How Ashes of Creation Can Succeed Where Others Have Failed
Part VII – Social Network
Intro: Incoming Friend Request
In previous articles, I spoke about community within the massive multiplayer online game genre and its importance to the success of a game, especially in the specific type of game Intrepid Studios is making with Ashes of Creation – PVX. The social or player agency aspect is one of the design pillars that I’ve discussed consistently. However, the topic of discussion today is the social and religious organizations within the game. We’ve all experienced NPC “factions” in previous games. My biggest bit of experience was in World of Warcraft, where each expansion introduced a host of NPC organizations for players to ally themselves with. Occasionally, there would be a choice between one faction or another that were diametrically opposed – gaining favor with one caused you to lose with the other. Another game that featured joinable factions was Elder Scrolls Online. There were also many NPC factions that players couldn’t join but were present to build out the world and the lore. I know there are numerous other games that had similar systems, but the design in WoW and ESO will be the basis of my approach to the conversation about social organizations within Ashes of Creation and how Intrepid can improve upon what is done previously in the genre. I’ll be focusing on three parts of this system: World Building, Progression and Rewards.
The News Feed
In a game like Ashes of Creation, world building is at the top of the list in creating an environment that engages players. Social and religious organizations are tools that developers can also use to build a world. My experience in how social organizations have been implemented is by building them up over time, so the longer a game is out, the more organizations that are available to gain favor with. Religions in games are a bit more static in that aspect. Before we dig into the lore subject, I think the first takeaway I have is quality over quantity. One thing World of Warcraft did, as I mentioned, was introduce new factions each expansion, which predicated a continual reputation grind. It seems like Intrepid is not going that design route currently and I hope they keep it that way. I think it’s much more meaningful to focus on a smaller group of organizations and really flesh them out over the course of the game. I think that way, you can build multiple layers of the story behind the history of these organizations and deliver a much more rounded experience. I think it’s potentially a bit easier to do this with the religious aspects because the basis for religious orders has a specific focus on a deity and said deity’s exploits in the past and present. One of things that I really enjoyed about the Elder Scrolls games was the little tidbits players could find in the world that helped provide more context – books, journals, artifacts. I think these would be great ways to deliver more details about social and religious organizations, including about the NPCs that are part of these organizations. Furthermore, I think as part of the world discovery, it would be amazing to find different “sites” in the world that players could explore. Maybe a secret location where the Scholar’s Academy has training available in certain mystical arts that are considered questionable, or where the Thieves Guild plots their next assassination or sabotage targets, or the Trader’s Company needs to locate a rare recipe or artisan to further their efforts in a node. Seems to me with a focus on a smaller set of interactions, the possibilities to craft something truly special grow exponentially. You could build out the existing organizations to align with player-driven specializations – trader’s company “chapters” that focus on different artisan professions for example. Perhaps over time other organizations can emerge, but I would urge we focus the updates on building out the existing orgs more deeply. You can still catalyze change to keep the experience fresh for players – perhaps the current faction leader passes away or is murdered and a new leader arises with their own history and agendas? Like I said, just spending a moment to think, you don’t need to saturate the game with a ton of factions to make it meaningful.
