Tag Archives: Neverwinter

Why MMO Holidays Suck and How to Fix Them

Around this time of year, holiday events are springing up in MMORPGs like desperate last-minute shoppers at the local mall. Rare indeed is the game that doesn’t throw together an in-game event to coincide with the winter holidays.

A snowglobe in World of Warcraft's Winter Veil holiday event.

Of course, Christmas isn’t the only real world holiday MMOs like to jump on. Most will also throw something together for Halloween, and depending on the game, you might also see events for Valentine’s Day, Easter, or any number of noteworthy occasions.

Unfortunately, there’s one common thread that runs through nearly every holiday event in nearly every MMO: They’re pretty lame. What should be joyous times for the players to come together and celebrate often end up feeling more like half-hearted formalities at best, obnoxious chores at worst.

Let’s look at why MMORPG holidays tend to be so underwhelming, and how they could be improved.

They don’t fit:

There are few things better at shattering your immersion in a game than suddenly seeing a boatload of Christmas lights, Jack-o-Lanterns, or Easter eggs appearing in your secondary world high fantasy setting. It’s a great way for developers to scream, “HEY, THIS IS JUST A GAME, NOT A REAL PLACE, IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING.”

It’s cheesy. It’s tacky. It’s just painfully out of place. Yes, MMOs are no stranger to pop culture references or occasional moments where the fourth wall is broken, but there’s a difference between slipping the occasional pun into a quest title and drowning the game world in a flood-wave of tinsel as players rush off to save Metzen the Reindeer.

The holidays come to The Secret World's Agartha

And the thing is, it doesn’t need to be this way. I can definitely understand the desire to implement in-game holidays to coincide with those in the real world, but that doesn’t mean they need to totally copy real holidays.

With a little care, MMO holidays could be made to tie-in to the established lore, serving to add depth and flavor to the setting rather than detracting from it. There are many historical pagan traditions related to solstice and equinox festivals that could easily be adapted to fit within the high fantasy settings of most MMOs.

World of Warcraft’s Midsummer Fire Festival is one of the game’s few holidays that isn’t directly based upon anything in the real world, and it feels so much more like a natural fit for the game. The Secret World also does a very good job of marrying its holiday events with in-game lore, though it does have the advantage of being set in the real world to begin with, and while Elder Scrolls Online has only just started holding in-game holidays, they’re doing a pretty good job of making them fit into the setting.

They’re anything but holidays:

What do you remember most about Christmas as a child? As nice as it would be to imagine you answering with something about quiet reflection on peace and fellowship, I’m going to guess you said something along the lines of, “Presents!”

And you know, that’s okay. It’s fun to get something new and shiny to play with.

MMO developers don’t seem to understand this, though. Oh, sure, they always add lots of new loot, but they’re definitely not giving it away.

The Headless Horseman's mount from World of Warcraft's Hallow's End event.

Almost without exception, MMO holidays are extremely grindy affairs that require you to run event-specific quests, dungeons, or world bosses until your eyes bleed. If you’re lucky, you’re only grinding for event currency that will (eventually) net you whatever you want. If your game’s developers are really channeling their inner Scrooge, though, the best rewards might be rare drops, and you could go the entire event without ever getting what you’re after.

And since events generally only last a week or two, this could go on for years. It took me nearly half a decade to get the Headless Horseman’s mount from World of Warcraft’s Halloween event, and some people who’ve been playing longer than me still don’t have it.

To add insult to injury, oftentimes MMO event rewards aren’t even that good. Usually it’s just cosmetics, which may not even be permanent, or very sub-par gear that’s almost never worth actually equipping.

This probably stems from the stingy nature of MMO developers in general. Somewhere along the line developers fell in love with the idea of grinding in MMORPGs, and most of them seem to have lost sight of the idea of things being fun simply for fun’s sake.

Again, The Secret World provides a good example of how to do things better. While its holidays’ most rare rewards can still be somewhat difficult to acquire, they shower you with so many different kinds of loot — both cosmetic and practical — that you’re bound to get something you want, and events are often paired with bonuses to character experience or currency gains, adding to the festive feeling.

They never change:

The Cat God storyline in The Secret World's Halloween event.

While you can find exceptions to the rule, most MMOs simply add a holiday event and then leave it be from then on in. At best, they might occasionally add a single new quest or a little more loot to grind for.

The end result is that it’s very hard to get excited about MMO holidays after your first year in a game. Even if a game has the absolute best holiday events in every other way, it’s still going to be far less exciting the second, third, or fourth time it returns.

