Tag Archives: Final Fantasy XIV

We Have Enough MMOs

2017 was another year without a lot of big name releases in the MMO space. We’re definitely going through a bit of a drought, especially when compared to the post-WoW boom, and that has a lot of people in the MMORPG community worried. The more hyperbolic voices among us rush to once again declare the genre dead, while more moderate figures simply hum and haw and hope for more new releases in future.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls Online

But to that I say, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I don’t think there’s any cause for concern. I think everything is just fine. MMO players don’t need a constant stream of new titles; we just need a solid selection of games that continue to grow and prosper. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Simply put, we have enough MMOs.

What We Expect

Of course, it’s easy enough to see where this desire for more and more new games comes from. A steady stream of new releases is the bedrock of pretty much any entertainment industry. We’re used to things working that way.

Imagine if Hollywood put out only one or two movies over a period of several years. It would be disastrous. Movie theaters everywhere would go out of business. The entire film industry would collapse.

Closer to home, single-player game developers also need to keep putting out new titles if they want to survive. Even with an ever-increasing reliance on DLC, micro-transactions, and “long tail” monetization, the fact remains most people finish a single-player game (and stop paying for it) within a few weeks at most. Players and developers alike need new games to be released regularly, or the whole system collapses.

But MMOs are special, you see. MMOs aren’t something you pick up and put down in the space of hours, or days, or even weeks. MMOs are about investing months, even years of your time. Even for games that do charge for entry, subscription fees and cash shop purchases will inevitably dwarf box sales, and from the player’s perspective, long-term investment is much of the appeal. We want to be able to set down roots in a game and settle in for the long haul.

So while it’s easy to fall into the belief that a lack of new releases is a red flag, for MMOs, it really isn’t. The genre can survive for extended periods with little or no new games to speak of.

A town in the action combat MMORPG Kritika Online

If after ten or fifteen years we still haven’t seen any big-name MMO releases, then I’d get worried. Until then, I’m not concerned.

What We Want

Of course, even if you’re not worried about the health of the genre, it’s still understandable to pine for some new games to sink your teeth into. The excitement of something new and shiny cannot be denied.

Often times the hype leading up to a game’s release is at least as exciting as the actual game. Anticipation is fun. We all like to have something to look forward to.

There’s a rush to the first few days of an MMO’s life that can’t really be replicated by anything else, too. Everything is still fresh and new, not just to you but to everyone, and there’s a festival air to it all. Everything is busy. Everyone is having fun. Chat is hopping, and zones are buzzing. It’s the entire MMO experience turned up to eleven.

For those of us who comment on the genre for a hobby or for a living, new releases definitely make our lives easier, too. It’s unquestionably easier for me to review a new game than it is to find some new insight on the games that have already been out for years.

So yes, it’s understandable to want something new to play. But that still doesn’t mean a dearth of new titles is cause for concern. There are other, better ways to measure the health of the genre.

What We Need

 

A revenant character in Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion

So we’re used to the idea that new releases are how entertainment industries stay afloat, and we have lots of good reasons to find new games exciting, but as I’ve said, MMOs are special, and that’s not what this genre is really about.

MMOs are not, by and large, a one and done experience. They’re not something you finish quickly… or at all. It’s not as though you’re going to play one for a few days and then move on. Not if the developers are doing their job, anyway.

No, MMORPGs are about settling down. They’re about finding a home. They’re games that you build relationships with over years.

We don’t need a constant chain of new games to play. We need games that we can stick with for the long haul, that continue to thrive years after launch.

The health of the MMORPG genre is therefore best measured not by the number of new releases, but by the prosperity and popularity of the games that are already live.

By that measure, I judge the state of the MMO genre to be strong.

We have a strong stable of big name MMOs that are getting regular infusions of quality content, like World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, and Final Fantasy XIV. We have smaller and older games that continue to chug along, like Lord of the Rings Online and the EverQuests.