Dropping a Like
One of the most tedious parts of my MMORPG experience has always been the faction grind, it seems to be a genre mainstay to reinforce the grind no matter the game. The center of this grind is one of the most uninspired approaches to reputation gain I can think of – daily quests. Every time I received a daily quest achievement in World of Warcraft, I winced and in my brain I thought – “But is it really an achievement though?” Yes, in the literal sense, I achieved said number of daily quest completions, but I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment in the act. Intrepid has already talked about having various quests to gain favor with the social and religious organizations and with so little information, it’s hard to say if they will also fall into the daily quest trap. I hope not as my preference for progression would be more about story arcs and purposeful ways to progress. I think any contribution should have impact not only to the player themselves but also to the world. For example, early on you might be the “gopher” for the organization as you start to gain their trust. You could be tasked to gather and deliver resources and in doing so contribute to a larger goal to build something at your social organization’s headquarters and then open a new set of quests/tasks. Later, you could be entrusted with a secret document that needs to be delivered from one node to another and along the way have to deal with random ambushes from an opposing organization or a rival within the organization – who says politics are so rigid that you can’t have dissention within the ranks? Who’s to say that reputation gain is binary either – Wouldn’t it be an interesting twist to have sub-factions within the social organizations or religious orders that have different paths/quests for players to explore? You could also create opportunities for internal faction conflict – betrayal or “double agent” scenarios. Games like “The Old Republic” did a great job of storytelling with their class quests and I think this could translate well into social and religious organization branching quest lines. Religious orders could have holy crusade arcs or more personal “vision quests.” There is so much that can be done to make this progression more engaging than tedious repeatable content. One other thing I think that’s worth addressing when we think about social and religious organizations is how ranking will work. Personally, I’m ok with it being a much longer time investment to get to “max.” However, I think each rank should be a meaningful achievement with a great deal of the previously mentioned content to help a player progress. The achievement shouldn’t just be “I no-lifed this grind for 100+ hours.” That’s not a journey that anyone ever describes in a positive light or one that is exciting to share with your friends. It sounds like the punchline to a terrible time at work.
Power of Influence
Unlike our real-life social relationships (or at least the good and healthy ones), the approach is never “what’s in it for me?” However, in MMORPGs gaining faction with NPC organizations do, at some level, boil down to this. In addition to the achievement of gaining prestige with the faction of choice, players do need to have some incentive to take on this activity. Tangible benefits or rewards can not only bolster the sense of accomplishment, but it can also be a visible representation of the player’s investment in their game character. Intrepid has already talked about rewards in the form of augmentation, which is great. Some other ideas of mine include passive buffs (within reason), cosmetic skins, access to rare materials, recipes, titles, and meaningful gear. If you haven’t guessed it, there’s a theme here – meaning. Games like World of Warcraft had some of these same tangible elements of course, but they were gated behind boring gameplay loops. Also, once you made it to those ranks, the relevance of the rewards either had way too limited shelf-life or became entirely irrelevant versus compensation for other activities that one could invest their time. This lackluster experience just reinforced the disposability of the NPC factions within the game in addition to the (every) expansion reset that occurred. This is going to be a delicate balance for Intrepid to develop as they need to consider the pacing of the progression, relative power of the rewards and overall importance of the player interaction with the respective NPC factions. Just like making it less of a grind will help with the “fun” factor, the relevance of the rewards will incentivize players to take advantage of the system and feel truly rewarded for the experience. That last bit is of particular importance – system utilization. I know I’m not a game developer, but my work experience has taught me the value of utilization. This means not creating “filler” or “waste” when developing – unnecessary steps or activities that a user must go through that add no value. In the case of MMORPGs and this topic in particular, you want players to use what you’ve spent time and energy developing. Not every system is going to be a home run from the start, but it’s important that it is thought through with longevity in mind. With longevity comes relevance to the greater tapestry of the game world. If there is not a compelling reason for players to engage in an activity, they won’t. This point alone is one I’ve not really seen any developer execute effectively so I’m very keen to see if Intrepid has this on their radar.
Outro: Socially Constructed
Perhaps my previous MMORPG cynicism has had too much exercise in this article given the trauma of game’s past, however, this doesn’t diminish my passion and hope that the genre finds it’s way to a more engaging experience. There have been games that have had some success, don’t get me wrong, but the disappointment still lingers for something better. Maybe it’s the hopium talking, but I am holding on for what Ashes of Creation has planned for NPC organizations. I do hope in some form or another what I’ve had to say resonates with you, the reader, and with Intrepid Studios. As always, I encourage you to reply and share your thoughts on this topic. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say about how social and religious organizations can rise above the ashes of factions past when the gates to Verra finally open.
This is your Ashen Herald…wishing you the best.
Have an idea for a topic to cover? Join the community Discord, slip into my DMs and let me know!