In order to feel like something truly exciting, in order to be an event players of all stripes look forward, MMO holidays need to add something significant every year — or at least more often than not.

I imagine MMO developers are reticent to put too much work into holidays because they only last a few weeks a year, at most. But when you think about it, it’s a worthy investment. Holidays return every year, so it’s not really temporary content, and over the long haul, new holiday events do pay dividends by keeping veteran players engaged and providing a wealth of exciting content to newer players.

This is another area where The Secret World tends to do better than most MMOs. Unfortunately, they have been falling behind when it comes to adding new content to their winter event, but they are still adding new events to Halloween every year.

Putting it all together:

A holiday event in an MMORPG should be designed to fit within the context of the game world. It’s okay for them to coincide with and maybe even take some cues from real world holidays, but transplanting Christmas into the virtual realm wholesale is simply tacky.

Protector's Enclave during the Summer Festival event in Neverwinter

Secondly, if you’re going to have an in-game celebration, make it a real celebration. Don’t make it little more than a thinly veiled excuse to cram yet more grinding down players’ throats. Make holiday rewards relatively easy to obtain, or make the game’s other grinds temporarily more rewarding. Or both.

Finally, keep it fresh. In-game holidays don’t have to be massively overhauled every single year, but there does need to be new additions with some degree of regularity, or things will get stale. An event that’s exactly the same as the event you’ve done every other year just isn’t exciting after a while. People will stop logging in, and that will put a real damper on the festivities for those who are still participating.

As you might have gleaned from the sections above, I’d give The Secret World the award for the best in-game holidays right now. This is a game that decided to unleash the zombie apocalypse in lieu of a more traditional Christmas event, after all, and some of their events have been real triumphs of design.

That said, Elder Scrolls Online also seems to be putting forth an admirable effort. I also recall Neverwinter did a surprisingly good job of integrating its events into the game setting and offering good rewards, though they could be awfully grindy.

Comparing Top Eastern vs. Western MMORPGs

The MMORPG gaming culture differs slightly between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, and game design varies accordingly. While there are no hard and fast rules, Eastern games tend to put more emphasis on quality graphics and on grind-based gameplay.

Neither model is better or worse than the other; it’s all just down to personal preference. But since most of us do tend to prefer one style or the other, it can be helpful to look at how Western and Eastern games in common genres compare. Maybe you like the ideas behind Neverwinter but would prefer a game with a more Eastern flavour, or enjoy the deep mechanics of Black Desert but want something with a more Western style.

To that end, we’ve compiled a breakdown of similar Eastern and Western games in some of the more common MMO genres.

Themepark: World of Warcraft/Final Fantasy XIV

World of Warcraft remains the undisputed king of Western MMORPGs, and even after having fallen from its peak quite a bit, it’s probably still the most successful MMO on the market.

Stormwind City in the Western MMORPG World of Warcraft

With that said, Japan’s Final Fantasy XIV has been enjoying an impressive level of success since relaunching as A Realm Reborn. Like its Western cousin, WoW, it has managed to survive as a subscription based MMO in a world where free to play and buy to play are now the norm.

Both offer very similar game mechanics that will be familiar to anyone who’s played themepark MMOs. In both, you’ll find standard tab target combat, kill and collect quests, and trinity-based group roles. FFXIV’s combat is a little slower, employing a 2.5 second global cooldown, as opposed to WoW’s 1.5 second GCD, which is lowered to one second for some classes.

Both offer deep if sometimes inconsistent lore drawn from the venerable franchises both games are based on. Final Fantasy’s graphics are more advanced and often stunning, but WoW’s have more personality.

FFXIV does offer a few features that WoW lacks. Most notably, any character can learn any class and swap between them at will, essentially eliminating the need for alts. It also offers a player housing feature, though housing plots are limited and it can be difficult to grab one.

On the other hand, World of Warcraft has the advantage of being faster-paced and less linear, and it has been around for much longer, giving it a vast reserve of legacy content that could take a new player months, if not years, to fully explore.

A forest zone in the Eastern MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Both are very polished games with a wealth of content, but there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish one from the other. If you’re already established in one, there’s little cause to switch. If you’re new to both, try both for an hour or two and see which feels better.

Sandbox: EVE Online/Black Desert Online

Icelandic made EVE Online is one of the great successes of the sandbox genre. It’s been around longer than World of Warcraft, and while it’s never been a household name, it has managed to maintain a healthy and loyal fanbase for a very long time despite being a relatively niche title.

