Category Archives: State of MMOs

MMOs Are Healthy, but the Community Isn’t

There’s always been a lot of negativity in the MMO community, and it’s always bothered me. But lately, it seems to be getting worse, swallowing the community whole until there’s nothing left.

An NPC in the MMORPG Bless Online

I’m not saying there isn’t room to complain. Things aren’t perfect. While I think a lot of the concerns over monetization practices are overblown, I won’t contend that it’s not an issue. Meanwhile early access and crowdfunding have “developers” raking in money hand over fist for the vague promise of maybe one day delivering a functional game that actually resembles the original pitch, and if that’s not messed up, I don’t know what is.

And then there’s player toxicity, and the awfulness of development “crunch,” and so on.

I also grant that it’s a lot easier to find problems than to praise what is going well. Speaking as someone who’s paid to talk about MMOs, I’m intimately familiar with how much easier it is to get an interesting discussion out of criticism.

But we’ve moved beyond all that. The community has soared past constructive criticism and become mired in endless doom-saying.

These days not only are people constantly predicting some catastrophic crash in the industry, but more and more I see comments by people who are gleefully hoping for such a thing. They’re cheering for honest, hard-working people to lose their jobs just because the games being made aren’t to their taste, a level of pettiness that would have been utterly unthinkable before the Internet lowered the bar for all of humanity.

Not everyone has gone to that extreme of nastiness, but there doesn’t seem to be any escape from the negativity. Even commentators who used to be beacons of passion and enthusiasm seem to be increasingly pessimistic about the genre.

And you know, I really can’t understand why. Looking at the big picture, the MMO genre seems pretty healthy to me.

A lot of the current cynicism seems to come from the relative lack of new games coming out that are in the traditional mold of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. Instead things seem to be trending more toward “MMO lite” style games like Anthem, The Division 2, and Fortnite. Fans of the old school feel left behind.

A party of player Javelins in the MMO shooter Anthem

Isn’t this what we wanted, though? Back when a new MMORPG was coming out seemingly every other month, all I remember seeing was people complaining (justifiably) about how sick they were of generic WoW clones. We were all starved for change and innovation.

Well, now we’re getting that. The genre is changing. It might not be changing exactly in the direction that you want it to, but it’s not objectively a bad thing. Indeed, change is a sign of growth, and health.

Whether they’re to your taste or not, games like Fortnite or Anthem are bringing people together in the online space, creating memories, and introducing new people to the world of online gaming. Those are all good things.

And I say that as someone who is at best lukewarm to shooters and wouldn’t touch a battle royale game with a ten foot pole.

Meanwhile fans of traditional MMORPGs aren’t exactly going underserved, either. There are plenty of traditional games like WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online that are still thriving.

The space of online gaming is growing, evolving, and providing a greater diversity of experience to cater to all tastes. There may be problems, but there’s also tremendous cause for optimism, even as the community — or at least its vocal members — predict the death of the genre daily.

This negativity has real consequences. For example, word of mouth has become entirely worthless.

Every single game that comes out is now decried as a lazy cash grab, regardless of the reality, which makes it impossible to determine which games are actually cash grabs. I can’t trust player reviews anymore, and increasingly I’m finding professional reviews hard to trust, too. That’s a really bad place to be as a consumer because it’s very hard to tell which games are worth spending cash on (thank the gaming gods for good free to play games).

Then we also have to consider how much of a turn-off to new players this constant haze of negativity must be. If you want to attract new players to your genre, endlessly ranting about how everything is awful is probably not a good strategy.

MMOs as a genre are fine. It’s the community that’s dying.


MMOs Ruined Multiplayer Gaming

Here we are at year’s end: a time to assess the best and worst games of the year. It’s a time to assess where gaming is at, the trends that led us here, and contemplate the next stage of evolution. From where I’m sitting MMOs, fueled first by the subscription success of World of Warcraft and then by the free to play MMORPG invasion, have ruined aspects of almost every multiplayer gaming genre out there.

