Author Archives: Tyler Bro

The Importance of Stability in MMO Design

Lately I’ve been exploring Aion’s Awakened Legacy patch. It’s a massive revamp that’s removed huge swaths of content and reworked many aspects of the game. It’s not without its upsides, but many people are understandably upset by such an enormous upheaval.

Playing an Asmodian ranger in Aion's Awakened Legacy patch

For those of us with deep roots in the MMO community, this is a familiar situation. Change in MMOs always comes with controversy, especially when it’s dramatic. These games are like second homes, and upsetting the status quo too much is a dangerous proposition for any developer.

The Price of Change

Change is an important part of any MMO. Bugs are fixed, classes are rebalanced, new content is added. All of this is well and good. A game that changes too little feels stale and lifeless. Virtual worlds must grow and evolve with time, or wither and die.

But developers also have to be careful not to go too far to the opposite extreme. Just as MMOs need change to breathe new life into them, they also need permanence and continuity. This is what makes them feel like real places. This what allows them to feel like home.

This, then, is the challenge developers face: They must change just enough, but not too much.

There are no shortage of cautionary tales of the latter. Awakened Legacy is just the latest in a long line of controversial MMO upheavals. Star Wars: Galaxies has been shutdown for years, and the NGE is still a popular subject of discussion across the MMO community.

World of Warcraft players are also all too familiar with the frustration that comes from too much churn. Blizzard has treated each of the last few expansions almost like a reboot of the whole game. New features are introduced with each expansion only to be abandoned before the next, and core class and gameplay mechanics are revamped so often and so dramatically it’s downright dizzying.

One of my main WoW characters is a warlock. I’ve been playing her since Cataclysm, and in that time, the class has changed so much it’s essentially been three different classes: the version that existed in Cataclysm, the version that existed in Mists of Pandaria and Warlords of Draenor, and the version that exists now.

My Blood Elf warlock in World of Warcraft

Now, I really liked the Pandaria version. The new class it become in Legion is far less compelling. It’s really hampered my ability to enjoy the character, and it’s made me hesitant to become invested in new characters, as well. Why get attached if anything I come to love could be taken away from me on a whim?

And that is how you know when an MMO has become too unstable in its design. If things change too much too often, it becomes hard to invest in anything. People won’t spend weeks leveling a character or grinding for a fancy reward if they fear they could lose all that they’ve accomplished overnight.

That’s a very bad place for a player to be, but it’s worse for a developer. Developers need people to invest their time — and their money — in an MMO on a long-term basis. It’s what makes them sustainable as games, and as businesses. Any designer who ignores this is playing with fire.

People who log into an MMO after some time away should feel like they’re coming home. It should be a recognizable experience, where things feel familiar and you know where to find everything. Done right, MMOs make perfect comfort food gaming.

MMOs should experience change — sometimes dramatic, even shocking change — but it should never reach the point where the world or one’s characters feel totally unrecognizable. That breaks the sense of place and permanence that makes the genre work.


Rethinking MMO Mobs

One downside of MMOs is that the sheer length of time we spend playing them can tend to serve as a microscope for any issues the game has. Minor annoyances become intolerable headaches over the course of months and years. As a case in point, there is one very fundamental aspect of design that in my mind most MMOs get wrong. Not badly wrong, but wrong enough to seriously get under my skin in the long run.

Fighting open world mobs in Black Desert Online

I’m talking about open world mobs.

Yes, the proverbial ten rats you need to slay to feed your character’s crippling XP addiction.

Rethinking Open World Mobs

The problems with MMO mobs are subtle, but many, and they tend to feed off each other.

My top complaint tends to be that they’re simply too weak. While it does depend a bit on the game, generally speaking quest mobs have pitifully low stats and little or no mechanics to deal with, making them an absolutely trivial challenge to all but the poorest and most undergeared players.

Myself I would prefer in monsters actually felt like, well, monsters. Pulling an unexpected add should be a moment of genuine anxiety, not a minor inconvenience. They should take more than two or three hits to kill, and at least some should require actual tactics to defeat.

