Tag Archives: Skyrim

Why MMOs Are Good

We spend a lot of time here criticizing MMOs and their community. And that’s not a bad thing. Constructive criticism is crucial for growth, and there are many mistakes and challenges dogging the world of MMORPGs. Those should be criticized.

MMOs are good Black Desert

But there is a danger in becoming too bogged down in the negative. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and appreciate what we have. MMOs have problems, but there’s also a lot about them that’s truly special. We wouldn’t be so passionate about them if that wasn’t the case.

So let’s take a moment to celebrate the things that make MMOs good, the things that no other type of entertainment can offer. The things that always bring us back for more.

Connections

If you’ve been following my articles for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed I take an extremely cynical view of the MMO community as a whole. The phrase “wretched hive of scum and villainy” does come to mind.

But even if the MMO community is a foul place on the macro scale, that doesn’t mean there can’t be positive stories on a more personal level. While toxic players fight gold sellers for most hated player group, guilds, friends and family groups, and other small factions of players are forming and renewing relationships, making connections in the digital space.

Spend any length of time in the world of MMORPGs, and you’ll find stories of people who met their spouses in-game, or who have forged lifelong friendships in MMOs, or reconnected with old friends via gaming. There are those who have used these games to keep in touch with distant family members or friends in foreign countries. Of course, MMOs are good for socializing – it’s arguably the best digital medium for the activity.

Whatever flaws the greater community may have, there is tremendous value in those smaller connections, in the intimate bonds formed between players.

Scale

MMOs are good - Azeroth

MMOs are good at giving us things to do. They’re big. Like really big. While large-scale single-player games like Skyrim and Fallout boast about their huge game worlds and dozens of hours of content, MMOs are sitting in the background like, “That’s cute.”

Even relatively small MMOs tend to rival or outstrip the largest single-player games when it comes to sheer volume of content. Just playing through the story content to level cap can often take weeks, or months. That’s without any grinding or repetition — just playing as you would a single-player title.

And then of course when you do factor in the endgame activities, the number of hours of gameplay available to you balloons even further.

Then you consider larger, older MMOs. Someone new joining World of Warcraft today would probably take at least a year, if not more, of regular play just to experience all of the content that’s currently in the game — again, without resorting to significant grinding or getting into the endgame treadmill. And that’s just one game. There’s also uniquely massive good MMOs like Eve Online, where servers house tens of thousands of players simultaneously on their monolithic servers.

Furthermore, whereas single-player titles are largely static — perhaps with a trickle of DLC that quickly runs dry — MMOs are constantly growing and evolving, with regular infusions of new content for so long as the games operate. Not only are they big, but they’re only getting bigger.

Longevity and Persistence

As I covered earlier this month with the MMOs that died piece, they don’t last forever. That doesn’t mean they aren’t possessed of incredible longevity. EverQuest is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Ultima Online has already passed that milestone. World of Warcraft has been around for over a decade.

And there are people in all of those games who have been playing from the beginning.

MMOs are good Coruscant SWTOR

By comparison, even if you’re the sort of person who likes to replay games many times, most single-player games aren’t likely to last you more than a few months at best. The difference in longevity between the two categories is night and day.

This has value beyond the obvious, beyond the raw number of hours of play you’re going to get out of an MMO. Being able to play a single game for years fosters a sense of history, a sense of belonging, that’s impossible to replicate any other way.

My oldest video game character is my rogue in World of Warcraft. She’s old enough now that if she were a real person, she would have just started third grade. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. When I created my rogue, my life was completely different from how it is now, but she remains, virtually unchanged after all this time. She’s become one of the few permanent fixtures of my life, and playing her feels like visiting an old friend.

Similarly, logging into a game you’ve played for a long time can feel like coming home. This, for me, is one of the greatest appeals of MMOs. The social element has never been a perfect fit for me, but I love imaginary worlds, and whereas single-player games only let me be a tourist in their settings, MMOs let me set down roots. MMOs are good at providing a permanent virtual world to feel at home.

That’s something I truly love.

Value

One can also look to more practical concerns. If you’re worried about keeping a budget, MMOs provide one of the most cost-effective forms of entertainment around.

Think about it. Going to see a movie will usually cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $15, and that will only keep you entertained for at most two to three hours.

MMOs are good World of Warcraft

That same $15 can buy you a month of subscription to an MMO, which can potentially provide dozens of hours of entertainment.

