Tag Archives: Rift

Five of the Best MMORPG Level Scaling Systems

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

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

EverQuest 2

A screenshot from EverQuest 2

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

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

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

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

Guild Wars 2

A mesmer character in Guild Wars 2

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The planet Ziost in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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

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

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

Rift

A promotional screenshot from Rift

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

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

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

Elder Scrolls Online

A battle on the sea in Elder Scrolls Online

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Things Western MMOs Can Learn from the East

I’m not a fan of the favoritism some people have when it comes to Eastern versus Western MMORPGs. Historically, I’ve spent more time in Western games, but I’m not going to write off a whole hemisphere because of it.

An enemy encampment in Blade and Soul

Ultimately, I think both regions’ design philosophies have their pros and cons, and both could benefit by taking lessons from the other. This being an English language site, I’m guessing most people here have a pretty good idea of what Western games have to offer, so let’s start with a look at what the West can learn from Asian games.

Strong Character Creators

These days the gap between Western and Eastern character creators isn’t as stark as it once was, but the best MMORPG character creators are still found in Asian titles like Aion and Black Desert. These games let you tweak virtually every aspect of your character’s appearance in excruciating detail, allowing you to create the avatar of your dreams.

Western games just don’t quite match up. Even those that do offer a lot of options, like Elder Scrolls Online, don’t offer the same fine touch as something like Black Desert. Just because there’s a slider for your character’s nose doesn’t mean you can get it looking exactly the way you want.

Some may find such things frivolous, but for those for whom it matters, it matters a lot.

More Imaginative Settings

Both Western and Eastern MMOs are perhaps a bit too hung-up on the high fantasy genre, but it seems to me as if there tends to be a bit more flavor in the settings of Eastern games.

A flight path in Aion

There’s a certain alien feeling to the worlds of Eastern MMOs that you don’t just find anywhere else. The creatures are stranger, the landscapes more otherworldly, and the cultures more fantastical. There’s often a strong magitech influence that you don’t see as much of in Western titles, which hew closer to traditional fantasy archetypes.

This may simply be another set of cultural tropes that only feel fresh because I’m not as used to them. This is definitely true in cases where the MMOs draw on quintessentially Eastern concepts, such as wuxia MMOs like Blade and Soul. Either way, though, the settings of Asian MMOs often feel like a breath of fresh of air.

Part of the reason I tend to hold a relatively high opinion of Aion despite it being a fairly generic game is that I found its world so enchantingly strange.

Better Combat Animations

One of the stranger differences between Western and Eastern MMOs is how much effort is put into combat animations. Our developers here in the West just can’t seem to make them anywhere near as good as their Asian contemporaries.

It’s not just that Asian games use more and bigger particle effects when it comes to combat abilities, although they certainly do, and I definitely appreciate it.

But even at a more fundamental level, the animations are just better. They’re faster, they have much more of a feeling of weight behind them, and their sound effects are much more dramatic. If I hit someone with a sword in Rift, pretty much the only feedback I get is seeing their health drop. If I hit someone with a sword in TERA, I feel it.

We’re starting to see a little more effort put into combat animations in Western MMOs. Neverwinter’s are pretty weighty, and World of Warcraft has improved their animations a lot in the most recent expansion. But overall the West is still lagging far behind the East on this front.

Scythe Classes

A reaper character in Kritika Online

If there’s one thing I love in Eastern games, it’s the opportunity to play classes that fight by swinging a giant scythe at their foes. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome, because it objectively is.

Examples include the oracle of Dragon’s Prophet or the Reaper of Kritika Online, both classes who can slice through their foes like so much dry wheat.

This is an experience that for whatever reason Western developers simply don’t offer. If scythes appear at all in Western games, it’s usually just a staff skin for caster classes, a mere stat stick that isn’t actually used in combat.

That’s not good enough. Just having a scythe is not enough. I must be able to slice through my foes like the Grim Reaper himself.

