Category Archives: General MMOs

The Secret to MMO Success

I had a realization recently. After years of playing and writing about MMOs, I think I’ve finally cracked the secret to MMO success. I think I’ve realized the core motivation that lies at the heart of everyone who prefers to log into an MMO over other forms of motivation.

Let me explain.

My character in The Secret World

I was thinking about The Secret World — the original — which is pretty much my ideal of MMO perfection. I can and have spent a tremendous amount of time waxing poetic about the many and sundry things I loved about that game: the rich lore, the detailed game world, the intricate progression system, the near total lack of enforced grind, and so forth.

But, I realized, it’s not any one of those things that made the game so special to me. It’s the effect that all of them together produced.

When I logged into TSW, I felt like I was entering a world where anything could happen. Every session brought with it a new build idea, the discovery of a new lore honeycomb or side mission, or a new insight into the history of the setting. There was such a sense of constant discovery that even after I’d played for years and the flow of new insights had slowed to a trickle, I still felt like the potential for new adventure was infinite. It stopped being a game, and it became a world.

TSW is the only game that’s ever made me feel this way, but I have heard other people say similar things about their favourite games. It’s this feeling of infinite potential that a lot of people hearken back to when they yearn for the days of classic WoW or other old school games.

This, I think, is the core appeal of the MMORPG genre: We want to enter into worlds where we believe (rightly or wrongly) that we can do anything, and anything can happen.

Now, where this gets more complicated — and the reason I can’t immediately parlay this insight into a multi-million dollar MMO empire — is that while we all crave the same feeling of infinite potential, we all have very different ideas of what achieves that end.

My Templar's Halloween costume in The Secret World

For me, it was the rich story and deep mechanics of TSW that helped me feel it was a game where anything was possible. But for others it might be a wealth of challenging PvE content. Others might feel that curated content stifles them and therefore crave player-driven sandbox mechanics.

The best way to capture the spirit of unlimited possibility is unique to every individual. No game can perfectly capture that feeling for every single player, and to even do so adequately for a enough people to support an MMO is a significant challenge.

And of course there are other factors that contribute to an MMO’s success. No matter how much depth or freedom you give players, your game will struggle if every class is bugged and the servers can’t seem to stay online.

Time is also a factor. The longer a game runs and the more its players get to understand its systems, the harder it is to maintain that sense of mystery. This is part of why I think a lot of people are destined to be disappointed by WoW Classic. They can replicate the mechanics, but they can’t replicate the mystery and sense of wonder the game had when it was new.

But all things being equal, I think the game that can best provide that feeling that anything is possible to the largest pool of players is the game that will achieve the greatest success.


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.


MMOs Ruined Multiplayer Gaming

Here we are at year’s end: a time to assess the best and worst games of the year. It’s a time to assess where gaming is at, the trends that led us here, and contemplate the next stage of evolution. From where I’m sitting MMOs, fueled first by the subscription success of World of Warcraft and then by the free to play MMORPG invasion, have ruined aspects of almost every multiplayer gaming genre out there.

MMOification

From Call of Duty to Dawn of War to League of Legends, MMO tendrils can be seen in almost every multiplayer game out there. It’s not that MMOs are bad. MMOs are great when their big selling points are confined to their genre. Unfortunately, part of MMO game design involves creating an addictive set of achievement based gameplay elements to keep players from moving between games. Developers see these addictive elements and cram them into their games like square pegs into a round holes. It leads to mashups I never wanted to see.

Grinding Unlocks

Call of Duty Unlocks

MMO Unlocks in Competitive Call of Duty?

A key difference between MMOs and other genres is the emphasis on character skill over player skill. While player skill matters some in twitch based action combat MMOs, it’s nothing compared to advancing a character. Level 80 is better than level 40. It’s just a fact. And that’s fine because these games revolve around the character’s journey. The player is just there to serve as a guide.

In competitive FPS games like Call of Duty or MOBAs like League of Legends the focus is on player skill. Players want to win and lose based on their (and their teammates) accolades. Wins derived from grinding better gear shouldn’t exist, and yet they play prominent roles. Call of Duty has been running gun and ability unlocks for a while now. Their balance has improved over the years to deliver more options instead of more power, but that doesn’t stop the occasional turning the occasional FPS game on its head. I remember an especially egregious example from Battlefront. The DL-44 (Han Solo’s pistol) blew every other weapon away and to earn it, you needed to grind account levels for dozens of hours.

Until very recently, League of Legends used a rune system that would grant veteran players the best stat boosts in the game (which made a big early game difference). While they’ve gone to a more fair system, that doesn’t keep them and Heroes of the Storm from gating off characters against those who don’t grind (or pay money for them). The problem with character unlocks in MOBAs (compared to say, unlocking characters in Smash Ultimate) is that balance is built around certain characters countering others. If you can only afford to play the weaker character for your position, you’re at a disadvantage.

