Category Archives: MMO Game Design

Six Ways MMOs Can Make Leveling More Appealing

There has always been a vocal contingent of the MMO community that views leveling as nothing but a chore. And to be fair, in a lot of games, it is. But what to do?

A party of characters in World of Warcraft

One possibility is to abolish leveling entirely, but given how intrinsic leveling is to the RPG experience, it may be more realistic to look for ways to make leveling more interesting, to make it a compelling attraction in its own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the things developers can do to make leveling appealing.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

MMOs are rather infamous for making players wait to get to the good stuff. “The real game begins at endgame” is a refrain we’ve all heard. All the development resources go into high level content like raids, leaving leveling players to pick up the scraps of bland kill and collect quests.

Thankfully, MMO developers are waking up to how off-putting this can be, so it’s not as common a problem as it once was, but it’s still worth saying: In 2018, players will lose patience with games that don’t put their best foot forward.

We now expect leveling content to have all the bells and whistles and production values of endgame. There are far too many good MMOs out there to waste time on games that can’t be bothered to make good first impression.

Equally Viable Options

Similarly, leveling should reflect endgame by offering as many options for how to play as max level content, and those options should all be viable paths to the cap.

A paladin character in the Dungeons and Dragons MMORPG Neverwinter

Often, MMOs tune quests as the optimal leveling path, and other options are left by the wayside. Even as an avid quester myself, this doesn’t sit right with me. If someone has joined your MMO hoping to get into competitive PvP at endgame, they should be able to compete against their fellow players as a method of leveling, too, and not have to worry about missing out on XP or gear upgrades.

This has the advantage of offering variety, too. As I said, I enjoy questing, but sometimes I need a break. Sometimes it’s nice to earn a few levels through dungeons or PvP. As long as games don’t spread themselves too thin, variety can be a good thing.

Emotional Investment

This entry was originally going to be “a good story,” but that draws to mind some kind of linear, overarching story, and while that is a model I enjoy, I’m not sure it’s something you really need.

What you need is something for the player to get invested in beyond stats and levels. Whether that be an epic story, a good cast of characters, or a fascinating world, it just needs to be something people can care about.

If people are only playing for the mechanics, it’s easy for them to be distracted by other games, but if they become emotionally invested, they’ll keep coming back for more. They’ll find themselves doing “just one more quest” to see what happens next.

More Content Than Is Needed

Leveling isn’t just for new players. These days almost everyone plays alts, whether for fun or because their guild needs a new tank/healer/whatever. That means leveling isn’t something you experience just once, and therefore there needs to be some way to keep it fresh.

An Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

A very easy way to achieve this is to simply offer more content than is needed to get a single character to level cap. This could take the form of quests that are unique to specific classes or races, as seen in Star Wars: The Old Republic or the upcoming Bless Online, but it could also just mean extra zones or leveling paths.

A good level-scaling system can also help, allowing players to choose their path through content rather than having it be entirely dictated by their current level.

A Steady Leveling Curve

Long-time MMO players are familiar with the concept of “hell levels,” wherein higher levels require a brutal amount of time to earn.

True hell levels are largely a thing of the past these days, but the general concept of level-ups becoming far slower as one approaches endgame remains, and I have to wonder why. While it does have a basic sort of logic to it, upon closer examination I have a hard time seeing any good justification for it. It’s just discouraging.

One thing that I greatly admire Guild Wars 2 for is its nearly flat leveling curve, where higher levels do not take significantly more effort to earn than lower ones. The rate at which your character dings remains more or less consistent throughout the game, and it feels much more balanced and rewarding.

Challenge

Often when people talk about making leveling more challenging, they mean they want to bring back the days when it took a week or more of solid grinding to get a single level. But tedium is not true difficulty, and that’s not what I mean when I say that leveling could use more challenge.

Combat in the original version of The Secret World, a famously challenging MMO

Too often, enemies in MMORPG leveling content are little more than speed bumps. They don’t have intelligent AI, meaningful mechanics to counter, or even the raw stats to be a serious threat to any basically competent player. This can make leveling content feel like a chore, rather than the exciting adventure a good RPG should be.

Of course, there is also the risk of making leveling too challenging. It is, after all, a new player’s first introduction to the game, and things should be a bit forgiving at first while they learn the ropes. If leveling becomes too unforgiving, it risks driving people away.