On that note, Eastern games tend to offer a lot of weapon choices and archetypes that are often neglected by the West.

Spears come to mind. Classes that favor a spear as their preferred weapon, such as Final Fantasy XIV’s dragoon, are fairly common in Eastern MMOs, but often neglected by their Western counterparts. It’s pretty strange when you think about it, as spears and polearms were one of the most popular weapons of history. Swords, by comparison, were relatively rare.

I can think of a few other archetypes that seem more common in Eastern games: martial artists, archers without pets, gunslingers… Again, this may simply be a different set of cultural tropes, and perhaps from the perspective of someone in Asia Western games feel like they have better class choices, but I enjoy the variety. Perhaps developers in both hemispheres should just try to expand their class choices in general.

Especially where scythes are concerned.


Checking up on the WoW Clones of Yesteryear

When World of Warcraft achieved a heretofore unknown level of success for an MMORPG, everyone and their monkey wanted a piece of the action. As a result, the MMO industry experienced a long stretch where nearly every big name release sought to copy most of the core mechanics of Blizzard’s juggernaut.

An Elf character in Lord of the Rings Online

“WoW clones,” they were dubbed, and while fans often rankle when the term is applied to their favorite game, more often than not the shoe fits. Sure, most of them had some special twist to the formula that they shouted from the rooftops in an attempt to stand out, but at their core they embodied the same core formula. Tab target combat, copious but simple quests, and an endgame focused on instanced PvE.

The years passed, and eventually the procession of new WoW clones slowed down. Nowadays MMOs aren’t as afraid to forge their own paths. But most of the bigger WoW clones are still chugging along. Now that the fad is passed, it may be interesting to look at how these games have fared over the years, and whether they’ve stuck to their WoW clone guns or started to establish identities of their own.

Rift

I don’t know about you, but personally, when I hear “WoW clone,” Rift is always the first game that comes to mind.

Nearly everything about Rift, from its game mechanics to its setting, seemed copied directly from World of Warcraft, and all this was thrown into a starker light by the masterfully if unintentionally ironic “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” marketing campaign.

Its soul system, which allows you to essentially build your own class, and dynamic events gave it a bit of a twist, but in the end it still looked like a game that had been separated from WoW at birth.

But I should not be too harsh to Rift. What it lacks in originality it usually makes up for with polish. I have always found Rift to have incredibly solid mechanics and an almost overwhelming amount of content. If you’re going to do a WoW clone, this is the way to do it.

A landscape in Rift

And for quite a while Rift’s reputation in the community reflected this. I remember a long period of time during which Rift seemed to be something of a golden child in the MMORPG community, earning acclaim even from those who did not play it.

These days opinion has soured somewhat, but I suspect this probably has as much to do with the lingering fallout over ArcheAge as anything Rift has done. It’s had some stumbles — notably the most recent expansion, Starfall Prophecy, has had some uncharacteristic issues with quality control — but for the most part it still seems to be the same game it’s always been.

Indeed, Rift has been nothing if not consistent over the years. Like most WoW clones, it had to undergo a free to play transition, but for the most part it’s stuck to its guns.

Aion

Aion has always been a little more creative than some other WoW clones. Its surreal setting is a refreshing change of pace from the standard Tolkien-inspired high fantasy, its endgame places a much greater emphasis on factional PvP, and it integrates flight directly into its combat… at least in some parts of the game.

However, it’s not done much to shake up its original formula or further differentiate itself from the pack since its launch. Its added plenty of new content, but it hasn’t done much to change the core of the game experience.

Like most WoW clones, it eventually dropped its mandatory subscription in favor of a free to play model, but that’s probably the biggest change it’s undergone.

Fighting mobs as a gunslinger in Aion

Aion is one of those strange games that never seems to get much attention within the community and yet seems to be quite successful all the same. It’s still getting significant updates on a fairly regular basis despite being relatively long in the teeth these days.

