A real gamer’s bucket list

I enjoy coffee table books. Those conversation starters that you leave sitting by your couch for guests to flip through and enjoy. One of my favorites is The Gamer’s Bucket List, which is essentially a top 50 list of games that every gamer should play. And while that makes for an enjoyable read (checking off the games you’ve played, finding gems that you haven’t, and arguing for the inclusion of games overlooked), I’ve always felt that a simple list of games is too narrow for a bucket list. To me, a real gamer’s bucket list is not about specific games or specific genres, but experiences that a gamer should have to make themselves well rounded. So, with that in mind, here’s my gamer’s bucket list!

Speedrun a favorite game

Anybody who’s ever watched Awesome Games Done Quick knows that a good speedrun is a thing of beauty. Precision control, quick reactions, mind-bending sequence breaking…It’s a true test of a gamer’s skills and lateral thinking. Even if you don’t set a world record, getting good enough at a game to speedrun it takes the game from just being a favorite pastime to being a “talent” that you can show off and a point of pride.


100% complete an expansive game

Some games don’t end when the credits roll. With a ton of hidden secrets and easter eggs hidden throughout, these games can take days (if not weeks) to fully explore. Most players will never see everything these games have to offer, but at least once it’s worth the effort to dig into every nook and cranny of a game to get that vaunted “100%” next to your save file.


Complete a self-imposed challenge

If you’re looking for a challenge, sometimes just turning the difficulty up to “Insane” isn’t enough. A self-imposed challenge adds additional rules to a game to make it more difficult. Some challenges are simple, like the Nuzlocke challenge in Pokemon, which adds permanent death to an otherwise very forgiving game. Other challenges require a lot of ingenuity to complete, like the pacifist runs of World of Warcraft where you must find a way to reach max level without ever killing an enemy! No matter what the challenge, it will change your appreciation for a game and make you look at it in a whole new light.


Get a high score on a leaderboard

Arcade game designers had the right idea when they added the leaderboard to their classic games like Pac Man and Space Invaders. While it’s fun to get a high score or an impressive time, there’s nothing quite like the validation of seeing your initials on the list of the best the game has ever seen. Online leaderboards listing thousands of players has made it much more difficult to reach the very top, and frequently reset arcade machines means that in-person scores don’t mean what they used to, but it’s worth finding that rare game with a score that seems in reach, and practicing like crazy to beat it!


Play a game in early alpha

The games we play these days are absurdly polished. Even the so-called “betas” and “early access” titles are often near complete when the public first gets their hands on them. But playing a game that’s truly in the earliest stages of development will give a whole new appreciate for how far games have to go to get from prototype to release. It might be hard to actually find a game that has an early alpha you can access, but if you get the chance…take it! And be sure to help the developers make it the best game it can be.


Play a game that came out before you were born

Games have advanced quickly in a very short amount of time. I still remember when 16-bit graphics were “realistic” as opposed to “retro.” But, unless you were born before 1972, you’ve only been around for part of that history. Getting your hands on a game that came out before your time will help you appreciate that even the games you consider “primitive” still have something to offer!


Play all the games in a long-running series

My how Mario has grown. Since his initial Arcade release so long ago, he’s gone from 8 bit to 16 bit to 3D to outer space and most recently has been sent to the masochistic hellscape that is Mario Maker levels. Playing a game series through all of its iterations (maybe excluding spinoffs) is a great way to see not only how technology has evolved, but also how game design itself has changed over the years. You can see how early games were simple enough for a player to play without prior instruction, while new game need tutorials for even the most simple skills. You can see how modern games have advanced in storytelling far beyond what early games even attempted. No matter what game series you pick, you’ll learn a lot following it through its history.


Play a modded game (romhack)

Some fans just aren’t happy with games the way they are, and are willing to dig in and mod them until they make something completely new. Some mods are good, some are bad, and some even go on to become full games themselves. Playing a modded game will give you an idea of just how creative fans can be when given a game as a starting point.


Get involved in a gaming community

If there’s only one thing that gamers love as much as playing games, it’s talking about them. While it’s possible just to lurk on the forums or post one or two questions, it’s totally worth it to really get involved in a community. I’m personally pretty involved at Kazamatsuri, a community around Key Visual Arts, one of my favorite game companies. I’ve made some great friends just by sharing my thoughts there, and I think it’s worthwhile for any gamer to find likeminded souls by talking about the games they love.


