Category Archives: MMO Game Design

Time to Move on from the Bartle Types?

If you’ve spent any time at all in the MMO community, you’re probably familiar with the Bartle taxonomy of players types, designed by influential developer Richard Bartle. Created in the days of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), it divides players into four broad categories and is viewed by many as the gold standard for understanding player motivation in online gaming.

A diagram of Bartle's player types

However, at least as it applies to MMORPGs, I think the Bartle types are a flawed model, ultimately too simplistic to accurately define the complex motivations of human beings. This isn’t meant to be a criticism of Bartle himself, but of the way his model is used (and abused) by many players and journalists within the community, as well as the flaws of trying to fit players into narrow boxes in the first place.

The Basics

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the Bartle taxonomy, let’s do a quick run-down of what it is.

Bartle’s theory divides MUD players into four categories: achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers.

Achievers are about winning, earning high scores, and generally proving their mastery over the game. They want to earn points, gear, and anything else that can give them prestige.

Explorers are about, well, exploring. This means both physically exploring the game world, as well as tinkering with game systems to learn their ins and outs.

Socializers are most interested in interacting with other players and making friends. The game systems come secondary to the bonds they form with fellow players.

Killers seek to impose their will on other players. They enjoy PvP combat, griefing, trolling, and domination by any means at their disposal.

If you’d like to learn more, you can read Bartle’s original paper on the matter.

There is also the so-called “Bartle test,” which you can take to determine your Bartle type. It’s worth noting this test wasn’t actually developed by Bartle himself, but it’s still often talked about at the same time as his original theorem and is often used by players to determine their personal player type.

Let’s talk about that test.

A Case Study

Exploring in Guild Wars 2

I don’t want to make this all about me, but I think I’m a great example of the flaws in this model, at least as applied to MMOs.

I’ve taken the Bartle test a few times over the years. It usually pegs me as an explorer, but I don’t think that’s a very accurate label for me.

I can enjoy exploring MMOs, but it’s definitely not my focus. It’s usually something that I do when I’m bored and don’t have anything better to do in-game. My favourite style of content in MMOs is linear story, which is just about the exact opposite of what the archetypal explorer is supposed to be into.

When it comes to the more abstract style of exploring — understanding game systems — it used to appeal to me more, but these days it’s not something I get a lot of joy from. I like to know what I’m doing, but I’m not the sort of person who has to tinker with every little thing.

In preparation for this article, I took the test again, and this time it pegged me as a socializer, with a 73% match to explorer’s 60%. That’s even more baffling.

I’m one of the most anti-social MMO players around. I haven’t belonged to a guild in years, and I generally prefer to play alone. I’m happy to make small talk with a PUG or perhaps participate in general chat, but I never seek out interaction with other players for its own sake. If I’m grouped with other people, it’s only ever as a means to an end.

So the test is way off where I’m concerned. Maybe it’s just a flaw in the test, but really, what archetype should I belong to? I like structured play and clear goals, which is an achiever trait, but I’ve never had any desire to be the best or show off my mastery, so that doesn’t really fit, either. And I actively avoid conflict with other players, so I’m definitely not a killer, either.

The fact is I don’t fit into any of Bartle’s types. And I very much doubt I’m alone in this.

A Flawed Concept

A villain character in DC Universe Online

It’s worth remembering that the Bartle types were created to define players of MUDs only. Yes, MUDs can be viewed as the ancestors of MMOs, but there’s still quite a lot of difference between a text-based simulation and a modern graphical MMORPG. And Bartle himself has said that the model may be incomplete for non-MUD games and perhaps should not be applied to them (it’s also worth noting he’s since expanded the original model to eight players types).

So even the model’s creator seems to feel it’s a bit outdated, at least as it relates to modern MMOs, and yet we still have many players and commentators treating it as gospel. I’m not really sure why, save that personality typing seems to appeal to a lot of people in general, even when it’s based on shaky science, or no science at all. People still put their faith in astrological signs, after all.

Really, though, the only people who should be thinking about player types are developers. There’s no value in laymen like you and me trying to define the archetypes of MMO players. We don’t have the expertise to do so properly, and even if we did, what would we do with the information? Why is being able to say “I like this because I’m an explorer” viewed as more valuable than “I like this because it’s fun”?

