Monthly Archives: June 2018

Five Ageless MMO Thrills

Some things just never get old. No matter how old we get, no matter how jaded we become, there are some things in life that will never fail to bring a smile to our faces.

As it is in life, so it is in MMORPGs. If you play such games long enough, it’s easy to become bored of their standard tropes and numb to things you once enjoyed… but there are some things whose appeal is ageless. Some things just never lose their thrill, no matter how many times you experience them.

This list might be a bit different for different people, but to me, the following are those moments in MMOs that I will never tire of.

In-game Cities

The updated city of Dalaran from World of Warcraft's Legion expansion

I’ve been playing MMOs for close to ten years now. In that time, I’ve become jaded to almost everything this genre has to offer. That’s not to say that I don’t have fun anymore, but it’s very hard to wow me these days.

But if there’s one thing that always makes me catch my breath in wonder — even now — it’s that moment when you first set foot into a capitol city within an MMORPG.

I’m not talking about mere towns or quest hubs. I’m talking about proper sprawling virtual cities. Your Stormwinds, your Elden Roots, your Pandemoniums. Places whose streets are choked by NPCs and players alike, where your chat window blows up and your screenshot key gets a workout.

Whenever I enter a new in-game city for the first time, I invariably wind up losing at least an hour or two as I walk down every street, investigate every nook and cranny, and talk to every NPC. A good virtual city is almost as full of color, flavor, and character as a real city, and I make it my mission to soak it all in.

Growing up in the world of DOS and pixel graphics, it never ceases to amaze me that video games can now produce environments as big and beautiful as MMO cities.

Creating a New Character

A newly created Sith warrior in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I am an unabashed and unapologetic altoholic. In The Secret World — a game that provided no good reason to ever play alts — I had five characters. In other games, my character select screen gets even more bloated. I just can’t seem to stop making new ones.

And I think at least part of the reason for this is that there’s something strangely addictive about creating a new character. Every time I start building a new avatar, my mind fills with the infinite possibilities of the adventures I might one day have with them. Each new character promises new experiences and new memories to be made.

For role-players, creating a new character is especially exciting, because it’s also an opportunity to forge a new backstory. Character creation almost becomes a form of story-telling unto itself, as you spin yourself the tale of this new avatar.

But even if you’re not into role-play, creating a new character can still be addictively alluring. Trying a new race, class, or faction lets you experience an old game in a new way. You can recapture the excitement you felt when you first started playing, if only for a time. It’s a way to keep things fresh almost indefinitely.

Live Events

The "Hatekeeper" event in The Secret World

If there’s one trump card the MMO genre will always have over single-player games, it’s in-game events.

Not just the generic, canned holiday events every MMO trots out. Those tend to be pretty lame. I’m talking about the big, epic events that only come around once. Events that change the game, or bring the community together in a unique way.

In the old days, in games like Ultima Online or Asheron’s Call, it was common for game-masters to take on the roles of NPCs and play out major story events with the community. Nowadays that’s much rarer, but live events have not entirely vanished. Guild Wars 2 has made in-game events a major selling feature of the game, with somewhat mixed results, and World of Warcraft has its pre-expansion events, as well as other occasional one-time story events.

There’s just something uniquely thrilling about major in-game events. They bring the community together, forging bonds and memories that will last a lifetime, and they transform simple games into evolving virtual worlds that almost feel like real places.

Live events make memories in a way that nothing else in the gaming world can. Even years later, we can find some joy in looking back and saying, “I was there.”

Expansion Announcements

A Romulan warbird in Star Trek: Online

These days I find the best way to recapture the feeling of excitement I felt on Christmas morning as a kid is to keep an eye on MMO expansion announcements.

Content patches aren’t the same. They might be exciting for avid players of a game, but expansions are a good way to attract the attention of the entire MMO community.

An expansion — a true expansion — isn’t just a content update. It alters and enhances the way a game is played forever. Expansions are literal game-changers. And that is exciting in a way little else in the gaming world can be.

A good expansion can bring in a total renaissance for an MMORPG. Legacy of Romulus got me to give Star Trek: Online a second chance after writing it off entirely. Knights of the Fallen Empire changed me from someone who didn’t care about SWTOR at all to someone with all eight class stories completed.

And so for this reason I continue to follow expansion announcements with anticipation, even for games I don’t play. Expansions can change everything, and that never stops being intriguing.

Helping Another Player

A cutscene in the action MMORPG Soulworker

MMOs are a social medium, and oftentimes the best experiences they offer are the bonds we form with other players. For me, there are few things as satisfying as simply doing something to put a smile on another player’s face.

