Cataclysm in Review: Worgen and Goblins

One of the major features introduced in Cataclysm is the addition of two new playable races: the worgen and the goblins. Technically, both races are not “new.” And that’s as it should be in WoW. There are so many races established, there’s no need to introduce playable ones from scratch. (Though it’s not implausible, with how well the naga were introduced in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.)

Both the goblins and worgen are generally loved by fans of the series. Love for the goblins is mainly nostalgic. They were first introduced in Warcraft II, way back in 1995. That’s over fifteen years ago. And yet, through all of those years and through the numerous sequels and expansions, they have managed to retain their trademark personality—defined by greed and a comic destructiveness. Love for the worgen is more difficult to place, though it’s likely caused by the curiosity most people had when they first encountered the worgen back in the earliest days of WoW. Or it could just be because “they’re frikkin’ werewolves, man!”

Blizzard definitely made the right decision choosing these races. Goblins were already well-established and many players have wanted to play one for a long time. They also fit in with the Horde nicely, since they’d already sided with the orcs once before. The inclusion of the worgen allows Blizzard to push the development of their story forward, and it also gives Blizzard an excuse to include a more monstrous race as part of the Alliance. Furthermore, these races are interesting and don’t feel as though they have been included just because they’re “cool,” or because a developer or group of players simply want them in the game. (Which can’t be said for a certain popular race currently running the rumor circuit. Ahem!)

Even better, the backstories given for the introduction of goblins and worgens to each faction are presented well and they both make sense. Forget crystal spaceships. Forget contrived plots about magic starvation and shared heritage. The stories here are both believable and reasonable, but, most of all, interesting. This was a pleasant change from what was done in The Burning Crusade. You can observe each and say, “Hey, that’s pretty believable and not entirely over the top! Good job, Blizzard!”

The Starting Areas

Warning: This section contains some spoilers. If you haven’t played through the starting zones for the goblins or worgen, you should probably skip over the applicable section(s). I do avoid the major spoilers, but inferences can be made, and that might ruin it for people sensitive to learning even the least important details.

Goblins: The Isle of Kezan and the Lost Isles

As a playable goblin, you hail from the isle of Kezan. You are basically an under-executive of the robber baron of Undermine—trade “prince” Gallywix. For roughly the first five levels of play, you’ll be making your way around Kezan getting involved in various cells of corruption, scheming, etc.

I don’t really have anything positive to say about this part of the experience. The writing and the game play are both abysmal. A large chunk of it plays like an homage to Grand Theft Auto (GTA). The only problem? WoW isn’t GTA. The music that plays when you turn on the radio in that horrid car doesn’t elicit a smile from me when I recognize the reference. Running people over isn’t funny at all (they essentially wave their fist and shout legal threats at you). There’s no star system or cops to outrun. The inexplicable roadways resemble the poor freeway planning of the L.A. area, which causes the quests to play out too long. Outside of the GTA-style experience, the story in these first five levels isn’t really compelling. It’s like the Jersey Shore meets a third-rate Godfather knock-off. Only there’s no interesting godfather figure to keep it entertaining (Gallywix is a one-dimensional bore).

There’s nothing wrong with humor or pop culture references, but there’s a little thing called critical mass, and it applies to storytelling as much as it does to nuclear fission. I (and I’m sure others) need to have a certain amount of serious writing underlying the humor to maintain interest. While I’m sure the humor and pop culture junkies will love every minute of it, people like me won’t. Especially because the Warcraft series isn’t all about humor and pop culture references. It’s definitely a big part of it, but in Warcraft III, the humor lies on the surface of a deeper, more mature narrative and it never gets in its way. That’s the style of humor that works best in WoW, as well. Here it essentially becomes the story and it doesn’t work.

Luckily, Deathwing decides the local volcano needs to erupt, leading to the evacuation of Kezan at about level five. This is where the experience improves a thousandfold.