And even for developers, I think it would be dangerous to put too much weight on abstract player types, even if they could find an accurate model for such. People are complex creatures, and you can’t just boil us down to shallow archetypes.

A lot of principles of good game design are universal, after all. Do you think the ancients who invented Chess were worried about how it would appeal to different archetypes of people? No, they just made a game with good mechanics, and it’s remained a popular pass time for centuries. Perhaps Bartle type classification is adding too much science to what should be a more artistic pursuit?

People are individuals. We shouldn’t be trying to over-simplify them into such narrow categories.


Are MMOs Too Easy?

 

There are many perennial debates that rage eternal within the MMORPG community. Lockboxes. The trinity. And the question, “Are MMOs too easy?”

A boss fight in World of Warcraft

That’s a question I’ve long struggled with myself, as I do often find myself frustrated by the relative difficulty of most of the MMOs I’ve played.

The more I try to answer that question, though, the more I realize it’s so much more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Defining Difficulty

First we need to discuss what true difficulty actually is. This feels like it should be obvious, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding of it in the gaming community, especially where MMORPGs are concerned.

Firstly, tedium is not challenge. One tests your skill, while the other simply tests your patience. A lot of people who talk about MMOs being so much easier these days simply mean that you no longer need to spend hours looking for a group so you can spend an hour getting to your destination so you can spend hours grinding the same mobs over and over.

That wasn’t difficult. That was just time-consuming.

Similarly, I’m not convinced that simply having harsh punishments for player error — like corpse runs or perma-death — necessarily makes for a truly challenging game. Certainly corpse runs could prove a challenge, but things like that mostly serve to make players risk adverse, and if you’re not also challenging players before they die, then you’re just adding a tax to people who lag or go AFK.

For perspective, the most challenging MMO I’ve played to date was the original incarnation of The Secret World, and it also had arguably the most lenient death penalty of any MMO I’ve played. Only gear repair fees that were so small as to be utterly trivial. Didn’t stop the game from being so hard I almost threw my monitor out the window a few times.

Doing battle as a Sith inquisitor in Star Wars: The Old Republic

And then we need to consider that not all difficulty necessarily makes for interesting gameplay. You can triple the health and damage of every enemy in an MMO, and it will definitely make the game harder, but it may not make it anymore fun.

What defines interesting difficulty may vary a bit from person to person, but broadly speaking I would say it’s about testing your ability to react (such as active dodge or block mechanics), to strategize (such as saving cooldowns or resources for a crucial moment), to adapt (such as adjusting your build to meet a specific challenge), and to coordinate (such as forming a plan with your teammates to tackle a difficult encounter).

Other Complications

And there are other things that make it difficult to determine just whether MMORPGs are too easy or not.

For one thing, difficulty is somewhat subjective. Two people can play the same content and come away with one feeling it was too easy and the other feeling it was too hard.

Challenges that are trivial for dedicated MMO players can still be significant hurdles for someone who is new to the genre, or new to video games as a whole, and on the other hand someone who is used to challenging themselves playing very difficult games like Dark Souls or StarCraft may find even relatively challenging content to be a cakewalk.

The social aspect of MMORPGs further complicates matters, because your experience of the game is affected by the skill level of your fellow players as much as your own. I’ve had easy dungeons turn into miserable slogs because of the crumby players I’ve been matched with, and I’ve had very difficult content made absolutely breezy through the assistance of top-tier players.

A priest using the holy nova spell in World of Warcraft

The fact that MMOs are social games also means that there may be some value to skewing things toward the easier end of the spectrum. It’s a terrible feeling if you can’t play with your friend because their skills aren’t up to the task — and an even worse feeling if you’re the one your buddies have to carry.

Making MMOs easy allows them to cast a wide net and attract the greatest number of players. This means there’s more people to meet and more potential for social bonds to form.

It also means a greater potential pool of customers for the developers, which is probably the real reason most MMOs tend to be fairly easy games.

So from that perspective, an argument could be made that MMOs should be catered to the lowest common denominator.

And finally, let’s not forget that the MMO industry’s devotion to vertical progression means that most any content can eventually be made easy with enough gear, further blurring the definition of what an acceptable level of difficulty would be.