We have sci-fi MMOs, like EVE Online and Star Trek Online. We have shooter MMOs, like Destiny and Warframe. We have story MMOs and PvP MMOs and raiding MMOs. We have action combat MMOs and tab target MMOs, photo-realistic MMOs and anime MMOs, subscription MMOs and free to play MMOs.

A warlock character in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We live in a world where the only way I’ll find the time to play all the MMOs I want to as much as I want to is if scientists devise a way to function without sleep (and even then it would be a challenge). We have all that we need, and while you can probably point to some games that are struggling, there are at least as many that are thriving.

In the face of that, there just isn’t a pressing need to throw a lot of new games into the mix. In fact, I can even think of some downsides to the idea.

The pool of potential MMO players is, I believe, relatively static. A particularly exciting new game might attract some new players, but I know from personal experience that it can be very difficult to convert a non-MMO player into the genre. I don’t think that a new MMORPG is just going to conjure itself an entirely new playerbase.

That means that any new games are going to cannibalize the players from existing games, at least to some extent. These days, most of us play multiple MMOs, but there is an upper limit to how many games each person has time for. At some point you do run the risk of the players being spread too thin between too many games, and the more people hop around, the less opportunity there is for true online communities to form.

Now, I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to say that more new MMOs would be a bad thing… but it’s not an unequivocally good thing, either.

In the years following the break-out success of World of Warcraft, we saw a steady stream of new MMOs coming out all the time, and some may see that as “the good old days,” but in practice all we got was an endless stream of barely distinguishable games that struggled to find a voice and an audience.

MMOs are not the new hotness anymore, and they’re no longer a genre that every other developer is trying to create a “me too” entry for. But that’s not a sign that the genre is dying; it’s a sign that it’s maturing, and that can only be a good thing.

A cutscene in the free to play MMORPG Blade and Soul

MMOs thrive on stability. That’s what we should seek above all else, and that’s what we have.

* * *

So I understand why some people are bothered by the relative lack of new MMOs being released these days. It’s not what we’re used to, and it gives us a lack of sexy newness to drool over.

But it doesn’t mean that MMOs are in trouble, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’re dying. The genre has settled into a quiet equilibrium, and it’s chugging along just fine.

The gaming community loves to focus on the negative, but when you really think about it, now is a great time to be an MMORPG player. Maybe the best time. There are games for (nearly) every taste. Most of the big names are stable and thriving. We’ve got quality and quantity. We’ve got everything we need.

We have enough MMOs.


Subscriptions Are Still the Worst Business Model

With all the controversy swirling around lockboxes and other monetization strategies, I see an increasing number of people pining for the day when subscriptions were the standard business model for online games.

World of Warcraft, one of the few games still maintaining a subscription business model

I think it might be time for a reminder of how we ended up here. There’s a reason that free to play and buy to play are now the norm, and it’s not that developers are conducting an evil international conspiracy to make us lockbox addicts.

It’s that subscriptions failed as a model, and they failed because people realized there are better options. For all the flaws of other business models — and oh boy, they do have them — none are quite so bad a deal for the player as a monthly subscription fee. I firmly believe it is the worst business model for an MMORPG.

Let’s look at all the ways subs ill-serve players, and please note that for the purposes of this article, “subscription” refers only to games that require a regular fee in order to play. Optional subscriptions as part of a hybrid model are an entirely different beast, and something I’m entirely okay with.

They Enforce Grinding

One of the biggest fallacies I’ve ever seen put forth in the MMO community is that only free to play business models affect gameplay.

That’s nonsense.

These days, the only subscription game I play is World of Warcraft. It is also by far and away the grindiest game I play. This is not a coincidence.

Honestly, are people truly naive enough to believe that things like attunements, lengthy reputation grinds, and low drop rates were implemented because they were fun? No, they were designed to extend the life of content, allowing developers to earn more subscription dollars from each player.

One of the new allied races coming in World of Warcraft's Battle for Azeroth expansion

This is why while most other games make the main story something you can just jump into and enjoy, WoW locks it behind weeks of reputation grinding. This is why Blizzard is now staggering its patch releases, with a trickle of new content unlocked each week, rather than patching it in all at once. Have you ever noticed how it always takes more than thirty days for anything to fully release?

