Category Archives: MMO Game Design

Five MMOs That Have Changed the Most Since Launch

These days, classic and progression MMORPG servers are all the rage. That there’s a demand for these things is a testament to how much an MMO can evolve over time. After enough years, it can almost feel like playing an entirely different game.

A screenshot from Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

But which games have changed the most since their initial launch? Let’s take a look at some of the candidates.

Ultima Online

As one of the oldest still-running MMORPGs, Ultima Online has had literal decades to grow and evolve. That’s far too much change to adequately cover here, but one particularly notable event worth mentioning came early in its history: the release of Trammel in the year 2000.

Trammel is the second continent added to the game. It is a perfect mirror of the original, Felucca, but with one crucial difference: Trammel does not allow non-consensual PvP.

This added an entirely new way to experience the game, free from the predations of other players, and it proved wildly popular. All subsequent landmasses added to Ultima Online have followed Trammel’s lead by not allowing open PvP.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

At launch, Star Wars: The Old Republic was pretty much just another WoW clone with a Star Wars skin slapped over top. It took until the game’s third major expansion to change that.

Knights of the Fallen Empire introduced major system changes to make SWTOR less of a standard MMO quest grinder and much more like the single-player RPGs Bioware is known and loved for. The leveling game was adjusted to put the focus on class and planetary stories, allowing players to easily ignore the forgettable side missions that had once bogged the game down.

A screenshot from Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR as it exists today is a lot closer to the story-driven MMORPG it was originally advertised as.

Aion

Aion’s a long-running game with a lot of big changes under its belt, from a free to play transition to multiple expansions.

But its biggest shift in identity came more recently with the massive Awakened Legacy patch. Awakened Legacy radically changed many game systems, hugely streamlined leveling, and controversially removed many whole zones and dungeons. It was a jarring change that angered many, with some comparing it to the infamous “New Game Enhancements” introduced by Star Wars Galaxies back in the day.

For better or for worse, Aion is now a very different game from what it launched as.

World of Warcraft

This list contains a lot of examples of major reboots that rewrote a game overnight. In World of Warcraft’s case, it’s more a matter of incremental changes piling up over time. Over fifteen years and seven expansions, WoW has grown and evolved so much that very little of the original game remains, at least in an untouched form.

Of course, one can identify points in time where things changed more radically than others. Cataclysm rebuilt the original two continents, leaving virtually no zone untouched. Mists of Pandaria introduced a new talent system, while Legion brought with it sweeping class design changes.

A screenshot from the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft

What’s funny is that every once in a while you’ll hear speculation about a possible “World of Warcraft 2,” but really, we’re already playing WoW 2. The game has reinvented itself so much it’s more like a sequel to the original MMO, rather than a continuation.

Final Fantasy XIV

Of course, when it comes to reinventing yourself after launch, no game can quite equal Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. It’s right there in the title, after all.

As it launched, FFXIV was pretty much broken. It was such a mess the developers at Square Enix stopped even charging a subscription fee for a time, too embarrassed to ask for players’ money.

For most companies, this would be the end, but Square Enix had the resources to try again. Final Fantasy was ultimately relaunched as an almost entirely new game, rebuilt from the ground up. This makes it not only one of the biggest examples of an altered game in the MMO world, but also one of the most positive and successful. Whereas in other games change can be controversial or even despised, here almost everyone agrees it was for the best.


Old School Grind Was the Real Participation Trophy

When people talk about modern conveniences in MMOs — like more accessible gear and better quality of life features — inevitably you’ll have some people chime in that it was so much better in the good old days when people had to “work hard” to achieve things in games. The phrase “participation trophy” comes up a lot to describe modern perks.

A cutscene from Riders of Icarus

That phrase and the surrounding mentality are what I want to focus on today. I think people have it entirely backwards. I think the old school grind was the real participation trophy.

The perception seems to be rooted in the idea that games were harder back in the day, but most of the things people point to when they make that point weren’t actually difficult. They were just inconvenient.

Long travel times, low drop rates, unclear quest directions, glacial leveling speed… these are all things that made games more time-consuming, but they generally didn’t require any real skill to overcome. Anyone can succeed in an environment where grind and tedium are the main obstacles. It just takes time and patience.

