Category Archives: MMO Game Design

Six MMOs with the Best Story-telling

Story in MMORPGs doesn’t have a great reputation. A lot of people think there are no MMOs with good story, and many others feel story is pointless in an online game, preferring the organic stories they make by playing with their friends.

But I refute both positions. I think scripted story is a crucial part of the MMO experience. If I’m going to spend hundreds of hours in an imaginary world, it had better be a world that interests me, with characters I care about.

Luckily for me, the field of MMO story isn’t as barren as some would have you think. Indeed, I think the persistent nature of an MMO presents unique story-telling opportunities. There are games out there that make plot a priority, and tell memorable and engaging stories through their evolving game worlds.

Elder Scrolls Online

Quest text from Elder Scrolls Online

ESO’s story-telling can be hit and miss. Some of the stories are memorable — I particularly enjoyed the intrigue of the Thieves Guild DLC — but many are more shallow.

However, I do give ESO credit for making story a priority. The game is overflowing with highly polished quest content, and the lion’s share of its DLC is devoted to new story content. Too many MMOs make story take a back seat to gear treadmills or competitive play.

For ESO, story is a core part of the game’s identity, and that earns my respect even when the quality is inconsistent.

Star Trek Online

A story cutscene from Star Trek Online

There are those who say that Star Trek Online — and not Discovery or the recent movies — is the true successor to Star Trek’s decades-long legacy of story-telling.

As someone who enjoys Star Trek but is kind of a snob about it, I’m not sure I would go that far, but I can say that STO makes a very admirable attempt to continue the legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s legendary sci-fi universe.

The quality of writing may not be quite on par with the best of the TV shows or movies, but it is clear that STO’s devs are true fans of the franchise and that providing a good, solid story rooted in Star Trek’s rich lore and history is a top priority for them. That’s worthy of praise.

STO is also one of the few MMOs that puts story first when it comes to designing content. The missions are not just standard kill and collect quests with the story in the background; the plot is a driving force for gameplay, and that adds a richness and depth to the experience that most MMOs lack.

Defiance 2050

A story cutscene from the MMO shooter Defiance

There’s more than one type of good story. Not everything needs to be deeply thought-provoking or emotionally profound. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a fun romp.

That’s exactly what the story in Defiance — and its reboot, Defiance 2050 — is. It might be a bit campy at times, but it’s never boring. There’s plenty of action, humor, and excitement to keep you entertained. It’s a good pulp adventure.

The characters are very colorful, too, and unlike most MMOs, you stick with more or less the same cast of NPCs throughout the game, rather than cycling through an endless procession of throwaway nobodies, which gives you time to get attached to them.

World of Warcraft

The introductory experience for the Nightborne Allied Race in World of Warcraft

WoW’s story-telling has always been a tad… inconsistent, as evidenced by the rather mixed reaction to Battle for Azeroth’s story developments. Blizzard has only a loose relationship to continuity, and their devotion to the rule of cool has its dark side.

But when they get it right, oh, man, do they get it right.

The epic struggle of Wrath of the Lich King and the emotional journey of Mists of Pandaria are genuinely some of the best video game stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

It also cannot be denied that the Warcraft universe is by now one of the deepest and richest settings of the MMO genre, or indeed all of pop culture. Entire volumes could be filled with Azeroth’s fictional history.

What makes World of Warcraft’s story special, though, is the sheer passion that goes into it. You can question Blizzard’s decision making at times, but you can never deny the love they have for their world and its stories. Every aspect of the Warcraft setting exudes color, personality, and intensity.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A companion mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic

More so than any other title, Star Wars: The Old Republic made story a selling feature, dubbing it the “fourth pillar” of game design. In the end, it may not have been the revelation for MMO story-telling Bioware had hoped for, but it does still rise above the pack, launching with eight unique stories for its various classes and adding some other impressive story arcs with its many expansions.

There are two things that set SWTOR above most other MMOs when it comes to story.

