Monthly Archives: July 2017

Practical Solutions to Lower MMORPG Toxicity

Let’s not mince words. MMO communities are in a bad way. Trolling, toxicity, extreme vulgarity, and cyber-bullying ran rampant, and there doesn’t seem to be any serious effort being made to curtail any of this.

A dungeon encounter in World of Warcraft

I doubt it would ever be possible to entirely eliminate toxicity in online gaming. Human nature is what it is, and the anonymity of the Internet often emboldens people to let loose the worst aspects of themselves.

But far too many people, developers included, have let this fact instill a defeatist attitude toward toxicity. If you can never eliminate it, why bother fighting it at all? But while you may never get rid of toxicity altogether, I do think it could be significantly mitigated. Things don’t have to be as bad as they are.

I think there are simple, common sense solutions that could do a lot to improve MMORPG communities, if developers are only willing to make the effort.

Tangible Punishments

The punishments for misbehavior in most MMOs I’ve played tend to be pretty toothless. Usually it’s just a temporary ban. That might be an effective deterrent if the game in question was the only form of entertainment in the world, but as it is if someone gets banned, they’ll just go play something else, or watch TV, or go see a movie. It’s pretty meaningless.

I’ve long felt it may be more effective to directly penalize a person in-game. Delete a piece of their gear, or fine them a sum of in-game currency. If the latter, it should be based on a percentage of their total wealth rather than a flat amount so that wealthy players don’t become effectively above the law.

Or perhaps instead of taking away what someone already has, it could affect future rewards. Lower item drop rates and experience gains for rule-breakers or put them at a lower priority for server and matchmaking queues until they can go an extended period of time with no infractions against their account.

A paladin character in Neverwinter

As far as I know, no game has done this, so it’s impossible to say if it would work until someone attempts it, but MMO players are nothing if not devoted to min/maxing. If good behavior becomes a requirement for peak performance, I think you’ll start to see things get a lot nicer in no time.

Feedback on Reports

Moderation in MMOs is almost entirely dependent on players sending reports when they see someone breaking the rules. Unfortunately, there’s rarely any way to know if these reports are doing any good, or if anyone is even reading them. They vanish into the ether without a trace.

If you’re the one sending reports, this can get demoralizing pretty fast. It starts to feel as if you’re not doing any good, and it gets harder and harder to bother sending reports in the first place.

Instead, there should be some sort of feedback on player reports. In DOTA 2, if your report results in action being taken against another player, you’ll get a notification. I think this is an idea all of online gaming should embrace. It doesn’t necessarily need to get into detail, but simply knowing that a report you sent has made a difference sends the message that reports do matter and that action is being taken, and that can make all the difference in the world.

Clarity

Another frustration that players face when reporting is a lack of clarity on what is or is not actually against the rules. Usually filling out a report offers you a small list of vague categories to choose from, and it may not be clear what exactly each category entails. For example, I would interpret “harassment” as any abusive chat, but others seem to define it only as ongoing campaigns of bullying against a player conducted over an extended period of time.

Ideally, a report system should come with a decent variety of categories, and a brief but clear description of each one. This could perhaps be backed up by more extensive explanations of the code of conduct accessible elsewhere in-game. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether someone is breaking the rules or not.

Active Moderation

A group of players take on an Arkbreak in Defiance

One of the problems of moderation in MMOs is that it is entirely reactive, and dependent on the reports of players. Imagine if game masters actively monitored players in-game and could take immediate action if they saw someone doing something bad.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “MMOs are far too big to monitor every chat channel. It can’t work.”

You’re right. It’s totally impractical to monitor all chat at all times.

However, it may be possible to monitor some chat, some of the time. If even a small team of GMs were to be devoted entirely to monitoring player behavior and taking direct action, I think it could have a significant positive impact on communities.

The thing is, players wouldn’t know when they were being monitored. The very possibility that a game master may be watching would, I think, serve as a deterrent to bad behavior and perhaps provide a sense of security to the other players.

One of the biggest issues adding to the toxicity of MMO communities is the belief that developers simply don’t care, that there are no consequences. The trolls think they can get away with murder, and by all appearances, they’re right. Anything that sends the message that the community is actively policed, even if it’s largely symbolic, would have a positive impact.

Positive Reinforcement

Not all methods for improving communities have to be about punishing the troublemakers. There may also be value in recognizing those players who do treat their fellows in a decent and helpful manner.

