Tag Archives: The Secret World

Six Design Choices MMOs Should Retire

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

Executing an enemy in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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

Lockboxes

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

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

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

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

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

Factions in PvE Games

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

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

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

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

Outside of those niche cases, though?

Factions need to go.

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

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

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

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

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

A shot from the MMO shooter The Division

Mandatory Subscriptions

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

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

I just hope it’s some day soon.

Loot Competition

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

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

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

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

A shot from the MMO shooter Defiance

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

Death Penalties

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

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

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

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

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

Mobs… Mobs Everywhere

Wild monsters in Black Desert Online

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

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

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

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

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

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


Six Features no MMO Should Launch Without

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun with the new outfit system in Elder Scrolls Online. It’s a good system with a lot of options, and it’s helped me enjoy the game a lot more.

My sorcerer showing off her new outfit in Elder Scrolls Online

But there’s a part of me that’s still a bit resentful it took them this long to add an outfit system in the first place. In this day and age, that’s something I expect everyone of today’s top MMO games to have as a launch feature.

That got me to thinking what else should be considered mandatory for any MMO launching in 2018. Not every MMO can offer everything, especially at first, but there are some minimal thresholds that need to be reached. These are corners that developers may be tempted to cut, but definitely shouldn’t.

An Outfit System

Since it was the inspiration for this post, it makes sense to start with outfit systems. The ability to customize the appearance of your character’s gear is one of those things that seems frivolous until you’ve had it, but once you’re used to it, it’s incredibly hard to accept life without it.

Obviously, role-players benefit the most from this ability. Indeed, the ability to freely customize your character’s outfit is all but mandatory for role-play.

But even if you’re not actively role-playing, you can still find plenty to like about outfit systems. It just isn’t that exciting to be waddling around in some ridiculous clown-suit cobbled together from whatever gear happened to drop. Much better to be able to put your personality and creativity on display with a custom outfit you designed yourself.

Personally, I also love checking out other people’s outfits. Sometimes I’ll just sit around a social hub and study what other people are wearing. It’s amazing how creative and stylish some can be.

Outfit systems add color and culture to MMOs, and it just doesn’t feel the same without them.

Robust Matchmaking

A group doing the Scarlet Monastary dungeon in World of Warcraft

Not everyone is a social butterfly, and not everyone can commit to a set play schedule. But that doesn’t mean those people should have to miss out on group content.

To this end, any modern MMORPG must have robust matchmaking features to make finding groups easier for anyone at any time. A LFG chat channel or sign-up board isn’t good enough. You need a proper matchmaking system wherein the game creates groups automatically.

These systems have many advantages. You can continue to quest or farm while queued, instead of standing around a city spamming general chat. You don’t have to worry about elitist players serving as the gatekeeper to all content. It opens up group content for all.

Despite these obvious strengths, though, matchmaking tools are still viewed as an optional frill at best by far too much of the MMO community. The Secret World took years to add one, and by then the game was already in decline. Destiny 2 still doesn’t offer proper matchmaking for raids. ESO launched with a dungeon finder, but it was in such a poor state as to be virtually nonfunctional for a very long time.

Voice Acting

Voice acting is expensive and time-consuming. I understand that. But it also makes games vastly more immersive and adds crucial emotional weight to stories. There’s a reason silent films went out of fashion.

I don’t necessarily expect every line in every MMO to be fully voiced, but at the very least major story moments should be. In a world where games like Elder Scrolls Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Secret World Legends exist, any game without robust voice-overs will stick out like a sore thumb.

Equally Viable Progression Paths

The plent Nexus in WildStar

I’m not a fan of MMOs trying to be all things to all people, but it is nonetheless common for MMOs to offer several different forms of content, and that’s fine if it doesn’t go too far. If that’s to be the case, though, the developers must work to ensure all playstyles have a viable and rewarding progression path ahead of them.

If your game has questing, raiding, and PvP, those should all be viable paths for players at endgame. Questers shouldn’t suddenly find themselves locked out of progression if they don’t raid, and raiders shouldn’t have to PvP for the best gear.