One is the element of player choice. Rather than being a passive actor in the story, players are given freedom to control how their character speaks and reacts, creating a much deeper role-playing experience. Yes, the consequences for choices tend to be minimal, but it’s still far more than most any other MMO offers.

The other is the depth of character provided by companions, a consistent strength throughout Bioware’s games. One of the main things holding back MMO story-telling is the shallow and disposable nature of most NPCs, but by keeping companions around for the long haul, SWTOR is able to foster genuine emotional bonds with the characters.

Secret World Legends

A cutscene from story-driven MMORPG The Secret World

I have tended to be pretty critical of Secret World Legends due to how the transition from the original Secret World game was handled, but one thing that hasn’t much changed is the story. It was amazing before the reboot, and it’s amazing now.

Secret World Legends’ story isn’t just good for an MMO. It boasts some of the best story-telling in any game, period.

The characters are brilliantly strange and unusual, ranging from a mummified occult gangster to a pansexual rockabilly eco-activist to a blind werewolf elder. Each quest is a memorable story filled with pathos, suspense, and sometimes shocking twists. The world-building is second to none, seamlessly hybridizing numerous real world mythologies and conspiracy theories with the game’s own fiction.

Diverse mission design incorporating stealth and puzzles also helps sell both the mystery and the dread of the setting. It’s not just a matter of reading quest text or listening to NPCs talk; the ambiance and character oozes from every aspect of the game.


Factions Have Outstayed Their Welcome

The hype around Battle for Azeroth has once again brought the seemingly endless conflict between World of Warcraft’s Alliance and Horde into the spotlight. Despite being a long-time WoW player, though, I find myself giving serious thought to passing on this expansion altogether for the simple reason that I have long felt the factional conflict is, in a word, stupid.

A Lightforged Draenei character in World of Warcraft

And that’s not just true of WoW. Factions in MMOs — or at least in PvE focused MMOs — have always been one of my pet peeves. They harm games far more than they’ve ever helped them.

Factions Add Little

First of all, it needs to be said that factions really don’t add much to the experience of playing MMOs. They’re unnecessary, at best.

The chief argument that seems to be put forth in favor of dividing players into factions is that it instills a sense of pride and faction identity, but I’ve never heard anyone clearly articulate why that’s actually a good thing. Mostly it just seems to feed toxicity between players (more on that in a minute).

The next biggest argument for factions is that they provide a basis for PvP, but in reality they’re completely unnecessary for PvP. It’s entirely possible to still have player competition without them. Guild Wars 2 offers multiple PvP modes, including massive world versus world, without any discrete factions at all. And that’s just one example that I could give.

If anything, factions harm PvP more than they help it. It’s very difficult for developers to balance the population numbers between factions, especially given people’s predilection to gravitate to whichever faction has more “pretty” races. Just look at Aion’s eternal struggles to balance the Elyos and Asmodae factions.

The only benefit from factions that I personally have ever seen is that they offer variety when it comes to storylines and leveling content. Leveling up as an Imperial character in Star Wars: The Old Republic tends to be a very different experience from doing those same levels as a republic character.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2, a game blessedly free of player factions

But even then, factions aren’t really necessary for that. Guild Wars 2 offers a healthy selection of distinct starter zones and personal stories based on its various races without any need to divide players between arbitrary factions.

They Go Nowhere

Another thing that grinds my gears about factions is that the conflict between them can never truly go anywhere. It’s a story with no drama. To keep the game balanced, neither side can ever win a major victory or suffer a major loss. Doing so means favoring one group of paying customers while disadvantaging another, and that’s such bad business it borders on economic suicide. No developer is ever going to do that, nor should they.

When Blizzard revealed that Battle for Azeroth would be an expansion focused on the Alliance-Horde war, they immediately revealed that it would be a filler expansion and killed my hype right out of the gate. We already know this story can’t go anywhere. Neither side is ever going to win or lose this war.

We see this already with the pre-patch. The Alliance losing Teldrassil or the Horde losing Undercity each individually could have been a powerful moment for this story, but this perfectly balanced eye for an eye scenario pulls the curtain back from how stale and artificial this conflict truly is.