Much of this can probably be attributed to its popularity in South Korea, where it has long been one of the more popular MMOs on the market. But it must also have a decent number of fans in the West, or it wouldn’t still be running over here. You may not hear much from Aion players, but clearly they exist.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

SW:TOR has had a more turbulent lifespan than most WoW clones, and that makes it perhaps the most interesting case to study.

Despite or perhaps because of massive pre-launch hype, Bioware’s first and only entry into the MMO field had a pretty rough reception post-launch. The phrase “TORtanic” became a favorite of the ever-hyperbolic comment section. Lack of endgame content and oppressively generic gameplay significantly damaged the game.

This eventually led to a conversion toward one of the industry’s more restrictive free to play models. It proved economically successful but severely damaged SW:TOR’s reputation within the community, a stain that lingers to this day.

SW:TOR continued to struggle with direction for a time. It had sold itself on a greater commitment to story than any other MMO, but it had never achieved the level of success necessary to fund continued development of unique story for all eight classes. It tried to strike the balance between an endgame-driven WoW clone and a story-driven RPG and never entirely satisfied either side of the equation.

Emperor Arcann in Star Wars: The Old Republic

This changed with the game-changing Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion in late 2015. KotFE redesigned much of the core game systems, implementing global level-scaling and greatly streamlining the leveling process. The net result of these changes was an experience with a much greater emphasis on story. While Bioware still couldn’t manage to continue the unique class stories, KotFE’s new content did feature more and better story content than previous expansions.

This makes SW:TOR arguably the only WoW clone to shake off its lineage of aping Blizzard and establish a clear identity of its own. It’s now less of an MMO and much closer to Bioware’s single-player titles, but there is something to be said for focusing on what you’re good at.

And the gamble seems to have paid off. Knights of the Fallen Empire seems to have heralded something of a renaissance for the game, and by all reports SW:TOR is doing very well. It is a bit hard to say how much of this is due to how the game has changed and how much is simply due to the greater hype around Star Wars in general caused by the new films, but at the very least, KotFE’s changes don’t appear to have hurt it any.

Lord of the Rings Online

In contrast to SW:TOR, LotRO has been pretty consistent in sticking to traditional designs. Its one major change came when it joined the ranks of free to play MMOs in late 2010. For a time, it seemed to be giving up on raiding, but now raids are once again on the menu.

LotRO’s popularity has dwindled somewhat over the years, but it maintains a very devoted core playerbase, and most would highlight its community as one of the more tight-knit in the MMO space, with a strong role-playing contingent and frequent player-run events.

Until recently, Lord of the Rings Online seemed to be heading down a dark road, coming to a head with its developer, Turbine, giving up on MMOs altogether, but the development team has now struck out on their own as Standing Stone Games, and the future for LotRO now seems cautiously optimistic, with a new expansion centered around Mordor on the way.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Confronting a large mob in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

I was hesitant to include FFXIV in this list. Not because it’s not a WoW clone — it absolutely is — but because it’s a more recent game and thus doesn’t quite fit in with the explosion of WoW clones that produced many of the above titles.

Interestingly, though, it’s probably one of the most successful WoW clones to date. By all reports it’s one of the more successful MMOs period, with a strong playerbase and an incredible frequency of content updates. It’s even managed to hang onto its subscription-based business model so far.

This despite the fact it’s no more original than Rift or any number of others. One could attribute FFXIV’s success to its obvious polish and quality, but even then it’s not so far ahead of the competition. Perhaps it’s simply the strength of the Final Fantasy brand, but it’s an interesting aberration all the same.

Conclusions

Unfortunately it’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions from all this. There aren’t a lot of clear patterns to be seen.

The one thing that can be said with certainty is that none of these games have matched World of Warcraft’s success, but given that many of them rival WoW in quality (and may even surpass it in some specific areas), it’s hard to say that’s the result of any failing on their part. Perhaps WoW was simply a fluke of timing that cannot ever be replicated.