The Real Question

So now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s answer the real question: Are MMOs too easy?

In a word, yes, but I’m not sure that captures the real issue.

My opinion on this is mainly based on the “WoW clone” model of design that so long dominated the MMORPG industry, and to some extent still does.

A bow-wielding character in Elder Scrolls Online

In World of Warcraft and its copycats, it’s generally the case that the large majority of content is extremely easy. This is especially true of open world content, where enemies are tuned to be so weak that they’re almost never a credible threat unless the player does something incredibly dumb.

This is less true of games outside that mould, but only slightly. You can’t sleepwalk through open world content in Elder Scrolls Online, but it’s not exactly strenuous, either.

But here’s the thing: Those games do have challenging content. Very, very challenging content. Mythic raiding in WoW is brutally difficult. It requires meticulous coordination between players and virtually perfect execution of both your class’s abilities and the encounter’s mechanics.

And most MMOs have some equivalent high end content. It might not all be as ruthlessly unforgiving as mythic raids, but there’s usually something for the adrenaline junkies among us.

So we have a lot of easy content, and some hard content, but that leaves us missing something very important: mid-tier difficulty.

Content that is moderately challenging is all but unheard of in MMOs, and I think that’s where the real feeling of MMOs being too easy comes from.

If I’m being honest, I would rate my skill as roughly average or at best slightly above average. I will not pretend that I am up to the task of mythic raiding or its equivalents. I’m just not good enough.

I am, however, good enough to find most content in most MMOs tediously easy. The hard content is out of my reach, so all I’m left with is easy-mode. There is no option that feels comfortable for a player like me. And I’m willing to wager a lot of other people are in the same boat.

It creates other problems, too. The dearth of moderately challenging content means that the difficulty curve of most MMOs is actually more of a cliff. Most people are left without the incentive or the opportunity to improve their skills.

Combat as an Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

It creates a kind of feedback loop, I think. Without a proper ladder of difficulties, people don’t get the chance to learn, so the difficulty has to stay easy to accommodate them, so they continue to stagnate…

Of course, some people manage anyway, but is it any wonder so few people manage to make the jump to raiding when it is so unlike the trivial open world content they’re used to?

The really frustrating thing here is that I’m not sure I know what can be done to fix this problem. For all the reasons listed above and more, this is a very complex issue, and I’m not sure there are any easy answers.

You want to find a way to provide a greater variety of difficulty options and more challenge for those who crave it without alienating too many people in the process.

In a perfect world, I’d love to see MMOs have a wealth of global difficulty settings the way single-player games do, but I’m not sure how you make that work in a shared world game. The closest I’ve seen is Kritika Online, which has a variety of difficulty settings for its instances, but that’s a game of nothing but instances. How would that work in an open world?

You could make specific zones, quests, and dungeons that are designed to be a step up in difficulty, but then you’re effectively cutting down on the available content for people who can only handle the easy stuff, and if the more challenging content is more rewarding (which is only fair), you risk creating a situation of haves and have-nots.

And while for the sake of my sanity I have to believe most people could handle a greater challenge than you find in the average MMO, the fact is any increase in difficulty is going to drive away at least a few people, and that makes it a very hard sell to developers who want as many customers as possible.

MMOs are too easy, but I won’t pretend I know how to fix it.

 


Stepping off the Treadmill: Alternatives to Gear

Honesty time: I have had enough of gear. The concept of continually acquiring new and better equipment lies at the heart of virtually all MMORPGs, but I’m just sick of it. It’s an easy way for developers to provide a carrot for players to chase, but I don’t think it’s healthy for the genre in the long run, and I for one am simply bored with the whole concept.

A high level character shows off their gear in World of Warcraft

Gear as a vertical progression system works well in single-player games because eventually you’ll have the best gear and be done with it. In an MMO, that can never happen. Regular gear resets are a necessity, so gearing becomes a treadmill where you never really get anywhere. Today’s best in slot will be tomorrow’s vendor trash.

It’s also a terribly binary form of progression. Either the item you want drops, or it doesn’t, and your time feels wasted. This can be mitigated with currency systems, where if gear doesn’t drop a currency that can eventually be spent on gear does, but even that only lessens the problem, rather than solving it entirely.