In order to achieve evacuation, you need to pay Gallywix (literally) a bazillion macaroons (goblin slang for money) for a spot on his ship. To do this, you rape the land of its resources (since it’s going to erupt anyway), rob a bank, steal a bunch of priceless artifacts from Gallywix’s compound (why this stuff wasn’t already being loaded onto the ship, I’ll never know), and then burn down your headquarters to collect on the insurance (because, you know, the insurance company still cares about operating its business when the island is about to become Kilauea on a bad day). This also buys some spots on the ship for your friends and a bunch of your associates, who now view you as their savior. This plays into the plot development of the last half of the experience.

While a bazillion macaroons was enough to buy a spot on Gallywix’s ship, it wasn’t enough to buy your freedom post-evacuation. You, your friends, and your associates are Gallywix’s slaves to be sold once you reach your destination. But the ship is fired upon by an Alliance vessel. Shipwrecked, Gallywix is more concerned with goblin preservation than with making sure all his slaves are subjugated, so you are set to various tasks. Though shipwrecked, the goblins are still concerned about making a profit. You’re supposed to create a buffer between you and the wildlife, then solve a problem in a mine they’ve recently opened. While in the mine, you discover a dead orc who was part of a group of orcs also shipwrecked by the Alliance attack. So you pay a visit to the orcs, led by Aggra, who greet you as a friend by virtue of your shared circumstances.

From here, the conflict between the Alliance and the Horde becomes the central focus of the plot. I won’t spoil this part, because there are a lot of good surprises. Besides, you know the ending—the goblins join the Horde. How they join is the interesting part.

Worgen: Gilneas

The introductory experience of the worgen is the most interesting of the two new races.

Isolated behind the Greymane Wall, Gilneas, for a time, enjoyed a peace foreign to the rest of Azeroth. But the Gilneans became victims of their own machinations. Arugal, a magister of the court at Gilneas, had summoned a race of monstrous beasts called worgen outside of the Greymane wall to create a buffer between them and the Forsaken. But this tactic backfired when worgen found their way into Gilneas and began infecting its ordinary citizens. As a result, the worgen curse spread through practically the entire population, creating a new race of hybrid worgen and human. This isn’t exactly explained during the leveling experience, but it doesn’t need to be.

As a playable worgen, you witness the attacks of the worgen and fight alongside your king and prince to fend them off. But during the course of battle, you succumb to the curse and become a worgen yourself. Once your inner nature has been “tamed,” you again fight for your kingdom, but this time against an invasion by the Forsaken. All the while, the world seems to be crumbling apart, witch large chunks of Gilneas falling into the sea after a series of quakes.

These are components of what seems to be a very simple premise. But the details and sub-plots are rather engrossing. The cut-scene you witness after you succumb to the curse sets the stage and the tone for the rest of the zone. And along the way, the story asks many questions. How can you control your savage nature? How can the remaining humans and those infected with the curse live together? Can they live together? Politics accentuate these questions. Some Gilneans support the acceptance of those cursed who have proven they can control their savageness. Others don’t. And the surprises at the end of this subplot makes it all the better.

Furthermore, this experience seems to be higher in production quality. There is a higher concentration of voice acting, the quests are more unique, and terrain phasing is more evident. While some of the story still suffers the same issues the rest of the game does, such as an acute plague of quest text for some parts of the story, there’s enough voice acting to keep it livelier than the starting zones of every other race.

To me, this is what the starting experience for all the races should be like, barring any other changes needed to the game on a more fundamental level. However, the death knight starting experience still takes the cake.

Overall View of the Zones

If there’s one negative I must point out, it’s that the goblin and worgen starting areas do not make use of the new in-game cut-scene engine. They rely solely on basic game play mechanics, voice acting, and pre-rendered movies to bolster them. While they are definitely well-written (except for the first five levels of playing a goblin), they could have been done even better through use of the in-game engine.

Of course, it’s likely it wasn’t used because these zones were designed before the engine was finished. And that’s an issue for another section of this review.

