Going Around, Not Through

Probably the most common complaint about MMOs is the monotony. Even the Guild Wars 2 developers admitted that there aren’t that many different ways to present content other than by making you kill things and/or collect things.

That might be true, but are there different ways to go about it? Does every confrontation — whether it’s an involved quest or a dungeon — have to be kill trash, kill trash, kill trash, kill boss, get treasure, repeat?

The problem, I think, lies in the tight scripting of so many RPGs and the unwillingness — or even outright fear — of developers to allow for alternate methods of quest completion and loot acquisition outside of a very narrowly defined, and easily controlled, norm.

Or maybe we can, you know, talk?

Or maybe we can, you know, talk?

To use GW2 as an example, let me describe a story event I just did. I was tasked with acquiring some machine parts from the dredge. There were some disguises just outside the cave. I and my NPC partner donned them, we made our way inside, past the unaware dredge, and found what we were looking for. Coincidentally, our disguises failed right at that point and we were exposed. I booked it out of the cave, mostly avoiding the dredges’ attacks, though we did have to fight a boss at the entrance.

Now, consider the same quest in an open-ended, sandbox-y type RPG like Skyrim:

You have to get an item from a cave. Depending on how you’ve built your character, you might sneak in, or you might fight your way through. If you’re a mage, maybe you can distract the dredge (Wait — why are there dredge in Skyrim? Oh well) with illusions or summoned creatures while you snatch up the item. When confronted with the boss at the end, maybe you can sneak around him and backstab him for heavy initial damage, making the fight much easier.

Doesn’t that sound more fun?

I’m not totally knocking Guild Wars 2 here — nearly every MMO does some form of scripted events, and there’s usually only one way to resolve them — but wouldn’t you like to have the ability to decide how you’re going to approach a challenge rather than having to do it the way you’re told to?

The first thing that I think most people, players and devs alike, would think upon hearing this account is how easily it could be exploited. If you make the properly stealthy character, with all the right perks and abilities, you could totally (almost — I agree that some fighting should be required at times) avoid conflict and get to the good loot without a fight, or at least via a fight that’s far easier than was planned.

So what?

34688First, properly sneaking around in a game takes skill. It’s a different skill than mashing your combat buttons and properly executing combat maneuvers, but it’s skill nonetheless. So it’s not as if any clod with a keyboard will be doing this.

Second, I’ve come to believe that the only real resource in an MMO that players really care about is time. If a piece of content takes one hour to clear — whether it’s through up-front combat or through a lot of sneaking around — what does it matter? I’ll still be accumulating loot at the same rate.

Finally, in public areas — outside of dungeons — there’s always the chance that you’ll be poised to take your precise strike… and in bumbles some PC warrior, smashing up the joint. Well, if he draws the attention, good for him I say. Once, when I was setting up a kill in Skyrim, a dragon made its presence known and turned my stealth mission into a fiery deathmatch. At least he took out the guards…

Again, some combat should be required, so that a bunch of level 10s can’t clear level 50 combat, but if I want to have a properly sneaky character, why shouldn’t I be able to do more than just the occasional from-stealth backstab? In doing so, I’ve probably had to sacrifice some of my up-front fighting capability, so if I screw up on my stealth strike, I’m in trouble.

Now, a big question would be, is this easy to put in an MMO? I admit, there would almost certainly be exploits as devs underestimate the inventiveness of PCs and that “one hour” content might take only 15 minutes if you’re properly sneaky. But I would think those loopholes could be closed as they crop up and would be less likely to pop up as devs figure out how they’re exploited.

You guys distract him, I'll be right back, OK?

You guys distract him, I’ll be right back, OK?

As for the actual act of putting them in, the main casualty would be in the ability to tell a story. In my GW2 scenario above, there were cut scenes and occasional voice acting bits, which would be more difficult to trigger in a game where the program can’t predict what you’ll do. I think I’d be mostly OK with that, especially given the quality of voice acting in most MMOs.

I’ve used Skyrim as an example, because the Elder Scrolls games have always been great at embracing multiple play styles, and I constantly wonder why that style of play hasn’t made it over to the MMO market. To be honest, I’m not really expecting it from The Elder Scrolls Online, which seems to be embracing the MMO style more than the TES style.

But I’d like to see an MMO that doesn’t feel the need to be such an overprotective parent when it comes to doling out content. I’d like to have real options on how to play, not just different ways to fight. If we’re tired by “kill 10 rats” quests, maybe it’s not the “10 rats” part that’s the problem, but the “kill.”

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6 Responses to Going Around, Not Through

  1. In this day and age of B2P/F2P, does artificially extending playtime with requisite combat have a lot of value though? If it takes you 10 minutes to clear some encounter and it takes me an hour, aren’t those just the consequences of our build choices and play-style? What impact does that have on you or my impression of the game or willingness to keep playing if we both enjoyed the experience? Why must video games become about getting things done in the most efficient way possible and not about having a good time? Couldn’t a different scenario work out the opposite way in terms of difficulty and time? I think that would be interesting in terms of building a team of complementary playstyles/builds vs. the “everyone can do everything” approach or the “you can only do one thing” approach.

    • jasonwinter says:

      It is perfectly fine for me to take 10 minutes and for you to take an hour. But that means we will never, ever play together — first because it’ll take you too long to get to the same level of content I’m at and second because, well, I won’t want to play with you because you’re too slow 🙂

      That’s a fundamental difference between single-player and multi-player games. If you want to fully enjoy the MP experience, you have to alter your pace somewhat to match everyone else’s.

  2. The problem with this notion is the social pressure (real or imagined) in MMOs that lead everyone to feel they must always pick the “best” option. To use your stealth example, either stealthing to the rewards will be quicker than fighting, in which case everyone will play a stealthy character, or it will be slower, in which case no one will.

    I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but it’s one of those “easier said than done” things. It’s possible that an MMO developer will figure it one day, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    Although for what it’s worth, The Secret World has done a pretty good job varying play. It’s still not a matter of player choice — each mission has a specific method of completion — but at least there’s a pretty good variety of mission types. You have kill missions, stealth missions, mystery missions, and missions that combine some or all of the above.

    • dndhatcher says:

      I agree with Tyler’s thinking. There is a massive opinion difference about what is “fair” in an MMO and a single player game.

      And be honest, if the fight was too hard or too long then almost everyone playing Skyrim would just pull out their modded sword and one shot him. Try allowing modded godmode weapons in an MMO and raging hordes will descend on your studio with pitchforks and torches.

      • jasonwinter says:

        Crafting and modding in Skyrim are another matter entirely, neither of which should be allowed in an MMO. I’m just talking about the gameplay style.

        Yes, I agree that MMO gamers will seek the best/fastest alternative, but if there were ever only really one, then there would be exactly one tank class, one healer class, and one DPS class in all MMOs. Getting the balance just right would be very tricky, and the key might be to vary things from quest to quest — maybe in one fighting will be a little faster and in another stealth will be a little faster — so one doesn’t feel “better” than the other in the long run.

      • dndhatcher says:

        I cant reply to your reply to me?

        You cant separate playstyle from venue. Open world MMOs prohibit certain play styles because you have to roughly equally accomodate everyone, and you might have an unknown number of players. Instanced MMOs have some more flexibility because the number of players is under control, which is why all those interesting boss fights are in raid instances. You still can end up with some instances where stacked stealth or stacked healing makes them trivial. Single player games have much more flexibility because they only have to deal with on player at a time.

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