Fitting Square Pegs Into Round MMOs

A frequent point of debate on TWIMMO is my opinions regarding certain kinds of games. I’ve played mostly themepark, PvE-focused games not because I think they’re necessarily the best kind of MMOs out there but because they’re generally the most refined, most fitting types of experiences that the current slate of MMOs offer.

I think that an issue many new MMOs have is that they come up with one or two, possibly new and interesting concepts, and, rather than building a game around those ideas, they try to take the standard MMO framework and apply those concepts to it – and then are surprised when it doesn’t work perfectly. This is a little related to my notion that different types of games – MMOs vs. single-player RPGs vs. pen-and-paper RPGs – aren’t one in the same and shouldn’t be treated as such, but more related to entries within one genre.

Wherein I start getting Hyundai spam in the comments

Here’s the analogy I like to use: I drive a Hyundai Elantra. It’s not new (far from it), but even if it was, you wouldn’t say to me that you could fix it up, change a little bit here, a little bit there, and then enter and win the Indy 500. Yes, it’s a car, yes, it has four wheels and an engine, just like an Indy car, but there’s no amount of tweaking or modifying you could do to “fit” it into an Indy race and expect to do well.

The only pic of my car I could find. Yes, this was taken in Dallas.

The only pic of my car I could find. Yes, this was taken in Dallas.

Rift was the most obvious recent entry into this “just tweak a little and hope it’s enough” club. It’s basically WoW with dynamic events (and a different skill/class system, but that’s not quite relevant to this discussion). The problem is that by splitting the focus of content between the rifts and the themepark/dungeon/leveling grinding, people are more likely to stick with what they know – that being the latter – than to try and really branch out and try the new thing. The dynamic events don’t feel all that interesting – at least they didn’t to me after my first month or so – because they just felt tacked on and virtually unnecessary to the rest of the game.

In other words, they felt like just fitting a spoiler onto my Elantra and declaring it ready for the Indy 500.

Guild Wars 2 took the dynamic event concept one step further, and continues to refine it, but it’s still lashed to a themepark-ish feel, with regularly spaced hearts and other map points to tag and dungeons. Some days I feel like I ignore and run past more DEs than I actually complete, because I’m on my way to some other objective.

I know why this is done, of course, and a talk I heard with some GW2 devs before the game came out, essentially confirms it: People expect MMOs to be a certain way, and if they do something different, it can be a huge barrier to entry. That’s why most MMO makers are extremely hesitant to offer a base game that’s any different from the usual, instead opting to just make a couple of tweaks to the formula and hope it feels different enough – while also feeling the same.

But I think the industry is getting closer to figuring out that this approach is on its last legs, that people are getting tired of essentially playing the same game with a new skin, and that something truly different is needed. We’re seeing it with recent games, like Guild Wars 2, and upcoming games, like EverQuest Next, and if someone can get that “new formula” just right, it could be huge.

Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic

So why do I still play themeparks? Why don’t I play more sandbox games, games with open-world PvP, corpse-looting, permadeath, and the like? It’s not because I’m a wuss or a carebear or I just plain don’t like PvP. It’s because too many of those kind of games have taken a standard MMO framework – they’re not necessarily WoW clones, but many have leveling, dungeons, and all the usual elements – and simply grafted on one of the above-named elements to make it more “hardcore.” And I firmly feel that that approach simply doesn’t work for most people.

As a counter to that, an example of something that does work, in my opinion, let’s look at DayZnot exactly an MMO, but close enough – which my TWIMMO companions were surprised to hear I liked (or at least like watching and would like to play if the friggin’ standalone would ever come out). That has full open PvP, permadeath and corpse-looting – “but Jason hates all those!” Right?

This is what happens when you exploit the DayZ auction house

This is what happens when you exploit the DayZ auction house

Here’s what DayZ doesn’t have: leveling and a gear grind. When you die in DayZ, you’ve lost, at most, a couple hours of “progress,” and maybe just a few minutes. You didn’t spend a month leveling your character and another two months getting all the best loot – not to mention, if you’re like me, the half an hour or so you spent in the character creator. If you did, and then died and lost it all, you would, more than likely, quit the game, rather than start from scratch again.

A lot of people seem to think that current MMOs lack that kind of punishing content, real consequences for death, and so on. I wouldn’t entirely disagree, but I also think you can’t simply expect to be able to graft those sorts of things onto existing games and have it work. You can’t just say, “If WoW had Hardcore Element X, it would be great and all the carebears would have to suck it up!” More likely, they would all pack it up, along with many of the self-professed hardcore players who don’t have time for all that, and the game would go out of business within a year.

If you want to run the Indy 500, you don’t soup up an Elantra. You build a completely new car, from scratch. Yes, there are a few basic automotive tenets to still hold to, but in the end, you wind up with two completely different cars. Nobody would mistake one for the other.

The Next hope

Where does that leave us for the future? EverQuest Next is certainly an interesting title, as SOE seems to have a pretty good feel for this concept and appears to be doing just that: building the game from the ground up. They’re obviously not just WoW-cloning it, and not asking an Elantra to do an Indy car’s job. From character progression to content to crafting, and probably more we don’t know about, they look to be on the right track, theoretically, to produce an actual groundbreaking game.

