Category Archives: Top X Lists

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.


Five MMOs with the Most Dedicated Communities

MMORPG players are, by nature, an unusually devoted bunch. You have to be to sink hundreds or thousands of hours into a single game. But one thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some games’ communities are a bit more dedicated than most. They’re communities that will stick with a game through content gaps or major design blunders, or communities that grow so close they feel more like families.

Lord of the Rings Online

The Inn of the Prancing Pony in Lord of the Rings Online

When people talk about MMOs with good communities — especially good role-play communities — one of the first names that always comes up is Lord of the Rings Online. I haven’t spent much time in LotRO myself, but I’ve seen the praises of its community being sung high and low.

While the online world is awash in tales of toxicity and harassment, LotRO players are mostly known for being polite, mature, and helpful.

This is most evident in the famed player-run events held in LotRO, which allow players to show off both their commitment to the game and their community spirit. Most famous of these is “Weatherstock,” an actual in-game music festival where player bands perform for crowds of fans.

A good community doesn’t just happen. It’s something that has to be built and maintained, and that’s something that LotRO players seem to understand well. They care about their game and its community enough to go that extra mile.

EVE Online

eve online good mmorpg to play with friends image

EVE Online is one of the most notoriously difficult to pick up MMOs on the market. Most people who try it don’t last more than an hour or two. A lot of people (myself included) never even make it out of the tutorial.

Those who survive the initial learning curve do so because they have an intense passion for the game, its deep mechanics, and its cutthroat politics. EVE players are dedicated because their game simply won’t accept any less.

It’s that passion, combined with the game’s anarchic emergent gameplay, that allows the EVE community to generate more headlines than perhaps any other MMO’s players. It seems like almost every other month we get a new story of a major heist, or a brutal gank with a cost equivalent to thousands of real world dollars, or an hours-long battle involving thousands of players. One need look no further than the infamous World War Bee to see what the EVE community is capable of.

The EVE community is not always the friendliest bunch, nor the most trustworthy, but their passion and their dedication cannot be denied.

Star Wars Galaxies

A group of players in Star Wars Galaxies

How do you know if someone was a Star Wars Galaxies player? Don’t worry; they’ll tell you.

I kid, but it is a fact that to this day you can find no shortage of SWG players happy to sing the praises of what is often considered one of the greatest sandbox MMOs of all time. Galaxies players survived two of the biggest controversies in MMO history — the “Combat Upgrade” and “New Game Enhancements” — and continue to keep the memory of the game alive even years after its closure with countless think pieces and nostalgic blog posts, and a thriving emulator community.

If that’s not true dedication, I don’t know what is.

City of Heroes

A rally of City of Heroes players

Another dead game whose memory endures thanks to an incredibly passionate fanbase.

With a strong role-play community and little competition from other superhero MMOs, City of Heroes boasted one of the most tightly knit playerbases in the MMO world when it was alive, and even now that it’s dead, that community endures, albeit in a diminished fashion.

For proof of this, one need look no further than the bevy of crowdfunded “spiritual successors” to City of Heroes that are in development: City of Titans, Ship of Heroes, Valiance Online…

For those who need their City of Heroes fix in a more immediate form, there’s also Paragon Chat. While not a full emulator, it does allow former CoH players to reconnect via a minimalist recreation of the game that includes some of the environments and the ability to chat with other players, though not actual gameplay.

Secret World Legends

The Whispering Tide community-driven event in The Secret World

The original Secret World was a game renowned for having one of the most warm and mature online communities around. Having been an avid TSW player myself, I always felt that such stories were a tad exaggerated — we still had our share of trolls and elitists — but certainly TSW’s community was a cut above the average.

And I certainly can’t deny that they were also among the most fanatically devoted. I shudder to imagine how many hours of sleep I’ve lost delving into novel-length theory threads on the old lore forums.

Most communities would not have survived the upheaval Funcom handed down when it rebooted the game as Secret World Legends, and indeed, much harm was done to the playerbase. Many refused to give up years of progress by jumping over to the new game — myself included.

But many did make the change, and those that did surely deserve to be viewed as some of the most devoted players in all of online gaming. No one else would have the patience to endure being made to start over from scratch.