It can be okay to reward some groups a little more than others — it’s not unreasonable for hardcore raiders to have better gear than people who only solo for twenty minutes a day — but it should never reach a point where fans of one playstyle find themselves hitting a brick wall, with no further way to progress short of playing content they don’t enjoy.

My personal preference is for currency based systems, where harder content rewards more of the currency needed to upgrade your character. This rewards the top tier of players without completely shutting down casuals. Everyone wins.

It’s so simple, and yet even the titans of the genre often struggle to give everyone a fair shake. Even the mighty World of Warcraft has had at best a spotty record of giving all playstyles equal opportunity to advance.

This isn’t even a matter of limited resources or tricky design problems. It’s just bad decision-making.

Text Chat

A cutscene in Destiny 2

Those of us who’ve been around for a while are likely to have a hard time even imagining an MMO without chat. I know I do.

But with the growing popularity of MMORPGs on consoles, this is something that is actually coming to pass. I’m sorry to pick on ESO once again, but its console version lacked text chat for some time before it was finally patched in. Destiny 2, meanwhile, still has not chat at all on console, and no public chat channel on PC… though given what I’ve seen of public chat in MMOs, I can at least sympathize with their reasoning there.

MMOs are a social medium, so the ability to communicate with other players is part of the bedrock of the genre. Yes, there’s voice chat, but not everyone has the hardware for it, nor is everyone comfortable using voice chat with strangers. Text chat is an option no game should be without.

A Free Trial

In my view, the best business model for an MMORPG is buy to play with an optional subscription and/or micro-transactions, but it does have one flaw that I find frustrating: Free trials seem to be going the way of the dodo.

Buying a new big budget MMO is a fairly big investment if you’re not sure whether you’re going to enjoy it. I’m rarely willing to take a chance on a game if I haven’t had a chance to try it first. I don’t expect everything for free, but a chance to try a small sampling of the game before I buy doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Instead, developers seem to be expecting fence-sitters to wait for Steam sales, or at best the occasional free weekend, but those just aren’t as convenient as an on-demand free trial. I’m willing to pay top dollar for a new game, but not sight unseen, and developers are losing money from me by not offering better trials.

To be fair, this isn’t just an MMO issue. I’m also very frustrated by the how often single-player games no longer offer free demos.

A Plan for Toxicity

A Play of the Game screen from Overwatch

Of all the things on this list, a plan to deal with player toxicity is one that I can’t think of any MMO having at launch — or at least not a very clear one. And I find that baffling.

It’s far too late in the game for developers to pretend to be surprised when their players behave badly. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in online gaming is familiar with how prevalent toxic behavior is.

And it’s something that can seriously damage a game. It eats away at communities. It drives away veterans, and it makes new players hesitant to invest.

Yet the preferred strategy among MMO developers still seems to be to pretend the problem doesn’t exist and make only a token effort toward moderation. When Overwatch launched on console, it didn’t have a reporting feature, which is so incomprehensibly naive I can’t even begin to know what to say about it.

I’ve said before that I’m not a behavioral expert, and I don’t know what the magic bullet to solve toxicity is, but I desperately want to see developers start to take it more seriously. I want to hear them trumpet their plans for a safe community as loudly as they do their innovative game design and top of the line graphics.

* * *

What say you, dear reader? What are the features you don’t want to see any MMO go live without in this day and age? What’s on your list of essentials?


Examining Class-based Versus Skill-based Progression

Normally one of the first things you do in any MMO — or any RPG period — is choose a class. It will determine the strengths and weaknesses of your character for the rest of the game, and is probably the most important decision you can make.

A character in the skill-based MMORPG Secret World Legends

But some games don’t nail you down like that. These are games based on skill-based progression, where any character can pick and choose whatever abilities they like with little or no limitations. With time you might even be able to unlock every skill on a single character, depending on the game. One example might be Secret World Legends, and while it does technically have classes, I would also cite Elder Scrolls Online as a largely skill-based game. Class systems are so common I hardly need give examples.