Host a LAN party

I feel like an incredibly old man saying this, but back in my day multiplayer was a hell of a lot harder. Where modern online matchmaking can match you up with an evenly skilled opponent in mere seconds nowadays, it used to take hours to work out all of the weird networking glitches to get a room full of people playing the same game. And while I certainly don’t miss the arcane rituals of network navigation, there was the nice side effect of gaming being a truly social event, with a group of friends all networked together in the same room. For that reason, I think a “LAN Party” is still a great experience for any gamer to have, though it might be worth using a modern game that’s a little smarter about the “online” part.


Attend a gaming convention

Speaking of social gaming events, if getting a room full of people together to play games is fun, then getting a whole convention center full of them is amazing! Ever since my first trip to Blizzcon, I’ve made it a point to attend at least one gaming conference every year. Easily the most popular is Penny Arcade Expo, which happens three times a year in the US, and is always a blast. You get to see and play new games before they’re released, check out the super cool booths and snag some swag. My favorite part is attending panels and hearing from gaming icons, but with so much to do, there’s sure to be something for pretty much everyone.


Attend a gaming concert

If there’s one thing I love more than games, it’s music. But if you put music and gaming together, well…now you’ve really got my attention. I had the good fortune to attend Video Games Live a few years ago, and let me just say that it was an amazing experience. Listening to the songs of my youth, performed by a live orchestra was truly awesome. I had shivers up and down my spine the entire time. Even if you don’t consider yourself a music aficionado, it’s still worth catching one of these shows if it’s in your area.


Watch an eSports tournament live

With the popularity of League of Legends and twitch, it’s hard to remember when eSports in the US used to be a joke. We used to hear about the stadium filling Starcraft tournaments in Korea like they were a complete oddity, but little did we know that they were also in our future. A lot of gamers I know despised sports growing up, perhaps associating them with the jock-type people in school. But it turns out that watching skilled players competing at the highest levels really is a lot of fun, especially when you’re packed in tight with a bunch of other screaming fans. So pick a game you love, find a few players to cheer for, and join the crowd!


Compete in a gaming tournament

You know what’s more awesome that watching a gaming tournament? Playing in one. Everyone has those dreams of being the very best at a game, but few have the drive to really achieve it. Still, if you can get to a competitive level in any game, then you owe it to yourself to sign up for a tournament (even a local one) to compete. There’s a real adrenaline rush when you play a game with something on the line, when you know that your chance at greatness depends on the next game. And you can take that one step further when there are spectators watching, responding to your awesome plays and unfortunate missteps. And who knows? Maybe that tournament could be the first step towards a true esports career!


Design a level, and watch someone play it

Game design is hard, but as players we rarely see all the work that goes into making games. And while most of us don’t have the skills to build a game from scratch, putting together a level in a game like Super Mario Maker is well within our reach. But even more than just building a level, watching another person play through it will be absolutely mindblowing. Odds are that you’ll find that the parts you thought were easy turned out to be hard and the tricks you thought were clever are actually obvious. No matter what, you’ll end up with a lot of respect for how hard it is to make games, even without having to program or make art.


Build a game prototype

Did I mention that game design is hard? While building a level might give you a taste of that truth, nothing will hammer it home like trying to make your own game from scratch. It used to be that you really needed to code to build a game prototype, but nowadays there are a lot of tools out there that promise code-free game design. Sadly, those tools are lying…making a full game still requires quite a bit of code and art…but putting together a simple prototype is certainly possible. You’ll quickly learn that simple things like the speed a character moves or how jumping works can completely change the way a game feels, and you’ll find yourself noticing the little details the next time you pick up a controller. You’ll never look at games the same way again!

Edit: Adding a few more ideas.


Stream yourself playing a game

To say that streaming has taken off would be something of an understatement. I think I spend more time now watching people play games than playing them myself, and I enjoy every minute of it. But I’ve also streamed myself a few times on twitch, and that’s been awesome too. It’s a lot of fun to have an audience, people to share your successes and failures with. Not only will it make you focus harder, you might realize that it’s actually tougher than it looks to hold a fluid conversation while trying to play a game.


Beat a really really hard game

Some games are relaxing and easy, but others are maddeningly difficult. And while these games might drive you to the edge of your sanity, there’s something intensely satisfying about that moment when you finally overcome the final obstacle and see the credits roll. I always used to call this “earning your gamer card,” since only the truly devoted are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to beat a game like Battletoads, Dark Souls, or I Wanna Be the Guy.