Exploring space in the Western MMORPG EVE Online

Recently it’s been given a new rival in the sandbox field in the form of the Korean MMORPG Black Desert Online, which so far seems to be have been well-received by sandbox fans.

EVE and Black Desert are very different games in a lot of ways, but they’re both very complex, very deep games, to an extent few other MMOs could equal.

EVE is a sci-fi game that takes place in the depths of space. While you can design an avatar, in practice your character is basically whatever ship you’re piloting at the time. Black Desert employs a fantasy setting; depending on your perspective, this can be seen as a source of welcome familiarity or a lack of creativity in a genre already dominated by fantasy. Black Desert boasts impressive visual character customization to help you stand out from the crowd.

However, while it’s easy to look different in Black Desert, your character’s abilities may not be so unique, as it does rely on a fairly standard class system. EVE Online, meanwhile, has a skill-based advancement system that allows every character to grow in any direction they like.

EVE’s core gameplay is a bit stilted — it is often viewed as a game of menus and spreadsheets — whereas Black Desert utilizes a very flamboyant style of action combat. Most would agree that Black Desert has better minute-to-minute gameplay, but we haven’t seen it create the kind of devious politics, epic wars, and shocking heists that have come to define EVE Online. EVE is a game of lower lows, but also higher highs.

Both are very complex games with a steep learning curve. EVE is probably a little harder to learn — but if you’re a true EVE fan, you probably view that as a positive.

EVE is another game that’s managed to maintain a subscription-based business model, whereas Black Desert is buy to play with a cash shop.

A maewha character in the Eastern MMORPG Black Desert

Both are solid choices for the sandbox fan. Black Desert has the edge for those who want to explore a beautiful and detailed fantasy world, or those who want more natural-feeling gameplay, but EVE is a better choice for those who want to make their name on a cutthroat frontier and engage in politics on a massive scale.

Action combat grinder: Neverwinter/Vindictus

Neverwinter and Vindictus are both games with intense action combat and a strong emphasis on grinding instanced content as opposed to the open worlds of more traditional MMORPGs.

A cave in the Western MMORPG Neverwinter

Neverwinter is developed by American Cryptic Studios and is based on the Forgotten Realms campaign setting from Dungeons and Dragons, but it does take a lot of liberties with D&D mechanics, so it doesn’t hold as much appeal to pen and paper fans as you might expect.

Korea’s Vindictus is published by Nexon and serves as a prequel to Mabinogi, another MMO from the same developer.

Of the two, Neverwinter is a little closer to a traditional MMORPG and offers a slightly more robust experience. It does have open world zones to be explored in addition to dungeon crawls, and it makes at least some effort to be a full-fledged RPG, whereas Vindictus is more of an arcade experience, putting a laser focus on constant dungeon-crawls.

Notably, Neverwinter offers a standard set of classes and races to choose from, whereas players in Vindictus choose from pre-established characters and can only customize them to a limited degree.

Neither game is going to win much praise for its story-telling ability, but Neverwinter has a slight edge in that regard. Similarly, neither boasts top of the line graphics, but Vindictus tends to look a little better.

Both offer as their main virtue brutal action combat, and while both games’ combat is excellent, a slight edge should probably be given to Vindictus for offering slightly more depth and interactivity. In Vindictus, players may, for instance, grab objects from the environment — or even enemies — and hurl them as crude projectiles.

Both games are free to play and offer a lot of gameplay without spending a cent, but in both cases you’ll eventually have to make use of the cash shop if you want to maximize your performance in the later stages of the game.

A character in the Eastern MMORPG Vindictus

Neverwinter is the better choice if you want something closer to a traditional MMO experience, but Vindictus is superior if you want to focus on maximum brutality and mayhem.

ARPG: Diablo III/Devilian

Once again proving that Blizzard is the goose that laid the golden egg, Diablo III is the biggest name in the action RPG field. It had some stumbles at launch, but following the well received Reaper of Souls expansion, it’s now in a very healthy state.

A crusader character in the Western ARPG Diablo III

There isn’t a lot of competition for D3 from the East right now, but if you’re eager for an ARPG with some Asian flair, Devilian would probably be your best bet, at least until Lost Ark gets a Western release.

In terms of core gameplay, they’re both very much the standard ARPG fare. Click, kill, loot, repeat. Devilian modifies the formula slightly by giving players alternate demonic forms they can transform into for a temporary power boost.

Diablo III is pure buy to play — no micro-transactions at all, though you do need to buy the expansion separately — whereas Devilian is free to play with a cash shop.