A character in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Players could be given a way to “upvote” those they feel have been especially patient or helpful, and people could progressively unlock various rewards, cosmetic or otherwise, for receiving enough upvotes. Final Fantasy XIV has a system along these lines, and I think it’s something that should become industry standard.

I don’t think that offering rewards will, on its own, completely change the temperaments of players, but it may encourage people to go the extra mile to be helpful or at least provide an incentive not to be too harsh to their comrades. At the very least it would make helping out other players less of a thankless chore than it tends to otherwise be.

The main concern about such an “upvote” system would be the potential for abuse, but I think there are ways to prevent people gaming the system too much. For example, it could only be enabled for PUGs to prevent people simply spamming upvotes on their friends.

This could also tie into the suggestion of tangible punishments mentioned above. If you receive an infraction against your account, it only makes sense that you would lose access to any rewards earned for being a good community member, even if only temporarily. It adds another layer of incentive for players to mind their manners.

Ask the Experts

These are just ideas that seem to me like they would be helpful, based on my many years as an MMO player. But I’m sure there are those out there who would have a far better idea of how to make things better.

MMO developers should be hiring on behavioral experts to help them find the most effective ways to regulate their communities. They may find solutions that would not be obvious to the rest of us, who come at the problem from a layman’s perspective.

A close-up screenshot from League of Legends

The only game I know of to do anything like this is League of Legends. Riot has poured significant effort into finding the best ways to cut down on the infamous toxicity of their players. I’m not an LoL player, so I’m not sure how much success they’ve had, but I do greatly admire the effort.

MMORPG developers need to start viewing community-building, and community-policing, as a crucial part of design, as essential as environment art, encounter design, or coding. Communities are a crucial part of the online game experience, and if they’re neglected, the games suffer.

It might not be “sexy,” and it might not look exciting in a features trailer, but it is every bit as important as any other element of game design.


Four Things Eastern MMOs Can Learn from the West

A few weeks ago, we looked into ideas that Western MMORPGs would do well to borrow from their Eastern counterparts. Now, it seems only fair to do the reverse, for there are also areas where the East would do well to take some cues from us.

The Odessen Alliance in Star Wars: The Old Republic

To address an elephant in the room, a lot of people will highlight grinding and overbearing monetization as the chief sins of Eastern MMOs, and I won’t say that’s entirely wrong as those are common problems in games from Asia, but I don’t think it’s a universal truth, and plenty of Western games are grindy or greedy too. I don’t see it as a black and white issue.

Either way, the idea of Eastern games being tedious and “pay to win” has been beaten to death, so I’d rather focus on other areas where Eastern games would do well to take some lessons from the West.

Putting More Effort into Story

I wouldn’t say that Eastern games are lacking good lore or the potential for interesting stories. I’ve been saying for years that Aion’s lore is really fascinating and far better than it ever gets credit for.

The problem, though, is that in most Eastern games I’ve played, the story still feels like kind of a background element. There isn’t a lot of effort put into developing it or helping the player experience it in a dynamic way. It’s usually bland quest text.

In the West, we’ve seen MMO games make great strides toward better story-telling in recent years. Voice-acting, cutscenes, and story events have greatly increased in both quality and quantity. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World (RIP), and Elder Scrolls Online have shown that MMOs can offer stories as strong as anything in the single-player realm, and often treat story as meaningful content in its own right, equal to raiding or PvP.

You generally don’t see this kind of thing in Eastern games, and even when you do, it’s usually hampered by poor localization. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being made.

The grim realm of Coldharbour in Elder Scrolls Online

The one notable exception to this, at least that I’ve seen, is Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s gone to the opposite extreme. I never thought I could play an MMO that spent too much time on story even for me, but Square Enix found a way. So… many… cutscenes…

Better Racial Choices

One thing that always bugs me about Eastern MMOs is that a lot of them don’t offer a selection of playable races, and even when they do, their racial choices tend to be severely underwhelming. You can be a human, a tall human, a human with cat ears, an Elf analogue, or for some reason a prepubescent girl.

I think this is a trade-off for how much more powerful the character creators in Eastern games tend to be. It’s a lot of work to design robust customization options for a variety of strange and exotic races. But Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job of balancing both, so clearly it can be done.

Western games don’t always have as much racial variety as I’d like, either, especially when it comes to more recent titles, but even so it’s safe to say we’ve got the East beat in this regard.

World of Warcraft lets you be (among other things) a giant cow, a zombie, a panda, a werewolf, or a space goat with tentacles. GW2 lets you be anything from a giant Viking to a cat monster with horns to a talking salad. I don’t even have space to list the staggering variety of oddball races the EverQuest games let you play as.