As a gamer, I wish that more games had taken SW:TOR’s path and established firm identities for themselves, but I can’t know whether or not they would have been more successful if they had.


What MMOs Can Learn from Mass Effect: Andromeda

Have you noticed that things are a bit quieter than usual in your MMO lately? Are the streets of Stormwind a little barren? Is the fleet not quite buzzing as much as it usually does? Is the crowd in Cyrodiil a bit thinner?

The planet Havarl in Mass Effect: Andromeda

If you’re finding that the online population is looking a bit smaller all of a sudden, you can probably place the blame on Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bioware’s juggernaut release has drawn the attention of almost everyone with any interest in RPGs, and one would expect plenty of MMO players to dive into it. I know I have.

While playing Andromeda, I can’t help but compare it to MMORPGs here and there. They’re very different games in some ways, but very similar in others, and I think there are a lot of ideas MMO developers would be well-advised to steal from Andromeda.

Persistent NPCs

Most NPCs in MMORPGs are very forgettable. They send you off to collect seven and a half boar sphincters, you get some XP, and you move on, likely never seeing them again. Even in games where more effort is put into writing interesting NPCs — like The Secret World — you still eventually end up moving on.

Mass Effect: Andromeda also has a lot of disposable NPCs that give you one side quest and are then forgotten, but like most Bioware games, it also features a core cast of companions who stick with the player through the entire game, growing and evolving along with you.

Having a persistent cast to get to know and care about gives a significant emotional hook to a game. It gives you something to fight for, a motivation to keep going, and it adds an element of investment that can’t be achieved by simple game mechanics alone.

I’ve long felt this is the way to go for MMORPGs, and I’m surprised more developers haven’t tried to buck the trend of disposable NPCs. Even Bioware’s MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, has struggled to maintain a consistent cast throughout its lifespan, though the more recent expansions seem to be making a greater effort in that regard.

The crew of the Tempest in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Only Defiance, of all games, has managed to maintain a consistent core cast from beginning to end, and I felt it gave the world and story a texture that most MMOs lack.

Freedom of Choice

One thing that I am greatly enjoying about Andromeda is that it has done away with traditional classes. Every ability in the game is available to the player. Spending skill points unlocks “profiles” that steer you toward specific playstyles, but even so there’s a tremendous potential for customization and playing the way you want, especially considering it’s easy to swap between different profiles and skill sets on the fly.

And that’s without getting into the dizzying variety of guns and customizations for those guns that exist within Andromeda. Your options in this game feel almost limitless.

I find this level of freedom incredibly liberating. I’ve never liked being tied to a narrow playstyle on one character. In Mass Effect, I enjoy playing as a biotic, but in the past games I always wished I could augment my character with some tech abilities or better combat skills without giving up my signature adept moves. In MMOs, I like playing a rogue in World of Warcraft, but I’ve always wished my rogue had an option for ranged fighting, since some fights are pretty harsh on melee.

Andromeda has given me the freedom to break the mould that once confined me, and I would like to see MMOs follow suit.

Now, the ability to customize your character without limit isn’t entirely unheard of in MMORPGs, but it is rare. Only a few games — Rift, The Secret World, and to a slightly lesser extent Elder Scrolls Online — offer a level of freedom comparable to Andromeda’s. I would like to see this become a more common idea.

Fighting the local wildlife in Mass Effect: Andromeda

Freedom of Movement

Like a lot of MMOs — and really any games with large open worlds — Andromeda tends to entail a lot of travel time. Unlike MMOs, however, I’m not finding this feels like a chore in Andromeda.

This is because movement itself is interesting gameplay. Andromeda equips players with powerful jump jets that allow them to leap and dodge with great speed and force, which makes navigating the often hostile terrain of the Heleus Cluster into a fun little mini-game all its own.

This movement system even benefits combat. Players can leap into the air to fire over enemy cover or dodge circles around powerful mobs.