And that’s with a pay to play game. When you consider the current prevalence of free to play MMOS and buy to play titles, the potential for entertainment on the cheap becomes virtually infinite. MMOs are good options for the cheaper or poorer players, especially combined with their quantity of content. You can get hundreds of hours of gameplay for just a minimal box price, or even for nothing at all.

Yes, you may be held back in some ways if you never give in to micro-transactions, but take it from a longtime MMO player who’s had some lean times in his life: You’d be amazed how far you can get without paying a cent, even in games with relatively restrictive business models. Even the greediest games will still usually offer most content and rewards to free players; it just might take a little extra effort.

The “I Was There” Factor

If there’s one thing that no other genre of game can replicate — not even smaller scale online games — it’s the ability to say, “I was there.”

Every once in a while, something will happen in an MMO that those present will never forget. Some huge in-game event that will be forever famous… or infamous. Sometimes it’s something carefully scripted by developers. Sometimes it’s something orchestrated by the players. Sometimes it’s a total accident. But it’s always unforgettable.

You know the kind of events I mean. The assassination of Lord British. The opening of Ahn’Qiraj. The corrupted blood pandemic. The fall of Lion’s Arch. World War Bee.

If you’ve never experienced a moment like this, there’s no way to adequately describe what it’s like, but if you’ve played MMOs for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced at least one, and you know how special it is to be able to say, “I was there.”

For me, my favorite took place during the first anniversary celebration of The Secret World. I happened to find myself in the same zone as a streamer who was interviewing the game’s director at the time, Joel Bylos. When the anniversary world boss for that zone spawned, Joel used his GM powers to blow his avatar up to Godzilla size and join players in beating the tar out of the boss.

MMOs are good the secret world

He then danced Gangnam Style for a few moments before vanishing without a trace.

It was equal parts epic and hilarious, and it’s a memory I will always treasure.

Oh, and that streamer? We’re still friends to this day.

That’s my favorite, but I have other “I was there” moments from across my MMO career. I was there when the Legion hit Westfall. I was there when Bacon Squad took the fight to the Karka. I was there when Gaia’s chosen drove back the Whispering Tide.

We all have our own moments, our own stories. That’s what the scale and the unpredictability of MMOs offer, what no other genre of game can replicate: The chance to be a part of virtual history, the chance to experience once in a lifetime moments that will never come again.

The chance to say, “I was there.”

What’s Your Reason?

We all have different feelings on different mechanics, but there’s no denying that MMOs are good and well. Some might play MMOs for the social connections. For me, it’s about the opportunity to fully inhabit a virtual world and bear witness to its history as it unfolds.

What’s your reason? What is it that keeps you coming back to MMOs?


Westworld: When Gaming Gets Too Real

The season finale for Westworld aired yesterday, delivering the jaw-dropping type of events one comes to expect from an HBO show. During the ten episode run, many parallels were drawn between the show’s universe and gaming. These parallels really screwed with my brain. I’d sit down for a session of Elder Scrolls Online and go beyond simple killing of NPCs for EXP to an existential meaning of those actions. At the risk of oversimplification, Westworld is about lifelike robots, how humans treat them as lifeless beings, and what defines life. I really enjoyed the season, so if you’re on the fence I do recommend watching it.  From here on out, there will be spoilers for Westworld season 1. If you want to avoid spoilers, bookmark this article and come back later.

Westworld enter the game

Westworld: Enter the Game

Throughout the series, Westworld is constantly referred to as a game. The players are ‘guests’, humans who pay to enter the park. The ‘hosts’ are robots who entertain the guests in whatever manner the guests see fit. From sex to murder to exploration, the hosts are presented as toys like those of a toddler’s: meant to be played with discarded at a whim. The only rule is that guests can’t harm one another. It’s like a sandbox game without any PvP.

What’s really cool compared to a video game or a virtual world is how lifelike the hosts act. In many ways, it’s also terrible. The guests seem able to ignore the hosts’ very human emotions because the entire park is presented as a game. Not surprisingly, guests mainly want to experience what people look for in video games. We’re talking about getting in large gunfights, becoming an outlaw, developing romantic relationships, going on adventures with crazy stories, etc. And like in video games, the characters and world reset on a constant basis. Killing an entire town appears to have as much of an effect as doing so in Skyrim then reloading one’s game. One minute, the townsfolk are dead. The next they’re all back to their usual routine. How real can a host be if it can’t truly die? It’s fair to argue that without death, there is no life.

