Monthly Archives: January 2018

Console vs. PC: Best MMO Gaming Device

PC gaming does it all.

PlayStation is the ultimate gaming device.

Switch to a Switch anytime, anywhere.

XBOX is more than just games.

Since the dawn of time that mattered (i.e. when we could play video games at home), wars have raged to determine the best gaming device. Whether it was Atari or NES, Genesis or SNES, or the more recent war between the three current-gen consoles and PC, we love to debate the best gaming device.

How does this debate play out in the MMO space though? Well, clearly PC is better. The selection of games absolutely dwarfs the console selection. So my question for this article isn’t simply which one is better now. It’s which one has most potential for an MMO gaming device.

Case for PC

pc gaming mmo

MMORPGs first started on the PC with the advent of text based MUDs. Keyboard input was critical for these games because they lacked any sort of graphical interface. Keyboards still provide an immense advantage – for one thing it expands communication. What are we doing in these games if we’re not interacting with players in at least some capacity. Whereas most console MMOs use microphones to communicate, PC gamers generally prefer keyboards. I’d argue talking to strangers via keyboard is vastly superior. It’s a lot less grating to see NOOB rather than hear NOOB.

The benefit of keyboard input doesn’t stop there though. More buttons means more abilities. More abilities mean more potential for strategy. All of this amounts to more flexibility for developers to create unique experiences for us as players.

Barriers to entry are in no short supply for would-be MMORPGs. It’s an expensive type of game to create. Consoles add yet another barrier. Though engines like Unity have made it easier to port between console and PC, it’s still smoother to code a game for a computer than a third party platform that will age and dies within six years. What this means is that the MMO options for PC gamers will always supersede those of console gamers.

Although graphics are usually limited on PC games to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the most visually appealing MMOs remain on PC. No matter how powerful a console may be, a PC can always be more powerful. That affords more options to make games pretty. Yay pretty.

Third party tools can be installed alongside a game to enhance the experience. Usually this amounts to voice chat for use with a guild/clan. Mods for games like Elder Scrolls Online can also greatly enhance the playing experience, offering up in Wiki-level depth of resources without ever leaving the game.

Case for Consoles

console gaming mmos

Graphics for an online PC game must always be limited to a degree. Not everyone has a beefy computer. MMOs rely on maintaining a minimum population level and playing with friends to thrive, so developers are reluctant to push out potential customers with high system requirements. Since consoles all run the exact same specs (which are usually pretty powerful for non-Nintendo consoles), this isn’t a problem. In most cases this raises the bar, even if the potential for the best graphics will always be on PC.

Since console players use a controller as their primary input, developers must work with less buttons. This cuts out a lot of the excess abilities that don’t add anything to gameplay. For example, what’s the need for six abilities that apply six different buffs when one ability will suffice? Button bloat has long been an issue in the PC MMO space. Controllers inadvertently solve button bloat and is a point towards consoles.

Accessibility is really the beck and call of consoles. When you buy a game on a console, you know it will run well. When you buy a game for PC, all sorts of compatibility issues may arise. Designing a game for a console specifically forces a “pick up and play” game plan. With less options for things to go wrong, it’s more likely things go right. Finally, consoles are cheaper than equivalent PCs. That’s always been a point for consoles in the broader “which is a better gaming device” debate. For someone that only wants to play a couple games a year, this is a major consideration. It’s an even bigger deal for MMO players because of the lifespan of such games.

Console vs PC MMOs: Who Wins?

Overall, it has to go to PC. Other than price and compatibility, everything else is potentially better on a computer. Button bloat doesn’t have to exist. Graphics don’t have to be downgraded. They can be just as accessible. Still, I have to say that the growth and mere existence of console MMOs and MMORPGs is still a boon for PC gamers. It showcases problems that have been largely swept under the rug in PC development and mandates their solutions. So as a whole, the genre will rise with both offerings available.


Subscriptions Are Still the Worst Business Model

With all the controversy swirling around lockboxes and other monetization strategies, I see an increasing number of people pining for the day when subscriptions were the standard business model for online games.

World of Warcraft, one of the few games still maintaining a subscription business model

I think it might be time for a reminder of how we ended up here. There’s a reason that free to play and buy to play are now the norm, and it’s not that developers are conducting an evil international conspiracy to make us lockbox addicts.

It’s that subscriptions failed as a model, and they failed because people realized there are better options. For all the flaws of other business models — and oh boy, they do have them — none are quite so bad a deal for the player as a monthly subscription fee. I firmly believe it is the worst business model for an MMORPG.