Most would tend to agree that Diablo is the better game, but Devilian does have a few advantages going for it. It is a bit closer to the traditional MMO experience; you’ll be sharing the game world with other players, and there’s some degree of visual character customization. By comparison, Diablo III is closer to a single-player game with co-op support, and players can only choose their class and gender.

A screenshot from Korean ARPG Devilian

It’s also worth noting that Diablo III hasn’t gotten any significant content updates in quite a while now. There’s some speculation over a potential expansion announcement at this year’s Gamescom or BlizzCon, but right now it’s only wild guesses and rumors based on dubious evidence. For now the future of the game is very uncertain.

The Enemy Is Pay to Play, not Pay to Win

There was a time when lengthy ruminations on MMO business models were a staple of the community. You’ll still see people arguing the merits of free to play versus subscription from time to time, but it doesn’t have the vigor it used to. The industry has mostly stabilized, and while some games still maintain mandatory subscriptions, these days free to play and buy to play are the norm.

A warlock character in Neverwinter, a game with a very overbearing cash shop

That means cash shops are now the new normal, and there is always a great deal of anxiety around them. “Pay to win” is the frightful term whispered in the dark corners of the MMO world, a dark specter that destroys games by allowing people to exchange real world cash for in-game power.

But is it really so terrible, though? Because the more I play MMOs, and the more I think it over, the more I think we’ve been afraid of entirely the wrong thing.

On pay to win:

This thought began germinating in my mind a few weeks ago during an ill-fated return to Trion’s MMO shooter Defiance.

Pay to win is an incredibly nebulous term with no set definition, but at least a good number of people would probably say Defiance qualifies as pay to win at this point. Randomized packs bought for real cash have a chance to include legendary guns that are at least as powerful as the best items earned through gameplay.

And you know what? It didn’t affect me at all. I never even noticed it making any difference. The game felt the same to me as it did before those powerful cash weapons became so ubiquitous.

Then I hit the wall as the result of a perfect storm of grindy gameplay, over-tuned encounters, and my own poor planning. Due to my previously casual play, I found myself unable to progress the story without weeks of grinding, which I’m not interested in doing.

DLC content in the MMO shooter Defiance

In my desperation, I considered turning to the cash shop for help, but I realized even that would not be enough. I might luck into an awesome legendary gun… but it’d still be scaled to my level, just like all drops in that game, and I’d still need to level some ways to be able to tackle the content I wanted to. I might have an advantage, but it wouldn’t solve my problem.

Thus the realization dawned on me that not only was I okay with Defiance being a little pay to win, but I actually wanted it to be more pay to win. If I could buy myself a 5K EGO character in full epic gear right now, I would. Gladly. (Are you listening, Trion?)

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of “pay to win.”

Not a lot of big name games offer huge advantages for cash, but plenty of the games I play have blurred the lines a bit. The Secret World offers signet boosters that can provide a significant gain. Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft have legalized gold-selling. Defiance has its aforementioned lockboxes.

None of this has ever impacted in me a negative way. They’ve all made me squirm in discomfort when they were added, but within a few weeks I forgot they even existed.

I’m not saying these things don’t offer unfair advantages. Of course they do. But so do lots of other things.

The ugly truth that no one in the MMO community wants to admit is that MMORPGs are by their very nature incredibly bad at offering fair competition or measuring individual skill.

The character Cass Ducar in the MMO shooter Defiance

There are so many ways you can get ahead in an MMO other than being good at the game. You can mindlessly grind your way to outleveling or outgearing challenges. Better players can carry you. You can just be lucky with RNG.

Another thing no one wants to admit is that you are not a competitive player. At least, you’re probably not. MMOs are not full of people competing to be the best. Like most things in life, they’re full of an ocean of mediocre players (like me, and probably you) and a tiny, tiny minority of people who are actually the best.

The sad truth is that if you play an MMO, there’s pretty much always going to be someone more powerful than you. Probably a lot of someones. At the end of the day, does it matter how they got to be better than you?

This was why I stopped caring about cash shop gear in Defiance. Yes, a wallet warrior might beat me on the scoreboards. But so would someone who’s just played longer than me, or had better luck on drops than me, or who just happened to be the first person to the Arkfall. I had no way of knowing which option it was, and at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.

Think about how many people buy carries to the best rewards in WoW. It’s a fundamental part of the game economy by now. Raiding guilds support themselves by industrialized selling of carries. In this manner, absolutely anyone can earn the very best gear, cosmetics, mounts, and achievements.