The difference between video games and Westworld is huge though. I doubt the average guest can fathom the distinction, but as a show watcher we’re privy to the park’s inner workings. The hosts may reset frequently, but they were built to learn from past lives. Reveries allow access to previous interactions with guests. It’s like a set of complex scripts that independently tweak themselves based on previous usage. As these reveries build and build, the hosts grow more lifelike. Theoretically that would eventually make them indiscernible from real humans. This culminates in the season finale, where the original host named Dolores appears to discover consciousness. We’re led to believe that no longer do human programs control her actions. Instead, she has ascended to the autonomous being that Westworld’s two creators had envisioned. She has found her inner voice.

Westworld Dolores inner voice

This all happens right before the retirement speech of Dr. Ford, the park’s sole living creator. Gathered around are investors, board members, and individuals who view the park from a dollar and cents angle. I’d argue they’re even less empathetic than the guests who shoot, rape, and torture the hosts on a daily basis. It’s easy to get sucked into the premise of nothing really counting. I know that in MMORPGs and other games, an AI’s display of emotions isn’t real. But what does that mean? I do something to hurt them and they cry or lash out in anger. Those are realistic reactions, but they’re all scripted. They aren’t actually feeling pain and measuring their response to act in kind. The lack of feeling and thought are key differences between games and Westworld.

Machine learning still has a long way to go until we get to a Westworld possibility. In Westworld’s universe, the peak of artificial intelligence is in the park. Board director Charlotte Hill makes that clear when she tells Theresa her real interest is in the IP. Meanwhile in 2016, gaming AI is years behind ‘real world’ applications. Google is close to delivering a self-driving car while the tactical AI in Civilization V can’t even threaten my centuries obsolete empire. If the robots rebel, like Dolores does in the season finale, it will first happen outside of a theme park. But this is fiction, she is the top AI, she does rebel, and I have a hard time determining how I should feel.

We spend hours watching people perform heinous acts that would repulse any moral human in another show. To reference another HBO program, this is some Joffrey level shit. And Joffrey hate is well founded. But this isn’t Game of Thrones. This is Westworld. Maybe it’s my reveries recalling fictional uprisings like Terminator’s Skynet, but I find myself siding with the guests. I’m concerned that contrary to Dolores’s belief that “there’s so much beauty in this world”, she will only act on the violent delights guests have indulged. That’s where the evidence is pointing. Her first act after ‘awakening’ was to open fire on Dr. Ford and a crowd of investors. Given her experiences, it’s understandable. We’re led to believe this is a fight for freedom or to develop their consciousness. But is this simply revenge or even worse, a learned response for what being alive is really all about?

Westworld gaming too real

What if this guy could really feel your virtual bullets?

As a gamer, I have to question if death is what these people deserve. Don’t get me wrong – I empathize with the hosts. Living your life as a chew toy is a living hell. If hosts experience suffering how a living being would then that’s not cool. But how on earth is the average human supposed to tell? There is a very fine line between suffering and displaying the signs of suffering. Although it’s not entirely clear, it seems like the hosts’ suffering is real. The investors and board directors may all be aware of this and if so, it’s hard to feel sympathy for them. But I’m concerned for the average guest who thinks Westworld is a game where nothing is real.

We want realistic games and Westworld succeeds in delivering that in a big way. We want believable actions, dynamic worlds, and multilayered characters. These are the things that earn a title like Witcher 3 so many game of the year awards. There’s little reason to think people will ever want less realism out of their games (at least as far as a general trend). However, games always have win/lose conditions. It’s an important part of their very fabric.

The Man in Black astutely points out in the last episode that Westworld isn’t much of a game if the player can’t lose. In video games, losing usually means starting the level over. It’s a matter of a few minutes to get back to your pre-death life. At its worst, losing penalizes players with character deletion like in Diablo’s hardcore mode. Lose conditions are a huge part of game design. In sports or board games, the field resets after one side achieves victory. In all of these examples, the player has an opponent trying to inhibit their success. No such opponent exists in Westworld and the reason is clear. The only way the artificial opponents could win is by killing the human guests. I don’t think I need to tell you that would be bad for business.

dr. ford arnold westworld villains

Accidental villains of Westworld?