In this current climate, grinding unlocks is unavoidable. Dawn of War III launched with similar unlocks (and removed, but with a lot of damage done). Players level up in Fortnite (wisely just for cosmetics). Vermintide acts as a worse Left 4 Dead that mandates running the same content over and over before seeing anything new. It’s like reputation quests with no other gameplay alternatives.

MMOs made it so in order to play a game, you have to play this shell of a game first.

Watering Down What Defines MMOs

the division mmo lite

MMO or Not?

The definition of MMOs has changed over the years. First you needed a massive world where potentially hundreds could interact. Then you needed at least a hub for hundreds to interact, even if most gameplay took place in instanced areas (temporary copies). Now, as long as character skill matters more than player skill we call it an MMO. I don’t particularly agree with the new age definition that construes Destiny and The Division as MMOs, but I’ll go along with it. That’s how language works. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with affect that has on more traditional MMOs and MMORPGs.

The average MMO now isn’t about community, interaction, world building, unique builds, exploration, or adventure. It’s about advancing character skill. Like I said before, that is what separates MMOs from other multiplayer genres. That doesn’t mean developers should limit themselves to this very narrow vision. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Bless, Albion, and Black Desert Online (2017 and 2018’s largest new MMO releases). That’s why pay to win is a thing – character power is all that matters. These games are absolutely terrible prospects for anyone who wants to do more in a virtual world than simply grind their lives away.

Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV are great, but I want to see a new developer embrace their values. Diving into the niche instead of broadening the scope might not create the next Fortnite, but it can pay out all the same.

The inclusion of MMO-lite-lite games ruined the identity of the genre.

Gacha Gaming

I’m going to keep this short. Gacha gaming is a plague. For those unfamiliar, Gacha refers to all of those loot box heavy mobile games you see on Android and Apple stores. With very few exceptions (shout out to Sdorica Sunset), they are completely mindless drivel that exist solely to hook players into spending money to gamble that they can advance further, faster, or both.

And before they were popular on mobile devices, they were fueling free to play Korean MMOs in the first decade of the 2000s.

Survival Treadmill

rust rock

A Survival Gamer’s Best Friend

Every month there’s a new survival game on Steam. These games have consumed the top MMOs have to offer and regurgitated a zombified mess. The idea is great – live as long as you can in a hostile land. The execution is frustrating – get more stuff first so nobody else can have any stuff. These games revolve around playing non-stop. When you stop playing, other people take away your ability to survive. Taking away your survival leads to death. When you die, you lose everything.

Instead of learning from rogue-lites that death can be a fun game concept, survival game developers eschew that lesson in favor of telling players just to hop back on that gear/level treadmill and try to survive a little longer. Obviously people enjoy this or games like Rust and ARK wouldn’t be so popular. It also led to booming battle royales, essentially condensed survival games. Survival and battle royale games both revolve around collecting gear to deprive others of said gear with high degrees of randomness and chaos. The buildup is simply shorter and the stakes lower. This blurs the line between character skill and player skill in a way that absolves players of responsibility on both fronts. And I think that’s a dangerous line to walk. When people can justify blaming something else for their failures they will, and there is no shortage of things to blame in survival or battle royale games.

As critical as I am of the above, people should play what they enjoy. That’s fine. My opinion is just that. The problem with trends is that businesses chase them to the detriment of innovation and traditional success stories. It also reinforces the entitlement culture gamers have developed over the years. Read responses to any game developer’s tweet if you don’t believe me. “I supported you for 10 years and now you RUINED Magic Turtle Kingdom by adding BLUE HAIR! READ THE LORE! You’re so stupid I uninstall and never support you again.” This is an issue with society at large, but game design continues to move in a direction that feeds player entitlement. Games tell players they earn their wins but aren’t to blame for their losses, and egos balloon as a result.

All of this creates more toxic communities, games developed for the common denominator, less creative character development, and less chances to show player skill. It’s not where I want see game development money heading, but you can’t outrun a tsunami.

Are MMOs really to blame? I think the crash course middle ground of player/character skill was inevitable, so it’s unfair to say “MMOs did this”. Where I think they’re at fault is in their trend-chasing, anti-innovation development methods. They laid the groundwork of expectations between developer and player in a way that has hurt multiplayer gaming as a whole.

Love/Hate Relationship

Despite the MMOification of multiplayer gaming, games are starting to learn and turn the course. Monster Hunter World merged the best of grinding and challenging boss battles into a fun cooperative experience. Though I complained about it earlier, Fortnite adding light base building mechanics, revitalizing arcade shooting, and evolving their map every season really makes me respect it as much as Minecraft (even if I played either one very little).

For a long time MMOs failed to truly evolve or innovate any aspect of their gameplay except that which lead to psychologically addictive grinding or gambling. It stagnated multiplayer gaming and continues to do so despite the occasional success story. The risk of stirring the still lake that is copycat game development often pays off in ways that genuine innovation don’t. Instead, people would rather thousands on GTA Online to play what should’ve been included with their $60 purchase. But people are willing to pay that money, so who am I to blame Rockstar?

The MMOification of gaming may not have been good for games, but it’s been good for business. I guess that’s why I shouldn’t be surprised.


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.