I’ve been playing MMOs (in their modern, graphical form) for over ten years. Over these tens years I’ve dabbled in or played the likes of Ultima Online, Everquest, Meridian 59, Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC), Lineage II, Horizons, Asheron’s Call 2, Guild Wars, World of Warcraft (WoW), Lord of the Rings, Warhammer, Conan and EVE. WoW and DAoC are the only two games to have held my interest for any long period of time. DAoC, because its RvR system was revolutionary for its time. And WoW, because I find it to be the most well-rounded MMO out there. But after recently playing through a handful of traditional video games I missed out on during my time leading a raiding guild, I’ve been reminded how MMOs don’t come anywhere close to what they could achieve.
For so long, I’ve enthused in MMOs and their potential. The genre promotes social gaming. The idea of a persistent world with an ongoing story is enticing. And the competitive prospects of graphical MMOs over their text-based predecessors has already been proven by the likes of traditional video games with multiplayer options.
But my optimism is waning as the genre has failed to seize opportunities to advance more rapidly than it has. While I once stated I would avoid becoming a curmudgeon amongst the blogging world, I realize I could justifiably be called one now. I haven’t made a positive entry about WoW or the genre since my Blizzcon 2009 entry. Granted there are things developers often do right (particularly in the social gaming department), it’s hard to write positively when the problems plaguing the industry haven’t been aggressively addressed.
To be fair, it’s difficult to blame the developers. Sometimes a company simply runs out of support or funding for its project, which contrasts with the opposing situation where a company makes poor design or business decisions. Unfortunately, operational details are often held as company secrets, so it’s impossible to fully understand the causes for the flaws we criticize. In the time it would take someone to finish conducting the research and interviews necessary to comprehend these issues, the industry will have changed too much that the results would be rendered irrelevant. So all we can really do is criticize the empirical (positively or negatively) and express our own ideas and solutions.
I am not, however, unrealistic. Perfection is a goal that can never be achieved by any human being, so I’m not expecting a perfect MMO. But there are many things developers are doing poorly (or not doing at all) that I find disconcerting and disappointing.
What MMOs Have Done Right
The general concept of an MMO is solid. A game with a persistent world or areas in which players can come across one another and either join together or against each other is simply great. Especially as it exists in WoW, now that it has the dungeon finder to supplement grouping with friends and random people from your server. In essence, it is this emphasis on social game play that is something MMOs do better than their traditional counterparts.
UI customization is also something various MMOs have done well. There’s nothing more annoying than having to settle with either a flawed default UI or with limitations that don’t allow you to display the information you need, especially if the information you need is not easily noticed without the aid of some kind of interface.
The music in MMOs has definitely come a long way, as well. It is now at a point where I can appreciate various compositions. This, however, goes for most video games. The employment of actual symphonies and well-practiced producers has allowed game companies to create scores that often rival those found in cinema.
What (Most) MMOs Have Done Wrong
Most MMOs don’t extend their players a lot of flexibility. If you discover you don’t have the necessary classes or skills for your group to succeed, people within that group will need to either reroll or respec (whatever the game’s variation of such is) to fill the needs of the group. Unfortunately, however, rerolling and respeccing is not an easy process. For rerolling, you often have to level (be it actual levels or skills), then gear up. This process can take a month or longer, depending on the game. Some games (particularly older MMOs) take months for a reroll to achieve any sort of adequacy in the end-game. Respeccing (changing your specialization or role, without creating a new character) is a great option. But you won’t often have the equipment for your new role, in which case you’ll need to find some way to achieve adequacy in that area. What’s more, respeccing might not optimally fill the role your group needs.
Alternatively, a group or guild could expand the size of their operation by recruiting more players and rotating people through the bench to meet the composition requirements of specific content. But this becomes a problem when players don’t want to sit at any given moment. So designing content that is optimally done with a high amount of player rotation can also be detrimental.
A root of the flexibility issue is that MMOs tend to require high investment of time. When I was raiding hardcore in WoW, I spent thirty hours a week doing content that felt necessary for my raid’s level of play. We’d spend twenty hours raiding 25-mans—Trial of the Crusader (ToC), Trial of the Grand Crusader (ToGC), and Ulduar (for supplemental upgrades, and a couple best-in-slot items). After that, I would spend between roughly five and ten hours doing ten-man content—ToC, ToGC, an alt ToC, and Ulduar. Being the guild leader, I did make ten-man raiding outside our normal twenty-hour schedule optional, but because these raids offered so much supplemental gear, and even some best-in-slot items, a lot of people felt compelled to run them (myself included, though I usually opted out of the alt runs).