MMOification

From Call of Duty to Dawn of War to League of Legends, MMO tendrils can be seen in almost every multiplayer game out there. It’s not that MMOs are bad. MMOs are great when their big selling points are confined to their genre. Unfortunately, part of MMO game design involves creating an addictive set of achievement based gameplay elements to keep players from moving between games. Developers see these addictive elements and cram them into their games like square pegs into a round holes. It leads to mashups I never wanted to see.

Grinding Unlocks

Call of Duty Unlocks

MMO Unlocks in Competitive Call of Duty?

A key difference between MMOs and other genres is the emphasis on character skill over player skill. While player skill matters some in twitch based action combat MMOs, it’s nothing compared to advancing a character. Level 80 is better than level 40. It’s just a fact. And that’s fine because these games revolve around the character’s journey. The player is just there to serve as a guide.

In competitive FPS games like Call of Duty or MOBAs like League of Legends the focus is on player skill. Players want to win and lose based on their (and their teammates) accolades. Wins derived from grinding better gear shouldn’t exist, and yet they play prominent roles. Call of Duty has been running gun and ability unlocks for a while now. Their balance has improved over the years to deliver more options instead of more power, but that doesn’t stop the occasional turning the occasional FPS game on its head. I remember an especially egregious example from Battlefront. The DL-44 (Han Solo’s pistol) blew every other weapon away and to earn it, you needed to grind account levels for dozens of hours.

Until very recently, League of Legends used a rune system that would grant veteran players the best stat boosts in the game (which made a big early game difference). While they’ve gone to a more fair system, that doesn’t keep them and Heroes of the Storm from gating off characters against those who don’t grind (or pay money for them). The problem with character unlocks in MOBAs (compared to say, unlocking characters in Smash Ultimate) is that balance is built around certain characters countering others. If you can only afford to play the weaker character for your position, you’re at a disadvantage.

In this current climate, grinding unlocks is unavoidable. Dawn of War III launched with similar unlocks (and removed, but with a lot of damage done). Players level up in Fortnite (wisely just for cosmetics). Vermintide acts as a worse Left 4 Dead that mandates running the same content over and over before seeing anything new. It’s like reputation quests with no other gameplay alternatives.

MMOs made it so in order to play a game, you have to play this shell of a game first.

Watering Down What Defines MMOs

the division mmo lite

MMO or Not?

The definition of MMOs has changed over the years. First you needed a massive world where potentially hundreds could interact. Then you needed at least a hub for hundreds to interact, even if most gameplay took place in instanced areas (temporary copies). Now, as long as character skill matters more than player skill we call it an MMO. I don’t particularly agree with the new age definition that construes Destiny and The Division as MMOs, but I’ll go along with it. That’s how language works. I don’t have a problem with that. I have a problem with affect that has on more traditional MMOs and MMORPGs.

The average MMO now isn’t about community, interaction, world building, unique builds, exploration, or adventure. It’s about advancing character skill. Like I said before, that is what separates MMOs from other multiplayer genres. That doesn’t mean developers should limit themselves to this very narrow vision. Yet that’s exactly what happened with Bless, Albion, and Black Desert Online (2017 and 2018’s largest new MMO releases). That’s why pay to win is a thing – character power is all that matters. These games are absolutely terrible prospects for anyone who wants to do more in a virtual world than simply grind their lives away.

Elder Scrolls Online and Final Fantasy XIV are great, but I want to see a new developer embrace their values. Diving into the niche instead of broadening the scope might not create the next Fortnite, but it can pay out all the same.

The inclusion of MMO-lite-lite games ruined the identity of the genre.

Gacha Gaming

I’m going to keep this short. Gacha gaming is a plague. For those unfamiliar, Gacha refers to all of those loot box heavy mobile games you see on Android and Apple stores. With very few exceptions (shout out to Sdorica Sunset), they are completely mindless drivel that exist solely to hook players into spending money to gamble that they can advance further, faster, or both.

And before they were popular on mobile devices, they were fueling free to play Korean MMOs in the first decade of the 2000s.