Let’s look at all the ways subs ill-serve players, and please note that for the purposes of this article, “subscription” refers only to games that require a regular fee in order to play. Optional subscriptions as part of a hybrid model are an entirely different beast, and something I’m entirely okay with.

They Enforce Grinding

One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever seen put forth in the MMO community is that only free to play business models affect gameplay.

That’s nonsense.

These days, the only subscription game I play is World of Warcraft. It is also by far and away the grindiest game I play. This is not a coincidence.

Honestly, are people truly naive enough to believe that things like attunements, lengthy reputation grinds, and low drop rates were implemented because they were fun? No, they were designed to extend the life of content, allowing developers to earn more subscription dollars from each player.

One of the new allied races coming in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion

This is why while most other games make the main story something you can just jump into and enjoy, WoW locks it behind weeks of reputation grinding. This is why Blizzard is now staggering its patch releases, with a trickle of new content unlocked each week, rather than patching it in all at once. Have you ever noticed how it always takes more than thirty days for anything to fully release?

One of the eternal criticisms of free to play games is that they force you pay cash, or grind endlessly. Don’t get me wrong, “pay or grind” is not a great deal for the player, but it’s still better than a subscription game, where you pay to grind.

A good example is WoW’s upcoming allied races feature. Whereas if a free to play game added a new playable race, you might have to pay to unlock it, WoW will require you to both pay for the new expansion and spend weeks — potentially months — grinding various reputations to unlock the new races.

Free to play games ask for your money or your time, but subscription games demand both, because for a subscription game they’re one and the same.

As the Goblins say, “Time is money, friend.”

They Spit in the Face of Customer Loyalty

Subscriptions are essentially “Yeah, but What Have You Done for Me Lately: The Business Model.” It doesn’t matter how many hours or how much money you pour into a game. If you haven’t coughed up $15 in the last thirty days, you’re completely locked out.

Let’s say you lose your job or otherwise hit a financial rough patch, and can no longer afford your subscription fee. Well, kiss goodbye to the characters you’ve spent potentially years developing. Say farewell to all the friends in your guild. Sucks to be you.

Final Fantasy XIV, one the last remaining subscription games on the market

That’s a terrible way to treat a loyal customer.

Games based around micro-transactions may have their flaws, but when you buy something, it’s yours. If you don’t have the funds to keep spending as you have, you can still keep playing, and enjoying all the perks you’ve bought in the past.

But to a subscription game, you’re only as good as your last payment. Never have I felt less like a person and more like a walking dollar sign than while playing a subscription game.

They Discourage Variety

In the past, there weren’t many MMOs around, and it made sense to just fully commit to one. But these days the field is overflowing with choices, and most people want to be able to enjoy more than one game.

Subscriptions make that a lot more difficult. If you’re paying a subscription to one game, playing anything else is going to feel like you’re wasting money because, well, you are. And if the other games you want to play are also subscription based, the cost is going to get prohibitive pretty fast.

Subscription games want you to play them and nothing else, and that sucks the fun out of the whole hobby. You don’t get to enjoy other games as much, and you burn out on your main game more quickly.

Their One Strength Is a Lie

The one advantage a mandatory subscription is supposed to hold over other business models — the chief argument I see put forth in its favour — is that it creates a level playing field. You pay a single fee and get access to the whole game. You don’t have your wallet eaten away by numerous extra charges, and everyone is put on the same level.

Argus in the subscription MMORPG World of Warcraft

Which is great except for the fact that isn’t true at all.

Let’s again use World of Warcraft as an example. To start playing it at all, you first have to buy the base game, which is $25 here in Canada (I believe it’s about $20 for Americans).

These days, Blizzard rolls all legacy expansions into the base game, so that will get you a lot of content, but if you want to play WoW to any significant degree, you’ll have to buy the most recent expansion, too. Blizzard not only abandons legacy content but will often go out of their way to make it unrewarding, and the community never lingers in old expansions, which cuts off the group-centric experiences WoW is built around.

So you need to buy the current expansion, currently priced at $63 up here, and that’s assuming you don’t spring for the deluxe edition, which contains a number of exclusive cosmetics. If you want to keep playing for any length of time, you’ll need to keep buying expansions as they release.

Then there’s the cash shop to consider. While WoW’s might not be quite as fully stocked as some free MMOs, it’s still pretty extensive, and also priced higher than most other games. The companion pets alone would run you around $200 if you wanted all of them. Often the mounts and pets in the cash shop are far more elaborate and detailed than anything in-game, as well.