Disregarding this issue, the experiences are good for what they are and for what the game normally has to offer. Their design is better than past efforts, and better even than the changes Cataclysm made to the pre-existing zones (including the starting zones for the races included in the initial release of WoW). I really liked the worgen experience, and only a few quests got on my nerves (which is pretty rare for me, this day and age).

Aesthetics

I don’t take much issue with the aesthetics of either goblins or worgen, though I will say female worgen look far too much like anthropomorphic chihuahuas; this is the reason I race changed my druid to a worgen male instead of female. Otherwise, the way each race looks and feels is pretty solid. I especially love the ferocity exhibited when you /roar as a worgen.

Goblin and worgen architecture is also done very well. I especially love the Gilnean terrain and buildings. I only wish we could have seen more of it used outside of the starting experience, the Battle for Gilneas and Tol Barad.

Racial Abilities

The racial skills for both goblins and worgen are powerful in certain areas. In RBGs, the goblin’s rocket boost is overpowered when it comes to a flag carrier getting out of a rogue’s smoke bomb. In PvE, the worgen racials are incredibly powerful, especially when it comes to DPS. (Crit and an activated sprint?) Though, comparing them to a troll’s berserk, I suppose they aren’t as good comparatively. That said, goblin racials are underwhelming for PvE (trolls still take the cake), and worgen racials feel rather balanced in PvP.

Overall

Again, Blizzard absolutely made the right decision choosing worgen and goblins. There are some flaws with the goblin experience, and some flaws with the female worgen aesthetic, but the overall picture is rosy for both, when you compare them to the rest of the game as a whole.

Good job in this area, Blizzard.

Cataclysm in Review: Changes to the Old World and Lowbie Leveling

If there’s one area that desperately needed help, it was the lowbie experience in WoW. I said as much back 2008, and predicted Blizzard would go this route several months before the announcement of Cataclysm. I was glad Blizzard chose to do this sooner than later. The experience was becoming so outdated, I scarcely believed WoW would attract any new players in the future if it left the old content the way it was.

Of course, some people already invested in the game couldn’t have cared less how well or poorly designed the early level content was. They were beyond it, so why should Blizzard “waste their time” on it? It’s rather simple; Blizzard had to revamp the old world because old players are not inclined to play the game forever. This is embodied by the loss of 600,000 subscribers shortly after the release of Cataclysm. And while veterans are definitely an important demographic, they are not the sole basis of operating the MMO element of your business. So something had to be done.

Besides, you’d think Azeroth would have undergone some changes in six years of story progression, right? I’d like to think so.

Story and Quest Flow Changes

In the Context of Each Zone

Some of the zones underwent changes and closed plot holes here and there. For example, all those Lost Ones out in the Swamp of Sorrows needed some kind of forward plot development. You’d have thought this would have been done at the release of The Burning Crusade, when the draenei were making their big arrival on the scene. But nope, not really. They were barely addressed, and moreso referenced than anything else. Their story “progressed” (if you can call it that) in Outland, and those in the Swamp of Sorrows were mostly treated as an afterthought. So their story was done a little more justice in the Cataclym update. It’s not great, by any means, but at least it was something.

Some zones underwent great changes to advance the story. For example, Ashenvale showed off the progression of the war for resources between the orcs and the night elves. Of course, with the Horde’s base of operations being virtually right next door, one can imagine how that went. Going back to the Swamp of Sorrows again, I always wondered how the Alliance got its resources through to Nethergarde Keep with the Horde controlling and patrolling most of the swamp. That, too, progressed to resolve that issue.

Boars? More like bores!
Some zones didn’t change much. Maybe the quest flow was slightly different, or perhaps plot points were changed (or were retconned) slightly, but that’s it. In most of these cases, I don’t think the changes were enough. The first five levels for orcs are still excruciatingly boring, both in terms of play and story. And the subsequent quests in Durotar major are also dull. In some zones, the quest flow wasn’t changed enough. For example, there’s still too much travel required in Stranglethorn, even if it’s better than it was before.