Survival Treadmill

rust rock

A Survival Gamer’s Best Friend

Every month there’s a new survival game on Steam. These games have consumed the top MMOs have to offer and regurgitated a zombified mess. The idea is great – live as long as you can in a hostile land. The execution is frustrating – get more stuff first so nobody else can have any stuff. These games revolve around playing non-stop. When you stop playing, other people take away your ability to survive. Taking away your survival leads to death. When you die, you lose everything.

Instead of learning from rogue-lites that death can be a fun game concept, survival game developers eschew that lesson in favor of telling players just to hop back on that gear/level treadmill and try to survive a little longer. Obviously people enjoy this or games like Rust and ARK wouldn’t be so popular. It also led to booming battle royales, essentially condensed survival games. Survival and battle royale games both revolve around collecting gear to deprive others of said gear with high degrees of randomness and chaos. The buildup is simply shorter and the stakes lower. This blurs the line between character skill and player skill in a way that absolves players of responsibility on both fronts. And I think that’s a dangerous line to walk. When people can justify blaming something else for their failures they will, and there is no shortage of things to blame in survival or battle royale games.

As critical as I am of the above, people should play what they enjoy. That’s fine. My opinion is just that. The problem with trends is that businesses chase them to the detriment of innovation and traditional success stories. It also reinforces the entitlement culture gamers have developed over the years. Read responses to any game developer’s tweet if you don’t believe me. “I supported you for 10 years and now you RUINED Magic Turtle Kingdom by adding BLUE HAIR! READ THE LORE! You’re so stupid I uninstall and never support you again.” This is an issue with society at large, but game design continues to move in a direction that feeds player entitlement. Games tell players they earn their wins but aren’t to blame for their losses, and egos balloon as a result.

All of this creates more toxic communities, games developed for the common denominator, less creative character development, and less chances to show player skill. It’s not where I want see game development money heading, but you can’t outrun a tsunami.

Are MMOs really to blame? I think the crash course middle ground of player/character skill was inevitable, so it’s unfair to say “MMOs did this”. Where I think they’re at fault is in their trend-chasing, anti-innovation development methods. They laid the groundwork of expectations between developer and player in a way that has hurt multiplayer gaming as a whole.

Love/Hate Relationship

Despite the MMOification of multiplayer gaming, games are starting to learn and turn the course. Monster Hunter World merged the best of grinding and challenging boss battles into a fun cooperative experience. Though I complained about it earlier, Fortnite adding light base building mechanics, revitalizing arcade shooting, and evolving their map every season really makes me respect it as much as Minecraft (even if I played either one very little).

For a long time MMOs failed to truly evolve or innovate any aspect of their gameplay except that which lead to psychologically addictive grinding or gambling. It stagnated multiplayer gaming and continues to do so despite the occasional success story. The risk of stirring the still lake that is copycat game development often pays off in ways that genuine innovation don’t. Instead, people would rather thousands on GTA Online to play what should’ve been included with their $60 purchase. But people are willing to pay that money, so who am I to blame Rockstar?

The MMOification of gaming may not have been good for games, but it’s been good for business. I guess that’s why I shouldn’t be surprised.


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.

* * *

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?


Rethinking MMO Death Penalties

back in my day leveling

Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.

Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.

The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.

Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties

Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.

If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.

This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.


Character Skill vs. Player Skill

If there’s one key differentiator between MMO games and other genres it’s that character skill trumps player skill. Even in games with MMO-style meta progression systems like some MOBAs and FPS games, player skill will win out in all but the most unbalanced systems (I’m looking at you Star Wars: Battlefront and the Han Solo pistol). In MMOs, a level 20 character is straight up better than a level 10 character. There’s no way around it, and if there’s PvP involved then the lower level character better hope they don’t cross paths.

This is born out of the MMORPG subgenre from which the broader MMO genre originated. RPGs are first and foremost about progressing a character’s prowess (regardless of what roleplayers and story lovers will argue). Taking agency out of the actual player’s hands is certainly fine. It’s much easier to balance an experience around well defined numbers than it is between players with disparate brain powers and reflexes. This ensures a proper difficulty curve for everyone that plays the game. The problem is that this creates a disconnect for players in what constitutes as skillful play.