One of the eternal criticisms of free to play games is that they force you pay cash, or grind endlessly. Don’t get me wrong, “pay or grind” is not a great deal for the player, but it’s still better than a subscription game, where you pay to grind.

A good example is WoW’s upcoming allied races feature. Whereas if a free to play game added a new playable race, you might have to pay to unlock it, WoW will require you to both pay for the new expansion and spend weeks — potentially months — grinding various reputations to unlock the new races.

Free to play games ask for your money or your time, but subscription games demand both, because for a subscription game they’re one and the same.

As the Goblins say, “Time is money, friend.”

They Spit in the Face of Customer Loyalty

Subscriptions are essentially “Yeah, but What Have You Done for Me Lately: The Business Model.” It doesn’t matter how many hours or how much money you pour into a game. If you haven’t coughed up $15 in the last thirty days, you’re completely locked out.

Let’s say you lose your job or otherwise hit a financial rough patch, and can no longer afford your subscription fee. Well, kiss goodbye to the characters you’ve spent potentially years developing. Say farewell to all the friends in your guild. Sucks to be you.

Final Fantasy XIV, one the last remaining subscription games on the market

That’s a terrible way to treat a loyal customer.

Games based around micro-transactions may have their flaws, but when you buy something, it’s yours. If you don’t have the funds to keep spending as you have, you can still keep playing, and enjoying all the perks you’ve bought in the past.

But to a subscription game, you’re only as good as your last payment. Never have I felt less like a person and more like a walking dollar sign than while playing a subscription game.

They Discourage Variety

In the past, there weren’t many MMOs around, and it made sense to just fully commit to one. But these days the field is overflowing with choices, and most people want to be able to enjoy more than one game.

Subscriptions make that a lot more difficult. If you’re paying a subscription to one game, playing anything else is going to feel like you’re wasting money because, well, you are. And if the other games you want to play are also subscription based, the cost is going to get prohibitive pretty fast.

Subscription games want you to play them and nothing else, and that sucks the fun out of the whole hobby. You don’t get to enjoy other games as much, and you burn out on your main game more quickly.

Their One Strength Is a Lie

The one advantage a mandatory subscription is supposed to hold over other business models — the chief argument I see put forth in its favour — is that it creates a level playing field. You pay a single fee and get access to the whole game. You don’t have your wallet eaten away by numerous extra charges, and everyone is put on the same level.

Argus in the subscription MMORPG World of Warcraft

Which is great except for the fact that isn’t true at all.

Let’s again use World of Warcraft as an example. To start playing it at all, you first have to buy the base game, which is $25 here in Canada (I believe it’s about $20 for Americans).

These days, Blizzard rolls all legacy expansions into the base game, so that will get you a lot of content, but if you want to play WoW to any significant degree, you’ll have to buy the most recent expansion, too. Blizzard not only abandons legacy content but will often go out of their way to make it unrewarding, and the community never lingers in old expansions, which cuts off the group-centric experiences WoW is built around.

So you need to buy the current expansion, currently priced at $63 up here, and that’s assuming you don’t spring for the deluxe edition, which contains a number of exclusive cosmetics. If you want to keep playing for any length of time, you’ll need to keep buying expansions as they release.

Then there’s the cash shop to consider. While WoW’s might not be quite as fully stocked as some free MMOs, it’s still pretty extensive, and also priced higher than most other games. The companion pets alone would run you around $200 if you wanted all of them. Often the mounts and pets in the cash shop are far more elaborate and detailed than anything in-game, as well.

“But those are just cosmetics,” I hear you say. And I really have no problem with games selling such things in principle. I just bought myself a new hairstyle in ESO a few days ago.

But it’s not just cosmetics. The cash shops also feature things like race changes, name changes, and server transfers, and while most of those are minor conveniences, choice of server can have a huge impact on your experience of an MMO, and it’s inevitable some people will need to transfer. Maybe you picked a dead server without realizing it, or maybe your once-thriving community has fallen apart.