And of course it creates terrible inequality between players. There is inevitably a large power gap between those with the best gear and those without, fostering elitism and excluding many people from content.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other alternative progressions systems out there, and while none are perfect, many can avoid the pitfalls of the gear treadmill.

Continued Leveling

In most MMOs, leveling is little more than a time-gate. It’s something you work through before getting to the “real” game, which is usually where the gear treadmill kicks in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Leveling is something that can continue indefinitely, providing players constant, incremental power increases. You can see examples of this in Diablo III’s paragon levels and Elder Scrolls Online’s champion points.

A necromancer character in Diablo III, a game where leveling never ends

There are some disadvantages to such a scheme. In the long run the constant small stat boosts can add up and begin to create balance issues or other strange behaviors, and as with gear, you risk creating a large divide between the haves and the have-nots, though that can be mitigated with catch-up mechanics.

Endless leveling does have some major positives, though. Because pretty much anything can give XP, leveling is a progression system that offers incredible freedom to the player. Any playstyle can be therefore be meaningfully rewarded. Add global level-scaling as seen in Guild Wars 2 or ESO, and your options become almost limitless.

You can also say goodbye to play sessions where nothing is accomplished because what you wanted didn’t drop. You’re always going to be earning at least some XP. And while it’s still vertical progression, it’s not a treadmill, because the levels you’ve already earned are never made irrelevant. You’re always moving forward.

Non-combat Skills

Not all progression needs to be about helping you kill stuff faster. Progression can instead take the form of various non-combat abilities and buffs. Perhaps players can gain new movement skills, or learn new languages to access quests from isolated NPC races, or gain more incremental buffs to things like movement speed or gold find.

The masteries introduced in Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns expansion are one example of this, and some of ESO’s champion points and Diablo’s paragon levels also offer non-combat improvements.

Horizontal progression such as this is good because it side-steps nearly all of the problems with gear. The gap between veteran and newcomer is largely irrelevant, since both groups maintain roughly the same power level where it most counts. There is no treadmill, as the bonuses you’ve earned are always relevant. Like endless leveling, it’s also a good opportunity to reward all playstyles and make every session rewarding.

A character in Guild Wars 2, a game with a vocal but not always successful commitment to horizontal progression

The downsides are that non-combat bonuses don’t always have the same “sex appeal” as doing more damage or having more health, and it can be difficult to design non-combat boosts that are useful enough to be appealing but optional enough to not break the game.

Non-combat progression likely works best as a supplement to other systems rather than the core progression model of a game. It can be something to help you achieve your other goals, since not everyone will find it a worthy goal unto itself.

Cosmetics

Progression doesn’t even necessarily need to be about gameplay. It can also just be about bringing the flair. There are already plenty of people throughout the MMO community who will pursue gear purely for its looks, rather than its stats. Some wily developer could capitalize on this and put cosmetic progression front and center.

In theory, cosmetic progression was supposed to a key part of Guild Wars 2’s design, though it never seemed to quite work out that way. I don’t think it had enough different looks to choose from, at least at launch, and limiting the transmutation charges needed to a change an item’s appearance was a mistake. If you want to make appearance items a core progression system, it needs to be easy to create, save, and swap outfits at will. Otherwise you encourage people to find one look they like and stick with it forever after.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very good outfit system that allows you to save multiple looks and swap between them whenever, wherever. It’s certainly encouraged me to horde a massive amount of cosmetic gear. Also, while it’s not an MMO, Overwatch seems to be doing quite well with a purely cosmetic progression model, so I definitely think it can work.

I think the trick to a really strong cosmetic progression system is to have a wealth of options. Not just the usual gear slots we’re used to, but also visible jewelry, dyes and accessories to modify your clothes, and perhaps unlockable hairstyles or idle animations.

SWTOR is a good MMORPG for cosmetic progression

Make it so no two characters ever look alike, so each avatar is a visual record of that player’s accomplishments. Then move it beyond avatars to also include non-combat pets and mount skins. Even spells and abilities could potentially be reskinned, with more unusual effects reserved for the greatest in-game accomplishments.

With some creativity, the potential for cosmetic progression is almost limitless. The only real downside is that, like gear with stats, cosmetics don’t lend themselves to incremental progress very well. You either get the item you want, or you don’t.

