Category Archives: MMO Game Design

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.


Rethinking MMO Mobs

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

Fighting open world mobs in Black Desert Online

I’m talking about open world mobs.

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

Rethinking Open World Mobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Exploration Is the Ultimate MMO Design Challenge

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

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

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

The Search for New Frontiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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