But which system is superior? The dominance of traditional classes would seem to argue strongly in their favor, but there are advantages to skill-based progression as well.

Let’s look at the arguments for each.

The Case for Classes

By far the best argument in favor of traditional classes is approachability. With clearly defined class options, you can quickly and easily find something that fits your preferred playstyle and jump into the game. If you’re an experienced gamer, you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what classes you like, simplifying the process even further.

For instance, I usually like playing as rogues, or similar classes. If a game has a rogue class (and most do), I can just pick it and start stabbing away, without the need to agonize over the other options.

Classes make things easier to parse for other players, as well. To continue the above example, if I’m a rogue, then other players will immediately have a good idea of what I can bring to a group. In most cases, that’s going to be damage and a bit of crowd control. There’s no need for me to waste time explaining my build and what I can offer.

Even as you progress through the game, it continues to makes things easier. Rather than flailing wildly at different skill set-ups until I find one I like, I will have a smaller selection of builds and much less risk of crippling my character through sheer ignorance. I’ll know right away that as a rogue I want medium armor and daggers or swords as weapons. I’ll know that agility or dexterity is probably going to be my best stat.

A group of rogues in the class-based MMORPG World of Warcraft

All that without any need for outside help.

Another advantage to classes is that they help give a clear identity to each character. In skill-based systems where everyone can do anything, characters start to feel interchangeable, and it’s much harder to impart a sense of identity to your avatar. Classes provide obvious starting points for role-play and impart a certain degree of personality to each character, be they proud paladin or sinister warlock.

By that same token, you can argue classes are more realistic. Most people in the real world tend to specialize in a particular skill set. There’s a limit to how much a single person can learn. Mastering every ability under the sun can strain credibility a little.

The Case for Skill-based

By comparison, skill-based systems are all about freedom. The freedom to be whoever you want, to play however you want, with little or no restrictions.

Classes are good at giving characters identity, but what if you already have an identity in mind, and it doesn’t exactly fit any available classes? What if you want to be an archer who uses a little magic? What if you want to be a paladin with light armor and more agility?

In class-based games, you’d be out of luck. In a skill-based game, it’s just a matter of unlocking the right skills.

There can be a real satisfaction in creating your own build from scratch, too. Giving players unlimited options unquestionably makes for a steeper learning curve, but it also brings with it a certain joy of experimentation, and a true sense of accomplishment when you finally settle on the build that clicks for you.

An argument for realism can also be made in favor of skill-based games, as well. The restrictions placed on most traditional classes are fairly arbitrary, after all. There’s no particularly good reason why a warrior couldn’t learn to pick locks, or a priest couldn’t be trained in archery. It lets your character be a person, not just an archetype.

A character using the Wu deck outfit in the skilled-based MMORPG The Secret World

And if you make a mistake, or if you have a change of heart, you can adapt. One of the most frustrating things that can happen in an RPG is to pick a class you think you’ll like and invest a lot of time into the character, only to find the mechanics don’t quite click for you, or for the developers to redesign it into something you no longer enjoy.

In a traditional class system, you’d have no choice but to suffer through it, or start over with a new character. In a skill-based system, you can just find a new build, and keep the character you’ve already invested in.

When I first started playing The Secret World, I played with a fist weapon/blood magic build. But after the first few zones, I wasn’t feeling it anymore. I was too squishy, and I didn’t have enough AoE damage. In most games, this would have been a real problem. But because TSW didn’t lock you into anything, it took me only about a day of normal play to earn enough ability points to swap from fist weapons to swords. Suddenly I was tougher, able to take on crowds with ease, and having much more fun.

I never looked back.

That’s the kind of freedom no class system will ever equal.

Which Wins Out?

This is one case where there are definite pros and cons to both sides, and I’m not sure either option can truly be said to be objectively superior. There’s a strong element of personal preference.

For my money, though?

Skill-based all the way.