To be fair, I don’t expect a game to offer level-capped characters of every single class to established players, complete with gear and maxed skills. But there are other solutions that would at least expand the flexibility of players enough to enable them to meet the needs of their group without having to spend tons of time rerolling or working on their respec. For example, you could allow a player to have a squad of different classes that share gear and upkeep. As another example, you could allow people to respec to more roles and have their gear adjust based on spec. This would then leave them with simply learning how to play a new spec. As yet another example, a character could choose every single skill they have and the variety of skills could be quite large (much like Dragon Age). Changing these skills would be made easy, allowing a player to pick and choose what their group needs at any given moment. There was a time when someone in my guild jokingly suggested a dual-class system and I was only half-joking when I agreed it was a good idea.
I’ll admit it’s very difficult to change games that are already established. People within a playerbase are liable to become comfortable with the way their game works, and any radical change to its systems or engine could be unsettling. So you definitely risk losing players, even if you end up changing for the better. But I don’t understand why so many new games effectively tie their players’ hands.
Details in Game Systems
Who likes beating on something for several hours to cap out a weapon skill? Who, besides ultra-competitive players, likes limited attempts when it adds extra stress as a consequence of disconnections, unusual mistakes, and learning? Who really likes systems based almost entirely on nodes and progress bars? Why do companies continue to think it must be necessary for players to slog through months or years of boring grinds to “cap”?
In terms of game play, certain systems in MMOs have a lot to be desired. And while I know some people are extremely patient with the minor problems in a game’s systems, they forget it often creates grinds for many other players. I absolutely hate weapon skilling in WoW. It serves no purpose beyond giving players something else to do to cap their characters. And while I know Blizzard plans to get rid of it in Cataclysm, I’m baffled as to why they didn’t scrap it earlier. Especially since weapon skill hasn’t been used as a gear stat since vanilla.
Even when a general system (such as a game’s PvE) is designed well, specific parts of the system can operate poorly and have negative effects on the user. For example, why is it that Blizzard even considered something like limited attempts? We all know disconnections are a part of the online experience. They happen. And it’s not always the player’s fault. If someone gets disconnected from the network during a gaming tournament, they play the match over (unless an impending loss was obvious). In MMOs, there is no option to put another quarter in the slot. There is no “do-over.” The boss doesn’t acknowledge your handicap. So it’s not really feasible to have a limited number of attempts in an MMO. I realize this is something Blizzard has conceded, after trying it in the two most recent raid instances, but I wonder why they didn’t see the potential problems when I could have told them it would be a bad idea as soon as they proposed it (and I’m pretty sure I did).
I shouldn’t pick just on WoW, however. Consider DAoC. After releasing the Trials of Atlantis (ToA) expansion, the game suddenly demanded years of play to perfect a character and compete at the highest levels of RvR. You had to level to the cap (something that took much longer in DAoC than it does in WoW), farm realm points (which took months, even if you played every day, several hours a day), do all ten master level questlines (which included huge raids that often happened once a month), farm artifacts, and then level your artifacts (certain artifacts required a raid to obtain, and it would take an hour or two to simply get one artifact; others required checking spawn points across a 72-hour window). Considering a lot of the players in DAoC were refugees from EverQuest who quit that game over such a demanding upkeep, this did not sit well with many players. As a result, Mythic introduced classic realms excluding ToA to cauterize its wounds and prevent any further bleeding of subscriptions.
It really goes to show companies should be focused on something simple. Something called “fun.” There’s nothing wrong with competition and the general idea of having an upkeep or long-term goals for people’s characters. However, competition shouldn’t add undue stress for people who are simply trying to progress and enjoy the game. As far as upkeep goes, it shouldn’t be demanding to a point where players are distracted from what’s truly entertaining about the game. In fact, it’d be nice if the upkeep systems were enjoyable in and of themselves. It’s also important to allow newer players a chance to catch up to the level of older players, so they aren’t left out of the end-game entirely.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with providing players with extra things to accomplish, so long as those trying to get into such styles of play have the opportunity to do so.