I also think Blizzard could have done more to make the stories more insular and interesting for each zone. Some are much better than they were, but the style and quality of storytelling in WoW in general still needs a lot of work. But that’s probably more indicative of flaws in the “grand scheme” than in the approach to redesigning the old world specifically. And I will get to that in a future section specifically addressing the lore and story.

In the Context of Zone Flow

The flow from zone to zone was improved incredibly. There’s nary a problem here, save for the few times you’re required to fly all the way across a continent when you reach a dead end. This was, perhaps, unavoidable given what Blizzard had to work with. You can’t exactly say “Well, okay, we need to move this capital city, because its location throws a wrench in this branch of zone flow.” That’d be a bit too much of a retcon for anyone’s liking.

But the flow is definitely better. Before, you’d often have to fly back to somewhere like Stormwind in the middle of a zone, then go back to that zone to finish it up, then fly off to somewhere thousands of miles away, before flying back to a zone right next to the zone you left two zones previously. Even writing a sentence explaining the old zone fragmentation makes me frustrated. It’s clear the developers didn’t have a solid plan for it in vanilla. I can only imagine what they were thinking. “We want the world to feel vast and expansive for the player. So let’s have them travel great distances, that way they get a feel for just how big the world of Azeroth really is!” That’s not a direct quote, but given a lot of the developer commentary that came out during vanilla, I suspect it was one of their lines of thinking.

So I give an A- to the new zone flow in the old world. Well done, Blizzard. It’s one of the brighter spots in this expansion.

Changes Good Conceptually, but Could Have Been Better Executed

All-in-all, I stand by my long-held opinion that changes to the old world were needed. The changes that were made have definitely improved the lowbie experience, but it is still boring at its worst, and only mildly entertaining at its best. Blizzard could have paid more attention to removing pointless quests, and changing or removing those with incredible flaws in design. Even if it meant a more rapid progression from level one to level 58, this should have been done. There’s only so many quests a person can do that require them to kill ten boars (or basilisks, or wolves, or bears) or wait for a drop that doesn’t come easily, before it becomes a mind-numbing experience.

I understand this could have muddled the basic design philosophy of level pacing. But it wouldn’t have mattered in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think it’s a good design theory to come out and say “This zone needs X amount of quests, and needs to take Y amount of time before a player can move on.” Instead, Blizzard should simply ask “Is it fun? Is it compelling?” I’d rather there be discrepancies in level pacing than to play through a boring or mediocre experience.

Artistic Changes

Artistically, each zone underwent a varying degree of change. That degree of change ranged from very little (Feralas), to substantial (Thousand Needles). Of course, in most zones, the basic geography remained the same, but with shores washed out by tidal waves caused by the Cataclysm, to other changes not caused by the Cataclysm itself.

Most of these were well done, though some are rather inexplicable. I’m still not entirely sure where the water source for the waterfalls behind Booty Bay is. You’d think the water falling off the hills after the tidal wave would have subsided shortly after the wave receded. But I guess not!

Haven't I Seen Those Hills Before?

If there’s one nitpick I have in terms of artistry, it’s that the mountainous regions of Azeroth weren’t changed much at all. They are still their oddly rounded selves. Which is disappointing, considering Northrend offered us some incredible vistas in the previous expansion. I wish the zone artists would have gone through and changed them to make the “mountains” look more like mountains. And why they didn’t probably won’t be explained. Were they not given enough time? Did Blizzard not want to waste the resources on it? Did they think the change would have been unnecessary? Whatever the case, I wish it had been done.

Otherwise, the artistic changes are generally good. And that includes the flair added by re-recorded and newly-written music for the old zones.

Cataclysm in Review: An Introduction

Overall, World of Warcraft is currently the best MMO on the market. It has been for the nearly-seven years it has existed. There’s something to be said for that. However, generally classified as a game, many of its features are so outdated and its design is so flawed, I can’t consider it anything but mediocre. And Cataclysm hasn’t really changed anything about that.