Armor that Deserves the Name

“Realistic armor” probably isn’t the right term, seeing as MMO armor is almost never realistic, but there’s a line between “adding some artistic flair because it looks cool” and “you’re literally fighting dragons in a pole-dancer costume.” Most Eastern games have soared so far past that line they circled the Earth and passed it again.

A paladin character showing off her snazzy armor in World of Warcraft

Putting aside the obvious sexism, I just can’t take a game seriously when even high level armor leaves all major organs and arteries exposed. It’s just dumb. And the fact that the aforementioned little girl races usually end up in stripper costumes too just adds a whole other level of wrongness.

TERA general chat is still the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG, and I played The Secret World as my main game for years.

The West definitely doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to the “female armor” issue, but things have certainly gotten better over time, with most sets in most games now being about as revealing (or non-revealing) for either gender and armor in general making at least some effort toward verisimilitude. And even at our worst, we never quite equaled the absurdity of gear in many Eastern games.

Consistent Settings

Eastern games often seem a little too eager to throw immersion out the window when the mood strikes them. I remember aways back TERA added a police car mount completely out of the blue.

A police car. In a secondary world high fantasy MMORPG.

That’s an especially egregious case, but it seems to be pretty common for Eastern MMOs to randomly through in cross-overs with totally unrelated games or other obvious anachronisms that just don’t make sense in context.

This is another area where the West definitely doesn’t have a perfect track record, either. You can find the Hellbugs from Defiance in Rift for some reason, and World of Warcraft’s events tend to echo real world holidays to an uncomfortable degree, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to quite the same extremes the East has.


Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

Level scaling in an MMORPG is a wonderful thing. It makes the world more immersive, it effectively expands the available content, and it breaks down social barriers.

I am a firm believer that having level scaling is almost always better than not having it, but not all level scaling systems are created equal. The ideal level scaling system is easy to use, rewarding, and liberating, without entirely erasing a player’s sense of progression. Let’s take a look at some of the best systems in currently running MMOs.

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

EverQuest 2 doesn’t have global level scaling, but it does allow players to “mentor,” lowering their effective level for a time.

As the name would imply, the system is mainly intended for use by high level players who want to assist their low level friends. Mentoring grants bonus experience to the person being mentored and also allows the higher level player to gain some rewards from content that would otherwise be trivial to them, though their XP gain is reduced while mentoring.

EQ2 players can also “self-mentor” by visiting an NPC and paying a small fee. This allows them to lower their effective level in five level increments. You can cancel the self-mentoring at any time, but to reactivate it you’ll need to return to the NPC.

It’s a bit of a clunky system, but it’s better than nothing.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is by no means the first MMO to feature level scaling of some kind, but it is arguably the MMO that put the concept on the map, as least as far as the modern era of MMORPGs goes.

GW2 made its global level scaling a core selling feature of the game, focusing on its potential to aid socialization and keep the entire game world relevant.

In GW2, each zone effectively has a maximum level. Anyone exceeding that level is scaled down to it, though they will still receive experience and loot commensurate with their actual level.

It’s a pretty good system, but it’s not perfect. While improving your skills and gear can still make some difference, the rather strict level cap on each zone means that you’re not going to feel that much more powerful as a level eighty in a level ten zone. But at least it does deliver on its promise of helping people group together and keeping the whole game world relevant.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR uses a system that’s similar to that of Guild Wars 2, but I would argue it’s a little better.

Like GW2, each of SW:TOR’s zones has a maximum level that all players will be scaled down to, but in this case the max level is slightly above the intended level range of the zone. Therefore, when you return as a high level character, you’ll be noticeably stronger than you were when playing at-level, but not quite enough to totally trivialize the content. And of course you’ll be getting rewards equivalent to your actual level.

For me, this hits the perfect balance of rewarding progression without making older content completely toothless or irrelevant.

Rift

A promotional screenshot from Rift

Rift’s level scaling comes in the form of a mentoring system similar to EverQuest 2’s, but it’s much more flexible and easy to use.

Mentoring in Rift can be used to exactly match the level of another player, and is applied automatically in certain types of content, like Instant Adventures. Players can also mentor themselves down at any time by simply clicking their portrait and selecting the option. In this way the player can set themselves to any level below their own, while still receiving rewards equal to their true level.