RPGs — MMO or otherwise — about creating a character, playing a role. When you pick a class designed by other people, you’re playing someone else’s role. You’re forced into a narrow box, with little or no opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack.

A shot from the MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online

With a skill-based system, your character is truly yours. You can be whoever, whatever you want to be. You won’t be sharing the game with ten thousand identical clones of your character. You can be an individual.

It does have downsides. Skill-based systems have much steeper learning curves. They can be overwhelming in their complexity. They create balance issues, and they can limit a game’s mass market appeal.

And I do enjoy class systems, as well. I still love my rogues. Sometimes it’s nice to have a clear path to follow, without the need for experimentation or trial and error.

But the sheer freedom offered by skill-based games simply can’t be beat, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.


Niche MMOs Are the Future

In theory, it would seem like a good thing for an MMORPG to try to have as broad appeal as possible. And certainly it’s not a bad thing. But as is so often the case in life, good intentions can have negative consequences. Trying to make an MMO that appeals to everyone equally can do more harm than good.

Exploring Saturn's moon of Titan in the MMOFPS Destiny 2

We MMO players are a diverse bunch, you see. Some of us are in it for the competition. Some for the story. Some for the friendships. Some of us like to quest. Others only want to raid. Others want to PvP. And so on.

But developers don’t have infinite resources. Budgets only have so much money, and employees only have so many hours in the day. If you try to please all of these disparate factions equally, you’ll spread yourself thin. MMOs that try to please everyone are more likely to end up pleasing no one.

We have seen this time and again. When every MMO tries to appeal to every group of gamers, you end up with a sea of bland games with no personality.

It’s time to move on from that paradigm. All-arounder MMOs are the past. Niche MMOs are the future.

How We Got Here

In the early days of the genre, MMO developers tended to dabble in a bit of everything. The desire at the time was to create fully fleshed out virtual worlds, and I think there was also an element of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. It was a new genre. Everything was new and exciting, and experimentation was the order of the day.

I know a lot of people look back very fondly on those days, but I don’t think it’s a situation that could have continued forever. The Wild West got civilized eventually, after all.

Plus, for my money the caliber of a virtual world is determined by the quality of how it’s crafted more so than how many systems you can pile into a single game. And that’s really what this whole discussion is about: quality versus quantity.

The Battlefield Barrens event in World of Warcraft

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The end result is MMOs were initially established as games that tried to do everything, or at least as much possible.

Into this environment entered World of Warcraft, the biggest hit the MMO genre has ever seen.

World of Warcraft is the ultimate all-arounder MMO. It has pretty much every kind of content an MMO can offer: raiding, dungeons, quests, PvP, crafting, mini-games, and so forth. And its broad appeal has helped it achieve unprecedented levels of success.

But here’s the lesson the MMO community failed to learn: WoW is special. Its success was a perfect storm of timing, good design, a popular IP, and Blizzard’s massive resources. Its success reached such a scale it became self-perpetuating. These days World of Warcraft is popular and successful precisely because it’s popular and successful.

In other words, lightning doesn’t strike twice. There can’t and won’t be another WoW.

But that didn’t stop players and developers alike from chasing the fabled “WoW killer.” WoW was seen not as a lucky, unique case, but as the model for how MMORPGs should be designed going forward.

Thus began the era of the WoW clone, an endless procession of barely distinguishable games that all tried to be as broadly appealing as WoW, but never quite succeeded. They all tried to have something unique to set themselves apart from the pack — such as Rift’s dynamic events or the more robust story-telling of Star Wars: The Old Republic — but they spread themselves thin trying to do everything and so failed to achieve any real identity as games.

Most of the big name WoW clones are still chugging along, but none of them came close to dethroning WoW, and after years of at best mediocre success with such games, publishers and players alike became jaded and wary.