When traveling longer distances, players can hop in the Nomad, an all-terrain vehicle. But whereas MMO mounts are usually just a passive speed boost, the Nomad has boosters for temporary bursts of speed and jump jets to help it clear obstacles, and the player can even toggle between different driving modes for better speed or climbing ability. Again, it makes simply getting around a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure I’d want to see too much gameplay injected into movement in MMOs, as it could become over-complicated pretty fast, but it would be nice to see a bit more effort put into the mechanics of mounts and less into coming up with ever more bizarre visuals for them.

Right now the only MMORPGs that seem to have put any real effort into making movement interesting are superhero titles like DC Universe Online and Champions Online. I don’t play those games much, but I’d take their travel powers over mounts any day.

A Non-linear World

Scanning some plants on planet Eos in Mass Effect: Andromeda

In most MMOs, you travel through the world in a very linear fashion. First this zone, then that zone. You could perhaps blame the genre’s obsession with vertical progression, but even in games with a more horizontal progression — like Guild Wars 2 — you still tend to go through the world in a pretty linear path. You can revisit old zones, but there’s usually not a lot of impetus to.

My experience of Andromeda so far has been fairly different. It’s not just that enemies scale to your level, although they do, but that the game is designed to be approached in a non-linear fashion. I regularly find new missions and activities in old zones, and rather than following a strict path from one planet to another, I am instead finding myself going back and forth between various locations as dictated by the needs of the story.

This feels a lot more natural, a lot more logical, than just going from one zone to another and forgetting about all that came before. It makes the setting of a game feel more like a real place.

This is something MMOs would have to handle carefully, as being constantly sent all over the world could quickly become irritating. In the old days, this kind of design in MMOs was a lot more common, but it was often an exercise in frustration due to long travel times and non-scaling content that made revisiting older zones pointless. With more advanced technology and better design, I do think the concept of more non-linearity in MMO worlds could be made to work, and I would enjoy it if older zones could still have some meaningful content after you’ve moved on from them the first time.

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Have you been playing Andromeda? What lessons do you think MMOs could take from it?


Is Trion Worlds Really Pay to Win?

This article was updated on December 8, 2017 primarily to reflect changes made to Rift that have impacted my analysis on Trion Worlds as a whole.

Trion Worlds has acquired a bit of a reputation as a pay to win company. For every game they launch, I see questions on forums and social media asking if the game is pay to win. Some don’t even get that far. Angry gamers scream, “it’s Trion, not gonna play that p2w trash!” Are these feelings justified? Surely some of it must be. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, after all. But are people just falling in line with the hive mind? Could anonymous gamers, known primarily for their thoughtful and rational analysis, be overreacting?

Welcome to the internet, where anything is possible.

I’m going to break down the most commonly faulted cash shopss in each of Trion Worlds free to play games. I’ll judge just how pay to win it makes each of these MMOs based on the criteria at the bottom of this article. The answer may surprise you (though perhaps not in the way you think).

ArcheAge

archeage cash shop

This is where the biggest pay to win talk stems from for Trion. People are filled with such hatred for how ArcheAge has been handled, they’ll twist words to infer Trion even admits running a p2w game. If you follow that link, read some comments too. People hate Trion Worlds. For all of the talk about how pay to win Archeage is though, people rarely cite any specific examples. As any good bro would do, I’ll set you down with the cold, hard truth.

The cash shop doesn’t sell a magic “win” button. There’s no one item that will super power your character, but there are items that are absolutely necessary to progress in the endgame. One of the best real money purchases are high quality upgrades. These items can in turn be sold on the general auction house for large sums of gold. In ArcheAge, gold can be used to obtain pretty much all of the best gear, vehicles, housing, etc. The endgame is fairly time insensitive (nice speak for grindy) so paying real money and converting to gold through the public market is not an insignificant boost. Additionally, crafting is pretty much a disaster without paying for a subscription. Players are restricted by labor points for crafting type activities, which not only generate twice as fast for subscribers but also generate while offline.