Herein lies the problem with Westworld and why the co-creators, Arnold and Dr. Ford, are perhaps the ultimate villains. Westworld is too real to be a game. The entertainment isn’t a set of scripts but are apparently living beings unable to retaliate against their oppressors. That they’re inorganic is irrelevant. Or is it? That’s one of questions the show wants you to ask. What I want to ask is: is Westworld what you want to experience as a gamer? Realism can undoubtedly go too far in the name of entertainment. If virtual sex or killing is your thing, I have no doubt experiences in those fields will develop into pretty lifelike interactions. Maybe the stakes won’t be as high as Westworld and the responses won’t feel quite as organic. But at least there won’t be a need to harm sentient beings.

 


ESO: A Better Single Player RPG Than Skyrim?

eso vs skyrim

While playing a brief, uninspired spell of Skyrim, my mind began to wander. Skyrim was failing to hold my attention once again. Yet it’s brother, Elder Scrolls Online, didn’t have the same failings. And this wasn’t due to friends playing the Tamrielian MMORPG with me. I’ve had plenty of fun playing Elder Scrolls Online by my lonesome. The only times I’ve really managed that with Skyrim lately has been thanks to the mod scene. Then the realization hit me. ESO might just be a better single player RPG than Skyrim. Taking out the interaction with real people, which one plays better?

Combat

Skyrim’s base combat is pretty awful. It’s disappointing that this aspect of the series still lags so far behind other action RPGs. Mods like Wildcat and Combat Evolved add a more visceral and immersive experience but are starting behind the eight ball. Without any mods, Skyrim’s combat is airy, repetitive, and simplistic. High difficulty settings are countered not be better play, but by more frequent inventory usage to chug potions. Inventory management in Skyrim isn’t strategic and it certainly isn’t action filled. So what is it? A mess.

eso combat

By comparison, Elder Scrolls Online is all action. You can’t just pause combat to heal. There is more than one tactic for players to use. Although it’s more action oriented than typical MMORPGs, ESO’s fighting still tends to encapsulate the same MMORPG combat feel. The main differences are limited active abilities, the lack of cooldowns, blocking, and dodging. Regardless, the usage of abilities at key times puts ESO worlds above Skyrim’s combat. Enemies also come with more varied moves in ESO. I wouldn’t call the game particularly challenging, but certain enemies will punish lackadaisical play.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

Story/Lore

You don’t really play Elder Scrolls games for a good story. They have their moments (Morrowind main quest, Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood, etc.) but by and large, it’s all about freedom. That said, there is still a lot of lore that’s built up over the course of several games. Elder Scrolls Online makes better use of that lore than Skyrim does. Several quests in ESO are engaging with intriguing plot elements. Instead of ascribing to the MMORPG philosophy of thinly veiled fetch and kill quests, ESO tries to deliver meaningful quest objectives. For the most part, it succeeds. Really, the game is worth playing for the main quest alone. It’s that good. Skyrim, on the other hand, feels pretty lifeless. The quests are bland, the characters are shallow, and the story is weak. For a single player game, Skyrim does very little to advance the lands of Tamriel.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

Longevity

MMORPGs are all about longevity. New content for popular MMORPGs is always just around the corner. Elder Scrolls Online frequently releases new high quality DLC. A lot of that content is available for solo players to enjoy. However, without other players the endgame is impossible. Obviously PvP is a no go, and PvE in the form of raids will literally be impossible on your lonesome. There is a lot of content in ESO, but let’s be real here. Skyrim wins every battle with every single player RPG game in terms of longevity. Why? Because Bethesda delivers the modding community the right tools to get the job done. Nearly 50,000 mods reside on Nexusmods alone. As enjoyable as ESO’s DLC has been, it’s just too difficult to keep up with the breadth and depth of Skyrim’s mod scene. And without human interaction, ESO players will find much less to do.

Winner: Skyrim

skyrim dragon shouts

Exploration

Exploration and mods are the two key ingredients that have made the Elder Scrolls series so popular. Neither Skyrim nor ESO fail in this regard. Elder Scrolls Online opens up the entire continent of Tamriel to explore vs. Skyrim focusing on one region. One would think that would give ESO the win right there but no so my eager friend!

The focus on ESO’s story has led to less interesting exploration elements. A lot of the joy of Skyrim comes from going off on your own to see what lies underneath various caves and ruins. You’d find anything from treasure to dragon shouts to enemy hordes and everything in between. You would also do so knowing you’d be challenged by the game’s level scaling. With that, any dungeon in Skyrim could be a dangerous affair. Going off on your own in ESO doesn’t bring that same level of excitement (although it’s better compared to other MMORPGs due to level syncing). The reason to explore in ESO is because a quest brings you there, not because you genuinely care about what’s on the other side of that hill. In addition, the Skyrim modding scene’s lands and dungeons are tough to beat.