Of course, lots of people may think of major accomplishments they helped their guild achieve, or assistance they’ve provided to long-time friends, and those are very good things, but I think there’s something very special about offering random help to strangers.

Back in TSW’s heyday, I used to use the cash shop currency stipend from my lifetime subscription to buy the event bags that granted loot to everyone around me. During one such bag-opening, someone on their free trial got the Revenant Polar Bear, a rare pet that was one of the most coveted rewards from that event. It honestly made me far happier than if I had gotten the pet myself, and I like to think it helped give that person a positive impression of the game.

It’s memories like that that stick with you. Good feelings like that are timeless.


5 Most Influential MMO Innovations

You will often hear people complain that the MMO industry is stagnating. It’s a criticism I myself have made more than once. A full-featured MMORPG is a massive investment of time and money, so developers are understandably risk-adverse, but as a player it can be frustrating to see things move so slowly.

An Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

But just because the genre doesn’t evolve as fast as we’d like doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evolve at all. Over the years, there have been some true innovations — new design concepts that changed how top MMO games were played for the better.

Much virtual ink has been spilled over the stagnation of MMOs, but today, let’s salute the leaps forward the genre has had by looking at some of the most influential innovations MMOs have had over the years.

Instancing

Instancing had more than a few detractors when it first began to appear in MMOs many years ago, and even today, it can still sometimes stir up a certain degree of controversy. People feel it damages the sense of place and the emergent gameplay that separate MMOs from their single-player equivalents.

I have some sympathy for this perspective. I do think that MMOs are often at their best when content takes place in a shared world, with large numbers of players interacting all at once. Most of my best MMO memories are of moments like that — be it battling world bosses during The Secret World’s holiday events or participating in Wyrmrest Accord’s Pride march in World of Warcraft.

Instancing does have a cost in terms of immersion, and too much of it can make a game feel less special than it otherwise would be.

However, it does bring a lot of positive things to the genre, too.

Instancing creates a more controlled environment, allowing for story-telling moments that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in an open world. It allows developers to fine tune encounters around a set number of players and prevent bosses from simply being zerged down by overwhelming numbers.

A shot from the import MMO Soulworker

And while large-scale events are often the source of the genre’s most memorable moments, sometimes more intimate gatherings are welcome, too. Instancing allows smaller groups to enjoy themselves without outside interference.

Ultimately, instancing is just another tool for developers to call upon. It can be misused, but at the end of the day, the more options developers have, the better.

Phasing

A more recent innovation, phasing performs a similar role to instancing, but it employs a subtler touch.

Different games handle phasing differently, but generally it allows multiple versions of the same environment to exist in the same space. This has a number of applications, but the biggest is to allow the gameworld to change to reflect a player’s actions.

We’re all familiar with how immersion-breaking it can be for the boss you just killed or the army you just defeated to still be hanging around, a reminder of the futility of your actions every time you return to an old zone. It’s something that hammers home the artificiality of the experience.

First introduced in World of Warcraft’s much-acclaimed Wrath of the Lich King expansion, phasing helps solve that by allowing your actions to have a lasting impact. The evil wizard you slew will stay dead. The army you drove off will not return. It allows MMOs to feel more like the evolving worlds they were meant to be. It means allows your accomplishments to truly matter.

Like instancing, phasing has its detractors. It can separate players and sometimes cause bugs or other unfortunate side-effects. However, with good design these issues can be mitigated, and like instancing, it’s another tool in the developer toolkit than can do good when used appropriately.

A quest using phasing technology in World of Warcraft

Honestly, I don’t think the full potential of phasing has yet been realized. There’s a lot more it could do. I’m sure this is another of those things that’s easier said than done, but I would like to see developers find ways to unite players across phases, perhaps by letting people sync phases with their friends. Without the risk of separating the population too much, developers would be much more free to let players shape the game world around them. Your choices and actions could begin to feel truly impactful.

Cross-server Tech

While instances and phasing can serve to separate players, cross-server technology does the opposite, helping to bring people together.

In the olden days, every MMO was spread across many different servers. The technology simply wasn’t there to let everyone inhabit the same virtual space, but this created a lot of problems. If you and your friend rolled characters on different servers and you wanted to play together, one person would have to either reroll and start from scratch or pay for a costly server transfer. Then there was the potential for server populations to crash, in some cases to the point where it became all but impossible to complete multiplayer content.

It was, in short, not a good system. It kept people apart, and it added a lot of inconvenience.

However, as technology has evolved, the stranglehold of traditional servers has weakened. EVE Online was one of the first games to adopt a single server for all of its players, but as the years have gone on, many more games have come on board with some sort of a “mega-server” system, including Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online.