But if you spend hundreds of hours working toward an in-game goal, it’s easy to feel like you’ve accomplished something significant. And that, really, is what the whole concept of a “participation trophy” is about: Making you feel like you’ve accomplished something when really all you did was show up.

By comparison, the relative generosity of more modern games, where loot is plentiful and quality of life is better, might also provide one with a false sense of accomplishment, but that’s more of a side effect. The goal there is to get people engaged with the game and let everyone enjoy the content.

Making gear and content more accessible was never about messaging the egos of casual players. It was about making sure people actually got to experience the whole of a game. Before the Raid Finder was added to World of Warcraft, raids were seen by such a small portion of the game’s population that it was becoming difficult to justify spending development resources on them.

Nor do I think it’s entirely accurate to say games have gotten easier, though they can be too easy at times. Highly challenging content can still be found in virtually all MMORPGs, but that challenge is much more skill-based than grind-based. It’s now much more about your skills than how much spare time you have to devote to the game.

A space combat mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic, a game with many modern conveniences

And I want to be clear that I’m not writing this to trash fans of old school design. If you enjoy the old ways, that’s totally fine. There’s no wrong to play video games, as long as you’re not making trouble for anyone else. I’m not saying that liking long grinds and inconvenient systems is a moral failing, or that it means you’re bad at games.

But I am saying let’s call a spade a spade. Being a grind fan doesn’t make you bad at games, but it doesn’t make you good at them, either. Spending a hundred hours camping for a rare item doesn’t make you a skilled player or a hard worker. It just makes you someone with lots of free time. Any feeling to the contrary is an illusion, and it’s an illusion the developers probably crafted intentionally to keep people coming back for more.


Exploring MMO Group Roles Beyond the Trinity

The “holy trinity” of tank, healer, and DPS always has been and likely always will be one of the hot button topics of the MMO world. Often, when talking about ways to “fix” the trinity, we discuss removing tanks or healers (or both), but things can also go in the opposite direction. It’s also possible to add more roles beyond the traditional three, and some games have.

A shaman in World of Warcraft, a class once known for its buffing skills

Let’s take a look at some other roles MMORPGs could add.

Buffer/debuffer

These could easily be separated into two roles, but they’re similar enough in function that I’ll lump them together. A buffer is a character focused on improving the capabilities of their allies by giving them temporary boosts to their stats, while a debuffer does the opposite: weakening enemies by lowering their stats.

Buffers and debuffers were more common in the early days of MMORPGs, but they’ve fallen out of vogue. I understand why; just standing around and throwing out buffs and debuffs isn’t the most exciting gameplay around.

But I think these roles could be designed in such a way that they are compelling. I’m a fan of making buffs and debuffs much stronger, but much shorter in duration. World of Warcraft’s Bloodlust spell and its variants are a great example of a buff that feels exciting to use. For around half a minute, you vastly increase the haste of your entire raid, leading to a massive spike in damage. It’s one of the most exciting abilities to use in the entire game.

Debuffs, meanwhile, could come in the form of secondary affects to attacks. Rather than just slapping a debuff icon on the enemy, you could give them flashy animations and sound effects. It would feel more impactful.

Controller

A controller has some common ground with a debuffer, but they’re more specialized. Their purpose is to lock down enemies with stuns, slows, or other crowd control abilities.

The trouble with controllers is that they’re difficult to balance. If their control abilities are too strong, enemies don’t get to fight back at all, and that’s just boring. As with debuffers, I think a good solution here is to keep their abilities short-lived but impactful.

A paladin character in the fantasy MMORPG Neverwinter

You could also make controllers more reactive — interrupting powerful enemy attacks rather than locking them down entirely.

Puller

The role of a puller is to, well, pull. They aggro monsters and pull them back to their group. Done right, it allows people to face enemies in controlled numbers, on their terms, without risking being swarmed by unexpected adds.

There are different factors that determine what makes a good puller. Movement speed to stay ahead of mobs is helpful, as is a way to drop aggro when they bring the mobs back to their team. Being able to survive a hit or two is also pretty important.