Her reaction when we told her about her housing insurance cost was priceless.

Her reaction when we told her about her housing insurance cost was priceless.

Naturally, there are debates about how “hardcore” EQN should be, and SOE fuels some of that with their surveys, and it’s something we debate on TWIMMO from time to time, like the one time we talked about how you might be able to smash another person’s structure to acquire building materials for your own. I don’t think a completely unlimited, free-for-all environment like this is a good idea, because if you spend hours on a building just to have someone come along and destroy it, why would you ever spend that time building another one? Or why would you go to the trouble of mining materials when you can just steal them from another player? It completely subverts two of what I perceive to be the core elements of the game – gathering and building – and makes them extremely unattractive, all just to support the notion of catering to “hardcore” gameplay.

Now, if there’s some way to “save” your building so that you can rebuild it fairly quickly, even with some cost or penalty, then that’s another approach SOE could take, but that runs counter to the vocal “hardcore” crowd. There’s probably a balance SOE can hit, but it will never satisfy some people.

And that brings me to my final point: It’s not always the fault of the developer. Far too many people think the only way to play an MMO is through a hard trinity-based, don’t-stand-in-the-fire, point-to-point, level to max at top speed, dungeon, raid, rinse and repeat cycle. Guild Wars 2 suffered from that mentality, The Secret World suffered from it, and EverQuest Next might also. I guarantee, abso-fucking-lutely guarantee, that within a month of EQN coming out, no matter how good it is, half the Internet will be screaming about what an abject failure it is because it doesn’t play exactly like WoW, especially if “there’s nothing to do at max level.” The other half will be loving it for that exact same reason.

It’s not just who makes the car, but who drives it. You wouldn’t drive an Elantra like you drive an Indy car, so maybe people would be happier if they didn’t try to play every MMO like they play World of Warcraft.

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4 Responses to Fitting Square Pegs Into Round MMOs

  1. Greibach says:

    *Golf Clap*

    I completely agree Jason. I am skeptical about EQN for several reasons, but I will say that they are taking the ground-up approach and using it well from what I can see. I do fear that a lot of people are projecting onto it, pushing in their own imaginations of what the game will do by extrapolating vague developer statements and then applying their own experience from previous games. GW2 suffered from this as well, and I see a lot of the same types of rhetoric coming out from SOE.

    As you say, you have to look at all the aspects when you are making system designs. Just lumping on a big feature like perma-death and/or full-looting is not something that makes a successful game. You have to build the game with the assumption they are there and will happen.

    I like PvP games. I play a lot of them in other genres that are developed for them. FPS, RTS, fighting games, etc. However, all of those things have some common elements, the largest of which is that skill is the deciding factor. Getting ganked by some random rogue when you are level 10 and then having your body camped is not fun (for me anyway), and were a game to have both the progression time gates of a traditional MMO and free open PvP and full looting, frankly I think it would be infested with too many trolls to function. GOON-swarm would set up a guild of ganking min-maxers and destroy most other opposition at all levels, burn down every building, steal every resource, and live like kings. Gary would tell you to organize something similar or join GOON, but frankly those options are either unrealistc, unappealing, or just sidestepping the fundamental issues.

  2. Mad Martha says:

    Agreed with the above. It’s one of the reasons I like (and play) DDO.
    The game itself is very theme park with traditional leveling and loot grind sytems.
    BUT the game is designed around the “it’s not the destination but the journey itself” mentality.
    That’s why RAIDS in DDO start at level 5 and occur at several other points before you reach max level.
    And what do you do once you reach max level ?
    You reincarnate and start at level 1 again….
    They have recently put in some max level grinds but TBH they are simple time sinks
    (e.g. rep grinds or Epic Destiny skill trees)
    I have never liked the whole race to max level thing anyways…
    I prefer to stop and smell the roses 🙂

  3. Great article Jason. From my experience with sandboxes, RvR, open PvP, looting and so on, there have to be very strict rules. As a general rule, there should be very little one player could do to another in order to cause a loss of loot and such. The main motivations for aggression have to be storytelling, player driven content and in general trying to entertain other people. You have to separate the motivation of the character from the motivation of the player. While the former can be as evil as you want, the former should never be to cause loss to another player.

    Additionally, these mechanics have to be tailored to all the types of servers. I too am really looking forward to EQN but I fear things like the death penalty will be the same across all servers, otherwise why even make a poll showing which option people like the most? Obviously a good sandbox needs options for players to choose suitable servers to play on. The biggest problem are RP servers because MMO companies don’t have the manpower to police any kind of malicious behaviour, especially OOC trolling and so on.

    • jasonwinter says:

      There’s also the perception among many people that “sandbox” = “do whatever you want to anyone.” That it has to be the extreme opposite of the sanitary, station-to-station themepark. I think some regulation is necessary, just so it doesn’t turn into a game where you must be the best of the best or else don’t bother playing.

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