This is just a stream of consciousness idea for an MMORTS, inspired by a twitter conversation started by my buddy, Crow.

The problem with MMORTS

MMORTS’s suffer from a major problem: it’s hard to line up the design of a classic base-building style of RTS with the mechanics of an MMO like World of Warcraft. But the act of base building in an RTS naturally makes people think “What if I could just keep going with this? What if I didn’t have to stop building this base, and it could be persistent? What if I could eventually grow my base to take over a vast world?! Wouldn’t that be awesome?”

Of course, that idea is sadly broken, and following that design path is almost certain to lead you to games with runaway leader problems and gameplay that ultimately doesn’t match with the experience desired.

Breaking down the MMO/RTS

Another path to take, however, is a more piecemeal approach where you break each genre into its most identifiable tropes, and try to find ways to line those tropes up with eachother to create something that feels more natural.

For RTS games, the essential tropes seem to be base building, resource gathering, and squad based troop combat. And while there have been modestly successful “MMORTS” games that focus solely on the squad combat portion, and EVE arguably manifests the resource gathering game in whole, base building has been somewhat elusive in an MMO context.

For an MMO, the essential tropes seem to be drawn out progression over many hours of gameplay, world persistence, a large world to explore, and frequent interactions with other players either to cooperate or compete.

Base Building as Character Progression

Two of the features here seem to be at odds with eachother. Namely RTS base building and MMO world persistence. The natural problem that arises in the naive approach to MMORTS design is that as a player grows in power and increases the size of their base, they dominate a growing section of the game world.

The way around this is to alter the focus of base building away from building larger and larger bases towards building a single base in a confined space. Think of playing Sim City on an island. Because you only have so much space, you invest a lot of time and energy into making sure all of your buildings are laid just so. The key here is to be intelligently restrictive. To use a Starcraft analogy, you have room for a starport or an armory, but not both, so choose wisely. The key restriction on your base ends up being physical space, as opposed to some sort of limit on artificial “points.” The effect is similar, but it allows players to exercise their spatial reasoning skills.

In a very real sense, the base in this model is the RTS stand in for the character in most MMO’s. Just like how you customize and progress your character through class choice, leveling, talents, and gear, you customize your base through the buildings you have available, which buildings you choose to place, and the overall layout. You can further restrict base building to an out-of combat activity, allowing players to make the weighty decisions about their “character” in a low-pressure environment.

Multiple Resources

Looking onward to other trope combinations, RTS resource gathering can be related to MMO progression, but it’s also an intrinsic part of the real-time gameplay. This creates a divide that can potentially be solved by splitting resources into two categories: permanent resources and temporary resources.

Permanent resources are what you use to get new buildings, new upgrades, new unit-types, etc. These permanent resources are the rewards for quests and missions, and are essentially a stand-in for experience points. Permanent resources go towards your base, and thus their purpose is to upgrade your character.

Temporary resources are what you use in combat to activate abilities and build units. These are more like traditional RTS resources, where the focus of the game is on intelligently spending and gathering resources to amass an army. Unlike permanent resources, which stay in your inventory, temporary resources cannot be carried from one encounter to the next, and the units and upgrades built with those resources disappear at the end of the mission or instance. This encourages players to play quickly and constantly use their resources, in much the same way that they might in Starcraft.

Much like in Starcraft, the location of the temporary resources dictates where your base will be placed. Unlike in Starcraft, the design of your base can’t be dictated on the fly. Instead, the player has a command character (A general) who finds a group of temporary resources, and “warps” their base into existence. At the beginning, the base is “Inactive.” That is, not all of the buildings can produce units, give their upgrades, or attack. By gathering temporary resources, you can activate a building and pump out units.

At higher levels, you can also have “expansions” and “forward base positions.” Expansions are like mini-base locations. Similar to your main base, they are designed ahead of time, but unlike your main base they don’t have room for a full compliment of buildings. Where you can sim-city your main base to have a few unit-producting structures and a few defensive structures, the expansion usually only has room for one or the other, along with the necessary resource gathering building. The choice gives the player the option of either being more aggressive or more passive. For the forward base, the main base needs to be recalled by the general before moving. Forward bases offer some benefits. They often have more resources and they’re closer to an enemy base, allowing for more aggression. But to get to the forward base you need to sacrifice time that could be spent towards building units and gathering resources. In general, the choice to move to a forward base is not one to be made lightly, and usually won’t be made until resources at the main base are depleted.