Yes – it’s an advantage for a subscription. I’m not going to call that pay to win though, especially because it can be purchased with in game gold. Subscriptions are limiting and not as open for abuse. The problem lies in the relationship between ArcheAge’s cash shop and it’s auction house. Players can literally become as powerful as the cash they spend. $1,000 is way more valuable than a year of average play time. It’s simply unrealistic to survive a grind to the top without real money help. The combination of selling both cash shop items for gold and endgame gear for gold is another serious concern. ArcheAge has a lot of cool things going for it, but if you expect to seriously compete in PvP, don’t expect to do it for free.

Verdict: Pay to Win

Atlas Reactor

This is the game Trion haters don’t want you to know about. The publisher took a while deciding how to monetize their best in house product since Rift. Fortunately, the solution they chose was the right one.

Atlas Reactor is free simultaneous turn based game with a weekly rotation of free characters. The freelancers (characters) are like League of Legends champions in terms of unique abilities. Instead of a 30 minute real time MOBA, Atlas Reactor is a 10 minute turn based tactical team death match. The weekly rotation can include any freelancer, and they’re fairly well balanced. Free players can also acquire cosmetic rewards by playing. Purchasing the game gets you every character, faster cosmetic rewards, and ranked play. At $30, it’s also a lot cheaper than buying the full roster for League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm. However, there is no way for free players to acquire new freelancers without paying that one time fee. Still, it’d be nuts to call Atlas Reactor pay to win. There’s absolutely zero vertical scaling of power to buy.

Verdict: Not Pay to Win

Defiance

Defiance cash shop

Trion Worlds really wanted Defiance to succeed as a pure subscription game, possibly to get away from the pay to win moniker. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. For a time, everything was going well. Then it seemed like Trion wanted to milk Defiance for everything they could.

Defiance’s pay to win structure doesn’t jump out at you initially. The game is fun at first, with a good deal of steady progression. Eventually the grind will set in, and you’ll look for how to speed up progression outside of events. The fastest and easiest way is turning to the cash shop …maybe. You see, the cash shop in Defiance includes the chance to acquire legendary guns on par with top tier free items. Buying the best gear in the game is pretty crappy, but gambling for it is even worse. At least there isn’t a ton more than that in the pay to win department.

Verdict: Kinda Pay to Win

Devilian

Trion’s free Diablo clone felt like a winner when I first played it. The intro mission starts off with a bang, and there’s a nice slew of quests to run through. Combat isn’t special but felt solid for a hack and slash. Then the high level grind reared it’s ugly head with only one legitimate means to combat it: spending money. It’s technically possible to get everything in the game for free and catch up to older/paid players. It’s just that in practice it’s absurd to dedicate your entire life to it. And that’s exactly what it would take.

The marketing speak says paying for gem refinements to advance gear is paying for convenience. It’s not. It’s paying to stand a chance and play with the big boys. Devilian is one of those games that gets you hooked on a fun 10-20 hours and slowly tests your resolve to continue progressing without spending money on cash shop advances. Do you throw away a character you spent hours on without seeing the endgame? Or do you pay some money to make a boring grindfest somewhat more palatable? Devilian does everything they can to steer you to the latter.

Verdict: Pay to Win

Rift

Rift cash shop

This is the MMORPG that started it all. Rift was one of those heralded “WoW Killers” back in the day. It turned out to be more of a “WoW deviation”, copying a lot of WoW’s gameplay with it’s own twists. It played uniquely enough with its multiclass soul system to be worthwhile on that alone. For a long time after it went free to play, many viewed it as the MMO doing it right. Then ArcheAge came along and people were clamoring for heads to roll. Did Rift actually get worse or was this simply ArcheAge hate spilling over?