A desert city in the subscription MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV

It gets worse if you play multiple characters, as most people do these days. At $32 per character (again, Canadian numbers), transferring more than one or two characters will cost more than a new triple AAA game.

It keeps going. Nowadays you can also buy character boosts that instantly level you to just below the current cap, and there’s the WoW Token to consider. With it, you can buy gold that can then be spent on BoE epics, allowing you to gear up your character entirely through the cash shop.

All this from a business model that’s supposed to give everyone everything for one monthly fee.

This isn’t unique to WoW, either. Final Fantasy XIV engages in similar practices, and while things may have gotten more pronounced in recent years, MMOs have always charged extra on top of their subscriptions, even if just for expansion packs.

The ideal of a subscription putting everyone on equal ground is a noble one, and if it were actually true, I’d probably feel a lot better about subscription games. It still wouldn’t be my favourite model because of the other problems listed above, but at least it would have a strong argument in its favour.

But it’s just not true. It was never true, and it’s getting less true all the time. Subscriptions don’t make games fair, they don’t prevent the best rewards from having price tags, and they don’t stop people from buying power.

* * *

MMO monetization is a messy business. Developers want to make as much money as possible, and players want everything for free. No solution will ever fully satisfy both sides. But while every model has flaws, none are worse for the player than a subscription fee for access. It’s a failed model, and it doesn’t deserve resurrection.


MMO Blogging Dead? No, But…

“blogging about them [MMORPGs] doesn’t appear to be a thing any more.”

Tobold, MMORPG blogger turned general gaming blogger, created waves with this statement. It’s a testament to his legacy in the community though that he is able to create such ripples for a community he doesn’t really place himself within any longer. It sparked defense from several bloggers and a handful of readers. Many clamored that MMO blogging is far from dead, citing a wealth of posts composed every week.

The quantity of posts originating from self professed MMO blogs doesn’t necessarily point to the trade’s life or death. After all, everyone shifts their attention away from MMOs here and there. Tobold points to single player game articles on MMORPG.com as evidence of a decline in this niche field. Here at MMOBro, we too touch on single player games. Does that make this less of an MMO site? I don’t think so. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had board game articles, but they’re still squarely a PC gaming site. The focus of topics here is still on MMO(RPG)s.

That said, it is true that there are less (if any) pure MMORPG sites out there. The answer as to why is as clear as it is subtle. The proliferation of MMO and MMO-lite games has blurred the distinction between MMOs and MMORPGs to the point where that line has all but faded away. Distant cousins of the genre like MOBAs have embraced growth and achievement mechanisms that made the genre popular in the first place. Now that players don’t have to inhabit a persistent world, nor necessarily grind for growth, MMO populations have fallen.

The reality is that it only seems that way to MMORPG purists and veterans. To everyone else in the world, Destiny occupies the same genre as World of Warcraft. And that means the genre is as healthy as ever. It’s just not restricted to PC anymore nor does it require a hundred players to occupy the same space. MMOs have always been about achievement/progression, online play, and persistent characters. Maybe that wasn’t the intent of developers – but that’s what kept people playing and led to the genre’s massive growth. Without progression, people quit and move onto something else. All of this is why our MMO games list includes a myriad of online options. MMO means different things to different people.

mmo blogging shadow of war

It may not be an MMO, but Shadow of War really feels like one.

All of this trickles down to single player gaming as well. MMOs continue to lay the ground work for addictive feedback loops. Only playing players pay, so developers focus on creating content that keeps players busy without drifting into boredom. You can see these loops implemented into AAA single player titles like Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. The developers for those games spent so much time copying those loops that they even added loot boxes, but that’s another discussion entirely.

This trickling effect isn’t a one way street though. Features from single player games regularly make their way into MMOs. Perhaps the most compelling of such features is rich, linear stories. Final Fantasy XIV arguably boasts the best storytelling in series history. Most of the game’s story can be experienced without any other players. Despite this solo focus, we don’t look at Final Fantasy XIV as less of an MMO. To many, it’s the best of its kind on the market.

