I'm on a number of little mailing lists, and today I got an interesting email about a not-so-closed beta: this MMO, Domo.
I haven't downloaded it, I haven't played it, I haven't done anything with it. Nor will I. Not because it's bad - I have no way of knowing. I just don't have time.
But it makes an extremely interesting case study.
Innovation in the MMO industry tends to be by baby steps, because anything that innovates more heavily is by some tiny little company that folds before reaching first prototype. However, the innovation is there. I've already lauded Granado Espada for its three-character system, and I think everyone can learn from these types of things.
Domo is trying to put in a social game. You can pledge a relationship to someone - master/student, friends, lovers. And you have some kind of destined relationship, too, although the description is pretty fuzzy. The game lets you build up special techniques (only combat examples are given) that you can use with your social partners.
It's certainly a fun little step, and I'm looking forward to talking to some of the players in a few months once everything is a bit more settled. But...
I'm worried it's too shallow.
Relationships are like any other gameplay element. In order to be interesting, they have to have an interesting feedback loop. That means difficult choices that lead to interesting consequences.
Once you've declared you're AngerPump's best buddy, what's your next step?
Presumably, the game uses one of two ways to "develop" your relationship: either time spent grouped or some kind of social resources expended (friendship gems or some such). Both of these are good, choice-wise. Figuring out who to spend time with or who to spend your limited resources on are both interesting challenges. Obviously, they both have the potential to be hugely unbalanced.
For the sake of argument, let's assume a game (not Domo, since I've never played it) uses time spent grouped. Now, the kind of relationship can offer a multiplier. Friends get a flat rate for time spent. Lovers get a big rate for time spent as a pair, but in larger parties get only a tiny social profit. Master/student might get nothing from being grouped, but a significant boost every time the student kills something (or smiths something or whatever) while grouped with the master. You could even have a "rival" relationship, where you get lots of points whenever you kill something your rival wounded...
Obviously, this kind of complexity allows for a very complex choice as to how you spend your time and with whom. It's fun to think about, it's got me all excited.
But the other end of the deal is the consequences. Just getting more "social points" really doesn't mean anything. What matters is what those social points mean.
It looks like in the case of Domo, you get special pair moves, which is a pretty fun reward. But it's not much of a feedback loop: getting a new pair move doesn't actually change your socialization much. It does mean that you're more likely to rely on that person when doing difficult dungeons, so it does have some effect, but it's tenuous.
The consequences of an action should almost always have an effect on that action in the future. It's a feedback loop, right? But you need to be careful not to let things get too broken or flat, because then it's a really boring feedback loop.
One way to get feedback is to take the entire social network into account. You're friends with AngerPump and BladderProblem32, but they are rivals with each other. Therefore, when you improve your relationship with one, your relationship with the other suffers.
If these were NPCs, I would have them automatically talk to you about your relationship: BladderProblem32 would tell you that he's disappointed in your growing friendship with AngerPump. Creampuff_Eater will ask for help killing off a demon on level 41. DumpyLump will ask for more of your romantic time, or maybe Ergognomic will ask for a few hundred silver to get him that new pickax...
Since these are not NPCs, there's no need to do that (and no way to do that without radically changing the nature of the game).
But the point is still there: if you build a network of social relationships, you can make tugging on one of them skew the others out of joint. So it's possible to have a Knights of the Round Table situation, but as you might expect, it just takes one errant love relationship to bring it crashing down...
All of this could be ignored by simply stating that the relationship system is only there to give a framework to the natural player relationships, and that they'll contain plenty of complexity and drama on their own. It's true that I'm always thinking in terms of NPCs, so my view is tinted. But... I don't think that a good feedback loop will ever be a bad thing.
Anyway, if anyone plays Domo, please tell me how it is. And even if you haven't played it, tell me what you think.