Reposted on new blog at http://dynamitochondria.blogspot.com/2010/01/january-challenge-3-mmo-design-steep.html.
Say what you like about Ernest Gary Gygax, there is no denying that the man was an idea hamster. Good or bad, he just kept churning out games. A lot of his stuff may seem a little dated now, and a lot of his games were almost unworkably complex, but if you take the time to read them, there are tons of really great ideas buried in his prose.
Many of these ideas ultimately owe their genesis to the drama between Gygax and TSR in the 80s and 90s. Without diving into the whole sordid scenario, after Gygax left TSR, the company repeatedly sued over his efforts to publish RPGs, citing trademark or other intellectual property infringement. To minimize exposure to this tactic in later works, Gygax frequently departed from the established vocabulary of RPGs. In working in a new word-space, he turned out the occasional gem, and the unfamiliar terms could spark something in the reader.
In an effort to avoid the word "level" as much as possible, Gygax created the term STEEP in Dangerous Journeys. STEEP stands for Study, Training, Education, Experience, and Practice. I was disappointed to find that none of this made its way into the skill progression mechanics. To advance in skill, Heroic Personas spent Accomplishment Points to raise their Traits and Knowledge/Skill Areas. (See what I mean about departures in vocabulary?) But the idea stuck with me as I continued to read different RPG systems over the years.
Meanwhile, in the real world, I moved through college to the military to manufacturing to technical school to the defense industry to public education and finally to game development. On the way through these environments, I ran across a wide array of different methods of getting knowledge into your head, but they all came down to some combination of study, training, education, experience, and practice.
How does this relate to MMO design? In an earlier post, I complained about Trainers in MMOs. They're nothing but a store in which you spend money, experience points, or some other expendable resource on new and improved abilities. They're one-dimensional and boring.
In the "perfect" MMO in my head, there are three to seven ways to do anything. Want a particular sword? You should be able to buy it from a vendor, commision it from a craftsman, buy it from the player economy, forge it yourself, steal it from the castle armory, beat up goblins til it drops, or go to the developer's micropay store and spend $1.25 to have it magically appear in your inventory. The same applies to character advancement. There should be several different ways to learn new abilities or get better at existing ones.
Study. This is the basic way we ordinary schlubs in the real world know to extend our knowledge, by hitting the books. In-game, this can be represented by a few different systems. In EVE Online, skill advancement is going on all the time in the background, as long as you have specified a skill for study. The assumption is that your character is burning the idle time inherent to interstellar travel in a good book. It has its weaknesses, notably that time in combat counts just as much as time spent logged out in spacedock.
Logging out in an appropriate library should provide some resource points to be spent into various relevant skills upon logging in. World of Warcraft and City of Heroes already have a similar abstraction in the form of a XP multiplier for time spent logged out. Time spent studying a manual of style should provide resource points toward sword skill and related manuevers or abilities. This can be game-mechanized into either using the book in-play or logging out with it in your inventory.
Training. Arguably, this technique is already in use in most MMOs. Existing trainers represent exactly this, even if the underlying mechanic more resembles a store. In addition, logging out in a salle or dojo should garner resource points toward appropriate fighting or fitness skills.
Also, players should be able to train other players. Again, the boring bits like this should be handled while logged out, but two characters logged out in the same location should be able to specify that they are engaged in training one character in a skill know by the other.
Time spent logged out isn't the only way to abstract this. Spending resource points accumulated in other activities on skills to be instantly learned is an established technique. Why should I travel to a NPC trainer, when I have an accomplished practitioner of the skill in the party already? Let me buy the skill on the spot.
Plain vanilla NPC trainers can be made a little more interesting by limiting the skills they know. At lower levels, every Unarmed trainer probably knows the basic Boot to the Head skill, but I would expect travel to a far away land or at least scale mountain to the monastery to learn Hanam's Flying Backspin Kick to the Temple.
Education. Education is admittedly very similar to Training, so the mechanics might be similar or identical. Schools, colleges, academies, study halls, and their like are staples of high fantasy or any genre featuring a civilized setting. These might be places to logout to earn resource points, storefronts to spend your resource points on instaskills or something less usual.
To make these setting more interesting, make them quest hubs that grant abilities as quest rewards instead of resource points to spend elsewhere. The quest NPC spouts flavor text about the ability in question, gives the PC some simple tasks to make the player use simple version of the ability and then grants a more challenging task, rewarding the final version of the ability at the end.
Experience. We all know Experience Points, the resource points of character advancement. These points are earned in doing things the developers consider worthy of advancement and are spent learning new stuff, whether explicitly by using them to buy abilities a la carte, or implicitly by accumulating until a new experience level is gained, opening the gate to greater abilities.
Many games feature other advancement schemes revolving around using a particular skill, the real-world definition of experience. Each time a skill is used, it's noted in the database. On whatever schedule, accumulated skill uses are checked, and skill points are possibly awarded.
In cases where a game features iterative version of a skill, such as Fireball 1 through Fireball 25, uses of a skill should count toward learning the next iteration. Once I've cast Fireball 14 x number of times, I should have some form of credit toward Fireball 15.
Practice. Practice is a grey area. It's somewhere between experience and training. Practice under the watchful eye of a master verges into training. Practice under stressful conditions verges into experience. Should time spent thwacking a target dummy in the sallet count toward character skill while at the same time providing the player a chance to work out combos of queued attacks and maybe tweak their tray layouts? If so, it should count less than thwacking orcs that are fighting back.
In a future post, I'll suggest an even fruitier system, integrating combat skills with the player economy. Stay tuned.