This is why we can’t assess MMOs in a vacuum anymore. Gaming genre definitions have and will continue to blur. What makes an MMO an MMO, an RPG an RPG, and so forth no longer applies in any strict sense. Genre names are only starting points for us to find a product that will fulfill that which we’re seeking. Many video games can provide the same sensations as MMOs and vice versa. Because of that, I think it’s critical that MMO bloggers in fact do not wholly focus on MMO content. The only way bloggers, journalists, and writers can fully explore the genre is by stepping outside of it.

MMO blogging isn’t dead. It’s just evolved.


Why You Should Invest in Video Games, Like Now

I love video games. You probably do too or you wouldn’t be reading this (but hey, everyone is welcome).

So what if I told you that your passion could make you rich? No, I’m not suggesting you enter the competitive streaming market, sell virtual gold, or start an e-sports career. What I’m suggesting is much simpler – investing. I know reading about money isn’t as exciting as playing a new MMO game, but reading about money could lead to buying more MMOs. So in a way, this post is about playing more MMORPGs and games of all kinds!

World of Warcraft stocks

Want Proof?

If you had invested the cost of a $14.99 World of Warcraft monthly subscription into Activision Blizzard on an annual basis between November 2004 to November 2007, your $539.64 (yes, that’s how much we all spent) would now be worth $5,972. It literally would have paid for itself ten times over. And while Activision Blizzard technically existed as only Activision before 2008, the point isn’t any less valid.

For those unfamiliar with stock investments, they are a great way to grow your wealth. The easiest and most common recommendation for investors is to purchase index funds. There’s no doubt that strategy pays off in the long term. For example, $100 invested into the S&P 500 in 1977 would be worth approximately $2,500 today. By contrast, a savings account at today’s interest rates wouldn’t even earn you $100 in 40 years.

There is a small optimization problem with the index fund strategy. Not only is buying and holding index funds not very exciting, but video game related stocks vastly outperform index funds. Fair warning: prepare yourself for some math below.

Be aware that I am not a professional financial advisor in any capacity and the following information should not be construed as financially sound or professional advice. So don’t blame me if this article blows up your retirement fund, but do feel free to PayPal me some money if this information gives you the means to ‘pay to win’.

Baseline Investment

To really assess the performance of video game stocks, we need to set a few baseline values. For that, I’ll follow the performance details of three major index funds. The S&P 500 is the most common index fund to invest in and provides consistently strong returns. NASDAQ tracks technology stocks and thus is particularly relevant to compare against video games. Finally, Asia is a huge player in the video game industry so I’ll also be analyzing the Japanese index, Nikkei 225. So how have these indices performed over the years?

Let’s take a look at percentage gains from four points in time: one year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, and in January 2000, right before the dot-com bubble burst. Later, we’ll measure these indices against key video game stocks.

S&P 500

1Y: +13.72%
5Y: +75.52%
10Y: +67.5%
January, 2000: +68.04%

NASDAQ

1Y: +23.1%
5Y: +109.25%
10Y: +147.18%
January, 2000: +57.71%

Nikkei 225

1Y: +20.08%
5Y: +122.24%
10Y: +18.57%
January, 2000: +5.71%

Unsurprisingly, the best gains have been over the past five years as the market has only ticked upwards since the United States housing crash bottomed out in 2009. More importantly, it’s a positive sign to see that even investing at the peak of a stock market bubble will lead to long term gains. Even the best investors can’t time the stock market so consistent investments is the best route to leveling up your bank account.

bears-bulls-vs-madden-mario

Bears & Bulls vs. Madden & Mario

Plenty of companies sell video games so it would be pretty impractical to research them all. Instead, I’ll focus on those where their primary business is video games (which excludes publishers like Tencent Holdings) with at least some stake in the MMO market. Without further ado, I present our contenders who represent evidence for fiscally sound investment in video games.