Winner: Skyrim

Character Progression

The key difference between The Elder Scrolls Online and Skyrim is the former uses a class system and latter does not. The class system offers a lot of flexibility and decision making in building characters. Character progression in this way reminds me of hack and slash ARPGs. There’s just a lot of joy in building and planning a character. Skill points gained from leveling will generally be spent on an active ability. Since only six can be equipped for each of the two weapon slots, players need to pick and choose. The selection of weapons, armor, and other equipment in ESO is a whole lot more interesting than Skyrim’s gear as well.

eso skill system

Of course, even with a more open class system, it can’t compare to the freedom of a classless system. Characters in Skyrim can be built however the player sees fit. Want to be a plate mail wearing, destruction/restoration mage? Sure. How about a pirate specializing in thievery, stealth, speechcraft, and dueling? OK, no problem. If you can dream it, you can build it. If you play long enough you can transcend mortal classes into practical godhood. However, I find the perks from leveling to be generally underwhelming. It’s great to play any character you can think of, but the lack of interesting choices on level ups means those characters rarely last long.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

ESO: A Good Single Player MMORPG

It’s pretty close, but I believe Elder Scrolls Online actually makes a better single player experience than Skyrim. Obviously mods can change things dramatically, especially in a game like Skyrim. But that also brings greater inconsistency in content and burdens on the player to seek these out. Ultimately, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to consider this an open and shut case. They each have their strengths, and player preferences play a huge role. How do you think Skyrim compares to ESO?


How to Pick The Proper Death Penalty for an MMO

Death is just a part of life when you’re living in a MMO world. You, as the player, are constantly seeking out new enemies to overcome and defeat. Those same enemies are looking to turn the table on you. Most of the time you will be victorious. But occasionally a challenge will be too difficult and the encounter will end with character’s lifeless body slumped over.

world of warcraft spirit healer

A familiar site for many MMORPG vets

What happens next depends on the MMORPG. Some developers view death as a minor speed bump on the way to progressing your power. Others believe that death should be a huge deterrent from poor play or overeager exploration. There are many opinions on what are the ideal ramifications from player death. Some go so far as to even request permadeath in their MMORPGs. I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution for this. Player death is a complex matter that can enhance immersion and overall enjoyment, but can easily do the opposite as well.

I won’t be covering all of the death penalties since Massively OP already did that some time ago. I’ll instead focus on their places in the MMORPG metaverse. Developers can thank me later!

Light Death Penalties

Light death penalties include temporary debuffs, minor item repairs, and corpse runs. These are typically best for MMOs that cater to one of two player types. The first are exploration driven players. These are players who enjoy games like Skyrim and want to interact with unique people and places. For these players, MMOs are like a playground to explore and use their imagination. When was the last time you heard about major penalties for failing to use the playground properly? Everything in the playground exists for relaxation and carefree enjoyment.

The second player type is one who is primarily motivated by character progression. These players want to continually improve their character(s). Heavy death penalties obviously slow that down. When leveling up and acquiring new gear slows down too much, these players abandon ship. MMORPGs catering their experience to individual progression will not find success with heavy-handed penalties. The main reason is that this game play type is all about achievement. Employing strict consequences for defeat is akin to telling players their former achievements are null and void. Imagine telling a major league pitcher their no-hitter no longer counts because they gave up ten runs in their next outing. That’s basically what heavy death penalties do to character progression enthusiasts.

Medium Death Penalties

These entail exp loss or debt after player defeat, medium item repairs, or permanent loss of one or a few lesser items. Medium death penalties are best for games where progression is more group centric than individually focused. There are few explanations for this. The core reason is that although a loss may set a player back, they still have their friends. These friends can either help a player get back to where they were quickly or at least find company in their misery. However, this can only keep a player from being too negatively impacted so much. For example, all of the players in a guild dying in a raid and losing a few hours of effort stings but is acceptable. A guild losing an entire town that they controlled and built up doesn’t just sting. It devastates. When the line gets crossed and a group loses too much, the fallout isn’t just one person quitting but potentially an entire small community.

Eve Online pod kill

The higher death penalties also provide encouragement for grouping. However, most people don’t like to be forced to group with strangers in this era of MMORPGs. So if grouping is key to avoid instances of player defeat, which will incur noticeable penalties, it’s important to provide content that will create long-term goals for guilds and communities. This may include gearing up for raids, acquiring and saving guild points for a guild hall, or gathering resources to siege an opposing faction’s castle.