Ancient Sith lords in Star Wars: The Old Republic

We’ve now reached a point where the future of the MMO genre is somewhat uncertain. A lot of people seem to be worried about the survival of MMOs, but I think it’s not so much the case that MMOs are falling out of favour so much as the name is. This is seen in the case of the Destiny franchise, which is very much an MMO and also quite popular, but whose developers are hesitant to call it an MMO due to the negative connotations that term has earned.

So I don’t think MMOs are dying, but they are struggling to find their voice. To move forward, they need to get better at embracing niches.

Niche the Right Way

What do I mean when I talk about niche MMOs? Mostly I just mean games with some focus. Games that know what they want to be, and aren’t trying to be all things to all people.

When I think of a good niche MMORPG, my mind of course goes to the late, lamented Secret World. This was a game that had a very clear vision, focused on story and ambiance. Yes, it also had dungeons, and PvP, and even raids, but none of those things were allowed to distract from what the game did best: telling great stories.

Of course, TSW didn’t do so well economically, leading to its desperation reboot. But that’s due to more factors than its niche nature. It was very poorly marketed, and suffered from significant mismanagement around its launch. You don’t have your offices raided by the police if the boss is doing a good job.

What can’t be denied is that TSW’s focus made for one of the best experiences in the MMORPG world — for those whom the game appealed to, at least. Focus equals quality. Niche equals quality. And as a player I’m always going to be more concerned about quality than what brings in the most profits.

While I wouldn’t describe it as a niche game per se, another good example of an MMORPG with a clear vision is Elder Scrolls Online. It’s an adaptation of a single-player franchise, and it carries that legacy forward with a deep world, compelling quests, and rewarding exploration. It also has dungeons, raids, and PvP, but it never neglects that which it does best: its world and story. You never have to wait long for a new zone or new quests to be added.

A story cutscene in The Secret World

On the other hand, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has struggled to stick to a vision. It made story its selling point, but it also tried to be a raiding game in the WoW mould. It was an over-ambitious game, and it never achieved enough success to continue its myriad class stories or provide enough endgame content to satisfy the hardcore crowd.

SWTOR spent years trying to find the balance between a story-driven RPG and a WoW-style raid grinder. It never managed to fully succeed at either.

Then, they decided to double down on what they do best: story. The Knights of the Fallen Empire and Eternal Throne expansions focused on lavish story-telling, while adding only minimal group content, and it seemed to be a true reinvention of the game.

However, the endgame crowd was displeased by the shift in focus. As a result, SWTOR has once again returned to spreading itself thin, and the game has suffered as a result. Story progress has slowed to the barest trickle, whereas PvP remains a neglected mini-game, and raiders still have nowhere near enough content to satisfy them.

Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of public numbers on SWTOR’s population or income, so it’s hard to say how much these zigzagging changes in direction have affected the game, but anecdotally, the Knights expansion seemed to generate a real splash, despite some controversy, whereas the patches since then seem an excellent example of trying to please everyone but ultimately pleasing no one.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can also be possible to be too niche. I think a lot of upcoming crowdfunded MMOs are going to struggle due to focusing on too narrow an audience. It’s a bit of a tightrope to walk; you need to find a niche, but it needs to be a niche big enough to support a full MMORPG.

But I don’t think there’s any real future in games that are jacks of all trades, but masters of none. We’re never going to legitimize MMOs to the mainstream if all we can show are bland, soulless games that no one can tell apart. That way lies a slow death for the genre.

The new Copero flashpoint in Star Wars: The Old Republic

In a world where subscription fees are largely a thing of the past, it makes more sense for each game to carve out its own identity, rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Instead of playing one game with mediocre raiding and mediocre PvP, you can play a game with a great raiding, and a different game with great PvP. One game need not be your everything.

We must let go of the idea of an MMO that can be all things to all people. Niche games are more risky, but it’s the only way to create games that are truly memorable, truly unique. That’s where the future of MMORPG genre must lie.


How Playing MMOs Changed Me as a Gamer

The end of the year lends itself to introspection, to looking back. This year I’ve been looking back on my MMO career and reflecting on how things have changed over the years.