This isn’t a unique problem to WoW, either. The fundamental nature of MMO design prevents faction conflicts from ever having a proper resolution. Even in games where players are able to fight other factions for territory directly, true victory or defeat is impossible. It doesn’t matter how often the Daggerfall Covenant loses in Cyrodiil; they’ll always keep coming back.

And They Drive Us Apart

For all the reasons listed above, I consider factions in most MMOs to be superfluous. But that’s not why I’m really against them. The worst thing about factions is that they divide the community.

Even Star Wars: The Old Republic frequently unites the Dark and Light sides

Firstly, they divide us in a simple, literal sense. If I’m playing Alliance and my friend plays Horde, one of us has to transfer, or we can’t play together. If your game has two factions, you’ve effectively cut your playerbase in half. In a genre where more people to meet and group with is almost always better, that’s a powerfully asinine move.

You can mitigate this by allowing people to group across factions — as Elder Scrolls Online wisely has — but at that point one has to wonder why bother having factions in the first place.

Worse, it breeds toxicity in a genre that already has far too much of it. Developers seem to think factional rivalries lead to fun, neighborly competition, but the reality ends up looking more like a blood feud between competing mob families.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone make the earnest claim that Horde players are bullies or that Alliance players are crybabies (both stereotypes that have more truth to them than I care to admit), I could pay for my subscription for years to come.

It’s not just the occasional snide comment on forums, either. The bile between player factions can sometimes escalate to serious, ongoing harassment. Developers have been known to receive death threats when one faction or another is viewed to be unfairly favored.

MMOs should be about bringing people together, but all factions do is drive people apart.

* * *

There are some games for which factions make sense. PvP focused games like the upcoming Camelot Unchained simply wouldn’t work without player factions, and I have no problem with that.

But it’s time to acknowledge factions as what they are: A niche feature that doesn’t fit in most games. For a PvE themepark, factions offer little, and take away much.


When Is an MMO Really Dead?

One of my favourite scientific mysteries is the debate over what constitutes death. You might think that’s a simple question to answer, but it’s not. People can be revived after their hearts stop, if too much time hasn’t passed. Even after the brain dies, some biological processes continue for some time, making death much less a hard line and more of a continuum.

The moon rising over Stormwind in World of Warcraft

In the same way, it’s a lot harder than you’d think to define at what point an MMORPG can be considered a “dead” game. There is never any shortage of people willing to claim that any and every game is dead or dying, after all. If you want a creative way to commit suicide, try taking a drink every time someone on a forum claims WoW is dying, and enjoy your liver failure.

But for every person declaring a game dead, there’s usually at least one or two still playing it, so can it really be dead?

Let’s see if we can determine when, in fact, an MMO actually dies.

Decline

A lot of times when someone says a game is dead or dying, really what they mean is that it’s in decline. Player numbers are down, and patches are becoming smaller or less frequent.

That this is considered to qualify as “dead” really proves nothing but how hyperbolic some members of the community can be, even before we consider the fact that in many “dying” games the extent of the decline tends to be greatly exaggerated. No one likes a content gap, but it doesn’t a dying game make.

Even in cases where the decline is real, I think we can safely declare that it doesn’t mean a game is dead. No product stays at the peak of its success forever, and a certain degree of decline is not cause for panic.

Maintenance Mode

At the end of its life-cycle, an MMO reaches the stage known as maintenance mode. No further development is planned; if patches come at all, they’ll only be minor bug fixes or other maintenance tasks.

This is where things get a bit more debatable. A large part of what makes MMOs special is that they are living, evolving games that grow with time. When you cut that off, it ceases to function as an MMO in a very fundamental way.

Baron Samedi, loa of death, in The Secret World, a game that is itself dead by some standards

It also does the playerbase no favors. Maintenance mode ensures that few if any new players will join, and even loyal veterans are likely to start drifting away.

Still, games can continue operating in maintenance mode for many years. Just ask players of the original Guild Wars. And if people are still playing and having fun, is that truly a dead game?