Recycled Game Play
Many MMOs tend to heavily recycle elements of play, particularly in PvE content. This is probably because companies want to maintain a sense of familiarity, perhaps for people who aren’t quite as game savvy as others. Afterall, if someone has a class and/or specialization that puts them into a specific role, they’re going to expect to perform that role most of time. For most MMOs, this means maintaining mechanics that involve the “holy trinity” of tanking, healing and DPSing. Unfortunately, however, this tends to get boring for people who have been doing it for quite a long while. So recycling styles of content is also a dangerous approach to game design.
I suppose I’d simply rather see a wider variety of play styles involved in encounters and instances. I realize some games have tried doing this before, but the precedents they’ve set are mediocre. If they simply try harder and put more time into the design, people might actually enjoy what they have to offer. For example, while it does lose its luster after a few attempts, pretty much everyone I know liked the Gunship Battle in WoW’s Icecrown Citadel. Why? Because small elements of the encounter were different from what players were accustomed to. Sure, the luster of the encounter wore off after a couple times, but the fact of the matter is that its design was fresh, even for seasoned veterans like me.
What I wonder is why companies can’t set out to specifically design and program something different every time. I understand some players think it’s annoying to have to sit through wipes as newer players learn the encounter, but it’s more annoying to sit through the same crap month after month. I also realize it costs money to radically shake up the game with each iteration of content, but the game continues to feel fresh when the variety of play is enlarged. Furthermore, people begin to overlook the difficulty of content, so long as it’s fresh and entertaining. This isn’t to say higher degrees of difficulty can’t exist–they can; especially if you offer multiple settings. But the key design element should be fun.
The influence lore has on a game’s stories is usually executed in mediocre style in MMOs. I understand a game’s design can affect how the story is constructed, much in the sense that Shakespeare felt obligated to use puns and vulgarities to entertain the groundlings that attended his plays. But there’s a tendency in the MMO industry to approach stories in a half-assed manner. And when they’re not as half-assed as the asses who treat them as afterthoughts, they are often inundated by dangling threads, irrelevant tasks, and uninteresting writing.
Even in WoW, one of the MMOs with better lore and a precedence of great storytelling in its franchise, plot threads are often poorly constructed and presented. Some plots are extremely fragmented, such as the story concerning Varian’s disappearance, his captivity, his escape, and his return (there are missing explanations and scenes I would think important to the arc’s development). Some storylines have poor or missing closure for various characters (as with Jaina, Muradin, and Sylvannas in Icecrown Citadel, or Kalecgos in the Sunwell Plateau). Some scenes are poorly written (I want to cry like Jaina after killing Saurfang, but not because I empathize with her). And some plots are simply left dangling at both ends (Sartharion has no bread crumbs leading you to him, and there is no concluding scene for his part in the black dragonflight’s manipulation of genetics). While people can make assumptions about the gaps in storytelling and read lore outside of the game, this is not a good approach in forming the narrative of a game or part of a game.
To be fair, I must emphasize this problem is not exclusive to WoW. It is prevalent throughout the industry. And while WoW has problems with gaps in its story, some games fail to even have a story at all. But there are other problems, as well, most in production quality. Most MMOs fail to provide voice overs for their quest systems. Most give you a bunch of arbitrary quests between plot development that aggravates narrative fragmentation. And many simply brush aside some of their established lore and backstories and rely on retcons when they could have been avoided.
I understand Bioware has stated its intentions of breaking the storytelling mold with Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). However, given the industry’s track record, I am less than optimistic and I will decline to have an opinion until I actually see the results.
This article already touched on this briefly, but it warrants further elaboration. Production quality is distinctly lower in MMOs when compared with their traditional counterparts. It’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons. Is there simply not enough money to pay as much attention to detail as the company would like? Or does the company really think it doesn’t matter for an MMO?
It’s an oversight by the industry to think production quality is worth neither the money nor the time. There will always be players who do not pay attention to detail, sure. These are the players who skip straight to a quest’s objectives or prematurely end cut-scenes. Because of this, the option to skip the “fluff” should definitely be there. But there is a decent population of gamers out there who appreciate attention to detail. However, when even these players say they skip a lot of dialog boxes, that’s indicative of a problem. And it should be setting off alarm bells for developers, hinting that they should be ditching their reliance on text-based dialog and chat windows for plot development.
