Why MMOs need to change to stay relevant

WOW_comparison

World of Warcraft was my entry point into the wold of MMO’s. It tapped from a huge source that its competitors didn’t have: Blizzard was building the game based on three existing well-received and publicly acclaimed Warcraft RTS games, all of which helped in fleshing out and establishing the “Warcraft” fantasy universe that gamers already knew back then – or very soon learned to love. The ingredients: a variety of relatable characters, a highly compatible comic style and a feature-rich storyline, all of which helped in building a lot of anticipation and hype for the game long before it even was officially released. Back then I also couldn’t wait to venture through this new world in first person, and probably a lot of other people were thinking alike. WoW launched back in 2004 – ten years as of now – and still stands strong today which is unbelievable in the computer and gaming industry. It’s a game that learned to grow and evolve over time.

What it meant to us

World of Warcraft has proven that ease of access and rather simplistic graphics are more than enough to build a living and persistent world which keeps millions of players interested up until today. But the game also managed to do something else: it gave MMO’s a widespread attention boost and even brought the medium of “online gaming” into mass-media spotlight. This was a great feat, something that no other game or genre managed to do before: all that people knew about the term “gaming” back then was either the largely biased “violence” discussion or the everlasting stigmata that gaming is still something “just for kids and loners”. WoW helped greatly in changing that attitude, transforming the hobby of gaming into something much more commonplace, something which is finally received as a valid form of social interaction and entertainment.

In the end this also made me give up playing the game for good.

This was simply because Blizzard was steadily adapting the game to please a wider target audience, which inevitably forced the game to lose a lot of its original focus and appeal. Over the course of multiple big add-on packs, these changes and patches were driving away a lot of the original players, including me. Blizzard took notice and tried to rectify some of the changes made with recruiting programs, leveling benefits and other small goodies for returning players. However, the huge flaws of this highly simplified and washed-out gameplay remained, which is why i stepped back from playing MMOs for a long time.

What worked back then…

Detailed, colorful, interesting. Wildstar oozes personality, but its gameplay couldn't keep me hooked as it felt very repetitive and grindy.

Detailed, colorful, interesting. Wildstar oozes personality, but its gameplay couldn’t keep me hooked as it felt very repetitive and grindy.

Even with WoW being so popular back then, MMO’s were by far not a new thing. Games like Ultima Online existed way back in 1997 and already had a tremendously huge (but largely unnoticed) fanbase at the time, reaching 100.000 active players at a point according to its Wiki entry. However, with the uprising of World of Warcraft, MMO’s became socially acceptable and commonplace, thus moving the genre into the focus of the gaming development industry. Ultima Online had the big advantage of being something new and unique, and it held its fans up until today because it embraced and improved upon its own uniqueness. The release and success of WoW however lead to an unhealthy “copycat” behaviour within the market. Many great competing projects were launched, some of which being ambitious and well-crafted.

Most of them failed as gloriously as they started.

And it surely wasn’t a thing of fame and public awareness: very huge brands like “Warhammer Online”, “Star Wars”, “Lord of the Rings” and “Age of Conan” were involved, all of them fighting for their fair share of the loot. Most of these new MMOs sported high quality level production values and had lots of features comparable to WoW. But as quickly as they appeared, they lost their standing, simply because they were trying to be a lot “like” WoW while forgetting what made the genre original in the first place. They simply tried to follow a beaten path, and as such had to be compared to the bold adventurer walking miles up ahead.

… needs to change for today

Even modern shooters like "Warframe" pick up the leveling and grind mechanics. It's a dangerous territory that can drive away players pretty quickly.

Even modern shooters like “Warframe” pick up the leveling, quest and grinding mechanics. It’s a dangerous territory that can drive away players pretty quickly.

So what does this mean for today? For starters, a lot of the mechanics and concepts that used to work back then need to change or be scrapped altogether in order to make room for something new. In the following chapter i’ll try to clean up with the old habits that modern MMOs still consider as acceptable.

The Grind needs to go!

Modern gaming habits changed. Gamers have grown up and don’t want to spend their time grinding up 70-80 levels of boringness just to experience the “good stuff” called endgame at max level. For most people, the journey is where the true experience lies. This means that masses of “fetch, kill and walk” quests need to make room for new, better, more individual quests with more meat behind them. People don’t talk about “how they leveled up” – they talk about what they experienced in the game, about the decisions they made or which noticeable characters they met. The question should be “what good parts of the game did I miss?” – but instead we still ask ourselves “in which area do I get the most experience to level up fast?”. It sounds really sad when you just think about it for a minute, because players actively think about how to quickly skip over a meticulously crafted world simply because the mechanics command them to do so.

But don’t just take my own words for granted. There are also pretty good videos on the subject out there:

Be unique and meaningful!

Borderlands is a good example for bad design: Most talents are passive, meaningless. Many of the "million" guns feel weak and not unique.