But there must be a happy medium. Just because leveling can’t be too brutal doesn’t mean it should be all mindless, all the time, either. As players progress further into a game, they can and should be expected to handle greater challenges.


Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


Six Design Choices MMOs Should Retire

Often, tradition can be a good thing, but not always. Sometimes traditions can be onerous or destructive, surviving only through a resigned belief that this is how things have always been, so this is how things always will be.

Executing an enemy in Star Wars: The Old Republic

As it is in the real world, so it is in the world of MMORPGs. There are some ingrained or traditional elements of MMO design that have long outlived their usefulness, if indeed they ever had any to begin with. These concepts simply need to be retired, ideally sooner rather than later.

Lockboxes

This entry might surprise some people who are familiar with my work, as I have developed something of a reputation of being a lockbox apologist.

And to be clear: My position has not changed. I think the furor over lockboxes is quite overblown, that people take the issue far too seriously, and that the whole situation has become somewhat toxic.

That being said, I have also always been clear that I don’t particularly like lockboxes. I don’t think they’re immoral or the death of the genre, but I also don’t think they’re a good thing to have around, either. It’s obvious that making people gamble for what they want rather than buying or earning it directly is not a good deal for the player.

I reject the idea that lockboxes are any more than an annoyance, but they are still an annoyance. If they vanished from the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to listen to people endlessly complaining about them anymore.

Factions in PvE Games

I’ve never liked the idea of factions in MMORPGs. I’m not very competitive; I’m the sort of person who would rather cooperate with other players than fight against them.

However, I do grant that there are some games where they make sense. If your MMO is based

Horde and Alliance armor in World of Warcraft's upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion

on PvP, separating players into discrete factions is a good way to foster team spirit and create the potential for large scale conflict.

Outside of those niche cases, though?

Factions need to go.

MMOs are, obviously, a social medium, so creating artificial divides between players is one of the most counter-productive things you can do. You’re giving people smaller pools of potential group members, less opportunity to make new friends, and more limited options altogether.

Not to mention the potential for toxicity it brings forth. I’m forever amazed that anyone takes seriously the conflict between imaginary video game factions, but in reality the rivalries between factions can spill over into the real world in some very ugly ways. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a World of Warcraft player make the earnest argument that Horde/Alliance players are all children/crybabies/bullies/perverts/genetically inferior, I could fund my own MMO (it would basically be a hybrid of The Secret World and SWTOR, but high fantasy).

Now that the WoW clone craze is winding down and companies are no longer trying to ape Blizzard’s giant as much as possible, the idea of factional conflict in PvE MMOs is fading, but honestly, I don’t think things have gone far enough. I’d like to see those games that still have factions begin to phase them out, at least to some degree. Most games have the conceit that players are freelance adventurers, so they should have the option to work with whomever they choose.

Elder Scrolls Online has a good model to follow. Factions still exist, but are irrelevant outside of the Alliance War PvP system. Anyone can group with anyone, and no content is gated by faction.

And when it comes to new releases, let’s just not bother with factions at all, shall we?

A shot from the MMO shooter The Division

Mandatory Subscriptions

I’ve already ranted about MMO subscription fees in the past. They incentivize bad game design, they discourage variety, and they don’t really offer any of the benefits they claim to. I firmly believe that of all current monetization options for online games, a mandatory subscription fee is the worst deal from the player’s perspective (except maybe crowdfunding and early access, but that’s kind of a whole other issue).

The good news is that these days subscriptions are a dying breed. There’s really only two major games still clinging to them — World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV — and I’m fairly confident they’ll come around eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

I just hope it’s some day soon.

Loot Competition

The fight for treasure lies at the heart of most MMORPGs. But ideally that fight should be against bosses and monsters, or at most enemy players, not your own teammates.

Yet for many long years, this was the standard mode of operation for most MMOs. At the end of a fight, there was a finite pool of loot drops to share, and players had to decide how to distribute it between them. In a perfect world, a civil discourse would follow, and items would be given out in a fair and orderly fashion.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Thus, loot drama became a thing. Guilds came up with all sorts of convoluted systems to try to determine who most deserved what item, but in the end there was always plenty of potential for conflict and resentment. And that’s in organized groups. In PUGs, things could get truly ugly.