That being said, simply buffing all the mobs in existing games up to those levels would not make things better. It might just make the games all but unplayable.

This is due to the second problem I see with MMO mob design, and that’s that they’re everywhere. This may be a side effect of how weak they tend to be. As with so many things, developers seem to have replaced quality with quantity, with the end result being that in most games you can’t walk five feet outside of a quest hub without pulling something.

Fighting quest mobs in the shuttered action MMO Dragon's Prophet

If mobs are to present an actual challenge, they need to be placed more intelligently. Rather than spraying hostile NPCs across the entire landscape, they should be fewer in number, with placement concentrated on locations that make good sense for the story or gameplay. It makes sense for enemy soldiers to densely populate an encampment, or for a Dragon to guard a hoard of treasure. It doesn’t make sense for every random field to contain fifty hostile tigers.

Beyond that, for all their aforementioned weakness, MMO mobs do have some odd superpowers. They tend to be able to climb vertical surfaces players never could. Sometimes they even walk through walls. These are clearly measures to prevent exploits wherein players find places to kill mobs that can’t fight back, but I have to think in 2018 there have to be better solutions than this.

Also in the realm of mob superpowers is the fact they all seem to have eyes in the back of their heads. You can be fifty feet away from them with them looking in the opposite direction, and they’ll still come charging for you if you step even one inch into their aggro radius.

Mobs should have realistic senses. Stealth should be a viable strategy, even for classes that can’t click a button to turn invisible. The fact it isn’t further contributes to a paradigm where combat is constant.

And it’s that constant combat that prevents mobs from ever being a serious threat. No one wants combat to be a significant challenge in a world where it’s nigh impossible to go more than a few seconds without fighting. A total rebalancing is in order so that combat can feel meaningful.

Finally, I would like to see greater variety in MMO mob design. In some areas, it can be okay to have swarms of weaker foes, but there should also be places where mobs are stronger. In some locations strong and weak mobs could mix.

Hunting hostile mobs in Warframe's open world Plains of Eidolon zone

The strength of mobs should come in different forms, as well. Some might simply boast high and damage stats, while others might be numerically weaker but have powerful abilities that must be dodged or countered.

At the end of the day, what I want is for open world content to get the same love and attention raids and dungeons do. It should be a hand-crafted experience, with challenge and variety, not something made with a cookie cutter to serve as a speed bump for leveling.

It may be too late to make this change in existing games, but it’s something I hope the next generation of MMOs will keep in mind.


Exploration Is the Ultimate MMO Design Challenge

Insomuch as I put any faith in the Bartle player types (which is to say not very much), I self-identify as an explorer. I play online games because I like exploring imaginary worlds, and MMORPGs are arguably the best way to do that.

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

But while I love the idea of exploration, it’s something that a lot of games struggle to offer in a satisfying way, and the more I think about it, the more I think exploration may just be the ultimate MMO design challenge.

The Search for New Frontiers

At the end of the day, what the explorer seeks is new experiences. But that’s harder to achieve than you’d think.

Once you’ve seen a dungeon, or done a quest, or taken screenshots from atop a beautiful vista, it’s not new anymore. Then it’s time to move on and find something else wondrous to discover.

For this reason, a game that wants to provide satisfying exploration needs to have a lot of content. There needs to always be something new on the horizon.

But to meet that level of quantity, you have to cut corners. Few if any MMO developers have the resources to provide an endless supply of novel experiences, at least until the day player-generated content becomes mainstream. Thus, they often turn to cookie cutter design.

Guild Wars 2 and Elder Scrolls Online are both games I view as prioritizing exploration as a playstyle. Both offer a wealth of open world content that is largely non-linear in presentation. In both games, you can set out in any direction and find something interesting to do, and at first, I loved the sense of freedom that offered.

But with both games, I eventually realized how formulaic the content was. Each zone provides largely the same activities presented in largely the same way. The sense of exploration died as it became clear I was merely repeating what amounted to the same content endlessly reskinned.