It wasn’t always the case that WoW was generally fair to middling. When it was released, it’s graphics were outdated, but it had a unique artistic style. Cooperative gaming in more traditional games was also nowhere near the likes of what WoW had to offer–you were usually limited to playing with only one person, and many console games required the two people to be physically present in the same room.

But game technologies and engines have improved rapidly over the past few years. Many single-player games are achieving an artistic level we’ve never seen before. Why bother leveling up your alt, when you can play through ME2, but this time as a renegade instead of a paragon? A lot of traditional games are also expanding support for cooperative play against AI scenarios. Why raid when you can ring up your friend and say, “Hey, you want to play co-op through this new L4D2 DLC?” Already, you have people who play co-op zombies on Black Ops all day, every day. As such features become more the norm, the appeal of raiding diminishes greatly. And don’t get me started on PvP. Traditional multiplayer games have offered better competitive play since before WoW’s release.

So I really think Blizzard needs to improve every area of the game at this stage. You can only rely on the strengths of MMO-specific features before the merits of more traditional games outweigh them. And that point seems to be rapidly approaching, at the rate Blizzard is going. I had hoped Blizzard would have taken drastic steps forward with Cataclysm, to maintain relevance. But they didn’t.

Cataclysm, overall, had a good plan and admirable goals. But virtually all these goals were only half-achieved. And some of the plans for this expansion were poorly executed.

The Review

I’ve already written the introduction to my review above. It is a summary of what I think about Cataclysm overall, though it is not my conclusive statement on the expansion. Over the next few articles, the review will be split into segments, covering different areas of design and critique. These include:

Following these segments will be a conclusion of sorts–a reiteration of my general opinion, with added statements relevant to the review as a whole.

I hope to have this finished in a month or so, but it may take more time, because I may have to sidetrack to get screen shots, some quick videos, etc.

Regarding the Major Game Systems in Cataclysm

With so much information regarding classes and systems being revealed by Blizzard, it seems Cataclysm is pretty far along in terms of conceptual development. So I just wanted to take some time to briefly address what has been announced so far. I also want to take the time to express my hopes and desires for things that haven’t been announced.

Regarding Class Changes

It’s difficult to criticize or evaluate the changes coming to every class without really seeing how they compare and play against each other. So I’m not going to comment until we actually see the changes. I realize I already commented on druids, but I have since changed my mind, because the healing mechanics are changing too much. That said, I’d still like a new utility spell, even if its impact is incredibly minor.

Regarding PvE Information

The first of the refinements being made is that we’re combining all raid sizes and difficulties into a single lockout. Unlike today, 10- and 25-player modes of a single raid will share the same lockout.

We’re designing and balancing raids so that the difficulty between 10- and 25-player versions of each difficulty will be as close as possible to each other as we can achieve. That closeness in difficulty also means that we’ll have bosses dropping the same items in 10- and 25-player raids of each difficulty.

We of course recognize the logistical realities of organizing larger groups of people, so while the loot quality will not change, 25-player versions will drop a higher quantity of loot per player (items, but also badges, and even gold), making it a more efficient route if you’re able to gather the people. (Source)

The separation between twenty-five and ten-man raiding will still exist, though the disparity will be less severe and focused primarily around quantity of loot (which is important for any progression guild). This doesn’t give due credit to the fact that ten-man could be just as difficult, lest people have forgotten Sartharion already. Mobilizing a higher number of people is a challenge, but only if you’re comparing the effort of an individual trying to handle each version. Most twenty-five man guilds have multiple officers, however, so the difference is hardly striking.

If I were to consider TBC, Lunacy had between two and three people leading at any given time. From Karazan through the end of BT, we primarily had two people, though we did have a third person for a short while acting as a tie-breaker for loot decisions. During Sunwell, we definitively had three people leading the charge. I handled recruitment, interviews and keeping people focused. Silver handled strategies and keeping people calm. Siafu managed the guild bank, took interest in loot, and kept track of loot. All three tasks aren’t easy for a twenty-five man guild, but I do stress the work is spread out in this regard.