Open World and Questing

The MMO tropes of world exploration and questing end up corresponding to the RTS idea of missions. In a modern single-player RTS, you are rarely tasked with simply destroying the opponent’s base. Instead, you have waves of enemies, wandering groups of foes, or other objectives that must be completed. In this MMORTS, your leader-character will be given quests and will need to wander the over-world to find where those quests are. Each set of quests will correspond with a specific location where enemies spawn. At that location is at least one set of temporary resources where the player can set their base. The number of base locations sets a hard limit on the number of players who can quest in a location at a given time, meaning that these areas are quietly instanced (phasing) to only allow that many players in.

Because the missions are rarely “destroy the enemy base,” you aren’t really competing with the other players over too much, and having multiple people there doesn’t give you a big advantage (nor should it hinder you! Players should never resent the presence of friendly players). Moreover, these base locations will only have a small number of temporary resources, meaning that you can only field a small number of units. Essentially, when you roll into the mission, you build a squad, then you fight AI mobs until you’ve completed your missions, then you pick up and leave. This fits with the Extra Credits idea of only having a limited number of points to build a squad with, but it feels less artificial. You may have X resources for this group of quests, but Y resources for a different set, leading to different unit choices.


That brings us to the last major MMO trope, player interactions. As stated earlier, you will occasionally run into other players during missions, which will give you the opportunity to work with them. But in a more real sense, interactions with other players will be focused on instanced content. The MMORTS equivalent of dungeons and battlegrounds.

The key to good multiplayer interactions is asymmetry. The MMO formula of Tank/Healer/DPS is a good one, because it’s difficult to compare the importance of each role. You really can’t get by without all of them, and no player can fulfill every role at once. In a similar way, the limited size of a player base forces the player to make choices on what units to build. If, for example, I opt for flying units, I might not be able to create siege units. The key is to have a variety of enemies that are weak to different types of units, so that building an effective team centers on variety.

The MMORTS dungeon would consist of a series of set encounters. The encounters would start with the players taking a primary base, and they would quickly have to start building units and activating their buildings. As the battle progressed, the players would need to advance to expansions to gather more resources, and fight off enemy attacks while advancing forward to secure those new expansion locations. The boss battle, as it were, is to destroy the primary enemy base, which may have specialized units or other unique mechanics to make this different than a normal battle. After beating the boss, the temporary resources that their base was built on would become available as a new forward base, prompting the cycle to start again for the next boss.

The main balancing agent here, in terms of difficulty, is the number of resources on the map. Fewer resources means a smaller army. Thus, to have a sense of escalation, instanced dungeons will generally give players more temporary resources than solo quests, and the final bosses in these instances will give more temporary resources than the other bosses. In this way, the battles feel more epic, because bigger and more advanced armies are being brought to bear. Moreover, because you need to invest temporary resources to activate buildings, it’s very possible that the “end of the tech tree” for any given player’s base is only really accessed on those high level fights.

PvP is, in some ways, the easiest to envision for the MMORTS in this format. You come in with your pre-built base, along with a few other players. You gather resources, take expansions, and try to balance offense and defense against your opponents. Popular RTS mods could be used as inspiration for more battleground variety.

The importance of recognition

Regardless of the specific flavor of MMO I think players are looking for “recognition.” Players play MMO’s to be recognized by other players for their skills, achievements, and style. They play to express themselves in a way that others take notice of. To this end, three features become very important: customization of the hero unit, cities, and trade.

Customization of heroes allows for a visual sign of a player’s progression outside of battle. Cities give players a place where this progression can be flaunted (and where they can gauge the progression of fellow players). And trade gives an important reason to go to cities.

Closing thoughts

Ultimately, MMO’s make for an interesting but difficult design space. It’s often hard to put one’s finger on what the Massive portion of Massively Multiplayer brings to the table. Given the clamor for an MMORTS over the years, however, I think there is something to that combination. Personally, I think it’s the fact that progression loves an audience. Because RTS games generally feature a natural progression over time from weak units to strong and small bases to large, there’s a desire to show this off and say “Look what I made!” MMO’s give you that outlet, but in the process of designing for an MMO, you must (ironically) restrict that progression to something more manageable. This is the contradiction that has held back MMORTS’s from rising to prominence, and it’s one that should be kept in mind by any serious designer approaching this genre.

Please continue the conversation in the comments section. What would you want to see in an MMORTS?

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