Even I’ve done it. I didn’t earn that Grove Warden mount my Night Elf is riding around on through any skill of my own. I just dumped a lot of gold on some raiders.

The Grove Warden moose mount in World of Warcraft

You can argue I still earned that gold through gameplay, so it’s okay, but I don’t really see how clicking a few buttons to do my garrison missions is any more worthy of reward than going out and actually earning a wage in the real world.

I suppose to some extent it all ties into that pernicious fallacy that free time equals skill, but that’s a rant for another day.

The only place where it’s worth worrying about pay to win are PvP games that would otherwise offer a level playing field. If Heroes of the Storm suddenly added a cash shop item that increased your hero’s stats by 20%, that would be a problem. But for the average MMORPG? Pay to win is an illusion, a bogeyman we’re all scared of but are almost never impacted by.

I’d personally still prefer cash shops focus on cosmetics — my Defiance example notwithstanding — but that’s just not the world we live in.

That’s not to say cash shops can’t cause problems, though. We’re just scared of the wrong thing.

On pay to play:

Generally the term “pay to play” refers to MMOs that require a traditional monthly subscription in order to play. That is one example of what I’m about to discuss, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to broaden the terms.

A hunter-ranger character in Neverwinter

When I think of the negative experiences I’ve had with MMO cash shops, it never has to do with power or what other players can gain by paying. It has to do with obligation, with a lack of options.

When I stopped playing Neverwinter, the cash shop was one of the big things that drove me away from the game. And while you could argue that it’s an example of pay to win, that wasn’t really the issue.

I reached the point in Neverwinter where there was basically nothing I could do to progress my character without either paying cash, or grinding until my eyes bled. And it wasn’t a one time fee I could pay and then be done with it. The game systems were designed to require steady infusions of cash, indefinitely, for you to keep playing and progressing.

It’s the endlessness of it that’s the problem. I don’t mind paying for a certain specific item or service. I can even live with paying to overcome a certain restriction or to unlock a certain feature. But when you reach the point when you’re playing the game with your wallet more than your character, that’s when everything starts to break down.

Subscription games are also an example of this, though a significantly less destructive one. At least they lay things out clearly: They’re upfront about the need to pay regularly, and the amount you need to pay is consistent and usually reasonable.

But the core problems remain. You’re repeatedly paying for the same stuff. You can’t play without paying. The game becomes a constant drain on your wallet, and there’s nothing you can do about it short of giving up the game entirely.

A skilled raid carries lesser players to free moose mounts in World of Warcraft

This is what we should be worried about, and I think this is at the heart of a lot of concerns about pay to win. Nobody wants a world where games are played through cash shops more than anything else. That’s when the fun is drained from the game. That’s where it all falls apart.

Simply trading cash for power, while viscerally distasteful, is not all that harmful in the end, at least for most games. It’s only when monetization begins to take over all of gameplay that things get ugly.

Thus, the enemy is not pay to win. It’s pay to play.

Top Eight MMORPGs with the Best Quests

Questing is perhaps the most fundamental form of structured content in MMORPGs. It forms a huge portion of the content for of genre, and virtually every MMO utilizes at least a few quests. Even sandboxes usually include some, if only to help players learn the mechanics.

Considering that, it’s a bit strange that MMO quests are so often lacking. Far too many games make them nothing but a chore to slog through on your road to endgame.

Yet this is not universally true. MMO questing is capable of providing content with compelling storylines and/or unique and interesting mechanics. We’ve ranked the best MMO quests paying attention to overall narrative, individual pieces of content, adherence to game world lore, and unique game mechanics.

8: Star Trek: Online

A boarding party during a mission in Star Trek: Online

Star Trek: Online has a somewhat different take on questing. Each mission is meant to replicate, to at least some degree, the episodic format of the Star Trek television shows. This makes each mission significantly longer, meatier, and more story-driven than you’d find in the average MMO.

The quality of individual missions can vary a bit, and the stories aren’t always terribly gripping, but it’s definitely a welcome change of pace from the usual grind, and if you’re a Trek fan, there’s a definite note of nostalgia, though ST:O’s missions don’t always echo Star Trek’s story-telling style as well as they might. Such is the disadvantage of a combat-focused MMORPG.

ST:O’s dual combat models also offer a welcome level of variety. Most missions will include both ground-based segments, where you control your character and bridge officers, and space combat segments, which do an admirable job of replicating the look and feel of battles from the Star Trek shows and movies. While the ground segments play mostly like traditional MMO combat, space combat is entirely different beast and of a style quite unique in the genre.