My oldest MMO character, my rogue, shows off her guild tabard in World of Warcraft

I’ve been playing (and writing about) MMOs for a while now. Almost ten years. Now, I know that compared to some of you, that still makes me a relative newcomer, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And in that time, my attitude towards games has changed a lot. My experiences in MMOs have shaped who I am as a gamer, and it’s changed how I look at the entire hobby. It’s helped me to enjoy video games more.

Indulge me, if you will, as I engage in some holiday reflection and take stock of just how my time with MMORPGs has changed me as a gamer.

It Ruined Vertical Progression for Me

I think on some level I was always a little less interested in high levels and “phat lewt” than the average gamer. I play games to escape reality — to explore imaginary worlds and immerse myself in rich stories. Making my character more powerful is more a means to that end than something that I found compelling for its own sake.

Still, in the past, I had plenty of excitement for shiny new gear drops or big level dings. That was before I spent years playing MMOs, though.

When you really think about it, vertical progression like this is sort of a lie. You feel like you’re constantly getting better, that you’re evolving into something awesome, but you’re not, really. Content evolves along with you, keeping your relative power level more or less consistent no matter how hard you grind. There’s always a new challenge ahead. Improving your character’s stats isn’t a climb to the top; it’s just a treadmill. You’re always moving, but you’re never getting anywhere.

A hunter ranger character in Neverwinter takes a break from the grind

And nowhere is this more clear than in the realm of MMORPGs.

The persistent nature of MMOs makes vertical progression meaningless. You’re never finished; the integrity of the genre depends on it. The level caps keep getting raised. Today’s best in slot is tomorrow’s vendor trash. None of it means anything.

But it’s an easy way to extend the life of content, so developers just keep pushing us onto the treadmill. For me, this has just led to my becoming incredibly jaded about the whole concept. I have gotten so much sweet loot and heard so many level dings that I’ve lost my taste for the whole concept. I don’t care anymore.

Instead, it’s other rewards I seek. I still like getting new gear appearances, as building outfits helps me establish my characters’ identities. I also enjoy unlocking new abilities for the same reason. Horizontal progression, in other words. Give me more options, give me new ways to express myself in-game, not just another +3% to DPS that will be invalidated next patch.

I still have some taste for vertical progression in single-player games. It works better there because eventually you reach the point where you’re done. It’s less of a treadmill. And with less concerns about balance, single-player games can also be more dramatic in their rewards, as opposed to, again, just +3% DPS.

Still, even there, loot and levels entice me far less than they used to, and increasingly I’m finding it refreshing when games don’t have any vertical progression at all.

Most of the ways MMOs have affected my gaming are positive, but this one’s a bit more of a mixed blessing.

A department store by night in the MMO shooter The Division

On the one hand, it’s been very freeing. I no longer feel pressured to keep on par with other players, or to be the best. I don’t have to spend months grinding for the best gear. I’m happy with gear that’s merely good enough. For me, games have become much less like work and much more like, well, games.

On the other hand, I do find it frustrating to see how much developers and players still fixate on vertical progression now that I realize how pointless it is. This medium could be capable of so much more.

It Helped Me Focus on What I Like

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: MMOs are really big.

That is, of course, sort of the whole point. And for the most part it’s a good thing. We flock to MMORPGs because they offer us a breadth and depth that no other form of entertainment can.

But it can also get overwhelming. If you try to do everything there is to do in a single MMORPG, you’ll probably end up running yourself ragged and burning out. If you play multiple MMOs, doing everything is going to be pretty much impossible, at least until scientists invent a pill that replaces sleep.

It is therefore best to focus. Find the gameplay you enjoy most, figure out what your goals are, and focus on that. Don’t worry about what other people are doing. Don’t worry if you’re behind or ahead of the curve. Don’t try to keep up with the virtual Joneses. Just find what gives you joy and immerse yourself in that.

Early on in my MMO career, I felt very compelled to experience everything a game has to offer, and to play it the “right” way, but nowadays I’ve let go of a lot of that. I’m still mastering the art of saying no, but for the most part I’m much better able to focus only on playing in whatever way I enjoy the most.