Activision Blizzard is responsible for World of Warcraft. Electronic Arts is best known for their sports titles, but don’t forget that this giant owns Bioware and thus, Star Wars: The Old Republic. NEXON is one of the world’s largest free-to-play MMORPG publishers.  Ubisoft merely dabbles in the MMO market, but everyone has heard of game series like Assassin’s Creed. Square Enix owns and operates the beloved Final Fantasy franchise, which now includes two MMORPGs. NCSoft Corp’s ownership of Guild Wars, Lineage, and more has long made them a major player in the MMO space. Finally, if I’m looking at video games, I’d be hard pressed not to include Nintendo even if they’ve avoided MMOizing any of their IPs (come on, let’s get a real Pokemon MMORPG).

Activision Blizzard, Inc.

1Y: +58.39%
5Y: +457.19%
10Y: +572.74%
January, 2000: +5,027.15%

Electronic Arts Inc.

1Y: +49.92%
5Y: +813.58%
10Y: +130.03%
January, 2000: +479.9%

NEXON Co Ltd

1Y: +105.93%
5Y: +142.96%
10Y *: +149.36%
January, 2000 *: +149.36%

Ubisoft Entertainment SA

1Y: +59.07%
5Y: +831.11%
10Y: +145.65%
January, 2000: +459.6%

Square Enix Holdings Co Ltd

1Y: +23.68%
5Y: +194.59%
10Y: +7.66%
January, 2000: -64.08%

NCSoft Corp

1Y: +44.01%
5Y: +52.28%
10Y: +392.95%
January, 2000 *: +1,047.76%

Nintendo Co., Ltd

1Y: +68.93%
5Y: +320.18%
10Y: -31.64%
January, 2000: +130.44%

(* – Some companies have not been publicly traded for 17 or even 10 years. In these cases, the percentage gains relate to to their IPO date which stands for initial public offering. This will greatly skew the January, 2000 numbers in particular due to the company avoiding the market crash.)

What Does it Mean?

what does it mean double rainbow

These percentages tell us something important, but they’re also hard to wrap one’s head around. For that, we need to illustrate real world cash gains over time. Below you’ll see what gains one would earn investing $1,000 evenly across the three example funds compared to distributing $1,000 evenly over five to seven of the video game stocks (discounting companies that did not exist for the time period).

1-Year Gains:

Funds: +$189.66
Video Games: +$585

5-Year Gains:

Funds: +$1,023.66
Video Games: +$4,016.98

10-Year Gains:

Funds: +$777.50
Video Games: +$2,028.98

Gains since January, 2000:

Funds: +$438.20
Video Games: +$12,066.02 (+$2,514.65 without Activision Blizzard’s massive 50x gain)

In short, investing in video games at any of these four points in time would have netted you gains of 3x compared to recommended index funds. To put it another way, someone who had invested in video games at the turn of the century could today afford 193 more $60 AAA titles than someone who had invested in index funds.

That said, it’s important to note the only period points with losses belong to the video game stocks. While individual stocks can produce greater rewards, they are also inherently more risky. Even while I laud the performance of the video game industry, I would still suggest a heavy mixture of index funds to offset the risk.

Gross Assets to Win (GA2W)

Sadly, paying money to ‘win’ online games is never going to vanish from the industry. But with some smart investing you could be the whale everyone hates. And how poetic would it be to make that money from the very games you play? (Of course investing takes time so until then, here are a few good free MMOs that aren’t pay-to-win.)

This is as far from a get rich quick scheme as you can get. The foundation of investing is built on bankrolling good companies over a period of several years. And at some point in the next ten years, the market will likely crash again. However, given time and smart investments you will see your real world money grow to levels that make virtual currency such as Elder Scrolls Online crowns, Guild Wars 2 gems, and SW:TOR cartel coins a drop in the bucket.

You should do your own research before investing in anything, but hopefully this has opened your eyes a bit (and if so, I highly recommend Scottrade for individual stocks and Vanguard for index funds). And if you’re a teenager who thinks you don’t have enough money for any of this to matter, think again. The sooner you start investing, the more money you’ll end up when you hit “adulthood”, the faster you’ll retire, and the more MMORPGs and video games you can spend playing guilt-free during that retirement.


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.