It needs to be said again: MMOs are a social medium. Any design that fosters anti-social behavior should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

A shot from the MMO shooter Defiance

Thankfully, personalized loot drops, with no competition and no drama, are becoming ever more common, and the days of living in fear of loot ninjas seem to be fading. Even so, there are still plenty of games clinging to the old ways, despite the obvious disadvantages.

Death Penalties

Coming from a background in single-player games, death penalties in MMOs are something that’s always baffled me. I don’t understand why they ever existed in the first place, let alone why they’re still around.

In the rest of gaming, if you die, you go back to your last save or checkpoint and start over. The fact you have to repeat whatever killed you (and anything else after your last save) is the punishment for failure, and really that’s all there needs to be.

MMOs have the same thing. By the time you get back to where you died, the boss you were fighting will have reset, or the mobs respawned. You have to start over. And again, that’s really all you need to make death feel meaningful.

But for some reason MMOs feel the need to tack additional punishment on top of that. In the old days we had all kinds of draconian things like corpse runs and XP loss. Nowadays most games have lighter penalties, like gear repairs, but the idea of punishment for death is still there.

And I still don’t know why. It’s being punitive for the sake of being punitive. It doesn’t add to gameplay in any way. It’s only frustrating. At best it can serve as a gold sink, but there has to be more inventive ways to achieve that goal.

Mobs… Mobs Everywhere

Wild monsters in Black Desert Online

One of my biggest pet peeves of MMO design is when developers feel the need to fill every corner of the game world with legions of hostile mobs, making it impossible to go anywhere or enjoy the sights without constantly being jumped by some randomly hostile wildlife.

Now, I do somewhat understand the reasoning for this. You want a game world to present a certain sense of danger, and nothing’s worse than running out of mobs while on a kill quest. But just jamming every corner of every zone full of baddies isn’t a great solution to either problem.

Mob competition is better solved by adjustable respawn times that replenish enemies more quickly when players are killing them in large numbers. Meanwhile, I think excessive numbers of mobs ultimately do more to harm the sense of peril in a game world than they do to help it.

See, if your game is designed such that you’re coming under attack at every turn, each individual enemy can’t really be that dangerous. Otherwise it would become an unplayable slog. This turns mobs into mere speedbumps, rather than something to genuinely be wary of.

What I would like to see is more intelligent mob placement. If there’s a large NPC camp that is involved in important quests, sure, fill it with legions of bad guys. But in the open wilderness, don’t add enemies unless there’s a good cause, and it’s probably better for them to be fewer and more powerful. This creates a certain sense of peril and adventure without making every journey an endless slog of trivial battles.

And developers really need to learn that it’s okay for some areas to be free of danger. Let a pretty glade just be a pretty glade.


Black Desert Online: When Pay for Convenience is Pay to Win

I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.

black desert online cash shop

BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”

The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.

Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.

This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.

black desert online pets

Pets – the most important investment in BDO

There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.

The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.

But hey, this is just convenience, right?


Why We Love Doing Dumb Things in MMOs

Kill ten rats, craft a linen hat and sharpen spearheads (0/20). Wow, cool stuff, let’s login to the game right away! …right?

If you look closely, a lot of things to do in MMOs are super dull. Nobody in their right mind will claim that sharpening spearheads or doing dailies are the most thrilling activities a game has to offer. Sometimes it feels like I’m working rather than gaming. Why then do we do these things, and heck, why might we even enjoy doing them?

The Demand for Dumb Things

Even though excitement sells games, I would argue that there is a certain demand for doing dumb things in MMOs. Being deeply involved with something exciting is fun, but taxing. This is something I can relate to from personal experience.

Doing challenging content is one of the reasons I’m drawn to the MMO genre. I raid two days a week, so I would not call myself a typical casual gamer.

However, most weekdays I don’t get to login until 9 o’clock in the evening. After a long day at work, I don’t have much energy left. My head hurts when I hear other peoples’ voices and I lack the brain power required to focus on what’s happening around my characters and what skills I need to use. On such evenings, I like to login to the Elder Scrolls Online and do the crafting dailies on all my characters. Dumb, menial solo tasks are the perfect thing to relax.