I don’t know if the TSW/SWL community is necessarily the most friendly nor the most dedicated, of all time, but it is the one that felt most like home to me, and thus it will always hold a special place in my heart.


Five Ageless MMO Thrills

Some things just never get old. No matter how old we get, no matter how jaded we become, there are some things in life that will never fail to bring a smile to our faces.

As it is in life, so it is in MMORPGs. If you play such games long enough, it’s easy to become bored of their standard tropes and numb to things you once enjoyed… but there are some things whose appeal is ageless. Some things just never lose their thrill, no matter how many times you experience them.

This list might be a bit different for different people, but to me, the following are those moments in MMOs that I will never tire of.

In-game Cities

The updated city of Dalaran from World of Warcraft's Legion expansion

I’ve been playing MMOs for close to ten years now. In that time, I’ve become jaded to almost everything this genre has to offer. That’s not to say that I don’t have fun anymore, but it’s very hard to wow me these days.

But if there’s one thing that always makes me catch my breath in wonder — even now — it’s that moment when you first set foot into a capitol city within an MMORPG.

I’m not talking about mere towns or quest hubs. I’m talking about proper sprawling virtual cities. Your Stormwinds, your Elden Roots, your Pandemoniums. Places whose streets are choked by NPCs and players alike, where your chat window blows up and your screenshot key gets a workout.

Whenever I enter a new in-game city for the first time, I invariably wind up losing at least an hour or two as I walk down every street, investigate every nook and cranny, and talk to every NPC. A good virtual city is almost as full of color, flavor, and character as a real city, and I make it my mission to soak it all in.

Growing up in the world of DOS and pixel graphics, it never ceases to amaze me that video games can now produce environments as big and beautiful as MMO cities.

Creating a New Character

A newly created Sith warrior in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I am an unabashed and unapologetic altoholic. In The Secret World — a game that provided no good reason to ever play alts — I had five characters. In other games, my character select screen gets even more bloated. I just can’t seem to stop making new ones.

And I think at least part of the reason for this is that there’s something strangely addictive about creating a new character. Every time I start building a new avatar, my mind fills with the infinite possibilities of the adventures I might one day have with them. Each new character promises new experiences and new memories to be made.

For role-players, creating a new character is especially exciting, because it’s also an opportunity to forge a new backstory. Character creation almost becomes a form of story-telling unto itself, as you spin yourself the tale of this new avatar.

But even if you’re not into role-play, creating a new character can still be addictively alluring. Trying a new race, class, or faction lets you experience an old game in a new way. You can recapture the excitement you felt when you first started playing, if only for a time. It’s a way to keep things fresh almost indefinitely.

Live Events

The "Hatekeeper" event in The Secret World

If there’s one trump card the MMO genre will always have over single-player games, it’s in-game events.

Not just the generic, canned holiday events every MMO trots out. Those tend to be pretty lame. I’m talking about the big, epic events that only come around once. Events that change the game, or bring the community together in a unique way.

In the old days, in games like Ultima Online or Asheron’s Call, it was common for game-masters to take on the roles of NPCs and play out major story events with the community. Nowadays that’s much rarer, but live events have not entirely vanished. Guild Wars 2 has made in-game events a major selling feature of the game, with somewhat mixed results, and World of Warcraft has its pre-expansion events, as well as other occasional one-time story events.

There’s just something uniquely thrilling about major in-game events. They bring the community together, forging bonds and memories that will last a lifetime, and they transform simple games into evolving virtual worlds that almost feel like real places.

Live events make memories in a way that nothing else in the gaming world can. Even years later, we can find some joy in looking back and saying, “I was there.”

Expansion Announcements

A Romulan warbird in Star Trek: Online

These days I find the best way to recapture the feeling of excitement I felt on Christmas morning as a kid is to keep an eye on MMO expansion announcements.

Content patches aren’t the same. They might be exciting for avid players of a game, but expansions are a good way to attract the attention of the entire MMO community.

An expansion — a true expansion — isn’t just a content update. It alters and enhances the way a game is played forever. Expansions are literal game-changers. And that is exciting in a way little else in the gaming world can be.