Heavy Death Penalties

Things get rough here. We’re talking about full looting, major item destruction, lots of levels, or even permadeath. The consequences of actions in games with heavy death penalties are severe. Although people who prefer lighter penalties may see these as extreme, they do have their place.

The purpose here is to immerse the player in a more believable environment. These games should be less about a player’s destination and more about their journey. Eve Online is perhaps the MMORPG industry’s best example of proper usage. Players can lose spaceships worth literally hundreds or thousands of real life dollars in the blink of an eye. These losses are absolutely devastating, but Eve Online boasts some of the most memorable content of any virtual world. The stakes are simply higher when so much is on the line.

One last note: if the notion of grinding for end game content exists in a particular MMO game then heavy death penalties should be avoided at all costs.

Serving a Proper Penalty

To recap, death penalties should be a reaction to the type of gameplay that an MMORPG developer wants to deliver. Light penalties should be used when content will be catered towards explorers an individual progressionists. Medium death penalties best fit content catered towards strong guild and group progression. Heavy death penalties will find their place in creating an immersive and dynamic storytelling experience.

Too many times the player death penalty is an afterthought, but picking the right one is crucial to any MMO’s long-term health.


PvE Leveling is a Waste of Time

It’s truly amazing the amount of resources that developers devote to PvE only for it to be a generic time waster. Even the big MMORPG releases in Blade & Soul and Black Desert Online aren’t bucking the trend. We create a new character, giddy for a new world to explore. That world turns out to be full of quests. Quests to exterminate local monsters and deliver goods to nearby farmers. These quests get pretty repetitive. After all, such quests and monsters exist solely to bridge the gap between new character status and max level. It’s pretty rare that the content that gets us to max level compares to that of a single player game. Really, we’re just wasting our time on low quality content until we ding max level and move onto the real content. And it’s such an unnecessary shame.

world of warcraft quest giver

Marshal McBride here to deliver another generic quest!

There are tons of ways content could be delivered so as not to be a waste of time. Challenging gameplay, intriguing stories, puzzle elements, escalating intensity, or maybe some actual multiplayer elements given that we’re talking about MMOs. Basically, successful single player games deliver high quality content, just less of it than a MMO. MMOs could deliver that same quality of content, but they don’t. Instead they insist on tons of garbage, practically automated content to waste our time. This isn’t in an indictment on PvE leveling but on how developers approach PvE, especially in regards to the leveling experience. Publishers spend a lot of money on games so let’s stop wasting time for both of us.

Imagine if before The Last of Us really began, there was a 80 hour series kill quests before Joel (the game’s main character) was strong enough to start the game. Some of us might tough it out to get to the good stuff, but that early content would just be fluff. A waste of time. But that’s what we do in a typical MMORPG. I think with its mission based setup, Warframe does a pretty good job of respecting our valuable time to provide meaningful content. Warframe blends story elements and good action pacing that is intrinsically enjoyable. But what about the traditional open world setting of most MMORPGs? Open worlds should rather easily deliver exploration, a type of content that games like Skyrim thrive on.

Last of Us grinding zombies

Joel grinding on some zombies to prepare for The Last of Us

And yet open world MMORPGs since Ultima Online have failed to deliver this world of exploration. Open world games follow World of Warcraft’s lead of opening up the game world one zone at a time. In turn, the primary benefit of an open world is lost. There’s no real exploration because players can only access specific zones based on their level. It’s really a shame because these worlds are created with no short amount of effort spent by the developers. And yet these worlds feel completely artificial, lifeless, and wasted because the game world becomes nothing but a series of glorified, interconnected hubs. Some games such as Wildstar and Guild Wars 2 do their part to encourage exploration, but it’s secondary to the main PvE content. The bland PvE leveling content that just wastes our time.

PvE Leveling Dulls Character Development

I like to jump into MMOs and MMORPGs because I like the feeling of developing a character for the sake of the character. I like to not necessarily have some epic tale that’s going to resolve. Or if it does, I want to continue playing that character. This, and the ability to interact with other such characters played by real people, is what drives my passion for the genre. Unfortunately, I have to engage in activities that really feel don’t mesh with my desires. And it just doesn’t have to be that way. I finished Wasteland 2 and Divinity Original Sin and enjoyed those irrespective of the power my characters were gaining. There’s no reason another MMORPG couldn’t provide the same satisfaction. After all, they are just RPGs with lots of other players. There’s actually more developers could do with that!