The ultimate example of quantity over quality exploration would be procedural generation, which can produce massive worlds or even universes, but cannot achieve true artistry save by chance. A program is never going to able to consistently design beautiful art or memorable story-telling the way a human can.

At the other end of the spectrum, you can choose quality over quantity. You can carefully curate the content players experience, making each quest or dungeon unique and memorable. This keeps new content continually fresh, but it tends to lead to a lot less content being produced, and it often (though not always) makes for a more linear and restrictive experience.

A screenshot from the Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion for Star Wars: The Old Republic.

An extreme example of this design philosophy might be SWTOR’s recent expansions. They’re high quality, and each new chapter feels exciting to play the first time, but it’s an incredibly on-rails experience. There’s no sense of liberty or player agency.

I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to quite solve this problem. Not entirely. The struggle of quality versus quantity will always be there. It’s up to each developer to strike the right balance for each game.

With that being said, I think there is something that can help, and that’s adding depth to content.

There’s a tendency nowadays to make open world game design akin to a checklist of chores. You get a bunch of icons on the map representing activities, and you try to tick them all off. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but there should be more.

Stick hidden side quests in out of the way locations. Design areas off the beaten path that have no purpose other than to be pretty, or to add to the texture of the world. Put in hidden areas with random caches of loot.

In all honesty, one of my favorite memories of playing Guild Wars 2 was of finding a patch of strawberries hidden in out of the way place with nothing to lead you there. It made the world feel very real.

And don’t let the world stay static. Add new things, big and small, to old zones. Perhaps even without mentioning it in the patch notes. Just the knowledge that there’s a chance to find something new in old areas will completely change the feel of a game.

At the end of the day, good exploration design is about giving players the impression there’s always the potential for something amazing around the next corner. Even if it’s an illusion.


Six MMOs with the Best Story-telling

Story in MMORPGs doesn’t have a great reputation. A lot of people think there are no MMOs with good story, and many others feel story is pointless in an online game, preferring the organic stories they make by playing with their friends.

But I refute both positions. I think scripted story is a crucial part of the MMO experience. If I’m going to spend hundreds of hours in an imaginary world, it had better be a world that interests me, with characters I care about.

Luckily for me, the field of MMO story isn’t as barren as some would have you think. Indeed, I think the persistent nature of an MMO presents unique story-telling opportunities. There are games out there that make plot a priority, and tell memorable and engaging stories through their evolving game worlds.

Elder Scrolls Online

Quest text from Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s story-telling can be hit and miss. Some of the stories are memorable — I particularly enjoyed the intrigue of the Thieves Guild DLC — but many are more shallow.

However, I do give ESO credit for making story a priority. The game is overflowing with highly polished quest content, and the lion’s share of its DLC is devoted to new story content. Too many MMOs make story take a back seat to gear treadmills or competitive play.

For ESO, story is a core part of the game’s identity, and that earns my respect even when the quality is inconsistent.

Star Trek Online

A story cutscene from Star Trek Online

There are those who say that Star Trek Online — and not Discovery or the recent movies — is the true successor to Star Trek’s decades-long legacy of story-telling.

As someone who enjoys Star Trek but is kind of a snob about it, I’m not sure I would go that far, but I can say that STO makes a very admirable attempt to continue the legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi universe.

The quality of writing may not be quite on par with the best of the TV shows or movies, but it is clear that STO’s devs are true fans of the franchise and that providing a good, solid story rooted in Star Trek’s rich lore and history is a top priority for them. That’s worthy of praise.

STO is also one of the few MMOs that puts story first when it comes to designing content. The missions are not just standard kill and collect quests with the story in the background; the plot is a driving force for gameplay, and that adds a richness and depth to the experience that most MMOs lack.

Defiance 2050

A story cutscene from the MMO shooter Defiance

There’s more than one type of good story. Not everything needs to be deeply thought-provoking or emotionally profound. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a fun romp.

That’s exactly what the story in Defiance — and its reboot, Defiance 2050 — is. It might be a bit campy at times, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action, humor, and excitement to keep you entertained. It’s a good pulp adventure.