Closure

For those who aren’t Chicken Littles proclaiming death upon a game at the slightest sign of trouble, the most obvious time to declare a game dead is when it officially closes. The servers go dark, characters people have sunk potentially hundreds of hours into are lost to the aether, mournful blog posts are shared across cyberspace, and loyal players are left to find a new digital home.

A closed game seems pretty conclusively dead. Certainly the former players will go into mourning.

And yet, even then, death is not always truly death. Formerly closed games sometimes return, perhaps under new publishers, though these resurrections tend to be short-lived. See the rollercoaster life cycle of Hellgate: London.

Even failing an official resurrection, MMOs can still cheat death following closure. This is the world of emulators, wherein passionate fans salvage old code to run private servers of their favourite games.

The poster child for this phenomenon has to be Star Wars Galaxies, a game whose intensely passionate fanbase has kept its memory alive through a thriving emulator community.

This, more than anything else, illustrates what a nebulous concept the idea of a “dead” game is. SWG fits the bill of a dead game better than most anything, having been officially shuttered for many years and being far beyond the hope of any growth or further development. And yet there are plenty of people playing it right now, as you read this.

Promotional art for Hellgate: London, a game that has died perhaps more times than any other

And again, if people are playing it, can you truly say it’s dead?

Extinction

So if even an official closure doesn’t always mean the end of an MMO, what is true death for an online game?

I would say that a game is only truly and irrevocably dead when it has been erased beyond any hope of revival. When its assets have been utterly expunged from the digital world, and its fanbase has vanished or diminished beyond recognition.

And in the age of the Internet, that’s spectacularly hard to do. Not impossible, of course — just ask the players of that Korean MMO that was deleted from existence a few years back — but given how hard it is to ever fully erase anything from the Internet, the odds of any MMORPG being killed beyond any hope of revival are surprisingly slim.

And that makes all the hand-wringing over “dying” games seem all that much more silly. If you listened to the commentariat, you would be left with the impression that MMOs are fragile things, rarely surviving past their initial launch and under constant threat of disappearing, but the exact opposite is true. MMOs are, by and large, incredibly resilient, and extremely difficult to truly kill.

That doesn’t make it less upsetting when a game you love begins to decline or even closes, but it’s something to keep in mind. If you worry for the future of your favorite game or wonder whether it’s worth investing in a new title if it’s not topping the charts, always remember just how hard it is for an MMO to truly die.


Comparing MMORPG Group Content

MMOs are, at their heart, about playing with other people. Even as a mainly solo player, I acknowledge this. To this end, developers have come up with many forms of content designed specifically to be tackled by groups, but they’re not all created equal. Each form of group content has its pros and cons.

A group flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Dungeons

Dungeons are the archetypical RPG experience: a party of adventures venturing into forgotten ruins in search of wealth and glory. In MMORPGs, dungeons are usually for groups of about four to six players, which makes them a happy balance between being social but not too crowded.

Dungeons tend to represent a stepping stone between the easy outdoor content and the more challenging raids. This is both one of their chief virtues, and their downfall.

The problem with dungeons is that they are, almost invariably, viewed only as that stepping stone. They are rarely granted the privilege of being an endgame unto themselves, instead being treated as little more than a funnel into raids. This makes it hard to achieve satisfying progression as a dungeon fan. You end up living as a second class citizen to the “real” players, who raid.

Raids

For better or for worse, raids have long been held up as the pinnacle of MMO group content. They feature the largest group sizes, the highest difficulty, and the best rewards.

For those who enjoy them, raids are as good as it gets. The MMO community is full of stories of fond memories, lifelong friendships, and even marriages that grew out of raid groups.

The downside is that while the raiding community is incredibly vocal and passionate, it’s also incredibly small. Due to the high time and skill requirements of raiding, most players simply can’t be bothered. Hard numbers for such things are always difficult to come by, but from the evidence I’ve seen it seems that raiders usually make up about 1-5% of a MMORPG’s playerbase, at best.

