Category Archives: MMO Game Design

5 Most Influential MMO Innovations

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

An Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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

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

Instancing

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

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

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

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

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

A shot from the import MMO Soulworker

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

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

Phasing

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

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

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

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

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

A quest using phasing technology in World of Warcraft

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

Cross-server Tech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Tapping and Personal Loot

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

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

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

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

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

Level Scaling

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

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

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

A rally of City of Heroes players

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

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

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


The Case for Player-Created Content

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

A player build in the late, lamented Landmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exploit Problem

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

A Foundry quest in Neverwinter demonstrates the potential of high fantasy

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

But to be honest, is this really a problem?

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

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

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

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

The Quality Problem

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

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

The interior of a player ship in Star Trek: Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of my personal builds in the shuttered building MMO Landmark

The “Sea of Dongs” Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mysterious Foundry quest in the action MMORPG Neverwinter

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

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


Path of Exile – Incursion League Sneak Peak

“It is a cruel joke that man was born with more intent than life.”
-Malachai

The Preview

Nearly 5 years after its initial release, Path of Exile is still constantly improving. With massive skill revamps, a slew of new uniques that scream “build around me!” and the new league mechanic; Temporal Incursions, Incursion League promises to keep things fresh for veterans, while mercilessly crushing those unfamiliar with the harsh rules of Wraeclast.

This time around we’ll explore the lore behind the long lost Vaal Empire. Temporal Incursions are a random event that spawn similar to other leagues.

poe incursion altar

Travel into the past, help explorer Alva Valai locate the lost temple of Atzoatl

Alva Valai is an explorer searching for the long lost temple of Atzoatl. Each time you encounter her in the world she will open a portal into the past at some point during the temple’s construction. Manipulate the history of the temple by killing your choice of Vaal architects and by unlocking rooms to change the temple’s properties in the present day. Manipulate the construction significantly enough one way or the other and you just might find a valuable ancient artifact!

poe incursion keys

During your Incursions, you may find keys that can be used to unlock doors in the past, allowing access to additional rooms in the future.

Skill gems are also receiving a major overhaul this league. Many old skill gems got pushed to the wayside at newer and flashier gems were released. A lot of effort has gone into revamping these old skills, significantly improving the artwork and buffing/altering their abilities to be more viable. Many classic skills have been updated to have a definitive identity and given some much needed love.

Trickers rejoice! Trappers will be happy to hear that not only have most of the older trap skills also been revamped, but 5 new trap specific skill gems have been added to the game.

poe incursion rain of arrows

Skills such as Rain of Arrows have been tweaked for viability and to fill niche builds.

Finally, what would a league centered around the Vaal Empire be without an update to Vaal skill gems? Vaal skills are receiving a major buff, increasing their viability in virtually all builds. From now on, Vaal skills allow access to both the Vaal and base versions of the skill.

“I fought for God. Who do you fight for, exile?”

What Do I Think?

There some fun ideas for this new season of Path of Exile. Grinding Gear continues to enhance each subsequent league in a manner that’s in line with their audience’s desires. On average, each league delivers more fun than the last.

The problem for long term players is that the leagues don’t provide sustainable improvements to the game’s core mechanics. It’s fun to go back through the leveling process and try out new builds, but it’s fun only so many times before repetition sets in. Perhaps GGG is open to suggestions for how to make leveling more appealing? But even if the developers improved leveling, it’s the super end game that needs the most attention. Diablo style games exist to continually improve our characters via the RNG loot run, and the game capped out on that experience for quite some time ago. There’s simply nothing new at the end of the yellow brick road to entice such a lengthy journey as my first few leagues.

As someone who has leveled through multiple seasons of play, I now find myself rather ambivalent about the upcoming league. The magic of discovery has eroded over the course of (an admittedly very enjoyable) hundreds of hours of play. Now that it’s near faded, I hope it’s not too late to rekindle. I simply don’t think GGG can rest on their laurels and apply shiny new coats of paint to keep things running. Path of Exile needs a renovation and hopefully Incursion will act as a nice stopgap to get us to that next major expansion. I can’t really look at it as anything more than that.

Path of Exile: Incursion will be released on June 1, 2018 for PC, and within a week of that date for Xbox One.


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.