The characters are very colorful, too, and unlike most MMOs, you stick with more or less the same cast of NPCs throughout the game, rather than cycling through an endless procession of throwaway nobodies, which gives you time to get attached to them.

World of Warcraft

The introductory experience for the Nightborne Allied Race in World of Warcraft

WoW’s story-telling has always been a tad… inconsistent, as evidenced by the rather mixed reaction to Battle for Azeroth’s story developments. Blizzard has only a loose relationship to continuity, and their devotion to the rule of cool has its dark side.

But when they get it right, oh, man, do they get it right.

The epic struggle of Wrath of the Lich King and the emotional journey of Mists of Pandaria are genuinely some of the best video game stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

It also cannot be denied that the Warcraft universe is by now one of the deepest and richest settings of the MMO genre, or indeed all of pop culture. Entire volumes could be filled with Azeroth’s fictional history.

What makes World of Warcraft’s story special, though, is the sheer passion that goes into it. You can question Blizzard’s decision making at times, but you can never deny the love they have for their world and its stories. Every aspect of the Warcraft setting exudes color, personality, and intensity.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A companion mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic

More so than any other title, Star Wars: The Old Republic made story a selling feature, dubbing it the “fourth pillar” of game design. In the end, it may not have been the revelation for MMO story-telling Bioware had hoped for, but it does still rise above the pack, launching with eight unique stories for its various classes and adding some other impressive story arcs with its many expansions.

There are two things that set SWTOR above most other MMOs when it comes to story.

One is the element of player choice. Rather than being a passive actor in the story, players are given freedom to control how their character speaks and reacts, creating a much deeper role-playing experience. Yes, the consequences for choices tend to be minimal, but it’s still far more than most any other MMO offers.

The other is the depth of character provided by companions, a consistent strength throughout Bioware’s games. One of the main things holding back MMO story-telling is the shallow and disposable nature of most NPCs, but by keeping companions around for the long haul, SWTOR is able to foster genuine emotional bonds with the characters.

Secret World Legends

A cutscene from story-driven MMORPG The Secret World

I have tended to be pretty critical of Secret World Legends due to how the transition from the original Secret World game was handled, but one thing that hasn’t much changed is the story. It was amazing before the reboot, and it’s amazing now.

Secret World Legends’ story isn’t just good for an MMO. It boasts some of the best story-telling in any game, period.

The characters are brilliantly strange and unusual, ranging from a mummified occult gangster to a pansexual rockabilly eco-activist to a blind werewolf elder. Each quest is a memorable story filled with pathos, suspense, and sometimes shocking twists. The world-building is second to none, seamlessly hybridizing numerous real world mythologies and conspiracy theories with the game’s own fiction.

Diverse mission design incorporating stealth and puzzles also helps sell both the mystery and the dread of the setting. It’s not just a matter of reading quest text or listening to NPCs talk; the ambiance and character oozes from every aspect of the game.


Factions Have Outstayed Their Welcome

The hype around Battle for Azeroth has once again brought the seemingly endless conflict between World of Warcraft’s Alliance and Horde into the spotlight. Despite being a long-time WoW player, though, I find myself giving serious thought to passing on this expansion altogether for the simple reason that I have long felt the factional conflict is, in a word, stupid.

A Lightforged Draenei character in World of Warcraft

And that’s not just true of WoW. Factions in MMOs — or at least in PvE focused MMOs — have always been one of my pet peeves. They harm games far more than they’ve ever helped them.

Factions Add Little

First of all, it needs to be said that factions really don’t add much to the experience of playing MMOs. They’re unnecessary, at best.

The chief argument that seems to be put forth in favor of dividing players into factions is that it instills a sense of pride and faction identity, but I’ve never heard anyone clearly articulate why that’s actually a good thing. Mostly it just seems to feed toxicity between players (more on that in a minute).