Fighting the Sha of Pride raid boss in World of Warcraft

The problem arises from the fact that raids are also very resource intensive, and by their nature as the intended pinnacle of endgame, they tend to offer the most desirable rewards and the highest production values. Thus, huge amounts of development resources are being devoted to a tiny minority of players.

It’s not impossible for raiders and non-raiders to coexist, but it’s a difficult tightrope for a developer to walk. You need to reward the raiders for their hard work without kneecapping everyone else. Raids are inherently disruptive to the balance of a game.

Small Group Content

By “small group content,” I mean content that is designed for groups, but groups of a size less than the traditional dungeon group — two to three people.

The fact there’s no commonly accepted term for content scaled to this size — the way there is for dungeons and raids — should tell you how common it is. World of Warcraft experimented with scenarios in its Mists of Pandaria expansion, which were catered to three player groups, and the upcoming Battle for Azeroth will add a similar feature in the form of Island Expeditions. Secret World Legends also has a feature called scenarios that can done by duos, but beyond those I struggle to think of many examples of dedicated small group content in MMOs (feel free to mention others in the comments).

People who prefer to play in twos or threes are therefore usually relegated to playing quest content that was designed for soloists, forcing them to endure phasing issues or difficulty that wasn’t tuned for more than one person.

And I really don’t understand why. Again, not being a developer or researcher, I don’t have hard numbers, but anecdotally as a longtime MMO player, I’ve found that groups of two or three (often couples or close friend groups) are by far and away the most common form of social group in MMOs. The fact that most group content is built solely for larger groups baffles me.

PvP

The chaotic PvP combat of WildStar

PvP doesn’t immediately come to mind for me when discussing group content, but duels and the occasional gank notwithstanding, player versus player gameplay is almost always group-based.

The trouble with PvP from a social perspective is that it necessitates losers as well as winners. For this reason, it has a higher potential for toxicity (not that PvE doesn’t have its fair share, as well).

As a result, I think it’s better to enter PvP with a group of people you already know and trust, rather than trying to form connections mid-match. The exception may be for slower paced, larger scale PvP such as Guild Wars 2’s WvW or Cyrodiil in Elder Scrolls Online. The persistent nature of those contests gives time for meaningful social connections to flourish.

Public Events

A world boss spawns, and the call goes out in general chat. In a matter of minutes, dozens or even hundreds of players descend upon the unsuspecting mob, full of fire, fury, and the lust for loot.

First introduced by the dearly departed Warhammer Online and made a major selling feature of both Rift and Guild Wars 2, public events are MMOs at their wildest and most chaotic. Whether this is a positive or a negative depends on personal perspective, but for my money, I feel public events are the purest expression of what MMORPGs should be, organic and epic in equal measure.

That said, there are other perspectives. Many argue — with more than a little justification — that public events are naught by mindless zergs. Even as a huge fan of the concept, I struggle to defend them from this criticism.

Others say that the lack of organization makes it difficult if not impossible to form meaningful social connections. If it’s just a mindless swarm of people spamming abilities, where’s the opportunity for friendships to form?

It’s a worthy concern, but I must say that the one and only meaningful friendship I ever made via MMOs was with someone I met at a world boss fight in The Secret World…


How to Fix Lockboxes

Lockboxes. Oh, yes, we’re talking about them again. The endless controversy over this most-maligned monetization practice has players constantly clamoring for lockboxes to be banned (with some success in certain regions), but I don’t feel that banning them outright is the way to go. It’s not as if developers are simply going to shrug and accept making less money. They’ll find a way to make up the difference, by sneaking lockboxes back in through legal loopholes or adopting some new and even more predatory practice.

A legendary skin from Overwatch's ubiquitous lockboxes

I think it’s more realistic — and safer — to find ways to make lockboxes less problematic. I don’t think most games handle them very well, but I don’t think the concept is beyond redemption. I think lockboxes can be fixed.