Now that Lunacy is merely a ten-man guild, it’s really just me leading things. I’ll admit it’s a lot less stressful than leading Lunacy’s old raid, but that’s not because of the smaller number we have to work with. The only reason it is less stressful is because our expectations are a lot lower and we don’t strategize to the same extent as we did when we were hardcore. If we were set on clearing heroic ICC10 with a fury, the work would be roughly the same. I’d be evaluating people more harshly and maintaining higher standards. I’d be promoting recruitment more actively. And I’d be pressuring people to improve more than I do. I’d also be keeping closer track of loot to ensure the distribution is more even.

There is a similar comparison with large and small businesses. At a small business, one person could handle business decisions, bookkeeping and ordering, while another person handles hiring, marketing and event planning. A larger company, meanwhile, would have a CFO overseeing all things monetary, a CEO to make major business decisions, a board to provide input, and then a bunch of individuals to handle tasks like hiring, marketing, and planning events. But in terms of the effort put out by an individual, it’s rather similar. That being said, I understand it also depends on the demands of an industry. So it’s considerably more accurate to compare a family-owned grocery store with the likes of Ralph’s, Safeway, or whatever major supermarket chain a given area has.

We do like how gating bosses over time allows the community to focus on individual encounters instead of just racing to the end boss, so we’re likely to keep that design moving forward.

I and the majority of my friends vehemently disagree. If the idea is to keep people from racing to the end boss, then simply put a gate before the end boss. Otherwise, the instance feels less epic when you’re forced to do it in small fragments. It’s like watching the first sequence of a movie repeatedly before finally moving on to a subsequent sequence, only to watch both of those sequences repetitiously until moving onto the third, etc. In the end, you’re left with an unsatisfying experience, which is why so many people will only watch a movie when they can view it in one sitting. Dungeons are experienced similarly, unless they are episodic in nature. And by episodic, I mean to say each gated wing would have a self-contained plot. That being said, I’m fine with gating the final boss for competitive reasons. But gating an instance to death bothers me for the reasons stated. And I’ve already made my argument a number of times.

Also, does it really matter if it’s gated if the ultimate goal for the hardcore guilds is clearing it on heroic?

Hero Points — Low-tier, easier-to-get PVE points. Maximum cap to how many you can own, but no cap to how quickly you can earn them. Earned from most dungeons. (most like the current Emblem of Triumph)

Valor Points — High-tier, harder-to-get PvE points. Maximum cap to how many you can own, as well as a cap to how many you can earn per week. Earned from Dungeon Finder daily Heroic and from raids. (most like the current Emblem of Frost)

This is basically the same as the current system, which I like. I would very much rather see the daily heroic ditched, however, if simply because there are some days I don’t have time to do a heroic. I’d much rather you be able to obtain valor points from seven heroics in a week, instead of a single heroic each and every day.

Regarding PvP Information

Honor Points — Low-tier, easier-to-get PVP points. There will be a maximum cap to how many you can own, but no cap to how quickly you can earn them. Earned from most PvP activities.

Conquest Points — High-tier, harder-to-get PvP points. There will be a maximum cap to how many you can own, and a cap to how many you can earn per week. Earned from winning Rated Battlegrounds or Arenas. (currently called Arena Points)

I like having a two-tier system that motivates people to continue competing. I also like how rated battlegrounds will be a secondary option to arenas, considering I much prefer battlegrounds.

That being said, I do have my hopes and reservations about how rated battlegrounds should be supported. Simply put, I hope to be able to run fully-organized groups once again. The excitement involved in organized play is simply too good to pass up, and it will be the thing that keeps me playing in Cataclysm, should other areas of the game falter.

My Pessimism Concerning MMOs

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 WarsWorld 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.

A clip from Storm Peaks.

What (Most) MMOs Have Done Wrong

Flexibility

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.

Writing

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.

Production Quality

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.