Earning Abilities

Another option for horizontal progression is to continually earn new abilities. These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than what you already have, but simply add new options. This is a more niche option, but for me personally, it’s the most appealing form of progression.

The main example of this I can think of was the late, lamented ability wheel of The Secret World, wherein players constantly earned ability points that could then be spent unlocking hundreds of active and passive abilities. Only a few of these abilities could be equipped at a time, making for careful strategic decision-making and allowing for true horizontal progression. Leveling up different jobs on the same character in Final Fantasy XIV could also be considered a version of this progression model, though a very watered down one.

There are a lot of obvious advantages to this. It greatly narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots because veteran players simply have more options rather than being directly more powerful.

It also eliminates the treadmill issue. Your old abilities are never invalidated. They will always have uses, even if they’re niche.

The Secret World was one of the best MMOs for horizontal progression before its reboot

The downsides are the potential balance issues caused by endlessly adding new abilities and the design challenge in keeping the new abilities meaningful and interesting, but I don’t think those are necessarily unsolvable. TSW may have had cookie cutter builds for certain situations, but there were no builds that dominated every aspect of the game, and almost every ability was useful in at least one or two circumstances.

These new abilities could be earned through traditional XP farming as in TSW and FFXIV, but developers could also get more creative. There could be lengthy quest chains where one learns new abilities from a master, or defeating a powerful boss could grant the player permanent use of one of the boss’s powers.

Mix and Match

Ultimately, no one single alternative to gear will work for everyone. It would be best to combine a few to achieve a broad appeal and add depth to the experience.

But really, that’s to be expected. Even games that do rely on gear for vertical progression often include at least some elements of other systems.

What is clear is that the gear treadmill is not the be all and end all of MMORPG progression. Developers like it because it’s easy to design, and players like it because we’ve been conditioned to, but the genre can and should do better. There are alternatives out there. All we need is a developer with the courage to try.


Practical Solutions to Lower MMORPG Toxicity

Let’s not mince words. MMO communities are in a bad way. Trolling, toxicity, extreme vulgarity, and cyber-bullying ran rampant, and there doesn’t seem to be any serious effort being made to curtail any of this.

A dungeon encounter in World of Warcraft

I doubt it would ever be possible to entirely eliminate toxicity in online gaming. Human nature is what it is, and the anonymity of the Internet often emboldens people to let loose the worst aspects of themselves.

But far too many people, developers included, have let this fact instill a defeatist attitude toward toxicity. If you can never eliminate it, why bother fighting it at all? But while you may never get rid of toxicity altogether, I do think it could be significantly mitigated. Things don’t have to be as bad as they are.

I think there are simple, common sense solutions that could do a lot to improve MMORPG communities, if developers are only willing to make the effort.

Tangible Punishments

The punishments for misbehavior in most MMOs I’ve played tend to be pretty toothless. Usually it’s just a temporary ban. That might be an effective deterrent if the game in question was the only form of entertainment in the world, but as it is if someone gets banned, they’ll just go play something else, or watch TV, or go see a movie. It’s pretty meaningless.

I’ve long felt it may be more effective to directly penalize a person in-game. Delete a piece of their gear, or fine them a sum of in-game currency. If the latter, it should be based on a percentage of their total wealth rather than a flat amount so that wealthy players don’t become effectively above the law.

Or perhaps instead of taking away what someone already has, it could affect future rewards. Lower item drop rates and experience gains for rule-breakers or put them at a lower priority for server and matchmaking queues until they can go an extended period of time with no infractions against their account.

A paladin character in Neverwinter

As far as I know, no game has done this, so it’s impossible to say if it would work until someone attempts it, but MMO players are nothing if not devoted to min/maxing. If good behavior becomes a requirement for peak performance, I think you’ll start to see things get a lot nicer in no time.

Feedback on Reports

Moderation in MMOs is almost entirely dependent on players sending reports when they see someone breaking the rules. Unfortunately, there’s rarely any way to know if these reports are doing any good, or if anyone is even reading them. They vanish into the ether without a trace.

If you’re the one sending reports, this can get demoralizing pretty fast. It starts to feel as if you’re not doing any good, and it gets harder and harder to bother sending reports in the first place.