The beauty of this system is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys level-scaling, and in Rift they need not be subjected to it if they don’t want to. If you do enjoy scaling, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and how to use it. You can set your level equivalent to or even below the recommended level of the content you’re doing if you want a challenge, or set it slightly above if you want things to be a little easier.

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

So far all of the level scaling systems mentioned in this list have one thing in common: They only scale you down, never up. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare and welcome exception.

Actually, saying it can also scale you up is over-simplifying things a bit. Really what ESO does is scale everything — from players to mobs — to a single effective level across the entire game. This system was dubbed “One Tamriel,” and that’s actually a pretty good tagline, as it unifies the entire game into a single cohesive world in a way few MMOs ever accomplish.

In ESO, you can pretty much do anything, any time. You might have a little trouble getting raid invites as a level one character in white gear, but short of that, there really aren’t any limits. Faction restrictions on content have also been removed, so you truly can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want.

Obviously this makes group play a lot easier. If you’ve played since launch and your friend just joined, you can still group together while both being challenged and rewarded. It also makes leveling alts a lot more appealing, since you can take an entirely different leveling path, even if both characters are the same faction.

It also doesn’t entirely erase a sense of progression. Leveling up provides you with more skill points to expand and enhance your build, gear still increases your combat performance, and the Champion Points earned after reaching max level can have a significant impact on your character’s power.

In a perfect world, One Tamriel would be the example upon which all MMORPG level scaling systems are based. It’s simply excellent.


LOTRO vs. SWTOR: Who Handles the IP Better?

Many games are based on pre-existing imaginary worlds. Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) are two such MMO games that have become popular, not in the least due to their IP. But which of the two handles the IP better?

IP and Licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible ownership that is based on creations of the mind. While the word technically focuses on the possession of creations, fans often use it to refer to the collection of ideas themselves. This is how it will be used in this article.

For a fair comparison, let’s look at what intellectual property each MMO has access to. I’m going to assume you are broadly familiar with the fictional worlds of Middle-earth and Star Wars.

SWTOR screenshot of Yavin IV

Yavin IV 3000 years before the rebel base (SWTOR)

LOTRO is based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or ‘Tolkien’s legendarium’. However, the MMO only has a license for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. This means the game is not allowed to refer to events or characters from other works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion.

SWTOR is based on the Star Wars universe. The license covers the entire IP, but as the game takes place about 3000 years before the events in the movies, a large part of game design is left to the imagination of its developers. We know from interviews and livestreams that SWTOR’s developers have regular contact with Disney’s Star Wars team to discuss whether new story plans fit.

How do you measure the ‘essence’ of an IP?

Needless to say, the translation from book or movie to MMO is never going to be direct; they’re different mediums, created by different people at different times. Nobody is going to do a perfect job, and judging how good of a job has been done is subjective by definition. To come up with a convincing argument, I will measure three attributes: worldbuilding, aesthetics and story.

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. One could argue that Tolkien was the ‘ultimate worldbuilder’. He described the imaginary world of Middle-earth in incredible detail, including history spanning thousands of years, genealogical trees of historic figures and entire languages (complete with alphabets and scripts) for the various races inhabiting his world. Some of Tolkien’s books are fictional historical works that are completely dedicated to worldbuilding and do not contain a plot. Because worldbuilding was such an important part of Tolkien’s writing, a successful use of the IP in an MMO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world.

Worldbuilding in Star Wars is done in a visual, cinematic manner. Think of the much celebrated first scene of Episode IV: a seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer dwarfs the helpless Corvette ahead. The Destroyer has a slick interior design; the many people working on it are faceless, void of identity, in their uniforms. No word has been said, but everything about the Empire radiates power and dominance. With the blink of an eye, the visuals explains the power structure in a galaxy far, far away.

LOTRO screenshot of Rohirric sky

The sky of Rohan: birds circle in the air (LOTRO)

Aesthetics is not so much about how the fictional world is constructed, but rather about whether its representation holds true. Think of auditive, textual and, above all, visual information. When judging aesthetics, we should not only look for obvious iconic elements (e.g. a Star Wars MMO should have lightsabers; the Shire needs hobbit holes), but also for less tangible aspects, such as immersion.

Finally, story is an important aspect. Both IPs feature an epic story with heroes that play a vital role in reshaping the world. But because MMOs are inhabited by many player controlled characters, not everyone can be the main hero. How are these stories handled? Do players have the feeling they are part of the narrative?

Use of IP in LOTRO

I wrote earlier that a successful use of the IP in LOTRO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world. I can already give away that the game has succeeded in this regard. Every detail that is in the books can be found in-game. Regions that are only briefly mentioned in LOTR, such as Dunland, have been believably filled in with the help of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.