Crafting dailies in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

Others might not even enjoy challenging content when they are rested. Who am I to argue?

My point is: there is a market for dull MMO content. This doesn’t completely answer the question, though. Because why would I do dumb things in MMO games when I could be binge watching my favorite TV series? This brings us to a second incentive to do mundane tasks: the reward.

Positive, Immediate and Certain Rewards

The best dumb things to do have a predictable, reliable reward. In management and behavioral science this is referred to as positive, immediate, certain (PIC). Game developers that want to encourage behavior (in this case, have customers play the game), will have the most success when the behavior is met with positive (you get a nice thing), immediate (you get the thing as soon as you’ve done the task) and certain (every time you complete the task, you get the thing) consequences. Sounds familiar? Indeed, I basically just described the pillar stone mechanic of every MMO: the quest.

But this is not all: a positive relationship exists between behavior and the frequency of PIC consequences. Basically, the more regular the reward, the more likely we are to execute the desired behavior. This makes dailies such an effective tool for getting gamers to login and play. Considering PIC strategies are a big thing in management science as well, perhaps we should not be surprised that the lines between gaming and work begin to blur.

Achievements as a Way to Cope

In-game rewards are not the only driving force behind gaming as if it’s work: the reality is more complex. Let’s look at a gamer type that spends particularly much time doing things that resemble work: the achievement hunter.

The main goal of the achievement hunter is to complete everything there is to do. In-game rewards matter less. Sure, the achievements that offer exclusive rewards are a nice bonus, but what matters is to do them all.

MMOs generally come with a helpful list of all achievements that are tracked as the player progresses. The entire content of a game is basically summarized in one big to do list. And this is interesting, because to do lists are also a huge management tool in – you’ve guessed it – business environments. So why do achievement hunters like to do lists so much, even if it’s reminiscent of working?

The achievement tracker in Guild Wars 2 (GW2)

In an interview with the Guardian, psychologist Dr David Cohen mentions three reasons we love to work on lists:

  • They dampen anxiety about the chaos of life
  • They provide with a plan to stick to
  • They are proof of what we have achieved

The first stands out to me. Are to do lists a way of coping with the overwhelming amount of content that MMOs these days offer? Game system upon game system, mechanic upon mechanic are piled up as MMOs keep adding things to present their players with something new. New players have so many things to take in that a first reaction might be to panic and log off. I know I have felt that way on more than one occasion. Working towards completing achievements brings structure, offers boundaries and reduces stress. On top of this, lists are a proven way to increase productivity – both on the job and while gaming.

I would argue that the desire to hunt achievements may be fed by games, but the basic drive comes from within. In fact, our brains come up with such creative things to track that in-game achievement trackers never keep up. This is why you see players writing things down in notes that lie on their desks, or keep track of things in spreadsheets on their computer.

Playing for Fame

Thus far, I have focused on the “soothing effects” of doing achievements in games. Better known, and well-researched, motivations for achieving in games are competition and prestige.

According to Wikipedia, “One of the appeals of online gaming to the Achiever is that he or she has the opportunity to (…) hold elite status to others. (…) They may spend long periods of time engaging in a repetitive action in order to get one more reward.”

Let’s look at players that spend extreme amounts of time grinding boring things. With the risk of sounding derogatory, I will refer to this achiever sub type as the “no-lifer”. The no-lifer is someone who spends so much time gaming that it is inconceivable that the gaming experience itself is still exciting and fun. The goal is not to ridicule this type of player, but rather to understand what drives them.

A while back, I saw a video by the well-known YouTuber Trainer Tips that finally made me understand the draw of the “no-lifer” playstyle. “50 Raids in one day with the world’s #1 Pokémon Go player” offers a fascinating insight into the prestige earned through an extremely grindy playstyle. We see a day in the life of BrandonTan91, the Pokémon GO player with the highest amount of experience (XP) in the world. Brandon spends every day in his car, driving from pokémon raid to pokémon raid. He runs complicated calculations to determine the most optimal routes of earning XP. So far, this does not sound very appealing.