There was a time not so long ago when only paid players could use earring. Yep – an entire equipment slot blocked off from use without paying money. That’s pretty inexcusable and reeks of greed. That’s been fixed, and Trion Worlds has reverted to the same system as always – charging for content. The three things paid players will want are a subscription (increases money gains), expansions (needed to level up past a certain point), and souls/callings (classes). None of these grant instant, unearned power and most importantly, none of it is scalable. Players can’t skip to godly levels of strength without putting in the time. To me, that’s the most important qualification to avoid pay to win.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say Rift is truly free to play. To hit max level, players will eventually need need to spend money for high level content. It might make Rift’s free mode more of a demo, but it doesn’t make it pay to win. However, over the past year Trion has been adding more and more content that lets paying players surpass what free players can reasonably accomplish. As such, I’ve bumped Rift from its initial scoring of “Kinda Not Pay to Win” to “Kinda Pay to Win”.

Verdict: Kinda Pay to Win

Trove

Trove is sort of Minecraft meets standard MMORPG. Not being a big fan of builders, I’ve only played for a bit. Rest assured that during my short span there was plenty of pay to win discussion. Those clamoring to proclaim “pay to win” seemed to be resting on the laurels that everything should be free. The way Trove makes money isn’t perfect, but is it pay to win?

Players can purchase classes, cosmetics, and faster progression. No class is inherently better so that’s no big deal. Cosmetics are always fine for free to play monetization. Faster progression is the concern, and it is noticeable. However, it’s a subscription fee and thus isn’t scalable. Free players won’t ever hit a paywall in Trove, but paid players get to bypass the mindless high level grinding. No matter what though, players at the top have to work to get there. The best items in the game aren’t purchasable like in ArcheAge so even if somebody had some monetary assistance, at least you know they earned it.

Verdict: Kinda Not Pay to Win

Final Verdict

All in all, Trion Worlds trends towards pay to win. Let’s take a step back and look at the developers of the game, rather than the publisher.

Kinda Pay to Win or Worse:

  • AcheAge – developed by XL Games
  • Devilian – developed by Bluehole Ginno Games
  • Defiance – developed by Trion Worlds and Human Head
  • Rift – developed by Trion Worlds

Kinda Not Pay to Win or Better

  • Trove – developed by Trion Worlds
  • Atlas Reactor – developed by Trion Worlds

Notice a pattern? If not, I’ll spell it out. The games where Trion Worlds is fully in control are the games that lean towards a fairer system. Trion certainly isn’t perfect with their own IPs (Rift’s earrings), but they certainly respond better. Why is this? Maybe Trion Worlds takes on deals other publishers don’t want and so are beholden to third party developers’ greedy demands. Maybe they are at bad at negotiating with developers when adding cash shop items. Maybe they simply don’t care and get greedy with their third party games games. All I know is that I’m going to feel a lot better about diving into Trion Worlds games made solely by Trion themselves.

Unfortunately, since initially writing this article it seems that Rift has started diving into more and more p2w indulgences. The above paragraph still has some merit. Rift went a long time without succumbing to pay for gear indulgences, so I wouldn’t rule out playing a future Trion MMORPG. I’d just keep a stringent eye on developer practices to keep them honest.


What Top Korean MMOs Say About The West

lineage 2: a top korean mmo

American and Korean made MMORPGs dominate the market, as demonstrated by an earlier infographic on Which Country Makes the Best MMOs. Yet their paths to prominence have led to unique deviations. It’s easy for nationalists to say one is better than the other, but that’s largely subjective. It’s clear though that developers from these countries exhibit very different design decisions.

What appeals to one audience may not appeal to another. In the context of two countries on opposite sides of the world, most of that appeal has to do with the culture itself. This Google translated page of top Korean MMOs tells a different story than does our list of top MMOs or MMORPG.com‘s ratings. Americans and Europeans seem to share similar opinions so I’ll be lumping the transatlantic partners into one “Western” group. The differences between Westerners and Koreans create talking points that can lead to some interesting conclusions.

