yes she's happy! Is she completely satisfied? No! She wants revenge. She wants to 'level up' again, she has to buy more weapons, and so she has to go to the weapons store, the treasure chests, and the cycle goes on and on. And we can see how players last for anything from one to four years in this fantasy world," states Mr Woelm.