The next biggest argument for factions is that they provide a basis for PvP, but in reality they’re completely unnecessary for PvP. It’s entirely possible to still have player competition without them. Guild Wars 2 offers multiple PvP modes, including massive world versus world, without any discrete factions at all. And that’s just one example that I could give.

If anything, factions harm PvP more than they help it. It’s very difficult for developers to balance the population numbers between factions, especially given people’s predilection to gravitate to whichever faction has more “pretty” races. Just look at Aion’s eternal struggles to balance the Elyos and Asmodae factions.

The only benefit from factions that I personally have ever seen is that they offer variety when it comes to storylines and leveling content. Leveling up as an Imperial character in Star Wars: The Old Republic tends to be a very different experience from doing those same levels as a republic character.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2, a game blessedly free of player factions

But even then, factions aren’t really necessary for that. Guild Wars 2 offers a healthy selection of distinct starter zones and personal stories based on its various races without any need to divide players between arbitrary factions.

They Go Nowhere

Another thing that grinds my gears about factions is that the conflict between them can never truly go anywhere. It’s a story with no drama. To keep the game balanced, neither side can ever win a major victory or suffer a major loss. Doing so means favoring one group of paying customers while disadvantaging another, and that’s such bad business it borders on economic suicide. No developer is ever going to do that, nor should they.

When Blizzard revealed that Battle for Azeroth would be an expansion focused on the Alliance-Horde war, they immediately revealed that it would be a filler expansion and killed my hype right out of the gate. We already know this story can’t go anywhere. Neither side is ever going to win or lose this war.

We see this already with the pre-patch. The Alliance losing Teldrassil or the Horde losing Undercity each individually could have been a powerful moment for this story, but this perfectly balanced eye for an eye scenario pulls the curtain back from how stale and artificial this conflict truly is.

This isn’t a unique problem to WoW, either. The fundamental nature of MMO design prevents faction conflicts from ever having a proper resolution. Even in games where players are able to fight other factions for territory directly, true victory or defeat is impossible. It doesn’t matter how often the Daggerfall Covenant loses in Cyrodiil; they’ll always keep coming back.

And They Drive Us Apart

For all the reasons listed above, I consider factions in most MMOs to be superfluous. But that’s not why I’m really against them. The worst thing about factions is that they divide the community.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic frequently unites the Dark and Light sides

Firstly, they divide us in a simple, literal sense. If I’m playing Alliance and my friend plays Horde, one of us has to transfer, or we can’t play together. If your game has two factions, you’ve effectively cut your playerbase in half. In a genre where more people to meet and group with is almost always better, that’s a powerfully asinine move.

You can mitigate this by allowing people to group across factions — as Elder Scrolls Online wisely has — but at that point one has to wonder why bother having factions in the first place.

Worse, it breeds toxicity in a genre that already has far too much of it. Developers seem to think factional rivalries lead to fun, neighborly competition, but the reality ends up looking more like a blood feud between competing mob families.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone make the earnest claim that Horde players are bullies or that Alliance players are crybabies (both stereotypes that have more truth to them than I care to admit), I could pay for my subscription for years to come.

It’s not just the occasional snide comment on forums, either. The bile between player factions can sometimes escalate to serious, ongoing harassment. Developers have been known to receive death threats when one faction or another is viewed to be unfairly favored.

MMOs should be about bringing people together, but all factions do is drive people apart.

* * *

There are some games for which factions make sense. PvP focused games like the upcoming Camelot Unchained simply wouldn’t work without player factions, and I have no problem with that.

But it’s time to acknowledge factions as what they are: A niche feature that doesn’t fit in most games. For a PvE themepark, factions offer little, and take away much.


When Is an MMO Really Dead?

One of my favourite scientific mysteries is the debate over what constitutes death. You might think that’s a simple question to answer, but it’s not. People can be revived after their hearts stop, if too much time hasn’t passed. Even after the brain dies, some biological processes continue for some time, making death much less a hard line and more of a continuum.