The five Korean MMOs where we see the largest disparity are Lineage, Lineage II, Dungeon Fighter Online, Mabinogi, and Hero Online. Some of these aren’t even available in the West. It’s not that publishers haven’t tried porting them. They just haven’t succeeded. So what do these titles share in common? Not a lot, at least first glance. Lineage is a war-centric PvP MMO. Mabinogi is a free form, cooperative, life skills heavy MMORPG. Dungeon Fighter Online is a side scroller and Hero Online a fairly generic post World of Warcraft MMORPG. That’s not to say there aren’t commonalities though.

The easiest similarity to point out is that all of these Korean MMOs involve significant amounts of grinding. In the West, we typically think of grinding as killing creatures over and over to level up. While that’s one type of grinding, it’s not the only kind. Lineage is heavy with the creature grinding, but for Dungeon Fighter it’s running the same missions. Characters advance in Hero Online via kill quests and Mabinogi via using skills. Maxing out characters in all of these titles takes a long time (especially when counting rebirths). For Koreans that’s more gameplay. For Americans and Europeans, that’s more bland repetition. There’s more to these games than just advancement though.

mabinogi, one of korea's top mmos

Pets are everywhere in Korea’s top MMOs. This has made it’s way over to the West but largely as more of a cosmetic addition. In Korea, pets are heavily integrated into the gameplay itself. Hell, in Lineage II you can ride a freaking wyvern into battle! Graphics obviously aren’t a big deal either. Most of these Korean MMORPGs didn’t look advanced on release so by today’s standards, ugly may be too generous. Mabinogi is the only visually impressive title with its artistic cel-shading. Conversely, Western audiences show difficulty not praising (or criticizing) a game’s appearance.

Where we see the most prominent differences between the two audiences though is in monetization. Mainly, Koreans seem unfazed by pay to win cash shops. Westerns froth at the mouth at the very mention. I would guess this stems from most of Korean gaming occurring in gaming cafes with an hourly rate. From that perspective, it makes a lot of sense. If every hour costs money, why not spend some extra cash to speed up advancement? It’s probably more cost efficient to pay the publisher than pay the gaming center. By contrast, Western play time is typically free so non p2w MMOs find more mainstream success.

Perhaps though, what is missing from this list of Korean MMOs is more telling than what can be found. Inspired questing is a huge component of successful MMORPGs in the West. World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Elder Scrolls Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Rift, and Final Fantasy XIV are all successful MMORPGs. They’re also quest heavy games, but other titles have gained support with a sandbox approach. Eve Online, RuneScape, and ArcheAge are successful sandbox MMORPGs without a huge quest emphasis, so it’s not a prerequisite for success in the US. Interestingly, almost all of the best quest-driven MMORPGs come from well recognized IPs in the West. That leads me to two takeaways. One, themepark MMORPGs are better served by an existing IP. Two, sandbox MMORPGs might be the path to success for Korean MMOs.

That’s a number of differences between MMOs popular in the West vs. Korea. But what does it mean?


it means that us Westerns dislike grinding, or at least need to have it obfuscated. We’re more interested in the destination vs. the journey. Lengthy leveling hasn’t been in vogue here for over a decade. Reaching endgame seems to be all that anyone talks about. Meanwhile, lengthy leveling is still going strong in Korea. An affinity for pets in Korean MMOs speaks of a greater attachment to their avatars. A willingness to spend money to “win” or advance that avatar reinforces the idea.

Westerners also appear to be more brand loyal. The most well known MMORPGs here almost all result from some popular, preexisting IP. Branding plays its part in Korea too but is in a completely different league. It’s unclear whether Americans and Europeans love questing or if questing centric gameplay is the easiest path to delivering existing IPs to customers. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both.

It’s fun to see how different cultures view their virtual worlds when their physical worlds are separated by more than just miles.