7: World of Warcraft

MMO Quests: The Miracle of Aessina World of Warcraft

When it first released over ten years ago, World of Warcraft set the tone for MMO questing for years to come, and as we’ve discussed, MMO quests are not always stellar, so that’s not entirely a good thing.

But while it’s true that much of WoW’s questing is mired in mediocrity, that’s not always true. Some of the most memorable, best quests in any MMORPG belong to WoW. Over the years, the developers have implemented many storylines that rise above their fellows, such as Wrath of the Lich King’s bittersweet Crusader Bridenbrad story and Cataclysm’s epic Elemental Bonds story arc.

It’s also worth noting that WoW’s questing experience has steadily improved over the years. Every expansion has brought with it more diverse mechanics, a stronger commitment to epic story-telling, and higher production values. Thanks to Cataclysm’s revamp of the old world, most of the oldest and clunkiest quests have been streamlined and improved.

And if sheer volume is what you’re after, WoW offers more content for the quest fan than just about any other game. After more than a decade, WoW has enough quests to keep a player occupied for months, if not years.

6: The Lord of the Rings Online

The logo for Lord of the Rings Online

Lord of the Rings Online uses a similar style of design to World of Warcraft for many of its quests, which, again, is not the best recommendation.

However, it also features an epic storyline spanning the entire game — which is still being expanded on regularly — and that is a cut above the usual rat-killing tedium. You can expect to visit iconic locales of Middle-Earth, from Moria to Gondor, and interact with major characters from the books. Each quest in Tolkein’s MMO world continues to pull players deeper into the lore. Characters’ journeys echo that of the Fellowship, slowly marching toward Mordor and offering new perspectives on the familiar events of the The Lord of the Rings.

5: Neverwinter

MMO Quests: A mysterious Foundry mission in the action MMORPG Neverwinter

The professionally made quests in Neverwinter are not much better than those you’d find in any other MMO, notably only for their use of solo dungeons with traps, hidden treasure, and exciting boss fights.

What really makes Neverwinter interesting from a MMO quests perspective is the Foundry, a tool for players to create their own quests. Of course, throwing open the floodgates like this makes for a lot of sub-par player-made quests, but player reviews make it quite easy to separate the good from the bad.

And make no mistake: Many of the player-made quests in Neverwinter are of an incredibly high quality, equaling or surpassing the professional content of many MMOs. Players also tend to offer a greater variety of content than most developers; expect puzzles and mysteries as well as more traditional combat-centric quests. Arguably, the best MMORPG quest system belongs to Neverwinter thanks to its user generated content.

4: Defiance

A mission introducing the EGO program in the shooter MMO Defiance

Defiance’s side missions are quite unremarkable — the kill ten rats quests of all kill ten rats quests — but the main story missions are actually of a very high quality, with a colorful cast of characters and lots of exciting, epic action.

Unlike most MMORPGs, which provide an endless string of NPCs that are interacted with briefly and then forgotten, Defiance tends to focus on a relatively small cast of core characters that follow you throughout the game, echoing the type of main cast you’d see on a TV show. Not surprising given Defiance’s pedigree. This allows each NPC to have a lot more depth and be a lot more memorable than you’d see in most MMOs.

Obviously, if you were a fan of the lamentably cancelled Defiance TV series, the story of Defiance the MMO will appeal to you greatly, but if you’ve never watched a single episode, Defiance’s story missions stand on their own as an exciting sci-fi adventure that anyone can appreciate.

3: Star Wars: The Old Republic

The intro to the trooper storyline in Star Wars: The Old Republic

From the game’s very inception, Bioware has shouted from the rooftops that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be an MMORPG that puts story first. And for the most part, they succeeded.

True, the side missions in SW:TOR are rarely memorable, but the main storylines, and especially the unique storylines for each class, are of a quality rarely equaled in the MMO space. They can easily rival the story-telling of the best single-player RPGs.

Not only is each class story of an incredibly high quality, but they also sell the unique feel of each class very well, making each a truly unique experience. Play James Bond in space as an Imperial agent, or be a bastion of peace and healing as a Jedi consular.

The one downside is that SW:TOR questing content is still quite mechanically dull. They may give you a really good motivation for killing those ten rats, but you’re still killing ten rats. And the developers really love button bloat.

2: The Elder Scrolls Online

MMO Quests: An Aldmeri Dominion zone in The Elder Scrolls Online

One of the problems with quests in MMORPGs is that developers often take a “quantity over quality” approach. Elder Scrolls Online takes a different tack, offering slightly fewer quests overall but making each one a significantly more substantive and compelling experience.