My agent explores the planet Alderaan in Star Wars: The Old Republic

For example, in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I pretty much only play solo story content. I’ve tried group content and PvP in that game, but I don’t think Bioware is very good at designing either of those things, and I don’t generally enjoy them, so I stopped. I focus only on the part of the game that actually entertains me.

And the same attitude guides me throughout my gaming. I have sunk hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft, but I’ve never done a single pet battle. I played The Secret World heavily for five years and never once did any of its raids.

When it comes to single-player games, I can still be a bit of a completionist — it’s easier with a clear finish line in sight — but instead I’ve learned to better focus what games I buy. I’ve become much better at ignoring hype and trends. I’ve learned to focus on the games I know (or can safely bet) that I will enjoy.

I Learned Not to Sweat the Small Stuff

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, World of Warcraft launched a new pet in its cash shop, the Guardian Cub. They’d been selling vanity pets for a while at this point, but the Cub was special. It could be traded, meaning players could sell it to each other for gold. This made it a form of legalized gold-selling, a sort of precursor to today’s WoW Token.

Reaction to the decision was swift and negative. Before, Blizzard had only sold vanity items, but this allowed people to directly purchase an in-game advantage.

And I was right there on the front lines, posting my angry comments on the official forums. I joined the chorus screaming, “Pay to win!”

But the feedback went ignored, and the Guardian Cub launched. And you know what happened?

Pretty much nothing.

No need to take it all so seriously

I was angry for a few weeks, but nothing whatsoever changed in my experience of the game, so eventually I forgot all about the Cub.

And this encapsulates almost every experience I’ve ever had with MMO monetization. I have a knee-jerk negative reaction, but then it fails to significantly impact me, and I move on with my life.

And after so many years of this, I’m finally starting to realize how little all of this matters. I’m no longer concerning myself with lockboxes or “pay to win.” And I’m enjoying games so much more as a result.

It’s not just about monetization schemes, either. MMOs have a great way of putting everything in perspective. Spend a few days wrestling with an uncooperative MMO server, and suddenly a few animation hiccups in Mass Effect: Andromeda don’t seem like such a big deal.

That’s not to say that you can’t criticize things. I’m a firm believer in the value of constructive criticism, and I can still be quite vocal when I have a problem with something in a game.

But it’s important to keep it all in perspective. Ask yourself how much something is really affecting you, and don’t let small things ruin your fun. There’s so much negativity in the community, and it’s so easy to get lost to cynicism, but really, there’s never been a better time to be a gamer than right now. We have so much to be grateful for. Don’t let the little things rob you of the joy of what’s out there.

* * *

What about you? How has playing MMOs changed your attitude toward gaming as a hobby?


The Best MMOs for Solo Players

To some, “solo MMO player” might sound like an oxymoron, but in reality, soloists make up one of the largest player groups in MMORPGs, and even people who do enjoy group play will usually end up playing solo some of the time.

Soloing MMOs used to be a hard road, but these days most games offer a wealth of solo content. Still, some are more welcoming of solo players than others. To be truly solo-friendly, an MMORPG must not only offer solo content, but also ensure that content is well-crafted and fulfilling, not just generic kill ten rats quests, and there must be meaningful rewards for solo play.

The different types of solo-friendly MMOs can be divided into a few broad tiers, so let’s take a look at what they are.

Somewhat Solo-friendly

These are games that offer a wealth of solo content, but may still reserve the very best content and rewards for group play.

World of Warcraft

A solo player in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is a game that definitely requires group play to get the most out of it — all the best rewards and most important story moments are found in dungeons and raids — but quick and effective group finders make them easily accessible to someone without a guild or a group of in-game friends.

The current Legion expansion has also added a great deal of fun and rewarding solo content in the form of class campaigns and world quests.

Overall, WoW’s a good choice for a “soft” soloist who prefers to play alone but isn’t totally opposed to grouping. Pure soloists may want to look elsewhere.