The moon rising over Stormwind in World of Warcraft

In the same way, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to define at what point an MMORPG can be considered a “dead” game. There is never any shortage of people willing to claim that any and every game is dead or dying, after all. If you want a creative way to commit suicide, try taking a drink every time someone on a forum claims WoW is dying, and enjoy your liver failure.

But for every person declaring a game dead, there’s usually at least one or two still playing it, so can it really be dead?

Let’s see if we can determine when, in fact, an MMO actually dies.

Decline

A lot of times when someone says a game is dead or dying, really what they mean is that it’s in decline. Player numbers are down, and patches are becoming smaller or less frequent.

That this is considered to qualify as “dead” really proves nothing but how hyperbolic some members of the community can be, even before we consider the fact that in many “dying” games the extent of the decline tends to be greatly exaggerated. No one likes a content gap, but it doesn’t a dying game make.

Even in cases where the decline is real, I think we can safely declare that it doesn’t mean a game is dead. No product stays at the peak of its success forever, and a certain degree of decline is not cause for panic.

Maintenance Mode

At the end of its life-cycle, an MMO reaches the stage known as maintenance mode. No further development is planned; if patches come at all, they’ll only be minor bug fixes or other maintenance tasks.

This is where things get a bit more debatable. A large part of what makes MMOs special is that they are living, evolving games that grow with time. When you cut that off, it ceases to function as an MMO in a very fundamental way.

Baron Samedi, loa of death, in The Secret World, a game that is itself dead by some standards

It also does the playerbase no favors. Maintenance mode ensures that few if any new players will join, and even loyal veterans are likely to start drifting away.

Still, games can continue operating in maintenance mode for many years. Just ask players of the original Guild Wars. And if people are still playing and having fun, is that truly a dead game?

Closure

For those who aren’t Chicken Littles proclaiming death upon a game at the slightest sign of trouble, the most obvious time to declare a game dead is when it officially closes. The servers go dark, characters people have sunk potentially hundreds of hours into are lost to the aether, mournful blog posts are shared across cyberspace, and loyal players are left to find a new digital home.

A closed game seems pretty conclusively dead. Certainly the former players will go into mourning.

And yet, even then, death is not always truly death. Formerly closed games sometimes return, perhaps under new publishers, though these resurrections tend to be short-lived. See the rollercoaster life cycle of Hellgate: London.

Even failing an official resurrection, MMOs can still cheat death following closure. This is the world of emulators, wherein passionate fans salvage old code to run private servers of their favourite games.

The poster child for this phenomenon has to be Star Wars Galaxies, a game whose intensely passionate fanbase has kept its memory alive through a thriving emulator community.

This, more than anything else, illustrates what a nebulous concept the idea of a “dead” game is. SWG fits the bill of a dead game better than most anything, having been officially shuttered for many years and being far beyond the hope of any growth or further development. And yet there are plenty of people playing it right now, as you read this.

Promotional art for Hellgate: London, a game that has died perhaps more times than any other

And again, if people are playing it, can you truly say it’s dead?

Extinction

So if even an official closure doesn’t always mean the end of an MMO, what is true death for an online game?

I would say that a game is only truly and irrevocably dead when it has been erased beyond any hope of revival. When its assets have been utterly expunged from the digital world, and its fanbase has vanished or diminished beyond recognition.

And in the age of the Internet, that’s spectacularly hard to do. Not impossible, of course — just ask the players of that Korean MMO that was deleted from existence a few years back — but given how hard it is to ever fully erase anything from the Internet, the odds of any MMORPG being killed beyond any hope of revival are surprisingly slim.

And that makes all the hand-wringing over “dying” games seem all that much more silly. If you listened to the commentariat, you would be left with the impression that MMOs are fragile things, rarely surviving past their initial launch and under constant threat of disappearing, but the exact opposite is true. MMOs are, by and large, incredibly resilient, and extremely difficult to truly kill.

That doesn’t make it less upsetting when a game you love begins to decline or even closes, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you worry for the future of your favorite game or wonder whether it’s worth investing in a new title if it’s not topping the charts, always remember just how hard it is for an MMO to truly die.