There’s also more of a sense of exploration and adventure when questing in ESO. Most quests are just found while exploring the world, with little or no signs pointing to them, so you need to seek them out. This could be frustrating, but ESO’s world is so detailed and so brimming with lore collectibles, skill points, and treasure that wandering is never dull.

The stories in Elder Scrolls Online are not particularly memorable as a rule, but they at least rise above the (low) bar set by the average MMO, with at least some memorable characters and stand-out moments.

1: The Secret World

MMO Quests: A cutscene during one of The Secret World's issue seven storylines

So far on this, we’ve covered games whose quests have excellent stories, as well as those who provide mechanically interesting quests. Yet only one game consistently hits the ball out of the park on both fronts. Only one game views quests as worthy of all the same mechanical complexity and spectacular production values as the best endgame content. These are the criteria worthy of the prestigious title of MMORPG with the best quests.

That game is The Secret World.

On the one hand, every main mission in The Secret World offers a strong and compelling story, provided through fully voice-acted cutscenes and readable items found along the way. Nearly all of TSW’s missions tie-in to the main story in some way, and even those that don’t feature emotional or exciting stories in their own right. There is no filler here.

On the other, TSW’s missions also feature unique, interesting, and often devilishly challenging mechanics.

Much praise has justifiably been given to TSW’s investigation missions, which feature puzzles and mysteries of incredible depth and complexity. Often investigation missions will require research into real world topics, and entire websites have been created by Funcom simply to serve as clues. Both these things blur the line between gaming and reality in mind-bending ways.

But TSW’s inventive mission design doesn’t end with investigations. Also breaking the MMO mold are sabotage missions, which feature a combination of stealth gameplay, light puzzles, dodging traps, and other inventive mechanics. Sabotage missions also help sell the game’s horror setting better than anything else, presenting you with terrifying monsters that you can only flee, not defeat.

Even TSW’s action missions, which focus on combat and are the closest to traditional MMORPG questing, also often provide light puzzle gameplay or other unusual twists, like vehicle mechanics.

The Case Against MMORPG Button Bloat

Like the “holy trinity” of group roles and tab targeting versus action combat, the issue of button bloat in MMORPGs remains a hot topic in the community, with strong opinions on both sides.

An overloaded action bar in World of Warcraft

Button bloat refers to the habit of certain MMOs — especially older and more traditional titles like World of Warcraft, Rift, and Star Wars: The Old Republic — to cover the action bars of every class and every character with dozens of different abilities, many of them niche utility skills that are rarely used, as opposed to the much smaller sets of abilities seen in games like Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter, or The Secret World.

Action bar bloat has its share of defenders, especially among more old school players, and it’s definitely not a black and white issue. There is a strong degree of personal taste here, and neither side is necessarily right or wrong.

But there are strong arguments that can be made against button bloat. It is a design paradigm with some significant underlying flaws.

If you’ve ever struggled to understand the appeal of smaller ability sets or if you just want to understand the debate a bit better, we now provide you with some of the strongest arguments to be made against MMORPG button bloat.

It frontloads complexity:

In gaming, the ideal design philosophy tends to be “easy to learn, difficult to master.” You want systems that are intuitive enough for newer or less skilled players to be able to quickly achieve a basic level of competence, but that also offer enough depth and complexity to challenge the best players and create a high skill ceiling.

Button bloat, on the other hand, is difficult to learn, but easy to master. Throwing dozens of abilities at new players is very overwhelming, and they can easily end up lost on what abilities to use when. It’s a huge amount of information to parse at once.

A raid boss encounter in World of Warcraft

On the other hand, MMORPGs with a huge number of keybinds tend to be relatively simple once you learn your toolkit. They tend to favor rigid rotations that are fairly simple to execute. While the learning curve for MMOs with button bloat tends to be very high for completely inexperienced players, those who are used to the system can simply Google the ideal rotation and achieve a decent degree of mastery in no time.

Such a system benefits no one. The top players aren’t challenged, and newer players have too steep a barrier to climb.

It distracts attention away from the game world:

I had a revelation recently while playing Star Wars: The Old Republic — a game that could be the poster child for unnecessary button bloat. While leveling a Jedi alt, I realized I was spending nearly all my time looking at my action bars.

Not the enemy mobs, or the environment. Just buttons on a bar. I had so many different abilities with different cooldowns and procs that it devoured all of my attention.

Of course, that’s leveling content, which requires very little situational awareness. Developing tunnel vision on your action bar can get you killed in high end raiding or PvP.