Instead, there should be some sort of feedback on player reports. In DOTA 2, if your report results in action being taken against another player, you’ll get a notification. I think this is an idea all of online gaming should embrace. It doesn’t necessarily need to get into detail, but simply knowing that a report you sent has made a difference sends the message that reports do matter and that action is being taken, and that can make all the difference in the world.

Clarity

Another frustration that players face when reporting is a lack of clarity on what is or is not actually against the rules. Usually filling out a report offers you a small list of vague categories to choose from, and it may not be clear what exactly each category entails. For example, I would interpret “harassment” as any abusive chat, but others seem to define it only as ongoing campaigns of bullying against a player conducted over an extended period of time.

Ideally, a report system should come with a decent variety of categories, and a brief but clear description of each one. This could perhaps be backed up by more extensive explanations of the code of conduct accessible elsewhere in-game. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether someone is breaking the rules or not.

Active Moderation

A group of players take on an Arkbreak in Defiance

One of the problems of moderation in MMOs is that it is entirely reactive, and dependent on the reports of players. Imagine if game masters actively monitored players in-game and could take immediate action if they saw someone doing something bad.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “MMOs are far too big to monitor every chat channel. It can’t work.”

You’re right. It’s totally impractical to monitor all chat at all times.

However, it may be possible to monitor some chat, some of the time. If even a small team of GMs were to be devoted entirely to monitoring player behavior and taking direct action, I think it could have a significant positive impact on communities.

The thing is, players wouldn’t know when they were being monitored. The very possibility that a game master may be watching would, I think, serve as a deterrent to bad behavior and perhaps provide a sense of security to the other players.

One of the biggest issues adding to the toxicity of MMO communities is the belief that developers simply don’t care, that there are no consequences. The trolls think they can get away with murder, and by all appearances, they’re right. Anything that sends the message that the community is actively policed, even if it’s largely symbolic, would have a positive impact.

Positive Reinforcement

Not all methods for improving communities have to be about punishing the troublemakers. There may also be value in recognizing those players who do treat their fellows in a decent and helpful manner.

A character in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Players could be given a way to “upvote” those they feel have been especially patient or helpful, and people could progressively unlock various rewards, cosmetic or otherwise, for receiving enough upvotes. Final Fantasy XIV has a system along these lines, and I think it’s something that should become industry standard.

I don’t think that offering rewards will, on its own, completely change the temperaments of players, but it may encourage people to go the extra mile to be helpful or at least provide an incentive not to be too harsh to their comrades. At the very least it would make helping out other players less of a thankless chore than it tends to otherwise be.

The main concern about such an “upvote” system would be the potential for abuse, but I think there are ways to prevent people gaming the system too much. For example, it could only be enabled for PUGs to prevent people simply spamming upvotes on their friends.

This could also tie into the suggestion of tangible punishments mentioned above. If you receive an infraction against your account, it only makes sense that you would lose access to any rewards earned for being a good community member, even if only temporarily. It adds another layer of incentive for players to mind their manners.

Ask the Experts

These are just ideas that seem to me like they would be helpful, based on my many years as an MMO player. But I’m sure there are those out there who would have a far better idea of how to make things better.

MMO developers should be hiring on behavioral experts to help them find the most effective ways to regulate their communities. They may find solutions that would not be obvious to the rest of us, who come at the problem from a layman’s perspective.

A close-up screenshot from League of Legends

The only game I know of to do anything like this is League of Legends. Riot has poured significant effort into finding the best ways to cut down on the infamous toxicity of their players. I’m not an LoL player, so I’m not sure how much success they’ve had, but I do greatly admire the effort.

MMORPG developers need to start viewing community-building, and community-policing, as a crucial part of design, as essential as environment art, encounter design, or coding. Communities are a crucial part of the online game experience, and if they’re neglected, the games suffer.

It might not be “sexy,” and it might not look exciting in a features trailer, but it is every bit as important as any other element of game design.


Four Things Eastern MMOs Can Learn from the West

A few weeks ago, we looked into ideas that Western MMORPGs would do well to borrow from their Eastern counterparts. Now, it seems only fair to do the reverse, for there are also areas where the East would do well to take some cues from us.