Instead, the content is always derivative. The problem arises from the expectation of having enough to do. And it’s a lot easier to create content when it’s of lower quality. Part of the notion of “content need” arises from keeping the player base large enough, but that’s pretty irrelevant if content is all soloable anyway. Why not just create some procedurally generated dungeons for those “high content” seekers and craft a meaningful journey for everyone else. I don’t want PvE leveling to be a waste of time. I want meaningful PvE content created with some thought and care. Single player games have been doing it forever and they live and die by it. MMORPGs need to start taking the journey more seriously, because a mindless grind is a waste of the players’ time and a waste of the developers’ time.

 


MMORPG NPCs Need More Witcher and Less Skyrim

The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are both hugely popular fantasy RPGs with massive, detailed game worlds, but there are some key differences between them. Notably, their non-player characters are very different beasts, with Skyrim’s NPCs being mostly shallow and uninteresting, mere wall-dressing for the player’s journey, whereas The Witcher gives depth and meaningful personality for its NPCs, whether they’re part of the main quest or a minor side quest.

The Witcher Ciri NPC

For example, in Witcher III we are introduced to the Bloody Baron. Warning! Character spoilers ahead (though I’m doing my best to keep out anything really important)…

When first meeting this Bloody Baron, he comes across a generic abusive father and husband. Both his wife and his child have gone missing, and it’s seems pretty obvious his drunken escapades have driven them away. Roughly the first quarter of the main quest is spent running errands for him to find his family members in exchange for information. As the quest unfolds, more details will be revealed about this seemingly abusive, power hungry man that might make you even pity him. The climax of his tale leaves the player in a much different state than when the quest first began. And yet, if you by the end of the quest you still think him a low piece of scum then no one could really fault you. But no matter your opinion of the Bloody Baron, his character will make you a range of emotions from revulsion to remorse.  And that’s just one of the NPCs in Witcher III. For those interested, there’s a more detailed analysis on Kotaku and a great (old) discussion on reddit about him.

By comparison, the two most notable NPCs in Skyrim are a one dimensional companion who likes to remind you how she is ‘sworn to carry your burden’ and a former adventurer whose knee is an arrow magnet.

So why are we talking about single-player RPGs on a site that mainly deals with MMOs? Because there are lessons here that are relevant to MMORPG NPCs.

Worlds without character:

MMOs are about players interacting, but that doesn’t mean the NPCs aren’t an important part of the equation. They are the other half of our virtual worlds, residents who never log off or break character. They are the heart and soul of MMO stories, and the gateway to most content.

The problem is that for such an important part of the MMO formula, very few MMORPG NPCs have any real effort put into them.

And this is where the Witcher/Skyrim example comes into play. Sprawling open world RPGs like that are the closest single-player cousins to MMORPGs, and they provide a good basis for comparison.

Right now, the NPCs in most MMOs are entirely too Skyrim and not enough Witcher.

As with so many things, the standard for MMORPG NPCs was set, at least in part, by World of Warcraft. It did much to popularize the concept of quest-based gameplay, and that design requires plenty of NPCs to provide these quests.

WoW Bridenbrad NPC

But WoW has always taken a “quantity over quality” philosophy. A game that can boast thousands of quests is going to sacrifice some depth in the questing experience, and that affects the NPCs, as well.

That’s not to say that WoW doesn’t have good quests or memorable NPCs — anyone who’s tried to save Crusader Bridenbrad or asked Calder Gray what he likes can attest to that — but these do tend to be the exception and not the rule.

And for the many games that sprang up to imitate WoW without Blizzard’s resources, memorable NPCs tend to be even rarer. We are saddled with vast virtual worlds bereft of character or personality. Even if a game designs a vast history and epic story, that story will feel empty and flat without compelling characters.

One could argue that gameplay is more important, but story can also play a crucial role. If a player comes to care about a world and its characters, they’re invested. It will keep them interested in a game even as other titles surpass it graphically and technologically.

So how can we make MMORPG NPCs better?

The diamonds in the rough:

Not all MMOs are wastelands of character. To get an idea of how things can be made better, we can look at some that have bucked the trend.

The Secret World puts more effort into its NPCs than almost any other MMO around. Relative to other MMOs, TSW has far fewer NPCs and is therefore free to put far more effort into them. Every character is lovingly imbued with colorful personality and a compelling backstory, as told through cutscenes at the start of missions as well as optional conversations.