A good expansion can bring in a total renaissance for an MMORPG. Legacy of Romulus got me to give Star Trek: Online a second chance after writing it off entirely. Knights of the Fallen Empire changed me from someone who didn’t care about SWTOR at all to someone with all eight class stories completed.

And so for this reason I continue to follow expansion announcements with anticipation, even for games I don’t play. Expansions can change everything, and that never stops being intriguing.

Helping Another Player

A cutscene in the action MMORPG Soulworker

MMOs are a social medium, and oftentimes the best experiences they offer are the bonds we form with other players. For me, there are few things as satisfying as simply doing something to put a smile on another player’s face.

Of course, lots of people may think of major accomplishments they helped their guild achieve, or assistance they’ve provided to long-time friends, and those are very good things, but I think there’s something very special about offering random help to strangers.

Back in TSW’s heyday, I used to use the cash shop currency stipend from my lifetime subscription to buy the event bags that granted loot to everyone around me. During one such bag-opening, someone on their free trial got the Revenant Polar Bear, a rare pet that was one of the most coveted rewards from that event. It honestly made me far happier than if I had gotten the pet myself, and I like to think it helped give that person a positive impression of the game.

It’s memories like that that stick with you. Good feelings like that are timeless.


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?


Six Ways MMOs Can Make Leveling More Appealing

There has always been a vocal contingent of the MMO community that views leveling as nothing but a chore. And to be fair, in a lot of games, it is. But what to do?

A party of characters in World of Warcraft

One possibility is to abolish leveling entirely, but given how intrinsic leveling is to the RPG experience, it may be more realistic to look for ways to make leveling more interesting, to make it a compelling attraction in its own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the things developers can do to make leveling appealing.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

MMOs are rather infamous for making players wait to get to the good stuff. “The real game begins at endgame” is a refrain we’ve all heard. All the development resources go into high level content like raids, leaving leveling players to pick up the scraps of bland kill and collect quests.

Thankfully, MMO developers are waking up to how off-putting this can be, so it’s not as common a problem as it once was, but it’s still worth saying: In 2018, players will lose patience with games that don’t put their best foot forward.

We now expect leveling content to have all the bells and whistles and production values of endgame. There are far too many good MMOs out there to waste time on games that can’t be bothered to make good first impression.

Equally Viable Options

Similarly, leveling should reflect endgame by offering as many options for how to play as max level content, and those options should all be viable paths to the cap.

A paladin character in the Dungeons and Dragons MMORPG Neverwinter

Often, MMOs tune quests as the optimal leveling path, and other options are left by the wayside. Even as an avid quester myself, this doesn’t sit right with me. If someone has joined your MMO hoping to get into competitive PvP at endgame, they should be able to compete against their fellow players as a method of leveling, too, and not have to worry about missing out on XP or gear upgrades.

This has the advantage of offering variety, too. As I said, I enjoy questing, but sometimes I need a break. Sometimes it’s nice to earn a few levels through dungeons or PvP. As long as games don’t spread themselves too thin, variety can be a good thing.

Emotional Investment

This entry was originally going to be “a good story,” but that draws to mind some kind of linear, overarching story, and while that is a model I enjoy, I’m not sure it’s something you really need.

What you need is something for the player to get invested in beyond stats and levels. Whether that be an epic story, a good cast of characters, or a fascinating world, it just needs to be something people can care about.

If people are only playing for the mechanics, it’s easy for them to be distracted by other games, but if they become emotionally invested, they’ll keep coming back for more. They’ll find themselves doing “just one more quest” to see what happens next.

More Content Than Is Needed

Leveling isn’t just for new players. These days almost everyone plays alts, whether for fun or because their guild needs a new tank/healer/whatever. That means leveling isn’t something you experience just once, and therefore there needs to be some way to keep it fresh.

An Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

A very easy way to achieve this is to simply offer more content than is needed to get a single character to level cap. This could take the form of quests that are unique to specific classes or races, as seen in Star Wars: The Old Republic or the upcoming Bless Online, but it could also just mean extra zones or leveling paths.

A good level-scaling system can also help, allowing players to choose their path through content rather than having it be entirely dictated by their current level.