But here is the trick: Brandon does not play alone. He has accumulated an entire crew of Pokémon GO players that drive around with him, helping him beat the raids. In interviews, these followers consider it an honor to play with him. It is clear that Brandon is a hero and inspiration to them. Before they met him, they didn’t even spend half as much time playing the game. When asked, all these players recite their accumulated XP count by heart: clearly, this is a social status indicator in their game community.

It is easy to ridicule BrandonTan91’s playstyle as “no-lifer”, but it’s just as easy to see the appeal of spending your days playing your favorite game, together with other players that are just as enthusiastic about that game and treat you with the greatest respect. Even though I may never personally enjoy grinding in Pokémon GO, it is clear to me that these players are genuinely having fun.

For those of you that think Brandon lives in his mother’s basement: if we may believe the YouTube comments, he has found a way to monetize his hobby. For a fee, he catches pokémon for other players. We’ve come full circle: from gaming as if it’s work to gaming that has become work.

Conclusions

We’ve seen that playing as if it’s work is stimulated from within the game: by offering daily or weekly tasks with positive, immediate, certain (PIC) rewards, and by having achievements to fulfill. Moreover, though, it comes from a natural desire within. Keeping track of accomplishments reduces stress and provides with a plan, goal, structure and boundaries. In-game achievement trackers offer a reminder and proof of what is achieved. Finally, prestige is an important drive to live a “no-lifer” lifestyle. The more time is spent gaming, the higher the potential for increased social status within specific gamer communities.

Does working make a game come to life?

Right when I thought I had it all figured out, another thought crossed my mind. What if menial tasks are what makes me feel engaged in the gaming world? When I start losing interest in an MMO, boring, repetitive actions are usually the first victim. I will only login to play dungeons or raid with my friends and stop caring about gear and crafting altogether. When someone asks me whether I still play a game, I almost feel guilty when I reply with “yes”. Even though I technically login and thus play, my heart is not in it. The dumb things I do in MMOs make me feel part of the living, breathing online world – without them, I feel like a pretender.


Six Features no MMO Should Launch Without

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun with the new outfit system in Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a good system with a lot of options, and it’s helped me enjoy the game a lot more.

My sorcerer showing off her new outfit in Elder Scrolls Online

But there’s a part of me that’s still a bit resentful it took them this long to add an outfit system in the first place. In this day and age, that’s something I expect everyone of today’s top MMO games to have as a launch feature.

That got me to thinking what else should be considered mandatory for any MMO launching in 2018. Not every MMO can offer everything, especially at first, but there are some minimal thresholds that need to be reached. These are corners that developers may be tempted to cut, but definitely shouldn’t.

An Outfit System

Since it was the inspiration for this post, it makes sense to start with outfit systems. The ability to customize the appearance of your character’s gear is one of those things that seems frivolous until you’ve had it, but once you’re used to it, it’s incredibly hard to accept life without it.

Obviously, role-players benefit the most from this ability. Indeed, the ability to freely customize your character’s outfit is all but mandatory for role-play.

But even if you’re not actively role-playing, you can still find plenty to like about outfit systems. It just isn’t that exciting to be waddling around in some ridiculous clown-suit cobbled together from whatever gear happened to drop. Much better to be able to put your personality and creativity on display with a custom outfit you designed yourself.

Personally, I also love checking out other people’s outfits. Sometimes I’ll just sit around a social hub and study what other people are wearing. It’s amazing how creative and stylish some can be.

Outfit systems add color and culture to MMOs, and it just doesn’t feel the same without them.

Robust Matchmaking

A group doing the Scarlet Monastary dungeon in World of Warcraft

Not everyone is a social butterfly, and not everyone can commit to a set play schedule. But that doesn’t mean those people should have to miss out on group content.

To this end, any modern MMORPG must have robust matchmaking features to make finding groups easier for anyone at any time. A LFG chat channel or sign-up board isn’t good enough. You need a proper matchmaking system wherein the game creates groups automatically.

These systems have many advantages. You can continue to quest or farm while queued, instead of standing around a city spamming general chat. You don’t have to worry about elitist players serving as the gatekeeper to all content. It opens up group content for all.

Despite these obvious strengths, though, matchmaking tools are still viewed as an optional frill at best by far too much of the MMO community. The Secret World took years to add one, and by then the game was already in decline. Destiny 2 still doesn’t offer proper matchmaking for raids. ESO launched with a dungeon finder, but it was in such a poor state as to be virtually nonfunctional for a very long time.