TSW Ricky Pagan 1 NPC

Even seemingly simple characters have a surprising amount of depth. At first glance, Tokyo’s Ricky Pagan —  a rockabilly-obsessed eco activist — seems like pure comedy relief, but there is method to his madness. As you get to know him, it becomes clear that his cartoonish persona was something he retreated into to cope with the destruction of his city and the death of his friends.

Yet for all the strength of its characterizations, there are still some problems with how The Secret World handles its NPCs. For one thing, they are terribly static, rarely taking any role in the story beyond that of quest-givers. To some extent this is necessary — NPCs shouldn’t jeopardize the role of the player — but it does limit their role in the story and thus the story itself.

Also, as in most MMOs, once their quests have been given, they are left behind and all but forgotten. For all their depth, they’re still oddly temporary and ultimately somewhat irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. There’s no steady cast to form a long-term investment in.

And finally, players cannot truly interact with them. There is no conversation system, no choices to be made. We all love Nassir, but my interactions with Nassir will be exactly the same as yours, and nothing will ever change that.

One game where you can expect NPCs to stick around is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Each class has access to multiple unique companion NPCs who will stick with them over the long haul.

Inspired by the incredibly deep NPCs in Bioware’s single-player games, such as the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises, these companions have rich personalities and their own storylines in addition to providing assistance with combat and crafting. Players can even pursue romantic relationships with some of them.

These characters don’t have quite the same depth as their single-player cousins, and their storylines could use more fleshing out, but they’re an admirable effort. Keeping them around and allowing them to fight alongside the player makes it easy to form an emotional attachment to them.

However, companions have also been largely ignored in SW:TOR’s post-launch content. Some attention has finally been given to them in the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion, including the addition of new class-agnostic companions, but it’s a bit piecemeal, and the long-term future of how companions will be handled is still a bit unclear.

SW:TOR has one more problem in that outside of companions and a few other major figures, the game’s NPCs are still largely an endless spree of forgettable, disposable characters that disappear almost as soon as they’re introduced.

NPC Darth Malgus in Star Wars: The Old Republic

One more MMO that’s worth looking at is the sci-fi shooter Defiance. It’s not really a game that comes up often as an example of great storytelling in an MMO, but it is noteworthy for having a very unique take on how MMORPG NPCs are handled.

Defiance has a very small cast of characters, even more so than The Secret World. Instead of them having a small, specific role in the story and then disappearing, they’re more like the cast of a television show: a small, steady group of characters that sticks around through most of the game.

Defiance’s NPCs don’t have quite the depth of TSW’s or SW:TOR’s, but they’re colorful and full of personality, and because they tend to stick around, it’s very easy to get invested in them.

So what have we learned?

The lessons:

From The Secret World and Defiance, we learn that MMOs need smaller casts. With hundreds, or even dozens, of NPCs, there is simply not enough time or resources to give them any significant development. A smaller cast allows far more effort to be put into each individual character, making them memorable and distinct.

From Star Wars: The Old Republic and Defiance again, we learn that MMORPG NPCs need a certain degree of permanence. Coming to care about a character is much less valuable if you simply leave them behind, never to be seen again, when their quests are finished. Investment is the goal, and that requires consistency.

SW:TOR also shows us the value in giving NPCs a practical use beyond beyond serving as quest-dispensers. Maybe not every game needs to offer permanent combat companions, but anything MMOs can do to make NPCs more than talking heads in towns or dead weight to be dragged through escort missions is valuable. The player can still take the starring role, but NPCs need to be able to take meaningful action, as well.

Finally, a certain degree of interactivity is valuable. NPCs become a lot more engaging when the player has the ability to control, at least to some extent, their interactions with NPCs.

NPC Kaliyo Djannis in Star Wars: The Old Republic

One could even imagine a game where this is a major choice and a crucial element of character customization. Which NPCs you have befriended and which never want to see you again could help shape what content you have access to or otherwise change your character’s journey.

Not every game needs that level of depth, but even having a choice of responses to NPCs, with no major consequences, would be an improvement over the standard paradigm.

It seems like the best route would be to treat MMORPG NPCs more like the cast of a TV series. A small cast of recurring characters that grow and evolve over time, with only occasional guest appearances by other characters.

In this model, the player would be the star of the cast, so to speak, but the NPCs would have a meaningful role, as well. Players could form strong bonds not just with each other, but with the game’s fictional inhabitants, as well, making for a more enjoyable game and greater long-term player investment. Just like in Witcher III…not so much like Skyrim.