In the absence of player skill, many gamers equate leveling or leveling speed to player skill. Thus, they shun games with auto leveling like Dragon Awaken. These same players may even argue that auto leveling is boring, while ignoring the trivial nature of leveling in the vast majority of MMORPGs.

dragon awaken auto button

One of many places the auto button appears in Dragon Awaken

Eve Online is one MMORPG that completely removes the player’s ability to impact leveling speed by relegating advancement to a real time system. This frees up the player’s time to engage in other activities without concern for progression. Unfortunately, most people who end up trying Eve find that “leveling time” just gets replaced with “money time”. Eve players then turn to assessing the fastest way to generate income, which is part of what turns Eve into a “spreadsheet game”. There’s more to the game, but it doesn’t change the fact that progression is boring.

Regardless of whether leveling is accomplished via play, in-game bots, or real-time advancement, it’s always pretty mindless when removing player skill. Thus, I think some element of player skill must be present even when character skill is paramount. A good example of this system in action can be found in Dungeons & Dragons Online. Each dungeon offers multiple difficulty levels that cater to casual solo players as much as they do hardcore groups. Rewards are commensurate with the challenge undertaken so choosing to up the difficulty is actually worthwhile. This exemplifies a key balancing element between mass market appeal and satisfying the loyal, hardcore niche. It’s also why we should feel comfortable calling certain games MMOs even most gameplay is instanced. Doing otherwise limits a developer’s ability to find creative solutions to age old problems.

DDO Instances

I tend to gravitate towards the idea that developers should incorporate fewer binary elements in MMO death penalties. One such element is the all or nothing aspect of experience points. Typically, EXP is only gained from completing quests or killing enemies. There’s no partial credit. This runs counter to games in other genres where win or lose, you’ll gain EXP. Bonuses exist in those games for winning or performing well, but there’s always advancement for just playing. This method frees up an alternate progression paths where failure is OK. As is, failure is not OK in MMOs. And that’s bad.

Ultimately, I believe a hybrid vertical/horizontal progression model works best for MMOs where failure can safely exist. I’ve talked ad nauseum about the greatness of horizontal progression many times so I won’t delve too far into this. Suffice it to say that a one-two dopamine punch of progressing both oneself and one’s character simultaneously is twice the hook of progressing only one. If that sounds up your alley, maybe check out Fractured or Crowfall. I really like the ideas these developers are putting forth to improve how advancement has worked in this surprisingly stale 20-year old genre.

Character skill comes in many forms – from absolute power to diverse options. Either can provide satisfying forms of advancement. Unfortunately, such advancement often comes at the expense of player agency. Many MMOs have tackled the issue in different ways, but I think very few have hit the mark. As time passes, I expect more MMOs to find a happy medium between the player and the character.

Where’s your perfect balance between the two?


Sea of Thieves Highlights Our Progression Obsession

Sea of Thieves is currently sitting on a 5.2 user score on Metacritic. The vast majority of complaints relate to lack of content and/or progression. Mind you, progression has never been a consideration for Rare when developing their pirate themed MMO. They weren’t hiding anything, but come release a huge community railed against the design decision. The only “improvements” to be acquired in the game are purely cosmetic. While looking cool is certainly a driver for a lot of players, it doesn’t alter gameplay. And that’s the problem that Sea of Thieves is facing – the game grows stale fast. I guess it at least fixes the problem of wanting to make too many alts.

sea of thieves ship progression

Rinse, Repeat

Members of the community lodge complaints of nothing to do after only a few hours of play. And that may be true in a sense compared to other more grandiose MMOs. The directed activities in Sea of Thieves are limited to quests to kill skeletons, find buried treasure, or hunt down trade goods like pigs. There’s little variety to sate players desire to see something, anything change. That the game lacks statistical progression amplifies the routine nature of these activities. Rare counts on the dynamic nature of PvP to mix up this routine as other players can freely kill one another to steal each other’s treasure. And until the treasure is turned in at a specific NPC, it’s fair game for anyone else. The problem is that with the open sea sailing, there’s no guarantee you’ll find any meaningful PvP. Even when another player pops up on the horizon, it can often mean a one sided affair with a 4-player galleon crushing a 2-manned sloop. This describes the entire gameplay loop for Sea of Thieves.