Lord of the Rings Online

A cutscene from Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO has no shortage of solo content, and the “epic story” of the game is quite solo-friendly. However, the quality of its side quests — which are necessary to level — tends to be fairly weak, and it does shift focus to a more raid-centric endgame once you’ve progressed far enough.

Play Lord of the Rings Online here.

Defiance

A solo player in the MMOFPS Defiance

Trion’s MMO shooter has a strong focus on open world events and story-driven missions, both of which are quite approachable for the MMO soloist.

The strikes against Defiance from a solo player’s perspective would be that some of the best rewards are still locked behind group content, and that it can eventually become exceptionally grindy, which can tax the limited free time many solo players have.

Very Solo-friendly

These games have made solo players a priority and offer solid quantity and quality of solitary options.

Guild Wars 2

A thief character in Guild Wars 2

In the past, I would have considered Guild Wars 2 one of the best solo MMORPGs, but these days it’s not quite as welcoming to the soloist as it once was. Open world content has become more difficult and unforgiving, encouraging (though not requiring) the assistance of fellow players, and the endgame has shifted more toward high end raids and dungeons.

The majority of GW2 is still soloable, and you’ll still have a lot of fun content and satisfying rewards available to you, but it’s just not quite as flawlessly solo-friendly as it used to be.

Play Guild Wars 2 here.

Warframe

A promotional image for the MMOFPS Warframe

Recently I’ve been considering giving Warframe a try, and reading up on it, the consensus seems to be that you can do most anything in the game solo, but some things may be difficult, and you may require a specific build to do it. So it seems like a good choice for a solo player, but perhaps not quite an ideal choice.

Play Warframe here.

Cryptic MMOs

A story quest in Star Trek Online

I’m going to lump Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and Champions Online together because they all follow more or less the same formula. There’s an emphasis on solo story content, usually heavily instanced, and while the quests aren’t the best in the genre, they definitely are above average.

Endgame in Cryptic MMOs tends to be split between traditional dungeon content or PvP and more solo-friendly daily quest grinds. It’s not the most thrilling solo content in the world, but it’s there.

Of them all, I’d rate STO as the most solo-friendly. It has the most story-driven and overall best quest content of Cryptic’s library.

Play Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, or Champions Online here.

Exceptionally Solo-friendly

These are the crème de la crème of solo MMORPGs, where solo content is at least as fun and rewarding as any other option, if not more so.

Secret World Legends

The character creator in Secret World Legends

The Secret World was pretty much the pinnacle of the solo MMO experience, with impeccable mission design, purely optional group content, and an egalitarian endgame that allowed most anyone to get the best gear eventually.

I haven’t delved as deeply into Legends, but the general philosophy of the reboot seems to have been to move away from MMO mechanics, so if anything it should be even more welcoming to solo players (if that’s even possible).

Star Wars: The Old Republic

A story mission in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion

SWTOR does lose some points for having an endgame that still puts raids and dungeons at the top, but most would agree that the real attraction of the game is its story, and all of that is entirely soloable. Even if you only play the class stories, you’re still essentially getting eight high quality single-player RPGs for free… ish.

The endgame doesn’t entirely shut out the solo player, either. Most anything can grant you experience toward Galactic Command ranks, including soloable heroic missions and the like.

Play Star Wars: The Old Republic here.

Elder Scrolls Online

A nightblade character in Elder Scrolls Online

Like the other top tier solo MMOs, Elder Scrolls Online has a strong emphasis on story content, which can all be completed solo, and while the mechanics are not quite so unique as in Legends and the story not quite so powerful as in SWTOR, ESO’s questing is nonetheless a cut above what most other MMOs offer, and the sheer volume of it is staggering.

There are dungeons and raids, but they’re not at all essential to understanding the story, nor are they the only path to advancement at endgame. Crafting provides an effective, if somewhat grindy, path for solo players to achieve high-end gear, and any content will give you the XP needed for Champion Points.