Voice Acting

Voice acting is expensive and time-consuming. I understand that. But it also makes games vastly more immersive and adds crucial emotional weight to stories. There’s a reason silent films went out of fashion.

I don’t necessarily expect every line in every MMO to be fully voiced, but at the very least major story moments should be. In a world where games like Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Secret World Legends exist, any game without robust voice-overs will stick out like a sore thumb.

Equally Viable Progression Paths

The plent Nexus in WildStar

I’m not a fan of MMOs trying to be all things to all people, but it is nonetheless common for MMOs to offer several different forms of content, and that’s fine if it doesn’t go too far. If that’s to be the case, though, the developers must work to ensure all playstyles have a viable and rewarding progression path ahead of them.

If your game has questing, raiding, and PvP, those should all be viable paths for players at endgame. Questers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves locked out of progression if they don’t raid, and raiders shouldn’t have to PvP for the best gear.

It can be okay to reward some groups a little more than others — it’s not unreasonable for hardcore raiders to have better gear than people who only solo for twenty minutes a day — but it should never reach a point where fans of one playstyle find themselves hitting a brick wall, with no further way to progress short of playing content they don’t enjoy.

My personal preference is for currency based systems, where harder content rewards more of the currency needed to upgrade your character. This rewards the top tier of players without completely shutting down casuals. Everyone wins.

It’s so simple, and yet even the titans of the genre often struggle to give everyone a fair shake. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has had at best a spotty record of giving all playstyles equal opportunity to advance.

This isn’t even a matter of limited resources or tricky design problems. It’s just bad decision-making.

Text Chat

A cutscene in Destiny 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a while are likely to have a hard time even imagining an MMO without chat. I know I do.

But with the growing popularity of MMORPGs on consoles, this is something that is actually coming to pass. I’m sorry to pick on ESO once again, but its console version lacked text chat for some time before it was finally patched in. Destiny 2, meanwhile, still has not chat at all on console, and no public chat channel on PC… though given what I’ve seen of public chat in MMOs, I can at least sympathize with their reasoning there.

MMOs are a social medium, so the ability to communicate with other players is part of the bedrock of the genre. Yes, there’s voice chat, but not everyone has the hardware for it, nor is everyone comfortable using voice chat with strangers. Text chat is an option no game should be without.

A Free Trial

In my view, the best business model for an MMORPG is buy to play with an optional subscription and/or micro-transactions, but it does have one flaw that I find frustrating: Free trials seem to be going the way of the dodo.

Buying a new big budget MMO is a fairly big investment if you’re not sure whether you’re going to enjoy it. I’m rarely willing to take a chance on a game if I haven’t had a chance to try it first. I don’t expect everything for free, but a chance to try a small sampling of the game before I buy doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Instead, developers seem to be expecting fence-sitters to wait for Steam sales, or at best the occasional free weekend, but those just aren’t as convenient as an on-demand free trial. I’m willing to pay top dollar for a new game, but not sight unseen, and developers are losing money from me by not offering better trials.

To be fair, this isn’t just an MMO issue. I’m also very frustrated by the how often single-player games no longer offer free demos.

A Plan for Toxicity

A Play of the Game screen from Overwatch

Of all the things on this list, a plan to deal with player toxicity is one that I can’t think of any MMO having at launch — or at least not a very clear one. And I find that baffling.

It’s far too late in the game for developers to pretend to be surprised when their players behave badly. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in online gaming is familiar with how prevalent toxic behavior is.

And it’s something that can seriously damage a game. It eats away at communities. It drives away veterans, and it makes new players hesitant to invest.

Yet the preferred strategy among MMO developers still seems to be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and make only a token effort toward moderation. When Overwatch launched on console, it didn’t have a reporting feature, which is so incomprehensibly naive I can’t even begin to know what to say about it.

I’ve said before that I’m not a behavioral expert, and I don’t know what the magic bullet to solve toxicity is, but I desperately want to see developers start to take it more seriously. I want to hear them trumpet their plans for a safe community as loudly as they do their innovative game design and top of the line graphics.

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What say you, dear reader? What are the features you don’t want to see any MMO go live without in this day and age? What’s on your list of essentials?