Add Transparency

When people talk about regulating lockboxes in online games, one of most common suggestions that comes up — when people aren’t just asking for them to be banned outright — is to add transparency by publicly listing the drop rates of everything in the boxes, something already achieved in China.

Personally I think we all understand that the odds of getting the best reward from a lockbox are vanishingly small, but putting more information in the hands of the consumer is never a bad thing, and it might help to remove the perception of dishonesty that tends to swirl around lockboxes.

Make Them Earnable In-Game

Gamers tend to dislike when desirable in-game items are only available for real cash. But we tend to calm down a lot when those same items can be earned through gameplay as well as by forking over the dough.

Overwatch is a good example of a game that lets people earn a fair number of boxes just by playing the game normally. I suspect this is why Overwatch tends to avoid the wrath of the community despite being one of the more transparent examples of a game built entirely around selling lockboxes.

Another way to put lockbox items within reach of those who can’t or won’t spend real money is to make them tradeable in-game. Star Wars: The Old Republic does this with its ubiquitous lockboxes; everything found in Cartel Crates can be bought, sold, and traded between players, meaning that (at least in theory) everything can be earned without spending a dime.

Add Bad Luck Protection

A character in the lockbox-happy MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic

The trouble with randomized lockboxes is that you could buy literally hundreds of them and still have no guarantee of getting the item you want. This is of course part of what makes them such a successful business model, but it’s also a large part of why they’re so hated.

This criticism can be countered somewhat by adding in some sort of failsafe against bad luck. The simplest and most common way to do this is to add some sort of currency found within lockboxes alongside an option to purchase lockbox items directly with said currency. Overwatch and Elder Scrolls Online both do this by converting duplicate items found in boxes into a currency.

Realistically you’ll still need to buy a fair few boxes to get what you want, but at least you know you’re working toward a goal. You’ll get what you want… eventually.

Making lockbox items tradeable, as mentioned above, is another way to achieve this. If you want that rare mount really badly, you don’t need to gamble. Just grind in-game currency until you can buy it from someone else.

Keep Them Cosmetic Only

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how the concept of “pay to win” isn’t really worth worrying about, at least in most MMOs. Frankly selling character power for real cash doesn’t bother me that much. I don’t like it, but it’s not something I lose sleep over.

But I think we can pretty much all agree putting player power in lockboxes is a bad idea. Honestly I’m not a big fan of the randomization found in traditional MMO loot to begin with — I think character power should be earned through skill and dedication, not dumb luck — and adding real money to the equation really doesn’t endear me to the idea.

Gambling for cosmetics and fun stuff is one thing. Some may disagree, but I consider that fairly harmless. Gambling for things could actually give you an advantage in-game is taking exploitative psychology to another level.

A player party in The Secret World

Making sure that lockboxes never offer anything but cosmetics may not assuage everyone, but at least it keeps their worst potential at bay.

Make Them Social

As with many things, I think perhaps the best take on lockboxes to date came from the original incarnation of The Secret World. They obeyed many of the recommendations outlined above: All of the game’s many lockbox rewards were tradeable and cosmetic only, many boxes provided bad luck protection in the form of Lucky Coins, and most were earnable through gameplay.

But they also did one very clever thing that I can’t believe I haven’t seen elsewhere. In addition to the standard boxes that offered loot to a single player, in-game events also brought group boxes that granted loot not just to the person to open it but to a large number of players around them, as well. There were even achievements and special emotes for those who shared with enough other players.

When we talk about designing to encourage players to be more social, I’ve seen few things work better than these group loot boxes (often called party bags by players). Yes, there were people who just dumped their loot on random strangers in Agartha, but others used the bags as party favours at guild events, or organized scavenger hunts or other social gatherings.

My personal habit was to go to the starting zone, round up a bunch of newbies, and welcome them to the game with a burst of loot from the latest lockbox. Honestly some of my most positive MMO social experiences have been the result of those loot parties.

Lockboxes are often seen as something toxic or immoral, but I feel like that perception would change a lot if they were more often used as a tool to promote positive player interaction.


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?