Borderlands is a good example for bad design: Most talents are passive, meaningless. Many of the “million” guns feel weak and not unique.

People are more likely to stay with game that allows them to personalize their experience: the gear you wear, the way you play and enjoy the game, the paths you are able to chose. In MMOs this usually meant “loot, level-ups, dungeons, talent-trees”. While these things are probably staying with us for quite some time, it must be ensured that these mechanics are not just a way to show progress – they must also convey a sense of meaningfulness.

In gaming terms this means that every little bit of personalization should have a noticeable effect. New items should not just increase the percentage chance of a certain value but change the mechanics, even if it is just a bit. When i change gear on my character, it needs to show, and a character talent tree that offers 3 interesting talents in a sea of passive “+5 on luck” nonsense. Also, when i make choices, make them have some meaning for my ongoing adventure – i.e. by meeting the same characters again or seeing the consequences of those choices later on. If it doesn’t matter what people click, why implement it in the first place?

Put the M in MMO

When big terms like “open battlegrounds” are thrown around in MMO announcements, people like me think about waging war with huge armies of players. I’m thinking of “Lord of the Rings” scale fights here, with a heroic group of few performing huge deeds, making a difference in the end. I’m thinking of laying siege on an enemy in prolonged battles, probably something that every MMO player has dreamed about at least once.

When WoW was new, exploring the world and planning your travel was part of the process. Fast travel and only few points of interest ruined a lot of this flair.

When WoW was still new, exploring the world and planning your travel was part of the process. “Fast travelling” to the few points of interest ruined a lot of this flair and rendered a lot of the world empty and useless.

What we instead get is 10-30 people fighting on a relatively small map over objectives that don’t really matter in a world that doesn’t persist or show any consequences. Games like Guild Wars 2 valiantly try to improve upon the formula, granting benefits to the victorious party in “Realm VS Realm” fights and introducing smaller dynamic quests that have certain parties invade an area. In the long run however, these mechanics are not going far enough and have very little noticeable effect on the player’s experience.

In addition to that, a lot of these areas are so negligible that people simply skip over them. The result are vast empty areas on MMO servers, with no players ever to be seen. On the other handpeople cram their avatars into few hub areas because those are the only parts of the world that remain relevant to the game. For me, travelling to the point of interest in WoW was always part of the experience. Enemy players were a part of the perils ahead and made it more interesting. If your journey to a dungeon or other place of interest is tempting enough, your world design has general flaws and should be reconsidered. A modern MMO should feature a more persistent but less predictable world which is interesting enough to be explored every day.

Mechanics that matter

A lot of the modern MMOs try to appease a huge audience. People start complaining when their character can’t fulfil a certain role, and the developers try to follow those outcries by giving every class or hero a bit of everything – just not to piss-off anyone. This leads to washed-out character definitions in every new MMO which are basically old socks sold in a new wrapping.

If you look at modern MMO’s every character featured within may sound different at first, but has similar spells and mechanics in his repertoire: a heal spell, a crowd-control spell, a damage spell, a utility spell. Sayings like “bring the player, not the class” has basically driven out all definition behind the terms “class” or “role” up to a point where we could get easily remove 50% of all available classes in any MMO. And while this has brought benefits in terms of how quickly you can assemble a fitting group for a task, it also dumbed down the mechanics and encounters to simple “avoid danger X and attack Y” scenarios while the mechanics and tasks remain mostly the same for every player involved.

This illusion of ability diversity has reached a point where classical “action bar” oriented MMOs are becoming a dying breed. If 10 buttons on your keyboard all do similar things, why have them in the first place? On the other side, this can open up opportunities, as the new generation MMO’s could bring back more tasks onto the player, for example by enforcing positioning, timing and combos during fights while reducing the amount of necessary keys to a minimum.

The upcoming shows a nice idea of this transition, simply by combining the reduced button-sets of Diablo 3 with an interesting fight mechanic that gives each action a meaning outside of DPS values and endless spamming.

 

This article just mentions a few ideas of mine, and i hope they made sense to you. If it even made you reconsider the way to look at MMOs, let me know your thoughts. Did you have similar ideas before? What would your ideal MMO look like? Let me know in the comment section.
Listen up to what Fen has to say!

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4 Comments

  1. Jmad89 February 23, 2015 1:18 am  Reply

    Great article. I truly agree with all the points you covered. I would only add that it would be nice to see an MMO released with the changes you described as well as a respectable degree of difficulty. I do not mean difficult as in you had to grind your eyes out to out level and out gear content, but that the content actually requires strategy, precision, and skill. That has been missing from MMOs for quite some time.