A Steady Leveling Curve

Long-time MMO players are familiar with the concept of “hell levels,” wherein higher levels require a brutal amount of time to earn.

True hell levels are largely a thing of the past these days, but the general concept of level-ups becoming far slower as one approaches endgame remains, and I have to wonder why. While it does have a basic sort of logic to it, upon closer examination I have a hard time seeing any good justification for it. It’s just discouraging.

One thing that I greatly admire Guild Wars 2 for is its nearly flat leveling curve, where higher levels do not take significantly more effort to earn than lower ones. The rate at which your character dings remains more or less consistent throughout the game, and it feels much more balanced and rewarding.

Challenge

Often when people talk about making leveling more challenging, they mean they want to bring back the days when it took a week or more of solid grinding to get a single level. But tedium is not true difficulty, and that’s not what I mean when I say that leveling could use more challenge.

Combat in the original version of The Secret World, a famously challenging MMO

Too often, enemies in MMORPG leveling content are little more than speed bumps. They don’t have intelligent AI, meaningful mechanics to counter, or even the raw stats to be a serious threat to any basically competent player. This can make leveling content feel like a chore, rather than the exciting adventure a good RPG should be.

Of course, there is also the risk of making leveling too challenging. It is, after all, a new player’s first introduction to the game, and things should be a bit forgiving at first while they learn the ropes. If leveling becomes too unforgiving, it risks driving people away.

But there must be a happy medium. Just because leveling can’t be too brutal doesn’t mean it should be all mindless, all the time, either. As players progress further into a game, they can and should be expected to handle greater challenges.


Six Design Choices MMOs Should Retire

Often, tradition can be a good thing, but not always. Sometimes traditions can be onerous or destructive, surviving only through a resigned belief that this is how things have always been, so this is how things always will be.

Executing an enemy in Star Wars: The Old Republic

As it is in the real world, so it is in the world of MMORPGs. There are some ingrained or traditional elements of MMO design that have long outlived their usefulness, if indeed they ever had any to begin with. These concepts simply need to be retired, ideally sooner rather than later.

Lockboxes

This entry might surprise some people who are familiar with my work, as I have developed something of a reputation of being a lockbox apologist.

And to be clear: My position has not changed. I think the furor over lockboxes is quite overblown, that people take the issue far too seriously, and that the whole situation has become somewhat toxic.

That being said, I have also always been clear that I don’t particularly like lockboxes. I don’t think they’re immoral or the death of the genre, but I also don’t think they’re a good thing to have around, either. It’s obvious that making people gamble for what they want rather than buying or earning it directly is not a good deal for the player.

I reject the idea that lockboxes are any more than an annoyance, but they are still an annoyance. If they vanished from the world tomorrow, I wouldn’t shed a tear.

If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to listen to people endlessly complaining about them anymore.

Factions in PvE Games

I’ve never liked the idea of factions in MMORPGs. I’m not very competitive; I’m the sort of person who would rather cooperate with other players than fight against them.

However, I do grant that there are some games where they make sense. If your MMO is based

Horde and Alliance armor in World of Warcraft's upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion

on PvP, separating players into discrete factions is a good way to foster team spirit and create the potential for large scale conflict.

Outside of those niche cases, though?

Factions need to go.

MMOs are, obviously, a social medium, so creating artificial divides between players is one of the most counter-productive things you can do. You’re giving people smaller pools of potential group members, less opportunity to make new friends, and more limited options altogether.

Not to mention the potential for toxicity it brings forth. I’m forever amazed that anyone takes seriously the conflict between imaginary video game factions, but in reality the rivalries between factions can spill over into the real world in some very ugly ways. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a World of Warcraft player make the earnest argument that Horde/Alliance players are all children/crybabies/bullies/perverts/genetically inferior, I could fund my own MMO (it would basically be a hybrid of The Secret World and SWTOR, but high fantasy).

Now that the WoW clone craze is winding down and companies are no longer trying to ape Blizzard’s giant as much as possible, the idea of factional conflict in PvE MMOs is fading, but honestly, I don’t think things have gone far enough. I’d like to see those games that still have factions begin to phase them out, at least to some degree. Most games have the conceit that players are freelance adventurers, so they should have the option to work with whomever they choose.