Even games that still use traditional servers are starting to find ways to blur them together. World of Warcraft now allows players to group and complete activities across servers in most cases, though there are some limitations on what cross server groups can do together.

The end result is that MMOs are now much closer to achieving their full potential as a massively social medium.

Open Tapping and Personal Loot

A screenshot from the Path of Fire expansion for Guild Wars 2

These two features are not one and the same — all open tapping uses personal loot, but not all personal loot involves open tapping — but they’re similar enough in function to lump together. They’re both ways to encourage players to work together, rather than against each other.

Open tapping prevents anyone from “stealing” a kill by rewarding anyone who assists in the kill of a mob. Personal loot, meanwhile, rewards items to each player automatically and impartially, rather than offering a fixed pool of rewards that players must then choose how to distribute.

Guild Wars 2 made systems like this major selling points, and while I’m not the biggest GW2 fan, I do give it major props for helping to propel these concepts into the limelight. These days more and more MMOs are adopting open tapping and personal loot in one form or another, and the old ways seem to be slipping away.

The sooner the better, as far I’m concerned. It never made any sense to have to compete for kills against your own allies, and any long-time MMO player is familiar with the horrors loot drama can unleash.

Level Scaling

For all that vertical progression lies at the heart of nearly all RPGs, it comes with some pretty serious downsides, and it has many vocal detractors among the MMO community, including most of the writing staff of this site.

For those of us who want our games to be more like worlds and less like ladders, level scaling is a godsend. By allowing a player’s effective level to match the world around them at all times, it prevents content from ever becoming irrelevant, and vastly expands the options available to us.

It also makes the world feel more real, more immersive, by preventing obviously ridiculous situations like being able to slay a dragon with a single love-tap, and it breaks down social barriers to allow high and low level players to work together without issue.

A rally of City of Heroes players

Back in the day, City of Heroes allowed people of differing levels to work together through the sidekicking system. Later, Guild Wars 2 helped to popularize the idea of global level scaling, and it has since been adopted by Elder Scrolls Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic to great effect. World of Warcraft has dabbled with a very limited implementation of level scaling, but as it’s still possible to out-level most of the game’s content, it ends up feeling like a waste of potential.

Level scaling probably has more detractors than any other feature on this list, as fans of vertical progression find it stifling, but I firmly believe that MMOs are much better with it than without it, and I long for the day when it is the rule and not the exception.

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Those are our picks for the most influential MMO innovations. What do you feel the most positive changes to the genre have been over the years, and what innovations are still left to be made?


The Case for Player-Created Content

It’s been over a year now since Landmark shuttered, and lately, I find myself missing it a lot. It was never my main MMO, nor would it make my list of all time greatest games, but there was something deeply special about it. It was a game that allowed people to show off their creativity in a very vivid way.

A player build in the late, lamented Landmark

And you know what? That’s something the MMO genre badly lacks. Every game has a role-playing community, but we’re almost never given the tools to actually make our own content, to tell our own stories. Neverwinter and Star Trek: Online have their Foundries, but those have always been very neglected toolsets, often going offline for months at a time.

What I want to see is more MMOs where player-created content is one of the main features, if not the primary source of things to do. I want to see it get all the same attention and love as raids or PvP or traditional questing. Let us build our own quests, our own dungeons, our own worlds.

Second Life is probably the closest we have to it, but it is perhaps a bit too open-ended. I want a game where I can be creative, but I want it to still recognizably be a game. There’s also Minecraft, but again, there doesn’t seem to me to be enough of a game there, and frankly the graphics are a bit of a turn-off for me.

No, what I want is a quality game that gives players a strong basis on which to build their own lands and stories.

Of course, player-generated content has many detractors. A lot of people seem to think it’s just too much of a challenge to ever work. And I do acknowledge it brings up many issues that need to be solved… but then doesn’t everything in MMOs?

I think these are problems that can be solved. Let’s look at how.

The Exploit Problem

One of the most common issues people raise with the idea of player-created content is that people will inevitably try to game the system, building dungeons or quests that provide the absolute maximum reward for the absolute minimum effort.

A Foundry quest in Neverwinter demonstrates the potential of high fantasy

This was a major problem with Neverwinter’s Foundry in the early days. People designed quests where mobs were trapped in pits and thus unable to fight back, making them literally loot and XP pinatas.

But to be honest, is this really a problem?