“But those are just cosmetics,” I hear you say. And I really have no problem with games selling such things in principle. I just bought myself a new hairstyle in ESO a few days ago.

But it’s not just cosmetics. The cash shops also feature things like race changes, name changes, and server transfers, and while most of those are minor conveniences, choice of server can have a huge impact on your experience of an MMO, and it’s inevitable some people will need to transfer. Maybe you picked a dead server without realizing it, or maybe your once-thriving community has fallen apart.

A desert city in the subscription MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV

It gets worse if you play multiple characters, as most people do these days. At $32 per character (again, Canadian numbers), transferring more than one or two characters will cost more than a new AAA game.

It keeps going. Nowadays you can also buy character boosts that instantly level you to just below the current cap, and there’s the WoW Token to consider. With it, you can buy gold that can then be spent on BoE epics, allowing you to gear up your character entirely through the cash shop.

All this from a business model that’s supposed to give everyone everything for one monthly fee.

This isn’t unique to WoW, either. Final Fantasy XIV engages in similar practices, and while things may have gotten more pronounced in recent years, MMOs have always charged extra on top of their subscriptions, even if just for expansion packs.

The ideal of a subscription putting everyone on equal ground is a noble one, and if it were actually true, I’d probably feel a lot better about subscription games. It still wouldn’t be my favourite model because of the other problems listed above, but at least it would have a strong argument in its favour.

But it’s just not true. It was never true, and it’s getting less true all the time. Subscriptions don’t make games fair, they don’t prevent the best rewards from having price tags, and they don’t stop people from buying power.

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MMO monetization is a messy business. Developers want to make as much money as possible, and players want everything for free. No solution will ever fully satisfy both sides. But while every model has flaws, none are worse for the player than a subscription fee for access. It’s a failed model, and it doesn’t deserve resurrection.


Niche MMOs Are the Future

In theory, it would seem like a good thing for an MMORPG to try to have as broad appeal as possible. And certainly it’s not a bad thing. But as is so often the case in life, good intentions can have negative consequences. Trying to make an MMO that appeals to everyone equally can do more harm than good.

Exploring Saturn's moon of Titan in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We MMO players are a diverse bunch, you see. Some of us are in it for the competition. Some for the story. Some for the friendships. Some of us like to quest. Others only want to raid. Others want to PvP. And so on.

But developers don’t have infinite resources. Budgets only have so much money, and employees only have so many hours in the day. If you try to please all of these disparate factions equally, you’ll spread yourself thin. MMOs that try to please everyone are more likely to end up pleasing no one.

We have seen this time and again. When every MMO tries to appeal to every group of gamers, you end up with a sea of bland games with no personality.

It’s time to move on from that paradigm. All-arounder MMOs are the past. Niche MMOs are the future.

How We Got Here

In the early days of the genre, MMO developers tended to dabble in a bit of everything. The desire at the time was to create fully fleshed out virtual worlds, and I think there was also an element of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It was a new genre. Everything was new and exciting, and experimentation was the order of the day.

I know a lot of people look back very fondly on those days, but I don’t think it’s a situation that could have continued forever. The Wild West got civilized eventually, after all.

Plus, for my money the caliber of a virtual world is determined by the quality of how it’s crafted more so than how many systems you can pile into a single game. And that’s really what this whole discussion is about: quality versus quantity.

The Battlefield Barrens event in World of Warcraft

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The end result is MMOs were initially established as games that tried to do everything, or at least as much possible.

Into this environment entered World of Warcraft, the biggest hit the MMO genre has ever seen.

World of Warcraft is the ultimate all-arounder MMO. It has pretty much every kind of content an MMO can offer: raiding, dungeons, quests, PvP, crafting, mini-games, and so forth. And its broad appeal has helped it achieve unprecedented levels of success.

But here’s the lesson the MMO community failed to learn: WoW is special. Its success was a perfect storm of timing, good design, a popular IP, and Blizzard’s massive resources. Its success reached such a scale it became self-perpetuating. These days World of Warcraft is popular and successful precisely because it’s popular and successful.

In other words, lightning doesn’t strike twice. There can’t and won’t be another WoW.

But that didn’t stop players and developers alike from chasing the fabled “WoW killer.” WoW was seen not as a lucky, unique case, but as the model for how MMORPGs should be designed going forward.