Pullers were common in older games like EverQuest. These days, they’re much less common. To be honest, I have a hard time picturing a role for pullers in the more fast-paced games of today, but there may be the occasional throwback title where pullers can once again shine.

Crafter

Of course, most MMOs have crafting, but very few offer classes entirely devoted to crafting (the late Star Wars Galaxies is the only one that comes to mind for me off the top of my head). It’s usually a side feature rather than a core playstyle, but it doesn’t need to be.

There’s a couple of ways you could make dedicated crafting classes. One is to have them as pure non-combat classes, but to me that doesn’t seem so interesting. I would be more intrigued if someone managed to make crafter an actual combat role. Perhaps they could provide consumables or equipment to their allies mid-battle.

But my favorite idea is to create a game where it’s possible to build fortifications, traps, or turrets on the fly, sort of like Fortnite but in an MMORPG context. That would make for a truly unique playstyle that I think I’d enjoy.


Build MMOs for More Alts, Not Less

I like playing alternate characters. In fact I play alts so much the concept of a “main” in my case is nebulous at best. Bouncing around between different characters with different playstyles and aesthetics keeps MMOs fresh for me.

My Jedi knight alt in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Yet always I’m left with the feeling that playing alts is a case of swimming against the current. It’s something nearly every game allows, but which very few actually encourage. It’s never been viewed as a valid playstyle worthy of its own content and systems in the way PvP or raiding might be.

And I ask: Why?

Why Alts Matter

In most games, playing an alt means repeating the same content, doing all the same grinds, and getting nothing to show for it. At best some games are now offering a certain degree of account-wide progression — such as how mounts in World of Warcraft and Elder Scrolls Online are shared across all your characters — but for the most part playing alts still means starting over from scratch, and there’s almost no reward for it.

Why must this be so? If you’re putting in two or three times more effort, why not get at least some reward for it?

I’d even argue that there is a certain degree of skill required to maintain a stable of alts. You need to not only learn all those disparate mechanics but remember them as you continue to swap between them. I have found this is a skill that can be improved with practice — I’ve played so many classes across so many games that I can now pick up new playstyles and rotations almost immediately.

Now, I’m not saying that alts requires more skill or is otherwise superior to other playstyles. But I think you can convincingly argue that it doesn’t deserve to be the red-headed stepchild developers seem to treat it as.

So how can we properly support alt players?

Alts as Endgame

The first thing alts need is some variety in the leveling path. These days far too many MMOs make every character take the exact same path to level cap. Alts are much more appealing when there are multiple leveling paths. Some games offer differing content based on race, class, or faction, but I’d like to see more games vary the leveling experience based on choices made after character creation.

My templar alt in Elder Scrolls Online

Global level-scaling is also a good way to add variety to leveling, as it gives players more flexibility on where to go and what to do.

Next, at least some degree of account-wide progression is a must. Sharing cosmetics across characters is a good start, but more can be done. For instance, gear could become account-bound rather than character bound, allowing your alts to inherit hand-me-downs from their forebears.

But all that only makes alts less of a chore. What the genre really lacks is games where alts are not only tolerated, but encouraged. Alts have the potential to be an endgame unto themselves.

The best example of this I can think of is how the original Guild Wars allowed players to use their alts as NPC hirelings, though that was largely a cosmetic feature. Star Wars: The Old Republic also has some perks for altoholics. In that game, reputation is usually gated by daily quests, but gains are shared across all your characters on a server, so the more alts you have, the more quests you can run and the faster you can earn rep.

Those are all good ideas, but I think more can be done. Imagine, for example, a game wherein classes are highly specialized, but you can swap characters on the fly. The more characters you have, the more versatile you are, and the more you can accomplish. You might change characters multiple times in a single dungeon to best counter the challenges within.

That’s just one idea. Undoubtedly professional game designers could come up with others.

I’m not saying that every game needs to encourage alts. Not everyone wants to play alts, and variety is a good thing to have. But right now alt play is an under-served niche. The genre would be enriched by at least one or two MMOs where playing alts is not only welcome, but the best way to play.

How would you make alts more rewarding?


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.