The Odessen Alliance in Star Wars: The Old Republic

To address an elephant in the room, a lot of people will highlight grinding and overbearing monetization as the chief sins of Eastern MMOs, and I won’t say that’s entirely wrong as those are common problems in games from Asia, but I don’t think it’s a universal truth, and plenty of Western games are grindy or greedy too. I don’t see it as a black and white issue.

Either way, the idea of Eastern games being tedious and “pay to win” has been beaten to death, so I’d rather focus on other areas where Eastern games would do well to take some lessons from the West.

Putting More Effort into Story

I wouldn’t say that Eastern games are lacking good lore or the potential for interesting stories. I’ve been saying for years that Aion’s lore is really fascinating and far better than it ever gets credit for.

The problem, though, is that in most Eastern games I’ve played, the story still feels like kind of a background element. There isn’t a lot of effort put into developing it or helping the player experience it in a dynamic way. It’s usually bland quest text.

In the West, we’ve seen MMO games make great strides toward better story-telling in recent years. Voice-acting, cutscenes, and story events have greatly increased in both quality and quantity. Games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World (RIP), and Elder Scrolls Online have shown that MMOs can offer stories as strong as anything in the single-player realm, and often treat story as meaningful content in its own right, equal to raiding or PvP.

You generally don’t see this kind of thing in Eastern games, and even when you do, it’s usually hampered by poor localization. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of effort being made.

The grim realm of Coldharbour in Elder Scrolls Online

The one notable exception to this, at least that I’ve seen, is Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s gone to the opposite extreme. I never thought I could play an MMO that spent too much time on story even for me, but Square Enix found a way. So… many… cutscenes…

Better Racial Choices

One thing that always bugs me about Eastern MMOs is that a lot of them don’t offer a selection of playable races, and even when they do, their racial choices tend to be severely underwhelming. You can be a human, a tall human, a human with cat ears, an Elf analogue, or for some reason a prepubescent girl.

I think this is a trade-off for how much more powerful the character creators in Eastern games tend to be. It’s a lot of work to design robust customization options for a variety of strange and exotic races. But Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job of balancing both, so clearly it can be done.

Western games don’t always have as much racial variety as I’d like, either, especially when it comes to more recent titles, but even so it’s safe to say we’ve got the East beat in this regard.

World of Warcraft lets you be (among other things) a giant cow, a zombie, a panda, a werewolf, or a space goat with tentacles. GW2 lets you be anything from a giant Viking to a cat monster with horns to a talking salad. I don’t even have space to list the staggering variety of oddball races the EverQuest games let you play as.

Armor that Deserves the Name

“Realistic armor” probably isn’t the right term, seeing as MMO armor is almost never realistic, but there’s a line between “adding some artistic flair because it looks cool” and “you’re literally fighting dragons in a pole-dancer costume.” Most Eastern games have soared so far past that line they circled the Earth and passed it again.

A paladin character showing off her snazzy armor in World of Warcraft

Putting aside the obvious sexism, I just can’t take a game seriously when even high level armor leaves all major organs and arteries exposed. It’s just dumb. And the fact that the aforementioned little girl races usually end up in stripper costumes too just adds a whole other level of wrongness.

TERA general chat is still the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen in an MMORPG, and I played The Secret World as my main game for years.

The West definitely doesn’t have a spotless record when it comes to the “female armor” issue, but things have certainly gotten better over time, with most sets in most games now being about as revealing (or non-revealing) for either gender and armor in general making at least some effort toward verisimilitude. And even at our worst, we never quite equaled the absurdity of gear in many Eastern games.

Consistent Settings

Eastern games often seem a little too eager to throw immersion out the window when the mood strikes them. I remember aways back TERA added a police car mount completely out of the blue.

A police car. In a secondary world high fantasy MMORPG.

That’s an especially egregious case, but it seems to be pretty common for Eastern MMOs to randomly through in cross-overs with totally unrelated games or other obvious anachronisms that just don’t make sense in context.

This is another area where the West definitely doesn’t have a perfect track record, either. You can find the Hellbugs from Defiance in Rift for some reason, and World of Warcraft’s events tend to echo real world holidays to an uncomfortable degree, but I’m not sure we’ve ever gone to quite the same extremes the East has.


Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

Level scaling in an MMORPG is a wonderful thing. It makes the world more immersive, it effectively expands the available content, and it breaks down social barriers.

I am a firm believer that having level scaling is almost always better than not having it, but not all level scaling systems are created equal. The ideal level scaling system is easy to use, rewarding, and liberating, without entirely erasing a player’s sense of progression. Let’s take a look at some of the best systems in currently running MMOs.

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

EverQuest 2 doesn’t have global level scaling, but it does allow players to “mentor,” lowering their effective level for a time.

As the name would imply, the system is mainly intended for use by high level players who want to assist their low level friends. Mentoring grants bonus experience to the person being mentored and also allows the higher level player to gain some rewards from content that would otherwise be trivial to them, though their XP gain is reduced while mentoring.

EQ2 players can also “self-mentor” by visiting an NPC and paying a small fee. This allows them to lower their effective level in five level increments. You can cancel the self-mentoring at any time, but to reactivate it you’ll need to return to the NPC.

It’s a bit of a clunky system, but it’s better than nothing.

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is by no means the first MMO to feature level scaling of some kind, but it is arguably the MMO that put the concept on the map, as least as far as the modern era of MMORPGs goes.

GW2 made its global level scaling a core selling feature of the game, focusing on its potential to aid socialization and keep the entire game world relevant.

In GW2, each zone effectively has a maximum level. Anyone exceeding that level is scaled down to it, though they will still receive experience and loot commensurate with their actual level.

It’s a pretty good system, but it’s not perfect. While improving your skills and gear can still make some difference, the rather strict level cap on each zone means that you’re not going to feel that much more powerful as a level eighty in a level ten zone. But at least it does deliver on its promise of helping people group together and keeping the whole game world relevant.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR uses a system that’s similar to that of Guild Wars 2, but I would argue it’s a little better.

Like GW2, each of SW:TOR’s zones has a maximum level that all players will be scaled down to, but in this case the max level is slightly above the intended level range of the zone. Therefore, when you return as a high level character, you’ll be noticeably stronger than you were when playing at-level, but not quite enough to totally trivialize the content. And of course you’ll be getting rewards equivalent to your actual level.

For me, this hits the perfect balance of rewarding progression without making older content completely toothless or irrelevant.

Rift

A promotional screenshot from Rift

Rift’s level scaling comes in the form of a mentoring system similar to EverQuest 2’s, but it’s much more flexible and easy to use.

Mentoring in Rift can be used to exactly match the level of another player, and is applied automatically in certain types of content, like Instant Adventures. Players can also mentor themselves down at any time by simply clicking their portrait and selecting the option. In this way the player can set themselves to any level below their own, while still receiving rewards equal to their true level.

The beauty of this system is that it puts a lot of power in the hands of the player. Not everyone enjoys level-scaling, and in Rift they need not be subjected to it if they don’t want to. If you do enjoy scaling, you have a lot of flexibility when it comes to when and how to use it. You can set your level equivalent to or even below the recommended level of the content you’re doing if you want a challenge, or set it slightly above if you want things to be a little easier.

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

So far all of the level scaling systems mentioned in this list have one thing in common: They only scale you down, never up. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare and welcome exception.

Actually, saying it can also scale you up is over-simplifying things a bit. Really what ESO does is scale everything — from players to mobs — to a single effective level across the entire game. This system was dubbed “One Tamriel,” and that’s actually a pretty good tagline, as it unifies the entire game into a single cohesive world in a way few MMOs ever accomplish.

In ESO, you can pretty much do anything, any time. You might have a little trouble getting raid invites as a level one character in white gear, but short of that, there really aren’t any limits. Faction restrictions on content have also been removed, so you truly can go anywhere and do anything whenever you want.

Obviously this makes group play a lot easier. If you’ve played since launch and your friend just joined, you can still group together while both being challenged and rewarded. It also makes leveling alts a lot more appealing, since you can take an entirely different leveling path, even if both characters are the same faction.

It also doesn’t entirely erase a sense of progression. Leveling up provides you with more skill points to expand and enhance your build, gear still increases your combat performance, and the Champion Points earned after reaching max level can have a significant impact on your character’s power.

In a perfect world, One Tamriel would be the example upon which all MMORPG level scaling systems are based. It’s simply excellent.