It sounds overly repetitive, but is it? Diablo clones revolve around killing hordes of enemies whose diversity makes little impact on gameplay. Cooperative shooters like Vermintide task players on banding together to fight hordes of enemies with the gameplay variety coming from different maps. Even MMOs can seem rather repetitive once you peel back the layers. Quests rarely veer far off from killing X monsters and fedexing items for incapable NPCs. Sure, dungeons and raids inspire wonder – but usually only the first time around. The non-boss monsters themselves rarely demand players do anything different to fell them. So whether or not the enemies in most MMOs consisted purely of skeletons and skeleton captains ends up making little difference other than that very sense of progression. And like Sea of Thieves, PvP in MMOs tend to be pretty hit or miss. Sometimes the experience is legendary and sometimes it’s a waste of time.

Despite the general repetitive nature of these games, they’ve all flourished in their own respects. The differences all boil down to progression. Diablo constantly opens up new challenges based on acquiring bigger and better loot (or unique set bonuses). World of Warcraft always has a new raid challenge availability to test one’s mettle. Vermintide’s system provides a large stock of increasingly difficult challenges to undertake. Along the way, players increasingly feel more powerful. This is done through multiple methods of progression such as new abilities, better stats, new maps/levels/dungeons, new enemies, new talents, and new gear. The core gameplay loop can stay the same as long as something changes. Rare’s stated goal is to provide egalitarian stats where only player skill affects success. It’s a noble pursuit, but unfortunately they’ve lost sight of why progression matters.

sea of thieves ship progression 2

Progression Obsession

In fact, the game does offer a limited form of progression comparable with its contemporaries in related genres. As players complete quests and turn in treasure, they earn respect and renown amongst the game’s factions. This opens the doors to lengthier and more detailed quests. One could simply say that it’s just adding a few more steps to the existing quests, but that would unfairly discount the increased sense of risk and reward the player has earned for their efforts thus far.

Can Sea of Thieves survive without gameplay changing progression? We’ll find out as early as the next few months. Their content plans speak of adding a large suite of options to the gameplay loop – new areas to explore, new AI enemies, and weekly events. But by giving players a bundle of carrots without dangling the stick first, it creates two problems. First, everything can and will be accomplished immediately so what will there be to look forward to? Secondly, gamers enjoy the sense of pride and satisfaction from unlocking these opportunities in the first place. The sheer fact of having had to work for something that has made one’s character better leads to a “sunk cost” mindset that enthralls players unnaturally long.

Sea of Thieves looks like it’s going to end up as game to come back for every once in a while. I think for most people, the gameplay loop to acquire better cosmetics simply feels too grindy. While MMOs aren’t truly any better in this respect, they do hide it better. Constantly doling out new toys or arenas to play in is like a slot machine that pays out on a regular basis. Choosing to eschew progression in Sea of Thieves is a risky pursuit precisely because they’re forcing themselves to build truly novel, varied, and unique content to entertain players. Progression is easy and sucks gamers in (which is why we see it now in practically every gaming genre). If you want more proof, look no further than idle clicker games with literally no gameplay other than progression. The most popular of these, Clicker Heroes, constantly hovers around Steam’s top 50 most games played.

Personally, I believe the game would have been better off with unlockable (but balanced) classes or weapons. But that doesn’t mean Rare can’t bring their equitable MMO world vision to life. It’s just going to require dedication, frequent effort, and a ton of creativity. They’re certainly fighting an uphill battle, as I believe the number of current MMOs that could survive with Rare’s progression system could be counted on one hand.

Gamers are obsessed with progression, but if Rare can succeed in quieting their community’s discontent while maintaining their vision they will do more than earn some dough. They’ll lay the groundwork for an entirely new type of MMO. That alone has me rooting for them.