LOTRO Screenshot hobbit hole

A hobbit hole in the Shire (LOTRO)

In one aspect, LOTRO’s developers have deliberately opted to deviate from Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings namely was written almost 70 years ago and is a product of its time: it contains some elements of racism and the narrative is dominated by males. From the Rohan expansions onwards, LOTRO has made a clear effort to make the voice of women and children heard, giving them a larger role than in the original IP. Children play out in the streets of villages you pass; several quests introduce you to how the war is experienced by them. Meanwhile, women are left in the charge of towns while their men are fighting in the war. Without deviating from the medieval inspired setting of Middle-earth, LOTRO passes the Bechdel test effortlessly.

As for aesthetics, all iconic elements that you would expect are present. Bag End, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop… even the Black Gate can be visited. Landmarks are an important aspect that makes players connect with the IP and carry over LOTRO’s feeling of realism. LOTRO’s landscapes are celebrated in the MMO scape, and with good reason: they are incredibly detailed (day-night cycles and a weather system) and are still competitive with new titles even though the MMO is a decade old. The in-game music varies by region and adds to the immersion.

LOTRO’s ‘epic story’ follows the fellowship to Mordor. The player character is no known hero, but helps persons of note from behind the scenes. This is a clever way of handling the unwritten rule that players are heroes, while all seats are already taken. However, it could be argued that the player is too much of a Mary Sue, being pals with all the important figures while saving countless towns and people in the time-span of one year – not very realistic.

Screenshot of the Eternal Throne of Zakuul in SWTOR

The Eternal Throne of Zakuul (SWTOR)

Use of IP in SWTOR

We have seen how the Star Wars movies use the visual to support intuitive worldbuilding. This method is also heavily utilized in SWTOR and is something that sets the MMO apart from others. ‘Visual worldbuilding’ is everywhere: from the black and red, slick design of the Imperial Empire to the Eternal Empire depicted above. The row of golden outfitted Zakuulan knights on the way to the Eternal Throne, situated on top of the Spire, signal wealth and power much like the aforementioned intro to A New Hope.

Of course, visual worldbuilding is not done exclusively in SWTOR, but the emphasis on the visual and cinematic throughout the game is undeniable. For instance, the overwhelming majority of quests have a cutscene. Cutscenes in SWTOR don’t merely consist of stationary NPCs, but are also action based and show your own character in their custom outfit. To strengthen the cinematic experience, quests in SWTOR have voice acting. Both NPCs and player characters are voice acted and a stunning amount of 16 different (base class and gender determined) voices are available to represent the player.

Developing cutscenes and recording voice actors must have taken a good chunk out of SWTOR’s budget, meaning that less funds were available for other aspects of the game. Landscape design seems to have suffered a bit. This is not to say planets in SWTOR look bad. Indeed, the landscapes are quite decent, but they lack the amount of detail and immersion of LOTRO: no day-night cycle nor weather are present. As for other aesthetics: iconic Star Wars archetypes are represented in the base classes, such as smuggler, jedi knight, bounty hunter and sith warrior. Lightsabers and weapons both look great and SWTOR easily beats LOTRO when it comes to animations. A clear effort has been made to meet the visually appealing combat of the movies. The in-game music gives the player the same feeling of epicness as in the IP and is of more consistent quality than in LOTRO.

Screenshot from SWTOR's desert

The iconic two suns of Tatooine (SWTOR)

Storytelling is another strong suit of SWTOR. Between its well-written, compelling stories, player choices (sometimes granting dark or light side points) and sheer amount of story content, every other MMO I’ve tried out since has disappointed. SWTOR’s base game comes with 8 distinct class stories that continue up to level 50. The game also features companions that have conversations and small stories attached to them. The latest expansions have focused on story exclusively and allowed players to make choices with more consequences.

Conclusion

So which MMO handles the IP best? I feel compelled to go with the boring answer: there is no clear winner. Both MMOs are inspired by the worldbuilding of their respective IPs and have made a unique translation of their IP to a virtual world. LOTRO has focused on superb landscapes and immersion while SWTOR stands out for its storytelling and cinematic spectacle. If you prefer one over the other, I suspect it is because you enjoy certain aspects (aesthetics, story etc) more than others. Or perhaps you have a preference of IP, or simply care about other (non IP related) gameplay matters more. It is not because one MMO has done a worse job with the IP than the other.