Consider this: it costs money to increase production value. You need to hire more and better voice actors, sound engineers, music composers, artists, animators, writers, systems developers (if the game systems need to be changed to accommodate the increased production value), and directors in each area of production. But the extra cost should pay off in the end. If you can attract that much more talent and increase the production quality of the game, more players should end up playing the game (similar to how so many people ended up seeing Avatar because it had such a huge production value, despite faults in its screenplay). In turn, this increase in quality returns a higher revenue. And while your profits might be the same (or even a little lower), you should be able to increase your market share, achieve a higher rate of customer loyalty, and be written down in history as someone who changed the genre for the best. And all of this should result in a greater willingness for people to invest in your future products.
Or you could go bankrupt. But, hey, there’s no glory in avoiding risks, right?
Unfortunately, however, MMO companies do not need to rely on better production to succeed. Because MMOs offer a style of social play different from traditional games, developers can simply lean on that distinction and make their money, one way or another. However, most developers apparently missed the memo that you need to make an MMO far better than WoW to succeed (and especially better in the earlier parts of the game).
This isn’t to say each MMO doesn’t have its strengths in various areas. The art design in a few MMOs is very good (I’m thinking specifically of Aion when I say this). The music in a few entries of the genre is also excellent (whenever Blizzard calls on Russel Brower to compose a piece of music, I make sure to keep my music on for a little while). Also, there are small portions of some MMOs that are well-produced overall. For example, in WoW, I really love the art, writing, design, and voice acting of the Algalon encounter and its epilogue (though the black holes and dark matter could have been done better artistically).
I should clarify that I don’t expect game companies to go out there and cater only to players with top-end gaming rigs. With that in mind, you can’t exactly have the shadow of a giant spaceship slowly pass over a city, because it assumes players have a rig capable of rendering something like that in-game. Even considering this, however, the quality could be far better than it is. And this could be accomplished with unique animations for in-game scenes, more and better voice acting (some could do with any voice acting, for that matter), better writing, etc.
The Sum of All Parts
How good an MMO is depends on the sum of its parts. Many people wonder why WoW has been so successful, and that can be attributed to the fact that it is well-rounded. A lot of people will say “It’s because people with terrible machines can run it.” These days, you only need a $500 machine to run most MMOs on their lowest settings (and when you factor in game expenditure per month, that usually makes console gaming about as expensive, if not moreso). Sure, you wouldn’t really be able to run Aion very well. But Guild Wars? EVE? Warhammer? They can all be run on outdated machines. I know because I used to run them on my own outdated can of shit. Did they run well? Nope. But neither did WoW.
So what makes an MMO well-rounded? Simply that it has a sizable number of features and services, and decent or adequate quality in each. And this is what WoW has currently, relative to the rest of the games in the genre. Sure, many MMOs have better graphics, but WoW’s are serviceable for a game that was released in 2004. Sure, Warhammer’s PvP system is more intricate, but battlegrounds and arenas in WoW happen with a higher frequency. Sure, raiding is pretty much a rehash of the same variations of tanking, DPSing and healing, but it’s still better than the raiding and/or PvE systems in most other MMOs. And I’ve yet to play an MMO that feels as good as WoW does (despite the broken movement AI for mobs sticking to a tank with aggro). The controls are generally smooth. And the potential for building off the basic system of spells and controls is decent.
That said, I think the industry is underestimating what is to come. As newer traditional games outdo the game play and production quality of MMOs even more than they have in the past, MMOs will find their subscription bases failing to grow and possibly shrinking. After playing through Mass Effect 2, I wondered to myself, “If this is a herald of traditional gaming’s future, why do I even bother with MMOs?” I already have a higher focus on other mediums than I did while I was leading Lunacy, because they offer so much more in terms of storytelling than MMOs seemingly ever will. And if something fails to change in raiding, or the new battleground system is poorly done, you can pretty much guarantee that movies, traditional video games, and sports will win me back completely.
So while the sum of an MMO’s parts can be generally good within the genre itself, companies developing MMOs need to worry about the increased competition coming from other mediums, including traditional games. In other words, it’s time of the MMO industry to man up and push innovation forward! Otherwise, it won’t persist and will ultimately lose out to other mediums of entertainment.