Thus began the era of the WoW clone, an endless procession of barely distinguishable games that all tried to be as broadly appealing as WoW, but never quite succeeded. They all tried to have something unique to set themselves apart from the pack — such as Rift’s dynamic events or the more robust story-telling of Star Wars: The Old Republic — but they spread themselves thin trying to do everything and so failed to achieve any real identity as games.

Most of the big name WoW clones are still chugging along, but none of them came close to dethroning WoW, and after years of at best mediocre success with such games, publishers and players alike became jaded and wary.

Ancient Sith lords in Star Wars: The Old Republic

We’ve now reached a point where the future of the MMO genre is somewhat uncertain. A lot of people seem to be worried about the survival of MMOs, but I think it’s not so much the case that MMOs are falling out of favour so much as the name is. This is seen in the case of the Destiny franchise, which is very much an MMO and also quite popular, but whose developers are hesitant to call it an MMO due to the negative connotations that term has earned.

So I don’t think MMOs are dying, but they are struggling to find their voice. To move forward, they need to get better at embracing niches.

Niche the Right Way

What do I mean when I talk about niche MMOs? Mostly I just mean games with some focus. Games that know what they want to be, and aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

When I think of a good niche MMORPG, my mind of course goes to the late, lamented Secret World. This was a game that had a very clear vision, focused on story and ambiance. Yes, it also had dungeons, and PvP, and even raids, but none of those things were allowed to distract from what the game did best: telling great stories.

Of course, TSW didn’t do so well economically, leading to its desperation reboot. But that’s due to more factors than its niche nature. It was very poorly marketed, and suffered from significant mismanagement around its launch. You don’t have your offices raided by the police if the boss is doing a good job.

What can’t be denied is that TSW’s focus made for one of the best experiences in the MMORPG world — for those whom the game appealed to, at least. Focus equals quality. Niche equals quality. And as a player I’m always going to be more concerned about quality than what brings in the most profits.

While I wouldn’t describe it as a niche game per se, another good example of an MMORPG with a clear vision is Elder Scrolls Online. It’s an adaptation of a single-player franchise, and it carries that legacy forward with a deep world, compelling quests, and rewarding exploration. It also has dungeons, raids, and PvP, but it never neglects that which it does best: its world and story. You never have to wait long for a new zone or new quests to be added.

A story cutscene in The Secret World

On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has struggled to stick to a vision. It made story its selling point, but it also tried to be a raiding game in the WoW mould. It was an over-ambitious game, and it never achieved enough success to continue its myriad class stories or provide enough endgame content to satisfy the hardcore crowd.

SWTOR spent years trying to find the balance between a story-driven RPG and a WoW-style raid grinder. It never managed to fully succeed at either.

Then, they decided to double down on what they do best: story. The Knights of the Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne expansions focused on lavish story-telling, while adding only minimal group content, and it seemed to be a true reinvention of the game.

However, the endgame crowd was displeased by the shift in focus. As a result, SWTOR has once again returned to spreading itself thin, and the game has suffered as a result. Story progress has slowed to the barest trickle, whereas PvP remains a neglected mini-game, and raiders still have nowhere near enough content to satisfy them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of public numbers on SWTOR’s population or income, so it’s hard to say how much these zigzagging changes in direction have affected the game, but anecdotally, the Knights expansion seemed to generate a real splash, despite some controversy, whereas the patches since then seem an excellent example of trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing no one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be possible to be too niche. I think a lot of upcoming crowdfunded MMOs are going to struggle due to focusing on too narrow an audience. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk; you need to find a niche, but it needs to be a niche big enough to support a full MMORPG.

But I don’t think there’s any real future in games that are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. We’re never going to legitimize MMOs to the mainstream if all we can show are bland, soulless games that no one can tell apart. That way lies a slow death for the genre.

The new Copero flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

In a world where subscription fees are largely a thing of the past, it makes more sense for each game to carve out its own identity, rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Instead of playing one game with mediocre raiding and mediocre PvP, you can play a game with a great raiding, and a different game with great PvP. One game need not be your everything.

We must let go of the idea of an MMO that can be all things to all people. Niche games are more risky, but it’s the only way to create games that are truly memorable, truly unique. That’s where the future of MMORPG genre must lie.


How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.

Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.

It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me

I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.

Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.

When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.

The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.

But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.

Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.

I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.

Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.

Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.

On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.

It Helped Me Focus on What I Like

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.

That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.

But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.

It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.

Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.

And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.

When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.

I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.

Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.

And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”

But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?

Pretty much nothing.

No need to take it all so seriously

I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.

And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.

And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.

It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.

That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.

But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.

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What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?