Elder Scrolls Online has a good model to follow. Factions still exist, but are irrelevant outside of the Alliance War PvP system. Anyone can group with anyone, and no content is gated by faction.

And when it comes to new releases, let’s just not bother with factions at all, shall we?

A shot from the MMO shooter The Division

Mandatory Subscriptions

I’ve already ranted about MMO subscription fees in the past. They incentivize bad game design, they discourage variety, and they don’t really offer any of the benefits they claim to. I firmly believe that of all current monetization options for online games, a mandatory subscription fee is the worst deal from the player’s perspective (except maybe crowdfunding and early access, but that’s kind of a whole other issue).

The good news is that these days subscriptions are a dying breed. There’s really only two major games still clinging to them — World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV — and I’m fairly confident they’ll come around eventually. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day.

I just hope it’s some day soon.

Loot Competition

The fight for treasure lies at the heart of most MMORPGs. But ideally that fight should be against bosses and monsters, or at most enemy players, not your own teammates.

Yet for many long years, this was the standard mode of operation for most MMOs. At the end of a fight, there was a finite pool of loot drops to share, and players had to decide how to distribute it between them. In a perfect world, a civil discourse would follow, and items would be given out in a fair and orderly fashion.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Thus, loot drama became a thing. Guilds came up with all sorts of convoluted systems to try to determine who most deserved what item, but in the end there was always plenty of potential for conflict and resentment. And that’s in organized groups. In PUGs, things could get truly ugly.

It needs to be said again: MMOs are a social medium. Any design that fosters anti-social behavior should be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

A shot from the MMO shooter Defiance

Thankfully, personalized loot drops, with no competition and no drama, are becoming ever more common, and the days of living in fear of loot ninjas seem to be fading. Even so, there are still plenty of games clinging to the old ways, despite the obvious disadvantages.

Death Penalties

Coming from a background in single-player games, death penalties in MMOs are something that’s always baffled me. I don’t understand why they ever existed in the first place, let alone why they’re still around.

In the rest of gaming, if you die, you go back to your last save or checkpoint and start over. The fact you have to repeat whatever killed you (and anything else after your last save) is the punishment for failure, and really that’s all there needs to be.

MMOs have the same thing. By the time you get back to where you died, the boss you were fighting will have reset, or the mobs respawned. You have to start over. And again, that’s really all you need to make death feel meaningful.

But for some reason MMOs feel the need to tack additional punishment on top of that. In the old days we had all kinds of draconian things like corpse runs and XP loss. Nowadays most games have lighter penalties, like gear repairs, but the idea of punishment for death is still there.

And I still don’t know why. It’s being punitive for the sake of being punitive. It doesn’t add to gameplay in any way. It’s only frustrating. At best it can serve as a gold sink, but there has to be more inventive ways to achieve that goal.

Mobs… Mobs Everywhere

Wild monsters in Black Desert Online

One of my biggest pet peeves of MMO design is when developers feel the need to fill every corner of the game world with legions of hostile mobs, making it impossible to go anywhere or enjoy the sights without constantly being jumped by some randomly hostile wildlife.

Now, I do somewhat understand the reasoning for this. You want a game world to present a certain sense of danger, and nothing’s worse than running out of mobs while on a kill quest. But just jamming every corner of every zone full of baddies isn’t a great solution to either problem.

Mob competition is better solved by adjustable respawn times that replenish enemies more quickly when players are killing them in large numbers. Meanwhile, I think excessive numbers of mobs ultimately do more to harm the sense of peril in a game world than they do to help it.

See, if your game is designed such that you’re coming under attack at every turn, each individual enemy can’t really be that dangerous. Otherwise it would become an unplayable slog. This turns mobs into mere speedbumps, rather than something to genuinely be wary of.

What I would like to see is more intelligent mob placement. If there’s a large NPC camp that is involved in important quests, sure, fill it with legions of bad guys. But in the open wilderness, don’t add enemies unless there’s a good cause, and it’s probably better for them to be fewer and more powerful. This creates a certain sense of peril and adventure without making every journey an endless slog of trivial battles.

And developers really need to learn that it’s okay for some areas to be free of danger. Let a pretty glade just be a pretty glade.