    WOW was my first MMO like many people my age. I have tried many others including the classics like ultima and everquest. WOW always stuck. I quit the game after cataclysm and never looked back. I had a friend who played up until WoD so I was always able to keep an eye on how the game was doing for curiosity’s sake. Never tempted to return even with WoDs attempt to appeal to the old school players with characters from the Warcraft RTS lore.

    I have moved on to single player/co-OP RPGs and Arpgs. Namely the Dark souls series and Demon souls even though I am late to the party on those. It is sad, but it have a better time socially tackling a truly challenging single player game and then discussing it with a fellow player outside of the game then I could ever have at present playing the SAME MMO LIVE with someone.

    Then again, that is my personal preference nowadays and maybe it is not the best case argument for the nature of MMOs but I think it speaks to some of the same sentiments in your article. That being said, I really do no know what my ideal MMO would be because right now my stance on an ideal game is that it is NOT an MMO. I want to throw in an “lol” with the previous statement but it is just to sad.

    • Fenny February 23, 2015 7:02 pm  Reply

      Thank you for the praise and well-written response. It’s always nice to get quality feedback like that. 😀

      And i completely agree: The modern MMO is just so focused on bite-sized, quick to consume “grind” that you can’t help but wonder why they even bother implementing a story in the first place. WoW had its flaws back then, but at least it was kinda challenging to use your skills and mana in the right fashion.

      After WoW i tried hard to find a suitable alternative, and i I had high hopes for both GW2 and Wildstar, both of which let me down in terms of the 5-man dungeon content (i didn’t care about 20+ man raids anymore, small groups and challenges is where it’s at!).

      Switching to other genres is an all-natural and logical response here i guess, as sad as it sounds. I’m keeping a close eye on “Lost Ark” for that matter as it kinda mixes genres with the MMO appeal whilst not forgetting that placement and skill should still matter.

  2. WriterOfMinds March 14, 2015 6:53 am  Reply

    Yeah, I’ll agree with most of this too. MMOs *feel* like they could be so much, but they aren’t realizing the potential. I end up playing them mainly as a way to have some fun barreling through combat encounters with friends. When I want a meaningful story — which is the biggest thing that I personally look for in games — I go to single-player RPGs.

    The grind is a definite problem. It’s not so much that I don’t have time — I’m an adult with a full-time job, but I still managed to dump 60-ish hours into Dragon Age in the space of a few weeks. The problem is that the grind is, well, boring. Not all that fun. I want to feel like I’m going on an adventure, not managing a loot warehouse or doing menial chores. I teased my mom about playing Farmville because it was really just “click the screen 100 times, and we’ll give you a new pretty thing that you can click 100 more times.” When MMOs start getting into that territory, well, it’s bad.

    Lack of quality interaction with others is also a bummer. It should give MMOs something special that single-player games don’t have, but somehow it falls flat. Chance encounters with other players aren’t unique and exciting, because (as you pointed out) areas tend to be crowded, or perhaps empty. And when you do communicate, there’s nothing all that interesting to talk about, because you’re a flock of generic people all doing the same things. There’s no “Hey, am I brave enough to chat up that mysterious wizard player in the corner?”, because there are gobs of wizards running around and you already know why they’re all here. In-game chat is dominated by buy/sell/trade arrangements, people asking for help/directions, and other mechanical dullness. When individual players become recognizable characters who are genuinely part of the virtual world — when they gain a reputation — I get the impression that it happens more in the game’s meta-world (forums, etc.) than in the game itself.

    One comment on the possibility of honest-to-goodness epic battles: used to be, you couldn’t get large numbers of players in one spot without creating a lag morass, thus making massive LOTR-style PVP wars technically impossible. Have newer RPGs started to overcome that? As great as I think the idea is, it wouldn’t be much fun with everyone moving in jerky slow-motion.

    Have you seen Crowfall yet? It seems to be trying to mesh the traditional MMORPG with real competitive warfare, Minecraft-like gather-craft-build mechanics, and player-driven political systems. I’m very interested in it.

    • Fenny March 15, 2015 7:39 pm  Reply

      Hey thanks for the great Feedback. 😀

      I’ve taken a close look at Crowfall (didn’t know about it until now) and think it’s going in the right direction.

      In order to be meaningful the world has to be destructible, rebuildable and believable in its always-changing nature. Crowfall seems to get that idea right, however i’m not quite sure how the developers plan on managing several of those “campaigns” at the same time.

      1.) It will take tons of resources to supervise those worlds and deal with people exploiting mechanisms or “hogging” resources.

      2.) I’m also not quite sure how they will deal with player spread while managing multiple campaign servers, or if players will be able to switch the campaign if they are not satisfied with their current one.

      3.) The engine looks “OK” for the game being an alpha build, but i have yet to see what the actual fight / class / guild system will look like – this is a key component to any MMO focused around player interaction.

      It looks promising so far, but i’m waiting until i hear a bit more details about how they are going to tackle technical and social problems involved with their idea. 🙂

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