Yes, having people level to max just by beating on defenseless mobs — or using similar exploits — is an incredibly boring way to play, and it feels viscerally wrong. But in the end, does it really matter if some people want to play that way? It’s their time to waste. If they want to cheese their way to the top with crushingly tedious content, that’s their prerogative. You don’t have to do the same.

I have long been frustrated by the need of MMO players and developers to micromanage how others play. Provided it doesn’t directly harm anyone else, people should be able to play games in whatever manner they choose… even objectively terrible ones.

Even if we do accept this is a problem that needs to be solved, there are solutions. One of the most elegant is to simply design a game without linear vertical progression. Landmark never had much of a problem with exploits because there was nothing to exploit.

Beyond that, perhaps rewards for player-created content could be standardized somehow. Maybe a player designer could choose a reward tier and then be required to implement a certain amount of challenges commensurate with that. It might not be possible to ever fully prevent such a system from being gamed, but the issue could at least be mitigated.

The Quality Problem

Conventional wisdom says that if you let players create their own content, the overwhelming majority of it will be utter crap. I’m not convinced that’s always the case, though.

Back when I played Neverwinter regularly — a long time ago now, I admit — I spent almost all of my time playing Foundry quests, and while some were definitely better than others, the number of quests that were actually bad was vanishingly small.

The interior of a player ship in Star Trek: Online

Similarly, in Landmark, I honestly can’t say I ever encountered a bad build. Some were of course more impressive than others, but I can’t say I ever saw one that didn’t have something interesting or beautiful to offer.

The fact is creating your own content in a video game is always going to be a pretty big investment of time and energy, even with any easy toolset. That level of effort requires a lot of passion, and while passion doesn’t equal talent, the people who are going to go to those lengths are more likely to go the extra mile to ensure quality in their finished product.

That said, of course if you open up the floodgates and let just anyone design content, not all of it is going to be good. I don’t think poor quality is as much of a concern as people make it out to be, but it’s still an issue that needs to be addressed.

Some sort of curation would need to take place to help players separate the wheat from the chaff. Ideally the developer would devote a team to testing player-generated content to ensure a minimum level of quality.

This would of course require a lot of time and resources, but if we’re discussing a game where players produce most of the content, then the developer wouldn’t have to spend nearly as much resources on official content and can therefore devote more to curation and moderation of what players produce.

I freely grant that this may be one of those things that isn’t as easy as I am imagining it to be, but nothing about building an MMO was ever easy. In the end, it’s just another design challenge to solve.

The community can also play a crucial role in helping to maintain quality. Getting back to my Neverwinter example above, the reason I almost never played bad Foundry quests isn’t so much that they didn’t exist as it was that they were very easy to avoid. Through ratings and reviews, the community was able to highlight the best quests while ensuring the unplayable ones languished in obscurity.

One of my personal builds in the shuttered building MMO Landmark

The “Sea of Dongs” Problem

Another oft-repeated bit of wisdom is that if you give players the chance to build things, inevitably much of what they build is going to be of the penile persuasion.

I’d like to be able to say this is another misconception, but… no, it’s true, people really do love putting dicks on everything.

Personally I think there’s worse things people can do than create forests of graven dongs, but I can understand developers not wanting that to be the face of their game.

More important to consider, though, is the fact that, well, there are worse things people can do. If you let people make their own content, they’re going to end up crossing some lines sooner or later, and the occasional lewd image is just the start. Excessively graphic or inappropriate content, hate speech, and other vileness will always be concerns. Something needs to be done to weed out the worst of what people are capable of.

This, for me, is the biggest concern around player-created content in MMOs. Exploits are sleazy but ultimately pretty harmless, and buggy quests are annoying but hardly a crippling flaw, but when you give people the ability to let loose the darkest aspects of their personality, things can go to some very bad places very fast.

I’m not sure I fully trust community moderation to solve this issue, and even if I did, people shouldn’t have to risk coming up against extreme or hateful content while playing a game.

Thus, we come back to the idea of moderation by the developer. It would require a lot of work, and those working on it might need strong stomachs, but it’s something that would be needed for a game with a heavy emphasis on amateur content to flourish.

A mysterious Foundry quest in the action MMORPG Neverwinter

My feeling is that the ideal would be for developers to test player content first, but let through anything that isn’t unplayably buggy, utterly illegible, or offensively extreme. Then it’s up to the community to rate and review, and let the best content naturally rise to the top.

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This is of course not an exhaustive list of every problem that could possibly arise in a game that puts players as the main generator of content, but these are the main issues that I often see people raise against the idea. I don’t say that these are simple problems to solve, but I do believe they can be solved, and if any developer out there is brave enough to try, it could inject new life into the somewhat stale MMORPG genre.