But thinking about it, even in more challenging content, I still put the majority of my attention on my bar in games with excessive button bloat. I just make sure to glance up at the battlefield frequently to make sure I’m not about to die to a ground-target AoE.

A Jedi consular character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

This seems backwards. MMORPGs are supposed to be about transporting us to virtual worlds, about immersing us in these wondrous imaginary realities. Spending all your attention baby-sitting a bunch of tiny icons seriously detracts from that experience.

Even if you have managed to memorize all your cooldowns, procs, and ability interactions well enough that you don’t need to look down at your bar often, the fact remains those sprawling action bars are taking up a lot of screen real estate. Add to that quest trackers, the mini-map, raid frames, and any add-ons you might be running (in games that allow them), and you can end up looking at the game through what amounts to a very narrow window.

It makes individual abilities feel less meaningful:

It is inevitable that the more abilities you have, the less important each one will be. The more developers spread out your toolkit, the more niche each skill becomes, and the less impact each ability in your rotation can have.

To use SW:TOR as an example again, I must confess that I do not know what several abilities on my main’s action bars actually do. I read their tooltips when I unlocked them, dutifully dragged them onto my bar, and promptly forgot about them. They’re simply too niche for me to have much use for them.

Now, I’m sure that if I was get into high-end raiding or competitive PvP, I would eventually find a use for these very specific skills, but the fact remains that I have been able to experience most of the game’s content while ignoring several elements of my toolkit, and it hasn’t significantly impacted my performance.

If you can safely ignore some skills for most of the game, is it even worth having them in the first place?

A dungeon encounter in the fantasy MMORPG Rift

Even for abilities you do use regularly, it remains the case that the more you have, the less meaningful each will feel.

A common complaint that has existed over the years for enhancement shamans in World of Warcraft is that their core rotation contains so many abilities that none of them feel exciting or impactful to use. Their damage is spread too thin over too many buttons.

But when action bar bloat spreads out of control, this becomes true for everyone, to varying extents. Abilities lose their identity, their excitement. It’s just a nigh-endless procession of weak little hits until the enemy falls over.

That’s not going to be true of every single class in every game, but the worse your MMORPG’s button bloat becomes, the more widespread and severe the problem will be.

Contrast this with games with much fewer buttons. In The Secret World, for example, every ability I use feels memorable, exciting, and impactful, despite the fact that they’re not necessarily any more visually or mechanically interesting than their counterparts in more keybind-heavy MMOs.

It’s physically uncomfortable:

To be blunt, five fingers plus dozens of buttons to manage isn’t the best math for an enjoyable experience.

Battling a mini-boss in the horror MMORPG The Secret World

Personally I’m not fond of having to tie my fingers into knots juggling all the various shift modifiers, macros, and other tricks you need to have access to all your important skills in button-happy MMOs. It’s doable, but it’s not the most natural feeling thing in the world.

And I’m an adult man of roughly average height and weight. That is to say my hands are of a decent size and can reach a good chunk of the keyboard. I’ve talked to people with smaller hands — mostly women — who struggle a lot more to reach everything they need.

I shudder to think what it must be like for people with physical disabilities.

You can mitigate this a lot with specialized peripherals like gaming mice, but not everyone is willing or able to spend the extra money for such things.

It (sometimes) cuts down on character identity:

This isn’t universally true, and it’s an issue that games with fewer buttons can also suffer from, but one unfortunate side effect of button bloat in MMORPGs is that it can begin to detract from the identity of classes, specializations, and characters.

The more abilities you add, the harder it becomes to distinguish between different characters and builds. If everyone has a self-heal, mobility skills, some crowd control, damage over time abilities, and so forth, it gets very hard to define the specialties and identity of a class or specialization.

Similarly, if you can fit every spell your class has onto your bars, there’s less opportunity to distinguish yourself from other players of the same class. People don’t know you as Jill the ranger who specializes in long-range crowd control. You’re just Jill the ranger, same as every other ranger.

Battling a quest mob in the fantasy MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

This can sometimes be an issue for MMOs with small ability bars, too. Some developers use such a limited ability set as an excuse to strip every class and build down to a handful of abilities, and that’s that.

But for those who provide a wealth of abilities and make players choose a few to equip at any time — like The Secret World — it opens up a tremendous opportunities for strategic choice based on circumstances, as well as unusual and interesting builds that create very strong character identities.

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The debate isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, but hopefully this can at least shed some light on why MMORPGs have been trending towards smaller ability sets and cleaner action bars.